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Activists, Survivors, and Pioneers: A Women’s History Month Reading List

Women's History Month

What sacrifices does a Pakistani wife have to make while living under a military dictatorship? Why are there still so few women working in the hard sciences? Which historically misunderstood workforce forged alliances with activists in the women’s rights and black freedom movements? The answers lie in the books we are featuring this year during Women’s History Month, which explore and applaud the contributions women have made—through survival, activism, trailblazing—to history. Ranging from the individual voice of memoir to the joint voices of the collective biography, their narratives ring out with equal intensity.


The Upstairs WifeRafia Zakaria’s The Upstairs Wife

In the 1960s, Rafia Zakaria’s Muslim-Indian family immigrated from Mumbai to Pakistan, where they prospered for some time. In the 1980s, Pakistan’s military dictators rolled out an Islamization campaign that affected women’s freedom and safety. The political became personal when Zakaria’s aunt’s husband took a second wife, which was permitted under the country’s dictatorship. Zakaria grew up in the shadow of her aunt’s shame and fury as the world of post-Partition Pakistan turned ever more violent and chaotic. A memoir of Karachi as seen through the eyes of its women, Zakaria’s The Upstairs Wife weaves together the parallel stories of her aunt’s polygamous marriage and Pakistan’s hopes and complicated realities.


The Only Woman in the RoomEileen Pollack’s The Only Woman in the Room

Novelist, essayist, and short story writer Eileen Pollack grew up in the 1960s and 1970s dreaming of a career as a theoretical astrophysicist. She graduated from Yale as one of the university’s first two women to earn a bachelor of science in physics. And yet, isolated, lacking in confidence, starved for encouragement, she abandoned her ambition to become a physicist. Part memoir and part case study, The Only Woman in the Room compiles her personal experiences with those of young women today and takes a bracingly honest look at the social, interpersonal, and institutional barriers confronting women in the STEM fields. It also provides hope for changing attitudes and behaviors in ways that could bring more women into the fields in which they remain underrepresented.


Shake Loose My SkinSonia Sanchez’s Shake Loose My Skin

Maya Angelou has described award-winning poet, activist, and scholar Sonia Sanchez as “a lion in literature’s forest.” Shake Loose My Skin brings together a retrospective of over thirty years of Sanchez’s work, a testament to her literary, sensual, and political powers. Shifting with ease from a blues-inspired love poem to a political call to arms, Sanchez depicts a world of hardship, violence, and oppression, but also one of passion, fortitude, and tenderness. She combines her ear for the rhythms of street speech with her mastery and reconstruction of the haiku, tanka, and villanelle. This collection traces the arc of her extraordinary career and invites us to experience the range and vitality of her unique poetic vision.


Queen of the Oil ClubAnna Rubino’s Queen of the Oil Club

Wanda Jablonski was the investigative reporter, publisher, and power broker who shed light on the secretive world of Big Oil from the 1950s through the 1980s by exposing the vulnerabilities of the major oil companies and encouraging the rise of oil nationalism. Anna Rubino’s Queen of the Oil Club, the first biography of Jablonski, tells the dramatic story of this journalistic pioneer who survived threats, boycotts, and suspicions of espionage as she elicited information and insight from CEOs of the oil giants and political leaders, including the shah of Iran. Jablonski worked for the Journal of Commerce and other New York publications and, in 1961, started her own newsletter, Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, which was soon dubbed the “bible” of the oil world. An exceptional influence on twentieth-century politics, she defied the prevailing view that a woman reporting on business had no credibility.


The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa ParksJeanne Theoharis’s The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

As professor of political science Jeanne Theoharis shows us in The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Rosa Parks was primed for six decades of civil rights activism, not just the singled out historical day she is mostly known for. Through economic hardships and a constant barrage of death threats that took a toll on Parks and her family, she remained committed to calling out and eliminating racial inequality in jobs, schools, public services, and the criminal justice system. This revised edition includes a new introduction by the author, who reflects on materials in the Rosa Parks estate, purchased by Howard Buffett in 2014 and opened to the public at the Library of Congress in February 2015.


Proud ShoesPauli Murray’s Proud Shoes

First published in 1956, Proud Shoes tells the incredible true story of slavery, survival, and miscegenation in the South from the pre-Civil War era through the Reconstruction. Written by Pauli Murray, the legendary civil-rights activist and one of the founders of NOW, Proud Shoes follows the lives of Murray’s maternal grandparents: Cornelia Smith, daughter of a slave whose beauty drove the master’s sons to near murder; and Robert Fitzgerald, whose free black father married a white woman in 1840. Murray's book offers a revealing glimpse of our nation’s history.


Household Workers UnitePremilla Nadasen’s Household Workers Unite

In Household Workers Unite, scholar and activist Premilla Nadasen offers a new perspective on race, labor, organizing, and feminism. Resurrecting the little-known history of domestic worker activism in the 1960s and 1970s, Nadasen shatters countless myths and misconceptions about this historically misunderstood workforce. These African-American household workers, a far cry from the stereotyped passive and powerless victims, developed unique strategies for social change and formed unprecedented alliances with activists in both the women’s rights and black freedom movements. They proudly declared, “We refuse to be your mammies, nannies, aunties, uncles, girls, handmaidens any longer.”