Alexis Coe on Why It Matters When Women Write History

Posted by Cybil on March 3, 2020
Historian Alexis Coe's new book, You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington, arrived in U.S. bookstores in February. Coe is the host of the podcasts Presidents Are People Too and No Man's Land. She also served as a producer on author Doris Kearns Goodwin's three-part TV series about George Washington for the History Channel.

Who better to write about the importance of increasing the role of women historians in telling the stories of our collective pasts? Here she's recommending some of her favorite works by her fellow women historians. 

When you write a book, you’re often asked a fairly simple—or so I thought—question: What’s it about? George Washington, I’d say, and the conversation often went like this:
“But what about him...his marriage?”
“His wife?”

 “ life?”
“No. It’s a biography. Like a man would write.”
There’s an expectation that women will write books about women, and people of color will write about people of color. There is some sense to this when we consider that women and people of color have been, as historic subjects, relegated to supporting roles; male historians rarely seemed interested in treating them as more than mothers/wives/sisters/daughters/muses, and even rarer still, worthy of an entire book.
I’m afraid, however, that women historians have to do double duty: We have to unearth or reintroduce people who have been forgotten or dismissed and we also have to review and question everything that’s been written—especially when it comes to male-dominated genres like presidential history.

With Washington, I found that an obsession with his manliness (and in particular, his allegedly amazing thighs!) led to a skewed interpretation of Washington’s life, one that had been repeated by the hundreds of men who wrote about him. When it was my turn, I, as one of few women to write a cradle-to-casket biography about him in a hundred years, came to different conclusions.
I’m not the only one doing this work, but there should be more of us, and the best way to make that happen is to celebrate excellent history books women have written. Here are eight of the ones I keep giving away, but I wish I could name a hundred!

Joanne B. Freeman mined the 11-volume diary of Benjamin Brown French, a D.C. clerk with a front-row seat to the literal violence in Congress that led up to the Civil War. It’s an incredibly intimate view of a country descending into disunion, and one man’s evolution: When we meet French, he’s a Jacksonian Democrat, but by the end, he’s an antislavery Republican.

Pauli Murray should be a household name, and Rosalind Rosenberg’s book is an excellent contribution to that goal. Murray’s story is full of “the only woman to” and “the first woman in,” plus she’s often the smartest person in the room, the kind Langston Hughes and Eleanor Roosevelt wanted around. Orphaned at four, Murray was a Freedom Rider (arrested for sitting in an all-white section 15 years before Rosa Parks), helped start NOW, was a rising star at the ACLU, and has been sainted by the Episcopal Church—and that’s barely a greatest-hits list!

Fast food is blamed for black obesity and diabetes, but as Marcia Chatelain illustrates, there’s a lot more to the story. I was surprised by every page, and by the role these restaurants play and provide a lens into every major movement in modern American history, from Civil Rights to the present.

Casey Cep is not a trained historian, but she researches like one. I loved this book, which is actually like three books in one: a biography of Harper Lee, a true-crime thriller, and a courtroom drama.

Rebecca Traister’s book isn’t technically history, but it sure has a lot of good history in it! Anger isn’t an emotion women are supposed to have, but they have, and looking at suffrage and the labor movement through that lens is a powerful way to connect to our living history.

While Eleanor Roosevelt often gets credited with this line, the great Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was the progenitor! She wrote it in a totally obscure article during the 1970s, and the rest is, you know, history. Read about that crazy ride and the women she imagined when she said it.

I feel like LaShawn Harris’ title is a mic drop within itself, but trust me when I say this book has everything: riveting characters (see Stephanie St. Clair, aka Queenie, a numbers runner who took on the Mob), big ideas (opportunity structures in work and life), and careful research.

I've been recommending UCLA professor Valerie Matsumoto's book on young Japanese American women on the West Coast for years because it's got everything. They belong to clubs with names like the Tartanettes, but this wasn't about social calendars; these girls navigated parental expectations and tremendous racial discrimination from the Jazz Age through postwar period. We aren't taught this history, and even the few parts we're familiar with are totally different in this world: I think about the young women's small acts of resistance during their wartime incarceration often.

I first Gloria E. Anzaldúa's book of essays and poems in college, but it feels surprisingly fresh every time I pick it up. It's personal, with the author's childhood and experiences as a Latina keeping readers close, but it's also theoretical. Class, race, gender, and sociology are a part of Anzaldúa's intimate look at the United States-Mexico border.

Karen Abbott in an incredible history writer, and I love all her books, but I find myself suggesting this incredible story out of Chicago’s Levee District to anyone who says “I don’t read nonfiction.” Plus, I love a presidential cameo, and William Howard Taft makes an appearance in this history of two sisters determined to run their brothel during the Progressive era!

Fellow readers, it's your turn! Do you have a history recommendation? Share it in the comments below!

Check out more recent articles:
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The Best Young Adult Books of March
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Comments Showing 1-30 of 30 (30 new)

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message 1: by Text (new)

Text Addict Other People's Money by Sharon Ann Murphy is about how banking worked in the Early Republic and why it was controversial (yes, banks were controversial) and is very clear and readable.

I'm also extremely partial to Sarah Bakewell's How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

message 2: by Ann (new)

Ann Mcmillan The Free Women of Petersburg by Suzanne Lebsock first published in 1984, Bancroft Prize winner

message 3: by Bekah (last edited Mar 03, 2020 10:38AM) (new)

Bekah Cossaboom Strapless by Deborah Davis
Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X

What happened to the woman whose life was ruined by a painting that catapulted John Singer Sargent to fame and success.

message 4: by Linda (last edited Mar 03, 2020 01:51PM) (new)

Linda I'll be immodest and mention my own book, The Captain from Connecticut: The Life and Naval Times of Isaac Hull. (1st ed Northeastern Univ. Press, 1986; new paperback ed. Naval Institute Press, 2013). As one distinguished reviewer wrote: "One learns as much about the challenges of Navy life for Hull's family as about the man himself, and peaceful times are given at least equal weight with periods of warfare."

message 5: by Louise (new)

Louise My reading list just got that much longer!

message 6: by Ro (new)

Ro Hart Mine too.......

message 7: by Laura (new)

Laura The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot really blew my mind.

Thank you for these recommendations!

message 8: by Ro (new)

Ro Hart What’s so good about it?

message 9: by Brittany (new)

Brittany “Independence Lost” by Kathleen DuVal!

message 10: by Bob Bradley (new)

Bob Bradley Doris Kerns Goodwin, "Team of Rivals"

message 11: by K. Rose (new)

K. Rose Excited to check these out! "You Never Forget Your First" has been high on my To Read list, and I can vouch that "Sin in the Second City" is *chef's kiss*, especially if you live in Chicago - reading the familiar street names and landmarks is VERY COOL.

message 12: by Lily (new)

Lily I think one of my favourite history books written by a woman has got to be 'The Circus Age: Culture & Society Under the American Big Top' by Janet M. Davis. It's very well researched but also so well written that it reads almost like a novel. She manages to capture the lively atmosphere of the circus but also carefully situates it within its broader historical context.

message 13: by Nóri (new)

Nóri Oh good. Books on US history by women! They're sure to be completely different than all those books on US history by men you featured a week ago! Love the diversity on this website! /s

message 14: by Eliza (new)

Eliza Adler Lmao that part at the top about the questions the author of ‘you never forget your first’

message 15: by Rod (last edited Mar 06, 2020 06:51AM) (new)

Rod Regarding the last book recommended: What exactly is wonderful about "sisters determined to run their brothel"? How does women promoting the sexual exploitation of their own sex, for the vile pleasure of misogynous men (who are the real whores, by the way), count as something uplifting or beneficial? I find that only U.S. pseudo-feminists (usually Caucasian ones) tend to subscribe to such backwards "logic." Brothels have never been (and continue not to be) a place for women to find 'freedom': on the contrary, they are the location of some of the worst sexual enslavement, objectification, & assaults against women and girls. Indeed, that is their very purpose: to allow slutty males free rein over female bodies, without having to pretend that their victims are deserving of dignity.

message 17: by Brigid (new)

Brigid Thank you for all of this!!

message 18: by Kelly (new)

Kelly The Field of Blood is a good one.

Other recommendations include:

Absolutely blown away by Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Everyone in the United States should read it. Looks like it will be dry but it wasn't.

Also blown away by Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Ties together Marxist theory (but also pulls no punches with Marx and Weber) and the witch hunting. Totally learned that a lot of what I thought I knew about witch hunting in Europe.

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is a worthy addition to the Chomsky legacy.

The Cigarette: A Political History by Sarah Milov, an inter-sectional history of the tobacco industry and the political and social movement to remove smoking from public life.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World a biography of an early 19th century naturalist.

Anything by Svetlana Alexievich, including War's Unwomanly Face or The Unwomanly Face of War about Soviet women who fought or served in WWII. It's an absolutely devastating oral history and a meditation on how the stories of women in history, particularly war are not told of framed by men.

A Massacre in Mexico: The True Story Behind the Missing 43 Students is a riveting exploration of what happened to the murdered and disappeared students and the history of suppression of leftist activism in Mexico.

Anything by Barbara W. Tuchman, including The Guns of August and A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Written to be accessible and entertaining to a mass audience but also full of information from primary sources.

Transgender History: The Roots of Today's Revolution is super important and is mandatory for anyone who wants to be informed about trans issues in the United States.

The Gnostic Gospels is a good source for people interested in this topic and early Christian history.

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia is very effective at making you feel like you've lived through the adolescence and young adulthood of its subjects. It basically uses those biographies and the history of Russia/the USSR to explain the rise of Putin.

And Hannah Arendt and Ellen Meiksins Wood are important social theorists and have a lot of stuff worth reading.

message 19: by Thom (new)

Thom While not written by a woman, the subject was one. I found The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies both an excellent history and biography.

Closer to the theme, I also really enjoyed The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic by Ginger Strand.

message 20: by Eliza (new)

Eliza Adler Rod wrote: "Regarding the last book recommended: What exactly is wonderful about "sisters determined to run their brothel"? How does women promoting the sexual exploitation of their own sex, for the vile pleas..."

They make a good point!!! ☝🏾

message 21: by Leanne (new)

Leanne And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses In World War II by Evelyn Monahan was amazing, and truly an eye-opening piece of non-fiction. How often do we think about the men who fought on the front lines, or the millions who died in concentration camps? These brave women followed the frontline and deserve to be recognized for their bravery, commitment, and humanity. This is one not to be missed. Mark it as WANT TO READ now! You’ll never think of WWII the same way.

message 22: by Leanne (new)

Leanne Thank you Kelly for your many recommendations; I’ll definitely be looking into a few on the list you provided!

message 23: by Leanne (new)

Leanne Also, Mary Roach has written a few, more light-hearted books that I enjoyed quite a bit, particularly: “Stiff,” and “Spook.”

message 25: by Alexa (new)

Alexa Kelly wrote: "…Anything by Barbara W. Tuchman, including The Guns of August and A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Written to be accessible and entertaining to a mass audience but also full of information from primary sources...."

I wondered when someone was going to bring up Tuchman! One of the finest historians of the 20th century.

message 26: by Kelly (new)

Kelly Leanne wrote: "Thank you Kelly for your many recommendations; I’ll definitely be looking into a few on the list you provided!"

You're welcome, If you liked the book about the US nurses, you would probably like The Unwomanly Face of War that I listed. Several of the women featured had the job of dragging injured men out of tanks, that were sometimes on fire, under fire, and had a very high mortality rate, but somehow we don't think of rescuers as heroes like we do the fighters. And of course there were other women who tended the wounded in dangerous and stressful situations.

message 27: by Sean (new)

Sean O Lynne Olson, Deborah Blum, and Candice Millard really need to be on this list.

All of them write great popular history books. I will read anything they write.

message 28: by Eliza (new)

Eliza Adler Kevin wrote: "Pick-Dream te da algunos consejos para que cumplas con los requisitos que exigen las universidades para el acceso a becas nacionales."

No thoigh

message 29: by Shanti (new)

Shanti Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet

This book totally changed my attitude towards reading history.

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