The best books that will blow your mind about US women’s history

Lori D. Ginzberg Author Of Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life
By Lori D. Ginzberg

Who am I?

When I started college in 1974 as a young radical feminist I had zero interest in history—it was all wars and men. But in a course about the Russian Revolution I learned the most thrilling thing: historians don’t simply relay facts, they argue with one another. I fell in love, and I never looked back. I am especially fascinated by what societies label “unthinkable,” and how that shapes, contains, and controls radical ideas. I've always been intrigued by what is "out of the question" and then poke at it, see what lies underneath, and try to figure out why things remain, or are kept, invisible.


I wrote...

Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life

By Lori D. Ginzberg,

Book cover of Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life

What is my book about?

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the founding philosopher of the American movement for woman's rights. A brilliant activist-intellectual, she was driven by her commitment to rouse herself, and everyone else, to rethink and remake women's status in politics, law, religion, and marriage. At the same time, Stanton made comments so racist that they can leave us speechless. My biography argues that Stanton's racism and elitism were not merely warts, but reflected a thread in her thinking that shapedand limitedher conception of justice and social change. Both critical and admiring, I offer a portrait of a woman whose absolutism was both thrilling and exasperating, who could be both an excellent ally and a bothersome menace, and whose ambiguous legacy continues to haunt American feminism.

The books I picked & why

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Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic

By Jeanne Boydston,

Book cover of Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic

Why this book?

On one level, this is a book about housework in the pre-Civil War northern United States. Much more profoundly, it shatters ideas about unpaid labor in early industrial capitalism. It completely changed myand many readers’ideas of what constitutes “work,” what it means to contribute to a household economy, and how ideas about wages (and, especially, work done by men outside the home) obscured early capitalists’ dependence on women’s unwaged work. After reading this, you’ll never refer to “women who worked” and “women who didn’t” again.  It should be essential reading not only for women’s historians, but for anyone interested in ideologies of labor, capitalism, and the history of work.

[Full disclosure: I met Jeanne Boydston on my second day of graduate school and we collaborated closely on our dissertations (later books). She was my best friend and best teacher until her much-too-early death in 2008.]


Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty

By Dorothy Roberts,

Book cover of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty

Why this book?

I think it is impossible to step away from this book without seriously reconsidering the historyand very definitionof reproductive rights. In this now-classic work, sociologist and legal scholar Dorothy Roberts exposes the systematic degradation of Black women’s reproduction. From the era of enslavement (in which enslaved women, and only enslaved women, could through their reproduction increase an enslaver’s wealth) to the eugenics movement to early birth control advocacy to forced sterilization to the panic about “crack babies,” she redefines the very nature of reproductive justice.


The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women's Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898

By Lisa Tetrault,

Book cover of The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women's Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898

Why this book?

How we shape historical memory is central to how we understand history, and breaking down myths about the past is a crucial step. This book takes on the standard account of the movement for women’s rights—where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony play all the leading roles—and shows how they explicitly went about shaping that legacy. In editing (with Matilda Joslyn Gage) the multi-volume History of Woman Suffrage, they offered access to thousands of documents about that movement, but also, and explicitly, consolidated their own leadership in ways that diminished the work of grassroots activists and movement rivals. This book (like the McGuire, next on my list) is critical for anyone who thinks about, or works in, grassroots movements for social justice.


At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power

By Danielle L. McGuire,

Book cover of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power

Why this book?

When I ask a well-read, nonhistorian about a book that changed their view of U.S. history, they often mention At the Dark End of the Street. This book addresses a deeply-embedded movement myth: the idea that Rosa Parks came to activism and fame when she refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus. As McGuire shows, a long history of challenging the sexual assault of Black women by white men shaped Parks’s—and many other women’s—activism in the Black freedom struggle of the mid-20th century. That they were largely erased from the movement’s story of its leaders—and that the frequency of sexual assault remained largely obscured—makes this dramatic story all the more essential.


Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

By Saidiya V. Hartman,

Book cover of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

Why this book?

When I first read this book, I thought “This is the book I’ve been waiting for!” Focused on New York and Philadelphia at the beginning of the 20th century, it explores the intimate lives of Black women who have been largely invisible in Black women’s history: girls and women who did not fit the definitions of Black “respectability.” Using sources in ways creative and thrilling, it explores how those women imagined a “free life” within a world shaped by racism, sexual abuse, single motherhood, and economic insecurity. Sometimes their new forms of intimacy involved “ordinary refusals”to follow the law, to do menial labor, to submitwhile at other times their challenges to Victorian beliefs and practices involved song, luxury, and sex. Hartman’s book is a gorgeous read.


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