Gender Studies Associate Professor Recommends Reading for Women's History Month
Molly Merryman, Ph.D., is an author and filmmaker as well as the founding director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at Kent State University, where she is an associate professor. We asked her what books she would recommend for reading during Women’s History Month.
Books provided me with the earliest intellectually transformative experiences I remember. The home I was raised in was filled with books, and my parents always provided me with the books I wanted and made their own library available to me. I was still in grade school when I became interested in feminism, so my mother demanded that my public library provide me with an adult library card in order for me to read Ms. Magazine and other feminist works. The most difficult part of this exercise was coming up with a short list of books that matter to me. Here is my personal list, supplemented with a few I think are of particular importance given the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic with Women’s History Month.
"Eleanor Roosevelt, Volumes One to Three" by Blanche Wiesen Cook
I read Volume One while in graduate school, and I continue to learn more about this brilliant and accomplished woman through Cook’s scholarship. Had Volume Three, “The Wars Years and After,” been published before I wrote my historical account of the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots, I would have cited it, because First Lady Roosevelt is notable in her advocacy for women who served our country during World War II. Cook’s biographical series is definitive and well-written. Read any one (or all three) for insight into one of the most influential women of the 20th century.
"The Radical Lives of Helen Keller" by Kim E. Nielson
Many of us learned about Helen Keller as children, when we were taught about Keller’s incredible achievements as a woman with sight and hearing disabilities. But what few children were taught is the fullness of Keller’s life as an activist. She was among the few women able to earn a college degree in 1904, and she later traveled the world as a disability and human rights activist. She campaigned for women’s suffrage and access to birth control, became a member of the Socialist Party and co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union. Nielson’s book provides readers with rich details about this part of Keller’s extraordinary life.
"Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America" by Lillian Faderman
Published in 1991, Faderman’s work doesn’t cover all of the 20th century, but it is an invaluable contribution to the scholarship of LGBTQ history because it was the first major work that expanded gay history to include lesbians. It is a great read and a solid example of social history, in addition to being an important LGBTQ history book.
"On Lies, Secrets and Silence" (prose) and/or "Diving Into the Wreck" (poetry) by Adrienne Rich
I recently had the pleasure of being on the committee for a dissertation that explored Adrienne Rich, which reminded me of how important Rich has been in my own life. I discovered her poetry as an undergraduate and discovered her prose when I began teaching women’s studies as a graduate student. Rich’s brilliance transcends form and time – her feminist expressions of women confined in domestic roles in the 1950s still speaks to the cultural constraints places on women’s dreams and desires, and her precision as a writer is inspiring.
"Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History" and "Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World" by Vashti Harrison
Both of these are fantastic reads for the next generation of feminists – these delightful books offer inspiring descriptions of women who have made differences in our world. Aspiring feminists with grade-school reading levels can dig into these books, while colorful illustrations make this fun for those who still need us to read to them. Of course, feminists of all ages will delight in both of these books.
Feminist Readings of Particular Importance During the COVID-19 Pandemic:
"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This 1892 short story focuses on a woman whose physician husband forcibly prescribes to her a “rest cure” after she gives birth. The work is a reflection of that era’s feminist frustrations and patriarchal practices. The protagonist is mostly confined to an upstairs nursery, where her fixation on the torn wallpaper, gouged wooden floor and other details of being kept homebound will likely resonate to those of us who are fortunate enough to have jobs that permit remote work, unlike the overwhelmingly female service and nursing professionals working in the midst of the pandemic.
"The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory" by Carol Adams
This and other works by Adams are definitive works of eco-feminism, the intellectual and social movement that combines feminist and ecological concerns. Adams’ first book on the subject, "The Sexual Politics of Meat," explores the linkages between the oppression of women and the continued oppressions against animals consumed as meat and forcefully impregnated (and their offspring killed) for the purposes of dairy consumption. Definitely not easy reading, but of particular importance given that the source of COVID-19 may be the global meat industry.
"The Act Up Oral History Project" by Sara Shulman and Jim Hubbard
I am reminded of the AIDS epidemic and the life-saving global resistance of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, ACT UP, as we live through the first stages of this latest pandemic. Although there are good books that provide an overview of ACT UP, none capture the immediacy, the drama and the personal sacrifice and tragedy more than this oral history collection. As a member of an Ohio chapter of ACT UP during the worst days of that pandemic, I can attest to lives saved by ACT UP. A government immunologist who listened to AIDS activists and thus saved countless lives was none other than Dr. Anthony Fauci.
"Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil" by Hannah Arendt
I think it is safe to say that Hannah Arendt would likely bristle at being on my list – she was not one who embraced the ideas of her contemporary Simone de Beauvoir (whose monumental work "The Second Sex" is also deserving of any Women’s History Month reading list). However, many feminists embrace Arendt's lucid and sophisticated political expository. "Eichmann in Jerusalem" and its exploration of the banality of evil is as invaluable and eye-opening now as when it was first published in 1963. Throughout history, pandemics have brought out the best and the worst of humanity. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception, with the bravery, sacrifice and beauty of health care and other service workers being juxtaposed against the extreme racism, violent nationalism, totalitarian and greedy power grabs that the worst among us spread. Arendt’s work is necessary in this moment to understand, recognize and confront the evil that oozes alongside of COVID-19.
"Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences" by Valerie Yow
This is not a feminist work per se, but Yow is a feminist, and this book (now in its third edition) provides the essential tools for novices and experienced scholars to undertake their own oral history projects. Let us remember during Women’s History Month those women who are on the front lines of fighting this pandemic and preserving our society – as health care professionals, educators, activists, mothers, grocery store workers and more. What better way to celebrate Women’s History Month than to preserve the stories of the women in your life who are making a difference – and Valerie Yow’s book provides the essential background to collect oral histories. (Also look at the Oral History Association’s website for guidance on ethics and additional instruction.)
Merryman also is a documentary filmmaker whose films can be viewed at https://queerbritain.org.uk/virtually-queer and https://vimeo.com/mollymerryman. She is author of yet another book appropriate for Women’s History Month – "Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots of World War II." The current version is in press, and a new edition, with updated preface, will be released by New York University Press in the fall of 2020. In addition, Merryman has joined the production team making "Coming Home," a documentary and "Fly Girls," a dramatic series, both about these pioneering women military pilots. (https://www.facebook.com/Flygirlsww2)