An Homage to RBG and 2 Other New Books About Modern Herstory
“Binders full of women.” Mitt Romney’s ill-advised comment about his preparation in a search to find qualified female applicants for Cabinet positions might seem like it happened forever ago (six years this week, actually). However, it’s still used as a rallying cry to remind us of the need for gender equity in opportunity, pay, and recognition. The new books in this week’s book club strive to help correct this gap. So read these books full of women and nonbinary humans — inspiring, world-changing people — who deserve to go down in herstory.
1. Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life by Jane Sherron De Hart ($35): Ruth Bader Ginsburg has heard the call from millions: please, never retire, and live forever. There’s a lot riding on the Notorious RBG’s continued tenure on the Supreme Court; but then, there always has been. Only the second female justice to be appointed (she took the oath in 1993, confirmed by a 96-3 vote), she has had a massive impact on the legal rights in the United States. De Hart writes, “a comprehensive biography of one of the most important figures in modern law in the United States permits exploring the experiences and relationships that inspired her passion for justice, her legendary advocacy for gender equality, and her distinctive jurisprudence. Not least, it demonstrates the formidable intellect, iron will, and emotional stamina that prompted Justice Souter to deem his former colleague a ‘tiger justice.’”
Comprised of painstaking research and a series of interviews with Ginsburg herself, the book relates the making of a justice, taking us through Ginsburg’s formative years and Jewish roots, her education at Cornell and Harvard and Columbia law schools (at Harvard, the dean asked her why she had taken a man’s spot), and her work in academia and in founding the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. De Hart writes about Ginsburg’s numerous landmark briefs on issues relating to gender discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause, her tenure on the US Court of Appeals, and finally her appointment to and work on the Supreme Court.
She tells us that, though Ginsburg was never interested in returning to the years of “adversity” that marked her youth, she managed to occasionally get the justice and her family to open up — with a guarantee that Ginsburg would be able to vet the book’s description of the early years for accuracy. De Hart focuses on key equal protection cases within a full arc of Ginsburg’s life to highlight where her contributions have most shaped legal doctrine, and to pay homage to her overall mission. Other themes of the book show why Ginsburg’s presence is so important: the growing conservatism and polarization of the Supreme Court, and the difficulty of achieving legal equality for the marginalized. Though De Hart’s work is the first full biography of Ginsburg, it can never be complete — Ginsburg’s work on the Supreme Court isn’t done yet. Because she can never leave.
2. Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement by Nadya Okamoto, Illustrated by Rebecca Elfast ($20): When Harvard undergrad Okamoto was 12 years old, a trip to the bathroom gave her the shock of her short life. Panicking that she was bleeding out and about to die, she ran to her family to deliver her last words, only to be greeted with knowing smiles and a celebration from her mother that she was now a woman. Okamoto had known about periods for years, but she was still surprised and scared when it happened, a moment for which she discovered she was not emotionally prepared. There was still so much she didn’t know.
Four years later, Okamoto had to deal with a different fear — her family was experiencing major financial setbacks which led to housing instability. This ignited a passion for humanizing and assisting the homeless. In particular, she began to speak to a community of homeless women. When she did, one issue emerged again and again — there was a serious lack of safe, clean menstrual hygiene products available for them. “Starting with the local homeless services in downtown Portland, I asked why none of these nonprofits had permanent services to provide period products to homeless menstruators. I usually got two answers: there was either a lack of funds or a lack of displayed need. There was a never-ending cycle of organizations not prioritizing menstrual hygiene, and thus not feeling any need to invest in tampons and pads. On the other side, homeless menstruators did not feel comfortable advocating for their menstrual needs, because menstruation is something that most want to hide.”
Okamoto went on to found PERIOD, a non-profit promoting the concept that access to menstrual health products and information is a human right. Her book, a continuation of this manifesto, is a guide for all people who menstruate (and for everyone who wants to support people who menstruate). It’s a frank and educational primer on periods, condemning and combating the inadequacies of health and sex education in the US. It also mentions the need for intersectionality in discussions about periods, with transgender men and nonbinary or genderqueer people often finding dealing with menstruation particularly traumatic or difficult. It deals with menstruation’s historical taboos and environmental impact, and the goals of her organization: powerful period preparation.
3. Modern Herstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History by Blair Imani, Illustrated by Monique Le ($18): “Every one of us has the potential to make an indelible mark on our world; however, the stories of the ordinary heroes responsible for the most important social changes in history are often obscured. Studying history in college, I learned that it is usually written by those who have the most privilege and the most power. As a result, the contributions of diverse groups are often overlooked and erased, while those in power who uphold the status quo are praised as heroes. Throughout history, diverse trailblazing individuals have been subjected to this erasure… While ‘history’ focuses on men and the stories of patriarchs, ‘herstory’ deliberately prioritizes the stories of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people.”
Writer Imani, executive director of Equality for HER, and illustrator Le, have created this encyclopedic book, aimed at teens but relevant for anyone. In it, they celebrate a collection of awesome woman and non-binary individuals — 70 of them, in fact, ranging from those with names more widely known, like Oprah, Ellen, and Rihanna, to those whose names you might not know yet… but should. It focuses on the recent past (approximately the last 50 years), the present, and the upcoming, ever-important future.
By the end of it, your activist Rolodex will include names such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two transgender women of color instrumental in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality. You’ll hear the story of social worker Vilissa Thomson, a Black woman with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (brittle bone disorder) who created Ramp Your Voice!, an organization dedicated to self-advocacy for people with disabilities, and that of Patsy Takemoto Mink, the first non-white woman elected to Congress, who co-authored the Title IX Amendment to the Higher Education Act. Other profiles include transgender activists Kat Blaque and Jazz Jennings, sabre fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad (the first Muslim-American to wear a hijab competing at the Olympics), and America’s Next Top Model candidate Winnie Harlow, a spokesperson for those with the skin condition vitiligo. With a foreword by dynamic sisters Tegan and Sara singing its praises, it’s an important primer for the upcoming generation, just waiting to make herstory.
What books make up your story? Tag us in your next Herstorical read @BritandCo.
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