Women's words fill in gaps of herstory


March 06, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

When it comes to celebrating the role of women in American history, the best book to come out recently is "American Women: Their Lives in Their Words" by Doreen Rappaport (HarperTrophy paperback, $6.95, ages 12 and up).

Of course, there's not much competition.

March is Women's History Month, which hasn't yet sparked the glut of new books that precedes Black History Month. Publishers are beginning to fill the vacuum, however, and here's hoping that they will follow the lead of Ms. Rappaport's excellent non-fiction compilation.

Named a 1992 Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association, "American Women" teaches history through stories. Ms. Rappaport has unearthed a fascinating array of artifacts -- from personal letters and journals written by sweatshop workers and pioneer wives, to the text of speeches by Sojourner Truth, to the reproduction of a 1916 handbill advertising Margaret Sanger's family-planning clinic in New York.

The research for this book was exhaustive, yet you never feel you're plowing through dusty archives. Instead, Ms. Rappaport brings the past to life through the lives of many women, famous and not-so-famous, black and white, Asian and Hispanic and Native American.

Everything is in chronological order, and the chapters are well-organized. "Women in the New World" tells of the dawn-past-dusk workday of a settler's wife -- cooking, sewing, farming, weaving and raising children -- as well as the sexual exploitation of female slaves.

She explores in depth the suffragist movement that fought for years to earn women the right to vote. But Ms. Rappaport also offers insight into practices never mentioned in history textbooks. In the "Settling the West" chapter, for example, Wong Ah So writes of how she was tricked into leaving her home in China, to sail to San Francisco with a man who claimed to want to marry her.

Instead, he sold her into prostitution. By 1854, the large number of male settlers in California had created a booming demand for prostitutes, and poor Chinese families sometimes sold their daughters to traders, thinking the girls would be working as domestic servants in America.

Ms. Rappaport juxtaposes the era of Rosie the Riveter and the 350,000 women who served in the armed forces during World War II with the suburban dream that took root after the war ended. She includes an excerpt from Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" and points out that black women were, by and large, excluded from the homogenized world of the suburban housewife, who was urged to stay home and take care of the kids and devise new recipes using Ritz crackers and cream of mushroom soup.

The final chapter, titled "What's Ahead?" is a series of interviews with 16- and 17-year-old girls from various ethnic backgrounds and regions of the country. All are asked the same questions, including: Was there any time in your life that being a girl hindered you? How will your life be similar/different from your mother's and grandmother's lives? What would you like women to achieve?

The answers are frank and revealing -- just like the rest of this enlightening book.

* Ms. Rappaport has written another book that should appeal to thrill-seekers: "Living Dangerously: American Women Who Risked Their Lives for Adventure" (HarperCollins, $13.95, ages 10 and up).

She profiles Annie Edison Taylor, who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1901; Bessie Coleman, the first African American -- male or female -- to become a licensed pilot; Annie Smith Peck, a mountain climber at the turn of the century; Delia Akeley, who traveled to Africa to collect artifacts and animal specimens for museums in the 1920s; Eugenie Clark, a renowned marine biologist and diver who now teaches zoology at the University of Maryland; and Thecla Mitchell, a triple amputee who competes in wheelchair marathons.

The stories are derived, for the most part, from first-hand accounts by the women pioneers, as well as newspaper accounts. Again, Ms. Rappaport breathes life into their biographies with her vivid writing and eye for detail.

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