Book Reviews, Bookishness, Mamaishness, Teacherishness, Women's History Month

Books for Women’s History Month

women's history children's books

March is Women’s History Month, by official government proclamation, but it’s worth identifying great books about women’s history to use all year long. Today and tomorrow, I’m sharing some more recent favorites, as well as some books that I’ve loved for years and I want everyone to know about. You’ll see that these books are about all sorts of women – famous women whose names you’d recognize instantly, but also the sorts of women that sometimes get ignored when we’re studying History-with-a-capital-H.

By no means is this list all-inclusive; the minute I hit ‘publish’ on this post, I’ll think of eight more books I wish I’d shared. The list is already so long that I’m splitting it up over the next several days. If, however, you’re looking for something about a particular woman, event, etc., feel free to leave a comment or use that cute little ‘contact me’ button, and I’ll be happy to help you find the perfect book.

Clara with Clara

Here is our Clara on her second birthday last fall. Do you see what she’s clutching? It’s a book about another Clara – one you probably don’t know – named Clara Lemlich. The book is Brave Girl (IndieBound/Amazon) by Michelle Markel, with illustrations by Melissa Sweet, and it tells the story of Clara Lemlich’s work as an organizer for garment workers at the turn of the 20th century.

books for women's history month

In text appropriate for elementary-aged children, Brave Girl describes how garment workers worked long hours in unhealthy conditions for low pay. The illustrations support the text when necessary, and also help move the story along. One page shows an overhead view of girls sewing at long tables, and it particularly impressed the children with whom I shared it. One boy remarked, “I can’t imagine having to sit and sew all day in a crowded room.”

When Clara gets fed up with her situation, she galvanizes (in Yiddish!) other immigrant workers into joining strikes and picket lines. Despite physical injuries, financial consequences, and constant intimidation, she calls for the strikes to get bigger. In fact, she leads the call for a 1909 general strike that eventually did lead to significant improvement in conditions for garment workers.

With older children, there are obvious parallels to draw with working conditions for folks in other countries who sew so many of the clothes we buy today. In addition, older students might be interested in learning about the Triangle Factory Fire, and other events of the 1910s that led to radical improvements in workplace safety regulations in this country.

women's history children's books

Moving forward a little bit in history, One Thousand Tracings (IndieBound/Amazon), by Lita Judge, describes a grassroots relief project undertaken in the months following World War II. The author’s grandparents learned from their scientist colleagues in Germany that many ordinary Germans were going without basic food and clothing in the aftermath of the war. In a time when anti-Germany sentiment was (understandably) prevalent, these brave souls – along with their daughter, the author’s mother – set out to provide their former enemies’ most essential needs.

The book’s title comes from the foot tracings sent by the Germans so that appropriately-sized donated American shoes and boots could be found. America’s wartime rationing was ending, so there were not necessarily abundant supplies of things like shoes in America, either. Nonetheless, the scientific community (ornithologists in particular) pulled together to pack boxes full of food, clothing, and shoes to send to families who were worried about how they would survive through winter.

This particular book is notable not only for its unique subject, but also for the gentle way it depicts one small group of ordinary citizens’ decision to follow their own moral compass. Rather than writing off the needs of former friends and colleagues due to their national identity, they instead chose to take the path of love and compassion. I think it’s an amazing story to use in our current era, when we have a tendency to feel helpless, and thus relieved of any responsibility, when we hear of people who are lacking in things that we take for granted.

For history teachers and lovers, there are numerous primary source documents included in the book and its illustrations. The author found both the tracings and letters sent from Germany, with their translations, in her grandparents’ attic. Some of these are heart-rending, others matter-of-fact. Taken altogether, they help paint a beautiful picture of what it means to live as part of a community, even when that community is fractured by warfare and distance.

My Great-Aunt Arizona

My Great-Aunt Arizona, by Gloria Houston and Susan Condie Lamb, is the sort of book that makes teachers cry when they try to read it. (IndieBound/Amazon) It tells the story of Arizona, a girl who loved to read and learn, and who grew up to become a teacher.

This is an excellent story to show young children how life changes over time. Arizona starts teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, and ends her career in a very modern building. It also shows the impact of her life’s work – though she never travels the world to all the places she’s discovered in her books, she sees them through the eyes of her students who do travel.

The text is lovely, the illustrations are beautiful and filled with detail, and you can’t help but fall in love with a book about falling in love with books and learning. Arizona was a real person, but she’s also an archetype that we tend to honor in private far more than we do in public: the devoted and loving teacher. In the era before any sort of “teacher of the year” nonsense, people like Arizona were the real deal, and the value of their gifts lives on in the lives they touched.

While I absolutely believe we should be encouraging our girls to consider careers in science and technology, and I am equally grateful that we live in a time when very few doors are closed to girls because of their gender, I don’t want us to disparage the work done by women in a time when choices were fewer. Reading books like this one helps us keep a healthy historical perspective.

Coming tomorrow: books about some American women whose names you’ve probably heard before.

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