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Although I have a history degree and call myself a feminist, Women's History class was the hardest for me. Why? Because I thought our history could be summed up in one sentence: Women's lives sucked until the passage of the 19th amendment and then it got a little less sucky. But, was I wrong! I've since discovered countless stories of incredible women. Did you know one of the best WWII snipers was a Russian woman? Or realize a large female spy network was active in France during the war? Nor did I before diving into these books. From what we learned in school, women were usually in the background, not stirring up trouble--even if what they did makes life as we know it possible.
Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History by Tori Telfer
When you think of serial killers, women don't usually come to mind. Telfer shows us the dark side, from Elizabeth Báthory (the Transylvanian countess rumored to have bathed in the blood of virgins to keep herself looking young) to more modern women like Oklahoman Nannie Doss. These women aren't painted as the steamy seductresses or witches of popular culture. Sorry, Báthory didn't actually bathe in virgins' blood, but she did some really weird stuff. And Doss? She was known as the Giggling Granny, whose baked goods were to die for. If you love to listen to, read, or watch true crime, check out this book.
Early in the 20th century radium was the miracle element. It developed into a popular health trend and became one of the hottest industries. Girls lined up to work with the wonder element to illuminate watch dials and airplane controls. During the Roaring Twenties, they used their glowing profession to show off their personalities. Soon though some dial painters developed unbearable tooth and body aches. Then they started dying. The doctors were perplexed and the bosses denied radium's danger. Yet instead of suffering in silence, the resilient radium girls relentlessly sought justice. Their strength and persistence improved working conditions for us all. If you love the '20s and medical dramas, here's a real-life House or Grey's Anatomy.
Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire L. Evans
With a continued push for more STEAM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts, Math) education in schools, learning about the creators of technology we rely on certainly puts things in perspective. Evans started researching her book soon after Snowden and the NSA affair. She begins with Ada Lovelace (the "first programmer") who wrote mathematical poetry for Charles Baggage's Analytical Machine. Evans tells tale of the original computers, not machines, but women hired to do the long math so the men do the hard thinking. Those human computers became the code writers that ran the machines. Women were behind the scenes, pulling the strings and punching the cards to give us the machines we now take for granted. If you want to find fierce women creating the building blocks for our modern life this is a great read.
The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich
On June 22, 1941, Hitler attacked Russia. When the news broke women raced to their local Commissar’s office to fight the Germans and defend the Motherland. Never before had women served in the military on this scale, not just as nurses or cooks but as snipers, artillery, and sappers. Alexievich weaves together multiple stories of young women wanting to help their country and gives the reader a timeline from the start of Operation Barbosa to the liberation of Berlin. Originally written during the Soviet Era, Alexievich was unable to publish these stories portraying the dark side of the war until after the Soviet Union’s fall. The book finally earned her earned her the Noble Prize in Literature in 2015.
The Shadow Warriors of WWII: The Daring Women of the OSS and SOE by Gordon Thomas and Greg Lewis
While the Russians utilized women in all their war efforts, the British and Americans used a subtler approach. The Allied intelligence agencies trained and employed French speaking women to help run the French Resistance. Most of the women who signed up were French refugees or Francophiles who had lived abroad before. The work was dangerous; the women moved constantly to avoid suspicion from the Nazi and Vichy armies. Under the cover of night, and with false papers in hand, these brave women would run messages, send radio transmissions, and sabotage the Nazi efforts. Without their help, the Allied Forces landing at D-Day would have been disastrous.
Books on my wait list:
In the comments share your favorite books on amazing women!