The best stories on American women’s lives from the American Revolution to the late 19th Century

Janet Farrell Brodie Author Of Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America
By Janet Farrell Brodie

The Books I Picked & Why

The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Ninetenth-Century New York

By Patricia Cline Cohen

The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Ninetenth-Century New York

Why this book?

This book is a riveting account of the life of a beautiful, well-established, young prostitute in mid-19th century New York City, her murder by one of her patrons, and his sensational trial and its aftermath. As compelling to read as a modern mystery novel, it is also brilliant history that illuminates much about early 19th century small New England towns from which young men and women fled, drawn by the allure of big cities. We learn about the lives of young male clerks “on the loose” in urban America, about the clothes and jewelry and hairstyles of the young female prostitutes as well as their inner lives and longing for culture. We are reminded that the police and the judicial systems could be as brutally unjust then as now.


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A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

Why this book?

This is one of the best-known and loved books in American history and it remains as riveting today as when it first appeared to wide acclaim. It follows the life and work of a woman midwife in Maine for several decades after the American Revolution. Martha Ballard delivered babies (traversing rivers, sometimes canoeing to reach the cabins), helped families far and wide with medical problems, and kept her own household fed, clothed, and clean. Ulrich makes everything come vividly alive: the hardships and rewards Ballard found in midwifery, planting and weeding her gardens, wrestling with endless household chores, the pains of old age. Violence intruded into the rural peace: a family was murdered, Ballard’s husband was jailed for debt, family members married badly. We come to know Ballard and her world as though they were ours.


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More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave

By Ruth Schwartz Cowan

More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave

Why this book?

This is the best book I know for helping us understand women’s domestic chores. The book moves from the early colonial period through the mid-20th century, but the theme remains the same: no matter what wonderful improvements were made in household technology, women’s work remained long and demanding. The hard physical labor of cleaning, cooking, and household maintenance may have eased, especially over the decades of the 19th century, but changing expectations about proper meals, cleanliness, and clothing meant that women rarely did less work. The book is lively—a page turner—and the illustrations throughout add to the pleasure. It is a serious work of history, though, with powerful arguments that resonate even today.


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Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations

By Sharla M. Fett

Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations

Why this book?

Slaves brought deep knowledge of healing cures and medicines from Africa and that knowledge remained and circulated, helping “to heal the body and preserve the soul” as they endured slavery. Slaves held a “relational view” of sickness and health, focusing on the broader slave community and its health rather than the wellness or illness of the individual. This book in no way romanticizes slave healing as aiding an idealized communal harmony. Fett never lets us forget that slaves always faced conflict and struggle, especially since slaveholders intervened constantly in matters of health. Here, though, we gain a deep and powerful—and painful—understanding of certain kinds of relations on plantations, particularly male and female slaves’ work of curing and healing, and the uses of “conjuring,” “working roots,” divination, and “the clandestine practices of antebellum hoodoo.” Interpreting medical beliefs and practices, Fett illuminates broader social struggles over power.


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Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

By Jill Lepore

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

Why this book?

Who knew that Benjamin Franklin had a much-loved sister with whom he stayed close throughout their widely diverse lives? Jane Franklin married young to a n’er-do-well who never provided for the family. Only a few of the many children she bore survived; she worked ceaselessly to provide food and shelter for those children and her aged parents, and, although barely literate, she found time to write to her beloved brother as he rose to political heights. Lepore, a diligent and imaginative historian, makes the lives of the working poor in Revolutionary era New England vividly real, especially the lives of women like Jane Franklin, scrambling to provide the most basic needs of life—shelter, firewood, food, clothing, medicines. This book is deeply moving and unforgettable.


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