January 21st saw millions of people around the world gather together in the Women’s March in support of women’s rights, social justice, and gender equality. With reproductive rights, the accessibility and affordability of health care, gender inequality, and the gender pay gap in headlines daily, it’s of course clear that the issues highlighted by International Women’s Day are ever-present and always demanding of our vigilance and action—actions like this year’s global general strike, “A Day Without a Woman.” In support of such action, and towards that vigilance, we’ve put together a short list of recent books by and about women in politics, history, law, and literature.
“I went to law school because I wanted to change the world for women.”
So said Catharine MacKinnon in a talk at a Women and the Law conference at the University of Minnesota Law School in 1980. Fast-forward to 2017, and the publication of Butterfly Politics, which MacKinnon dedicates to “the last woman I talked with and the next baby girl born.” Providing a new perspective on an incredible career as a pioneer of legal theory and practice, and an activist for women’s rights, Butterfly Politics is a collection of addresses, arguments, and essays, many of which—such as that talk from 1980—were previously unpublished. Its central concerns of gender inequality, sexual harassment, rape, pornography, and prostitution have defined MacKinnon’s intellectual, legal, and political pursuits for over forty years, and have changed the world for women today.
A powerful woman who did what was necessary to maintain the independence of her lands
Though largely unknown in the Western world, the seventeenth-century African queen Njinga was one of the most multifaceted rulers in history, a woman who rivaled Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great in political cunning and military prowess. In a world where women were subjugated by men, she repeatedly outmaneuvered her male competitors and flouted gender norms. Today, Njinga is revered in Angola as a national heroine and honored in folk religions, and her complex legacy continues to resonate, forming a crucial part of the collective memory of the Afro-Atlantic world. In Njinga of Angola, Linda Heywood offers the first full-length study in English of Queen Njinga’s long life and political influence, revealing how this Cleopatra of central Africa skillfully navigated—and ultimately transcended—the ruthless, male-dominated power struggles of her time. “Njinga no longer represents the other, but a powerful woman with few contemporary equals who did what was necessary to maintain the independence of her lands,” writes Heywood. “She served as an inspiration for her people during her life and for Angolans and Brazilians centuries after her death. Njinga demands to be presented as the complex human being that she was, and given her rightful place in world history.”
More than two hundred women have sought, been nominated, or received votes for the office of president
In The Highest Glass Ceiling, historian Ellen Fitzpatrick tells the story of three remarkable women who set their sights on the American presidency. Victoria Woodhull (1872), Margaret Chase Smith (1964), and Shirley Chisholm (1972) each challenged persistent barriers confronted by women presidential candidates. As Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign reveals, women’s pursuit of the Oval Office, then and now, has involved myriad forms of influence, opposition, and intrigue.
The first anthology of women’s literature in the world
Composed over two millennia ago, and now translated into English as part of the Murty Classical Library of India, the Therīgāthā is an anthology of poems in Pali by and about the first Buddhist women. The poems they left behind are among the most ancient examples of women’s writing in the world and they are unmatched for their quality of personal expression and the extraordinary insight they offer into the lives of women in the ancient Indian past—and indeed, into the lives of women as such. In the introduction, translator Charles Hallisey writes: “The world of the ordained women in the Therīgāthā is one of sexual equality, in stark contrast to the social inequalities between men and women in lay life. It is a keen insistence on the possibility of freedom for women as well as for men.” Many of the poems in the Therīgāthā recount the social suffering endured by women at the time, but there are also poems emphasizing the importance of freedom and female friendship. Although written so long ago, the poems’ themes still have resonance in today’s society, and “can speak to us about the present and about the future, sharing with us their news that has stayed news.”
The story of the Hello Girls completes the picture of how women around the globe demanded the vote
The Hello Girls by Elizabeth Cobbs tells the story of how America’s first women soldiers helped win World War I, earned the vote, and fought the U.S. Army. In the book, she writes: “The story of the women’s Signal Corps unit allows us to look through the eyes of Woodrow Wilson and leaders in other democracies—new, old, and about to be demolished—and observe what they saw. The pioneers who served ‘upon the very skirts’ of the battle help set a new standard of citizenship for women. They accepted the harshest responsibility of democracy: placing one’s life in danger when necessary to defend the country. Their story, like a missing puzzle piece, completes the picture of how women around the globe not only demanded but also earned the vote.”