As we are well into Women’s History Month, accounts abound of wonderful women and their remarkable achievements. I’d like to go straight to the heart of the matter and point out some of the true heroines of Women’s History month: the women historians. We used to say “herstory “back in the ’70s because, often, historians claimed women didn’t do very much. Women have gotten more credit–a whole month now! So I can just use the word to refer to those who write it.
Let’s talk about history by women, who have been writing for nearly as long as the cave paintings. Which might just as likely have been done by women as men, right?
In fact, the first writer in world literature was a woman. Enheduanna was a priestess in Ur in ancient Sumeria, who composed poems and temple hymns to the goddess Inanna. Not entirely history, but poetry was the way people wrote, and even stories of gods and goddesses are a kind of history.
The first woman formally recognized as a historian was in the 12th century. (There were surely others, but this is the encyclopedia answer to the question.) Princess Anna Comnena, the daughter of Byzantine emperor Alexius I, wrote a 15-volume history about her father’s reign and the era called The Alexiad. She wrote in her spare time, because she also raised four children and administered a 10,000 bed hospital and orphanage in Constantinople. While administering medicine, she became an expert on gout, a disease which pestered her father for years. After Alexius died, Anna plotted to overthrow her newly-crowned brother in favor of herself and her husband, but she lost the fight and her court position as well. Sounds like a series for Showtime to me.
Two American women historians are especially distinguished. Barbara Tuchman won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, with eight histories that covered subjects as varied as World War I (Guns of August), the 14th century (A Distant Mirror), and the American revolution (The First Salute). Today, Doris Kearns Goodwin is our current American treasure, trotted out on the talk shows during times of historical change because of her knowledge of presidents. She’s written key books about the Roosevelts and the Kennedys. The movie Lincoln used her book as a backdrop.
Certainly, a 15-volume series does go on a bit, and Ms. Goodwin is known for books that have plenty to say, yet I noticed a curious thing when I started examining my history shelves.
I started lining up the books written by men and the books written by women. Your honors, I offer the following photographic evidence:
Many of the really long books by men, compared with tasty little tidbits by women. Not always true, of course, but quite often, especially on my bookshelves. Even married couple presidential candidate retrospectives weren’t the same length. Sure, Bill had been POTUS and all that when he wrote My Life, but Hillary was Secretary of State and FLOTUS, too. Reportedly, Hillary’s book covering the Clinton presidency outsold Bill’s and, as of today, Hillary has written six books to Bill’s five. (Not counting political mystery thrillers that both have worked on or the book about Socks the cat.)
The point is anecdotal, yet there seems to be some indication that women are either getting to the point faster or reigning themselves in better. Whatever the case, here are four books by women historians that are tightly-written and entertaining. Pick your era.
Map of Knowledge
Violet Moller set out to find out what happened to the Greeks. Where did all that knowledge from the Golden Age go, when it disappeared from Europe and all the lights went out in the “Dark Age”? The answer, as you may know, was through the Golden Age in Arabia. But how exactly, and how was it rediscovered? Moller traces the path of three thinkers in particular–Euclid (geometry), Ptolemy (astronomy), and Galen (medicine)–as their ideas wound their way through the libraries of Baghdad and Venice. Greek had been translated into Arabic; Arabic was eventually translated into French and Italian as the works were rediscovered in the Renaissance.
I happened to reread another well-received 1980s history by an English gentlemen and was surprised to see him write–without irony–that the greatest contribution to the European Renaissance came when the Christians sacked Toledo. Meaning that the Catholic fanatics “discovered” things when they took them out of the extensive Moorish library, which had been lovingly stocked by the Arabs who had carefully preserved these long-translated books from classical Greece. Moller explains how the books got there in the first place.
Sarah Vowell seems like a fun person to tour with. Vowell has been an NPR staple and a regular guest to The Daily Show because she’s half-stand-up comedian. In Assassination Vacation, she tours American sites famous for political murders. Along with that insatiable historian’s desire to find out what exactly happened, she has a dry wit that crackles along the pages.
For example, on a boat ride to see the place where Dr. Mudd was imprisoned–Dr. Mudd, the man who helped John Wilkes Booth–Vowell writes of the choppy boat ride:
“As ‘Margaritaville’ thumps on the boat’s loudspeaker I am momentarily more famous than Lincoln assassination conspirator and that laid-back singer-songwriter combined…[as] I am a celebrity of seasickness…”
Her stories might not all be tasteful, but they teach while making you laugh. For more entertainment, get her going on the Puritans (The Wordy Shipmates).
Double Entry Bookkeeping
Accountants are storytellers, too, or so says Jane Gleeson-White, in her description of the rise of capitalism from the Renaissance to modern high finance. This book partly inspired me to study accounting further–see last year’s A to Z series and maybe a future book on Renaissance accounting and religion. Meanwhile, Gleeson-White starts with the merchants in Venice and moves past FDR into the Enron scandals.
She also begins to pick apart the limitations of GDP, describing how redefining what is included could press climate improvement forward through economic incentive. Accountants could save the planet; I told you it was a noble profession!
Riddle of the Labyrinth
I wrote about this one, too, but I keep returning to thumb this book’s pages because it’s such a great (and sad) story. Margalit Fox writes of Alice Kober, an amateur linguist who became obsessed with translating Linear B. This was one of those chiseled into tablets, one of the most ancient languages from the palace of Knossos at Crete, where the teenagers hopped over bull’s horns instead of driving donuts at midnight. Linear B was surprisingly difficult as a language half-graphic and half-verbal. Kober and others worked for decades to analyze symbols in brute force data analysis that computers would handle today. Eventually, Kober and others cracked the code, though Kober died without getting much credit. Until this book.
Like all good histories, this one is a mystery that unravels. We need to know all the players, especially the ones less known, who provide the bridge of explanation. They’re often the wives and daughters, who take dictation or type the manuscript, while doing much of the writing. At least these four historians were lauded for their fascinating tales.
I started this post with an ancient writer, so it only seems fitting to end with a book about ancient writers. Who, by the way, were palace accountants in Minos, recording the stores of grain to feed the people.
Because, as we all know, accounting is a noble–and ancient–profession. Just ask the herstorians.