10 books by women to read before you start a History degree

Since Fiona de Londras posted her 10 books by women to read before starting Law School, I’ve been thinking about how to narrow down some reading suggestions for students who are due to start university degrees in History over the next month or so. In truth, many of the books on Fiona’s list could easily be recommendations for history students, and the reality is that the overlap is large between the disciplines of history and law. At least five of Fiona’s suggestions fall into the genre of historical fiction. Although not a new genre, historical fiction has become really popular in recent years: Toni Morrison, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters and many others have demonstrated how historical research and fiction can so successfully bring stories of the past to new audiences. The arbitrary lines between ‘expert’ historian and master of fiction have never quite been clear, but are becoming even more murky as history becomes more accessible and agreement on what ‘history’ is becomes less fixed. Hayden White’s position on historical writing as interpretation of the ‘real’ rather than production of a ‘truth’ is much more mainstream in history writing (especially outside the academy) than it was when he first invoked literary characters in his critique of historical dogma in his 1966 article, The Burden of History. Historical narrative can be fiction, and fiction can be historical narrative.

I must confess that I’m not a huge fan of the kings and queens literature of Gregory and Mantel, and much more interested in the grittier stories brought alive by authors like Waters. As it turns out, my list includes none of these three, and instead suggests some slightly less mainstream fictional, semi-fictional, autobiographical, and scholarly texts that I think will provide students of history with a sense of what is possible in thinking, writing and imagining things about the past. It is not intended to be a definitive list: if you have other suggestions, please use the comments box to add to the list.

1. Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (2005)

Caroline Elkins’ controversial account of the British response to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for nonfiction. It also earned her  widespread criticism for the way she used ‘unconventional sources’ like oral testimony, and the way she questioned colonial official accounts of the ‘savagery’ of the Kikuyu. The Guardian recently ran an excellent review of the book, including  the fallout. For budding historians, this is an excellent example of a book that created debate and forced re-evaluation of assumptions we make about empire, the value of official sources, and the erasure of certain kinds of voices in the stories we tell each other about the past. Elkins does not write dispassionately: her style conveys her anger about imperial atrocities that were covered up for years. For undergraduate students, who are often overly-preoccupied with what they call ‘bias’, this is a great example of how historians can take a political position while producing an important and thought-provoking discussion about the past.

2. Annette Gordon-Reed: Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997)

When this Pulitzer prize-winning book came out in 1997, it shattered the efforts of generations of historians who attempted to ‘protect’ the reputation of Thomas Jefferson, the architect of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the USA and noted slaveholder. Gordon-Reed, a lawyer by training, set out to build a case that the liaison between Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings could have existed, and to question the reluctance of historians to give credence to the story over the previous two centuries. It is a critique of historiography, a criticism of the ways that histories preserve myths, and the architecture of historical research that privileges the voices of ‘great men’ over those deemed less important. Through a series of biographical portraits, Gordon-Reed helps us to see Jefferson and his environment through contemporary eyes, and to examine the assumptions we make about the character of ‘untouchable’ figures in history. Gordon-Reed’s prose is sharp, insightful and engaging: this is a book that sucks you in, and then makes you spit out all of your preconceived notions of what we accept to be possible, or plausible in the lives of historical giants.

(Gordon-Reed spoke at one of the Gender and History in the Americas seminars that I co-run at the IHR: you can dowload the podcast of her talk here)

3. Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (1996)

One of Canada’s most important authors, Margaret Atwood writes extensively about the condition of women and how we can assess the strengths and weaknesses in our society through the experiences of marginalized women. In this novel set in the mid 19th century, Grace Marks is imprisoned for life for the double-murder of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. The key theme of the book is imprisonment: Grace is metaphorically imprisoned by her condition as a woman, her view of the world is restricted even before she is sent to prison, and of course she is physically imprisoned for much of the book. Set in an era when prison reform was becoming an important political issue, Grace’s story is told in her own voice, and through the voice of a fictional doctor who is researching conditions in prisons and asylums. This is based on a true story, but with a heavy dose of fiction, and the constantly changing voices challenge us to question what we actually know: the book is an excellent example of how the historical imagination can go beyond the ‘true’ and represent the ‘real’.

4. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

I read this book as an undergraduate as part of a survey course on the 19th century US. I must confess that I didn’t like it much as a book; it’s not terribly well written, and I found the main character Tom really quite unsympathetic. But this is an extremely important book that draws together lots of the narratives of antebellum US history. Stowe was the daughter of famed preacher Lyman Beecher, and sister of Catharine Beecher who was the ‘inventor’ of what became domestic science. An abolitionist, women’s right advocate, and social reformer, Beecher Stowe became internationally famous as her book became a bestseller. It personalised the condition of slavery, and although radical abolitionists thought it was too conservative, it was a useful propaganda tool to galvanise support for the anti-slavery movement. Stowe was keen to prove the historical veracity of the book, and even published a ‘key’ to the book, mostly to respond to criticism that her description of the horrors of slavery was fictional and had no basis in real experience. Whatever the flaws of the book, it was the most influential book on slavery in the years before the Civil War, and it also demonstrates the ways that American women reformers were able to establish themselves as political actors in a system that continued to deny them political autonomy through suffrage.

5. Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince: Life of a Slave (1831)

Before there was Solomon Northup, Frederick Douglass, or Harriet Jacobs, there was Mary Prince. Born into slavery in Bermuda, Prince spent years working on the salt flats in Grand Turk, before eventually having to leave her family in Antigua and come to London with her owner. Even though slavery was not legal in England in the 1820s, her owner refused to release her from slavery. Without independent means, it was extraordinarily difficult for her to leave her enslaved position. Her story follows the style of what we call ‘slave narratives’, a certain kind of autobiography which gives the account of a slave’s family origins, early life, life as a slave, and then eventual escape from slavery. Slave narratives (including Prince’s) were usually published by anti-slavery societies, who would use them as a way to increase support for the abolition of slavery. This book is important for several reasons: first, it is the first account of the life of a female slave, related by herself. In an era when women’s voices were easily silenced, and when Victorian ideals around womanhood and respectability largely excluded non-white, and especially enslaved, women, the fact that this book was a bestseller in England in the 1830s indicates a shift in the way women’s voices were being represented in the public square. Secondly, it is easy for us to think about slavery as a phenomenon specific to the United States; set mostly in the Carribean, Prince’s tale explores the experiences of slaves outside of the archetypal ‘plantation’ system. Finally, her story highlights the informal ways that slavery continued to exist even after abolition: Prince could leave and be ‘free’ in London, but was for a long time constrained by lack of means. And she could not return to Antigua without being re-enslaved; freedom in England simply did not translate well back to the Caribbean. This is a salient lesson: it is easy to assume that a legal position on rights (abolition of slavery, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights) solves inequality; Prince’s story reminds us that custom often outweighs law.

6. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

Hurston was a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance, and is often eclipsed by her more celebrated male contemporaries, like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Alain Locke, and Claude McKay (many of whom criticised the book). This is a mistake. Her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie, a light-skinned African American woman in Florida who struggles with her identity as woman and free, as the slave system is dismantled, but ‘freedom’ remains elusive. Janie just doesn’t fit anywhere: she is perceived as too white, or too black, and her sexual conduct challenged the ‘racial uplift’ movement which advocated that African Americans would ‘prove’ their social and political worth through positive engagement with the economy and embracing respectability. The book is great: it is challenging, and thought provoking, and forces you to think about the ways that identity is shaped by external conditions.

7. Martha Freeman (ed.) Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman 1952–1964 An Intimate Portrait of a Remarkable Friendship (1995)

I first came across Rachel Carson when I started studying the protest movements of the 1960s, and read a book about the emergence of the modern environmental movement. Rachel Carson was a scientist whose research into the environmental damage of pesticides like DDT eventually contributed to the foundation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the US in 1970. Carson had died by then, of breast cancer probably caused by her constant exposure to chemicals. Her most famous book Silent Spring, published just over a year before she died, changed the conversation about environmental responsibility. I’m not recommending that book as one of my 10, but instead this collection of letters between Carson and Dorothy Freeman, the woman who may have been her lover, and was definitely her love. Over years, Carson and Freeman exchanged thousands of letters, some of which Freeman shared with her husband so that he would understand her relationship with Carson. For historians, letters are wonderful. The intimate details revealed in these letters (published by Dorothy Freeman’s granddaughter in 1995) give unique insight into a story of the past that so often eludes us. Freeman and Carson destroyed hundreds of letters before Carson’s death, but even this partial collection is a wonderful example of how letters can help craft beautiful narratives of the past. Goodness knows how long this will last; how are we to deal with a historical future where intimacy will be deleted with the transience of e-mail, facebook and snapchat?

8. Emma Donoghue, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002)

I bought this book primarily because I enjoyed Donoghue’s earlier books Hood (1995) and Stir-fry (1994), both coming-of-age and coming-out novels set in the Ireland of the 1980s and 1990s that I grew up in. I expected The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits to give me more of the same. It did not. A historian by training and fiction writer by profession, Donoghue gives us a collection of short stories which revolve around historical ‘oddities’ in Scotland, Ireland, England and even Italy, from the 1400s to the end of the nineteenth century. Using recorded historical episodes (like the story of Mary Toft, who became notorious in 1720s England for giving birth to 18 rabbits) Donoghue mixes realism, fantasy and history to create a tapestry of the past that is alive and malleable. Not to spoil the story, but Mary Toft’s story was a hoax. Originally Donoghue was going to call the collection Histories of Nothing: the book reminds us that for most of history, the most interesting things that happened were the nothings.

9. Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)

Many years ago, one of my students undertook a final year dissertation on Civil War photography, with a focus on the work of Matthew Brady. One of the things he found fascinating was the ways that Brady would re-arrange the battlefield in order to make the photo more aesthetically pleasing, or to imply victory or loss had occurred in a particular way. My student was intrigued that photography was not ‘real’, and that the presentation of an image of the past was no more ‘true’ than a text created about the past.  Sontag’s book on photography grapples with these kinds of questions, exploring the connections between truth, reality, image, and history. Look, it’s not a history book: it’s full of theory, and examples of photography, film and image, and it is a challenging read. The book is a collection of essays, each dealing with variations on the theme. But it is a wonderful book, and challenges the ways that we think about representations of the past. And Sontag’s writing is exciting.

10. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963)

I first read this as an undergraduate, and it was probably the first book I ever read about women’s frustrations with social constraints. Friedan was not the first to write about such things: Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxieme Sexe was published in 1949 and is arguably a better discussion about attitudes towards femininity and the political marginalization of women in the post-war era. But Friedan’s book appeared at a time of social and political change; the reaction to the book was not universally positive, but it provided a language to a new generation of college-educated women who were increasingly unhappy at their suburban lives that were sanitized and disconnected from the kind of fulfilment they craved. I could have picked Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch here, or Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (both published 1970) but Friedan’s classic manifesto is a must-read. It claims to be the cri de couer of a whole section of womanhood in the 1960s, but in reality it fails to represent the voices of poor women, women of colour, or non-heterosexual women. But it is accessible in ways that Greer and Millett’s manifestos are not, and it continues to be a useful springboard for today’s young women to think about the genesis of the kind of feminism that many now find quite suspicious.

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