Thursday, March 31, 2011

Women Heroes of WWII

March 31 - Today's post provided by The Children's War

           When I was 10 years old, I decided to dress up as my mother for Halloween.  My costume was simple: shoes, dress, a church hat and a big old purse she no longer used.    Nothing really fit, but I didn’t care.  Why my mother?  Well, as a World War II nurse, she was my hero, the first in what was to become a long list of women heroes who have served as historical mentors in my life.  So, when I think of this year’s theme for Women’s History Month, Our History Is Our Strength, I know exactly what that means. 
            Now Kathryn Atwood has written a very moving account of 26 strong, courageous women who stood up and said no to the Nazi scourge at great risk to their lives.  Some of these women joined underground resistance movements in Nazi-occupied countries, others rescued Jews and Allied soldiers caught behind enemy lines, and still others worked as spies, mingling with the enemy to gather useful information.  Some of these women were quite young.  In Poland, 19-year-old Irene Gut worked for a high ranking German officer in his villa.  She was able to hide 12 Jews in the basement of the house, right under his nose.  When he found out, he gave Irene a choice: become his mistress or he would turn them all over to the Gestapo.  She made the first choice, never told anyone about it and eventually Irene was able to lead these Jews into the forest, where they were liberated.
Sophie Scholl
            Sophie Scholl, a college student in Munich, Germany wasn’t much older than Irene when she began her Resistance activities.  Along with 10 others including her brother Hans, Sophie belonged to the White Rose (die weiße Rose.)  The group wrote and distributed six extensive anti-Nazi leaflets urging people to denounce Hitler’s government in word and deed.  Anti-Nazi behavior was considered treason, punishable by death.  Sophie and Hans were arrested, and later tried and executed on the same day. In a country where people no longer had any civil liberties, her actions were courageous and heroic.  Silence, I believe, is a sign of acceptance, and these students refused to accept what the Nazis were doing in their beloved country.
Josephine Baker
            Other women in Women Heroes of World War II were surprises to me, for example, Josephine Baker and Marlene Dietrich.  Josephine Baker, an African-American, had lived in Paris for many years after leaving the US in part because of the racism she encountered here.  As an entertainer, Josephine had the perfect cover for a spying.  Before France fell to the Nazis, Josephine did some espionage working for the Deuxième Bureau, a French intelligence agency.  Her celebrity status allowed her to mingle at parties where she would listen in on conversations and acquire much need information.  Later, when France was occupied by the Germans, Josephine retired to her chateau.  Her chateau was then used as a stop-off for resistance workers, a safe house for refugees, and storage space for weapons.  Later, Josephine toured Spain, Portugal and North Africa, again partying in order to gather information. 
Marlene Dieetrich
          Marlene Dietrich, though German born, was an American citizen who worked against the Nazis and volunteered to entertain troops for the USO, often at great risk to herself.  Sometimes, she was so close to the front lines, she could hear gunfire and bombs going off.  When she started to use her signature song, Lilie Marlene, in English for the troops, the Nazis were livid, that had been their World War I song.  But she also sang it in German for the Soldatensender West, an Allied radio program broadcast in German and directed at Hitler’s soldiers, along with other anti-Nazi propaganda.  It turned out, German soldiers has listened to Soldatensender West, even though it was forbidden.  
            These are just a few examples of the lives of the extraordinary women who risked everything to help others in very dangerous situations that are included in this book.  Though every story is different, the women were motivated by the same thing: when the time came, they did what they felt was right.  Later, many received awards and medals for they work and some were even awarded the title “Righteous among Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust, for the Jews they saved.
            Women Heroes of World War II is a well written, well researched book.  Ms. Atwood profiles the resistance activities of women from eight countries: Germany, Poland, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain and the United States.  There is a brief summary of the way in which each country entered World War II.  This information really helps the reader appreciate the dangers and obstacles these woman faced.  Each woman’s story is also supplemented with additional material, for example, passages from the leaflets written by Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, or the edict issued when Denmark was forced to surrender to the Germans.  At the end of every woman’s story is a list of resources where the reader can go to find more information about her.  The beauty of the organization of this book is that it can be read from cover to cover, as I did, or in parts.  Each narrative stands on it own.  This makes it ideal as a teaching tool and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
            Out of curiosity I asked Ms. Atwood what made her decide to write Women Heroes of World War II.  She said that her dad had been a young tail gunner in Europe during World War II (tail gunner, I have learned, was a very lonely, dangerous position) and she was always fascinated by his war stories.  Another parental hero!
            Because of her Dutch heritage, Ms. Atwood was also familiar with women resistance workers in the Netherlands, such as Corrie ten Boom and Diet Eman, both included in her book, and both amazing women.

Women Heroes of World War II is recommended for readers age 12 and up.
This book was purchased for my personal library.
For an interesting story about how Kathryn Atwood touched history while writing Women Heroes of World War II, please visit to read her story.

            For the last 30 days, I have been introduced to and celebrated a wide variety of other incredibly strong, brave, daring women.  Among their accomplishments, they are trailblazers who broke barriers, crossed lines, saved lives and gave us beautiful music.  These women certainly embody the theme “Our History Is Our Strength.” They all refused to live in the margins of their time, and we are women who refuse to let they live in the margins of history.  And now we have come to the last day of celebrating Women’s History Month and since I can’t say let the celebrations begin, I will say

                                       Let the Celebrations Continue!

Editor's Note: 
Watch for a final wrap-up post tomorrow from organizers Margo and Lisa!  

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Amelia Lost

March 30 - Today's post provided by Candace Fleming

I began work on Amelia Lost back in 2007, but Amelia Earhart has been on my radar (no pun intended) for much longer.  Years ago, my mother told me a story about how she felt after learning of Amelia’s 1937 disappearance. Mom was ten years old at the time, and couldn’t believe the news.  It was impossible.  Amelia Earhart was the woman who could do anything.  She couldn’t be lost at sea.  So my mother, who lived in a small town on Lake Michigan, stood on the beach and gazed up into the sky.  She was convinced that if she stood there long enough, she’d eventually spot the aviatrix, winging her way through the clouds to safety.  Isn’t that wonderful?  Can’t you just see her there?  That’s how connected my mother felt to Earhart, how vividly the pilot’s life had captured her imagination.  And through my mother’s retelling decades later, Amelia captured mine.  I knew I would someday have to write about her.
And really, who wouldn’t want to research and write about Amelia Earhart?  She is, after all, America’s favorite missing person. So I spent two weeks at the Purdue University Library, shifting through the vast holdings of the George Putnam Palmer Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers.  I gathered digitized files from the collection of the National Air and Space Museum, as well as from the Schlesinger Library, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the USCG National Maritime Center, and the Seaver Center for Western History Research.  Best of all, Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), generously shared his organization’s miles of documents, including those marvelous pages from Betty Klenck’s notebook.
  It was my exploration of TIGHAR’s documents that made me eager to tell about the seventeen-day search for her downed plane  --what the press called “the greatest rescue expedition in flying history.”  It’s a dramatic, suspenseful tale.  And believe it or not, it’s never before been told in a book for young readers.  Sure some of the pieces of the search are well-known, and have been used selectively in the past to support various theories about her disappearance, but the entire picture, scattered and dispersed among dozens of archival files and private collections has been hard to decipher.  Luckily, Ric Gillespie and the smart people at TIGHAR helped guide me through the historical record, providing me with a day-to-day, in some cases minute-by-minute view of what really happened.  That view can be found in the book.
(Amelia Earhart source:
As for Amelia herself, the most surprising part of my research was the discovery that she was… well… sort of a fibber.  Time and again, I unearthed a telling detail, or charming anecdote only to learn that it wasn’t true; that Amelia had made it up to maintain her public image.  Take, for example, the often-repeated story of the flier’s first glimpse of an airplane.  According to Earhart, this happened at the Iowa State Fair in 1908, when she was just eleven years old.  “It was a thing of wire and wood,” she wrote in her memoir, The Fun Of It.  “I was much more interested in an absurd hat made of an inverted peach basket which I purchased for fifteen cents.” It’s a sweet story, but placed in the context of aviation history it can’t possibly be true.  Or, take that popular anecdote about Fred Noonan and the around-the-world trip.  According to Amelia, Fred was confined to the navigator’s station in the rear cabin and could communicate with her only in notes passed forward over the fuel tanks by means of a bamboo fishing pole.  True?  Absolutely not.  In fact, Fred spent much of his time in the cockpit with Amelia, clambering over the fuel tanks in the rear cabin only when he needed room to spread out a chart.  At first, I was frustrated by these (and so many more) fabrications.  I started to think I should retitle the book, Flyer, Flyer Pants On Fire.  But then I began to see her fibs as a challenge – a challenge to finding the real Amelia behind the public persona, and discovering the events that led to her disappearance.  My hope is that readers will be able to glimpse the real woman through the pages of this book.

Editor's Note:
"Candace Fleming awarded herself the Newbery Medal in fifth grade after scraping the gold sticker off the class copy of  The Witch of Blackbird Pond and pasting it onto her first novel—a ten page, ten-chapter mystery called Who Done It? She’s been collecting awards (her own, not Elizabeth George Speare’s) ever since.
Today, Candace is the versatile and acclaimed author of more than twenty books for children, including the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award-winning biography, The Lincolns; the bestselling picture book, Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!; and the beloved Boxes for Katje." 

Visit Candace Fleming's blog to find out more about Candace and her books.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I'll Pass for Your Comrade: Women Soldiers in the Civil War

March 29 - Today's post provided by Anita Silvey

          Before I ever attempted to write I’ll Pass for Your Comrade: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, I worked as a family historian, or genealogist, for about twenty years. In that time I discovered why I knew only the first name of so many of my female ancestors. I grew to understand why a matrilineal descent line – from mother to mother to mother – is the toughest assignment in genealogy. I also learned to value small details, such as the mention of several quilts in a family will. At least I knew that this great-grandmother created them and that the family valued her work highly.

            When I took on the project of writing about the 1,000 women who defied convention, put on men’s clothing, and went to fight in the Civil War, I knew that in many cases I would be building my book on small pieces of evidence. Sometimes all that we have of one of these soldiers is literally their bones, later identified when burial grounds were moved. For other women only one record exists – a newspaper article, a letter from a male soldier, or a detail in a Civil War regimental history.

            Often my fabulous editor Dinah Stevenson would ask about a woman that I had presented in a paragraph, “Tell me the rest of her story. What happened to her?” Almost always, the answer to Dinah would be, “we don’t know. That is all we know about her.”

            I admire Laurie Halse Anderson’s Independent Dames because she found an ideal format to utilize scraps of history to present the accomplishments of women. But I was writing a photo-essay of 112 pages. Hence I decided to devote each chapter to one of the stages of being a soldier – motivation, enlistment, training, battle, hospitals, prison camps, and coming home. Then for each one I selected a woman who left many records of her life– books, autobiographies, or letters – and allowed her to carry much of the chapter. Then I added in small vignettes about other women, less well-known, less recorded. To create a composite picture of the life of a female Civil War soldier, I had to become a quilter of words and images.

          In this book, I pay tribute to these independent, idealistic, and driven women, who went to any length to do what they wanted to do. Like my female ancestors, they deserve to have their accomplishments recorded -- even if that means that as writers we have to work harder, be extremely creative, and do extensive research to reconstruct their stories.

Editor's Note:

Monday, March 28, 2011

Celebrating Basketball History, Too

March 28 - Today's post provided by Sue Macy

Celebrating Basketball History, Too
by Sue Macy

In a rare quirk of circumstance, I have two new books out this month, both about women and sports. My YA book, Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way), published by National Geographic, has been mentioned on this site before, and while I’m exceedingly proud of it, I want to focus on the other one today, Basketball Belles: How Two Teams and One Scrappy Player Put Women’s Hoops on the Map, published by Holiday House. It’s especially timely because not only is this Women’s History Month; it’s also March Madness, the time of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)’s annual basketball championships, which will culminate in this weekend’s Final Four.

Long before the NCAA’s marketing geniuses branded March the month of Madness, two teams of eager young athletes met at the Page Street Armory in San Francisco to play the first intercollegiate women’s basketball game. It was April 4, 1896, and just four years before, physical education instructor Senda Berenson of Smith College had adapted the rules of James Naismith’s new sport to make it acceptable (read: less rough-and-tumble) for women. Though Berenson’s students at Smith embraced the game and classes played against each other, all competition was kept within the school. It was left to those upstarts on the West Coast to throw down the gauntlet for interscholastic competition.

I first learned about the game when I was researching Winning Ways, my social history of American women in sports, and I wrote an article about it for the New York Times on its 100th anniversary. But I’ve always wanted to write about it for kids. The coverage of the contest in San Francisco’s newspapers—all written by women, because men weren’t allowed in the arena—was so descriptive that it was easy to “see” the action and follow the progress of the game. The San Francisco Chronicle, Call, and Examiner even included pen-and-ink drawings of the major plays and players. Everything seemed to point to a picture book about the match-up; everything, except the fact that I’d never written a picture book before.

I researched Basketball Belles as I do every book I write, starting by gathering newspaper coverage of the event and seeking out academic and popular books and articles about it. I also flew out to the Bay area to look for information and photographs in the archives of the two schools involved in the game, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley. While at Stanford, I got to watch a practice and a game of the current team and interview their coach, Tara VanDerveer, who’s taken the Cardinal to the Final Four the past three years. At Cal, I met the athletic director, Sandy Barbour, as well as basketball coach, Joanne Boyle. While those meetings weren’t really necessary for writing the book, they made the experience a lot more fun.

Relating the story of the game in 700 words seemed much harder than it would have been in 20,000 words. Fortunately, illustrator Matt Collins filled in lots of the details with his dynamic and very authentic drawings. (Matt went to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, to do his research.) But it was up to me to write the narrative and around the sixth or seventh draft, the final form of the book started to take shape. My editors and I decided we needed to look at the game through the eyes of one of the players and I chose Stanford guard Agnes Morley because she had gone on to become a writer. Though Morley never wrote about the game itself, I got a good sense of her voice and her character from her award-winning memoir,  No Life for a Lady. A singular woman who grew up on an isolated ranch in New Mexico, she was the book’s missing link, someone for readers to get to know and root for. Coincidentally, author Darlis A. Miler published an adult biography of Morley soon after my book went to press. Open Range: The Life of Agnes Morley Cleaveland is a great read about a genuine western character.

Writing Basketball Belles was both liberating and humbling. How wonderful it was to see this game that I had known about for so long come to life through the stunning illustrations. But how challenging it was to let brevity reign, to waste no words in the telling of this tale. It was a learning experience, to be sure, one that I ultimately enjoyed. In fact, I’ve just started the research for my next picture book. Stay tuned.

Editor's Note:
Sue Macy blogs on her official website, Sue, and also contributes monthly to I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) We can't wait to see what her next picture book will be!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Nonfiction about Amazing Women

March 27 - Today's post provided by Waking Brain Cells
Nonfiction about Amazing Women
Children’s nonfiction is a great place to take a look at women who should be part of our history books but so often are overlooked and forgotten.  Here are four books that each child, girl or boy, should know about to have a more complete understanding of the role of women in history and today:
Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone
Published in 2009, Stone’s book about the Mercury 13 women won the 2010 Sibert Medal and was also nominated for a YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.  It is the story of women who tried to be astronauts before females were allowed in the NASA program.  It is the story of women denied their right to be astronauts despite exceeding the mastery of the men in the program.  It is the story of women of strength and character who have been forgotten by history.
Amelia to Zora: Twenty-Six Women Who Changed the World by Cynthia Chin-Lee, illustrated by Megan Halsey and Sean Addy
This 2005 title celebrates 26 women who changed the world.  Appropriate for younger children than the other books on this list, this picture book gives short pieces of information on these amazing women.  Included in the title are Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo, Nawal El Sadaarvi, and Zora Neale Hurston.  The women represent a wide range of ethnicities and each has a quote included as well.  The illustrations add a beauty to the book, celebrating the women in a moving way.
Published in 2000, Krull’s book about 20 extraordinary women in history is part of her very entertaining series on historical figures.  This book celebrates women like Cleopatra, Harriet Tubman and Eleanor Roosevelt.  Nicely, it includes women around the world.  If you like humor mixed with your nonfiction, Krull is the author for you!
Published in 2004, this book is a visually powerful history of the fight for women’s right to vote in the United States.  The book follows the evolution of the suffrage movement, telling the story of the courageous women who fought for the right to vote against all odds.  It is a story of courage despite imprisonment, of the strength to protest despite derision, and of the passion for voting that so many of us have forgotten today.  These are women who should be listed with other heroes in our country and whom are often forgotten.
Editor's Note:

Authors Tanya Lee Stone, Kathleen Krull and Ann Bausum have each graciously contributed posts here this month. 

Waking Brain Cells is the new online home of longtime blogger, Tasha Saecker. If you have been wondering about her new location, wonder no more - you can find her at Waking Brain Cells.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Real History was not Meant for Publication

    March 26 - Today's post provided by Marthe Jocelyn

     Although I did not have a stellar (or even complete) high school career – and never went to university at all – I think of myself as a bit of a nerd. I was a curl-up-with-a–book kind of kid, always looking for outsiders in the pages I was reading, whether they had really lived or were part of someone’s made up world.
      I have shamelessly used chunks of family history as the jumping off points for most of my middle grade and young adult books. My contemporary teen novel, Would You, was inspired by a family tragedy. My previous work of non-fiction, called A Home for Foundlings, was written after I learned that my grandfather was raised in the Foundling Hospital in London, England. My historical novel, Folly, is a fictionalized version of what led my great-grandmother to abandon the son who would become my grandfather.

      While doing research for all my books, I kept bumping into women who had written diaries or letters or articles or stories that either bore witness to otherwise unknown moments in history, or had unexpected repercussions on the generations to follow.
Used with permission from
Tundra Books

     What compelled these women to write? What compels any of us to insist on our own presence, to make our mark, however small, by putting words on a page?

    Scribbling Women tells tales from the lives of ten women and one nine-year-old girl, focusing on what they themselves found interesting enough to record, whether because writing was a pastime, a source of income, an art form, a path to justice, or a desperate effort to communicate with someone else in the world. I wasn’t trying to present complete biographies, but rather to look at the words certain women chose to write down.

     Although it is now widely acknowledged that many of women’s impressive achievements throughout history have been ignored or belittled, I found that buried even further out of sight were the accounts of such achievements from a female point of view. And what of the women who did not perform publicly noteworthy feats? The ones who cooked and sewed, quietly listening and watching as life went on around them?

Sei Shonagon by Uemura Shoen,
 courtesy of Kyoto Journal
     Sei Shonagon, for instance, was a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Sadako late in the 10th century. She would have surveyed the bustle and hum of the Japanese Imperial court from behind a screen, shielded from the offense of masculine contact. There is almost no information available about Sei (including her actual name), other than what she told us through her lovely descriptions, sharp anecdotes, clever poetry and spiteful observations, assembled eventually into The Pillow Book.

     “I really can’t understand people who get angry when they hear gossip about others,” she wrote. “How can you not discuss other people? Apart from your own concerns, what can be more beguiling to talk about and criticize than other people?”

     I find it most appealing that those words were written over one thousand years ago! However history has unfolded for countless generations, the love of gossip – of telling stories – has continued throughout.

Dang Thuy Tram,
 courtesy of Kim Tram Dang

     Among the other scribbling women, two kept diaries. The authors would be shocked to learn that their private thoughts have become public. Dang Thuy Tram was a North Vietnamese doctor whose diary was rescued, after her assassination, and smuggled home by an intrigued American soldier. Ada Blackjack was a nearly illiterate Innuit seamstress who accompanied a scientific expedition to the far north in the early 1920’s. Following the example of the scientists who took daily field notes, Ada wrote in a diary for the final few months of her harrowing experience, during which all the men died or disappeared. One of the grieving mothers received a letter from Mae Belle Anderson with this reminder: “Real history is made up from the documents that were not meant to be published.”

     That I believe with all my heart. 

Editor's Note:
Marthe Jocelyn is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for children, ranging all the way from board books to teen novels.  She will be celebrating the release of Scribbling Women with a blog tour, scheduled for March 28 - April 1.  Details can be found at the Tundra Books' blog, Talking with Tundra or Marthe's site,  Also, as part of her blog tour, Tundra is sponsoring a fabulous giveaway of a collection of Marthe's books!   See their blog for details of how to enter.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Haunted by History

March 25 - Today's post provided by Esther Friesner

     There seems to be a big split among those who have an ongoing interest in history.  (You could argue that we all have a vested interest in it, since history is where we keep all our stuff, but I’m talking about the people who take an independent, self-motivated interest, one that is not forced on them by school coursework.)  I’d like to call this the Great Historical Novel Attitude Schism.  It sounds impressive, doesn’t it?  And it would sound even more impressive if I knew how to pronounce “Schism.”

     The GHNAS manifests itself simply:  On one side are those people who enjoy learning about history any way they can—textbooks, popular nonfiction, movies, television, even graphic novels (Larry Gonick’s peerless The Cartoon History of the Universe series is my personal favorite).

     On the other side of the rift are those who want to keep history solidly in the camp of nonfiction.  Television and movies are acceptable media when they’re offering documentaries.  “Titanic:  Tragedy at Sea,” YES.  “Titanic:  Leonardo DiCaprio Drowns Nobly,” NO.

     These are often the people who point out that fictionalizing history can trivialize it.  Specifically, they argue that it can trivialize tragedies.

     I beg to differ.  Loudly.  And not just because I write historical novels.  My personal involvement with two of the major tragedies of our time—the Holocaust and 9/11—is deep and undeniable.  It’s a part of who I am, where I come from, and why I write.  Although I accept that some historical novels are pure entertainment, those that I find most satisfying as both author and reader are the ones that don’t trivialize tragedy but memorialize it.  

     Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, described as the worst workplace disaster to hit the city until the events of September 11, 2001.  There are many facts about the Triangle fire, facts which will be cited repeatedly as the tragedy is remembered.  Numbers play a key role:  How many of the workers died in the flames, in the collapse of the one fire escape available, by plunging into the shaft when the elevators finally broke down, by leaping to a quick death from the windows rather than by waiting for an agonizing one in the fire; how many minutes passed until the fire department arrived on the scene and how many until the blaze was put out; how many people attended the public funeral for the fire victims; how many of those who perished remained unidentified for nearly a century.

     I’ve always had a problem with numbers.  Perhaps it’s because too many of my relatives had their humanity reduced to tattooed numbers before Nazis murdered them.  Can you murder numbers?  Numbers don’t require compassion.  Numbers are easy to erase.  Numbers have no faces, lives, loves, or dreams.  Numbers make it all so. . .tidy.

     Tidy:  Like sweeping things under a rug.

     The day-to-day existence of the women and men who lost their lives in the Triangle fire was not neat and tidy.  Many of them were immigrants and were sending money home to the families they’d left behind.  Many of them were very young, in their teens and twenties, with the two youngest girls just 14 years old.  Their wages were low to begin with, and their take-home pay shrank even more under a system that fined them for something as trivial as a broken sewing-machine needle.  Their work was seasonal, and their income could be reduced to nothing if they were among those laid off during the “slow” season. They had to line up single file at quitting time at the only unlocked exit door and submit to being searched, to make sure they weren’t stealing.  They had to ascend to the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building, where the Triangle factory was located, in the freight elevators.  They weren’t permitted to use the passenger elevators.

     When the fire broke out, many of them died, enough to make people pay attention to the forces behind such a tragedy.  An oft-repeated phrase you’ll hear connected with the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire is, “Their deaths were not in vain.”  The wording may vary, but the meaning stands:  The aftermath of the fire brought reform to the abuses that had made the fire itself so devastating.

     I don’t want to argue this; I can’t.  What I would like to do is point out that keeping our eyes fixed on the deaths of these human beings keeps us from remembering their lives.  It makes it seem as though the only means of influence they had was to die, that they were important only for being victims.

     They were more than that. 

     I chose to write a novel about the Triangle fire from the point of view of a Jewish immigrant girl because that’s who so many of the real world casualties were.  I’m sure that these girls were told repeatedly that they shouldn’t complain about their working conditions because they were lucky to have a job.  I’ll raise that bet to include their being told that if they didn’t appreciate what they had, there were plenty of other girls out there looking for work who would be more than happy to take over.

     No doubt they were told, one way or the other, to remember their “proper place”.

Clara Lemlich
     And yet, these were the women who decided that enough was enough.  In the autumn of 1909 saw the Uprising of the 20,000, a garment workers’ strike.  It lasted until February, 1910.  One of the voices that galvanized hesitant workers into crying out better pay, shorter hours, and fairer treatment was Clara Lemlich.  A strong supporter of unions, she had been assaulted and severely beaten by hired thugs some months earlier for speaking out.  This small nineteen-year-old girl suffered many serious injuries, including broken ribs, at the hands of the three grown men hired for the job.  It wasn’t enough to crush her spirit.  She called for a strike and was heard.

            Other women refused to remember their “proper place,” or perhaps they decided that they were the only ones qualified to define it.  15,000 walked off the job the next day at many factories.  The most fiercely anti-union factory owners saw nothing wrong in forming a union of their own, to show a solid front against the striking workers, and to use strike-breaking tactics that included more physical assaults by hired strongmen and prostitutes, and by using their political influence to turn the police and the judiciary system into their tools.  Strikers were arrested, fined, imprisoned, and in one case a judge decreed, “You are on strike against God!”

            The strike wasn’t just the province of the poor.  Many rich women of New York’s upper crust supported them.  These women were in the main suffragists, working to get all women the right to vote.  They ran rallies and fund-raisers for the shirtwaist-makers’ cause and used their own ample funds paying fines for the strikers who were arrested.
Strikers from 1909 Uprising of the 20,000

            The strike was settled in February of 1910 with some gains for the strikers, but not enough.  Although the striking workers from Triangle were hired back, they were still denied the right to unionize, to have all workplace doors remain unlocked, and to have fire escapes that worked.  (The sole fire escape available was located in an airshaft, which is pretty much like having your only means of escaping a fire on the floors beneath you be located in the chimney that’s drawing the flames upward.)

            A little over a year later, Triangle burned.

Some of the last of the fire's victims to be identified (HBO)
            I know many people who don’t like learning history in the classroom because it’s often presented as data without the human context.  There is a significant difference between saying “1.7 million Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1974 and 1979” and hearing the story of just one of those deaths from the point of view of someone for whom the victim was not one in 1.7 million but someone precious, beloved, irreplaceable. 

     We can’t hear all the stories about that one precious life lost.  We are either too far removed from them in space and in time.  It would be so much easier if we could forget about them altogether, but these stories themselves make it impossible for us to do so, if only we can hear them.  They give dry facts human faces, and we remember human faces.

     As we should.  In the years before the Civil War, people living comfortable lives in the northern states didn’t have to make an effort to remain unaware of the abuses of slavery.  There were newspapers, but no modern media saturation forcing them to confront a subject that might trouble their thoughts. It was easy for any consideration they might give it to be one of benign neglect, along the lines of:  “Yes, I know, isn’t slavery dreadful.  Someone should do something it.  I don’t own slaves and I donated a dollar to the impressive Mr. Frederick Douglass, so I’ve done my part.  Now, what’s for supper?”

     Then came Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and slavery had a face and a heart and a presence that called for justice. 

     It was a historical novel, even if the history behind it was contemporary, and it was written by a woman.  No matter modern opinions concerning this book, it’s undeniable that it was a significant force in stimulating popular sentiment that eventually led to the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans.  It carried both the message This must stop and—more important still—This must never happen again.

     And we remember it even now.

     I wouldn’t call that trivial.


© Esther M. Friesner, 2011

Editor's Note:
Esther Friesner's most recent novel is Threads and Flames (Viking 2010).  
Cornell University offers many resources related to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
See also:  The Jewish Daily Forward:  The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire--A Century Later, a special section that includes translations of articles in the Yiddish daily newspaper Forverts in the days and weeks immediately after the fire.  

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Remembering the Ladies

March 24 - Today's post provided by Tonya Bolden
“There is poetry and fiction. There is art and essay. . . . There is grace, courage, pain, outrage, drama (literally): not a little heat and so much light.”
                This is from my introduction to 33 Things Every Girl Should Know About Women’s History, an anthology I assembled many years ago  and one that contains Abigail Adams’s famous letter to her husband, John, “Remember the Ladies.”
              I fondly remembered the contemporary ladies who contributed to the anthology in my introduction.  “Vital voices” I called them. I noted, for example, that readers would hear from “a Coline and a Joline . . .  a Judy . . .  two Anns . . . an Anastasia and a Shana . . . a Betsy and an Elisabeth and Elizabeth.”
                I wanted to salute the contributors up front because along with my soulful, editor, Nancy Hinkel, these women were such gems, from journalist Magee Hickey and co-founders of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Trust, Coline Jenkins and Marsha Weinstein, to authors Kathleen Krull, Betsy Kuhn, and Pat McKissack.
                Putting an anthology together can quite nerve-wracking. Between the paperwork, the brainstorming on ideas and approaches, the setting of deadlines, and the scheduling of time for editing sessions, things can pretty get hectic and intense.  Too, with so many moving parts, there’s the anxiety that something will go wrong - terribly wrong. Will someone back out? Will a contributor go off script?
                I’m not going to say that the making of 33 Things Every Girl Should Know About Women’s History didn’t have its glitches, but when I reflect on the experience, I feel fortified all over again.         Passionate about women’s history, passionate about educating, enlightening and inspiring the next generation, and ever grateful for the trails their collective foremothers blazed, the contributors brought to the project such enthusiasm, such generosity of spirit.  They inspired me.
                We never got together as a group. Many of us did not personally know one another prior to the project.  We were of different ages, came from different places, and were of different racial/ethnic backgrounds.  Yet, I felt a sisterhood was going on.
                And I learned so much, whether it was “Don’t Agonize, Organize!” (about reformers) by visual artist, Ann Decker, or “The Facets of Feminism” by history professor Paula A. Treckel.  Until I read Suheir Hammad’s poem “U.S. Women Are Diverse” I wasn't familiar with the Egyptian singer Um Kalthoum. Similarly, I had never heard of the first female astronaut candidate, Jerrie Cobb, until I received Sue Macy’s piece “Who Was First and Why It Matters.”
                Piece after piece made me all the more hungry for women’s history. Piece after piece made me so grateful to the contributors.  The women my editor and I reached out to had more than enough in their lives to keep them busy.   On top of that, some were in pain.  A sister’s child came down with a strange ailment.  A husband was seriously ill. A mother died. Yet, like others in the book, these women were troopers.  They gave their utmost. In the case of Safiya Henderson-Holmes, it was permission to reprint her poem, "rituals of spring," about the tragic fire on March 25, 1911, at New York City's Triangle Shirtwaist Company. And for the book, Safiya penned a brief note setting up her haunting poem, a note when she herself was, unbeknownst to me, in crisis.  Safiya died before the book came out.
                And one contributor did indeed go off script. She was editor, broadcast and print journalist, and perpetual poet Judy Dothard Simmons (d. 2007). As I recall, Judy was to write an essay on language vis-a-vis women and women’s history.  One day she called me up to say, she had been moved to take a different route.  She would send the piece and if I didn’t like it, she’d go back to the drawing board, she said.  
                Judy was one of the contributors I had known for many years. I had long held her intellect in high regard and had a holy envy of her way with words, so I didn’t panic (too much) as I waited to receive her piece.   
                When I did, I was overjoyed. While Judy had not followed the “letter of the law” she had most definitely followed the spirit. Her piece was organic. It was natural. It was a poem, titled “A Herstory of Language.”
                One of its lines I carry with me still is the quiet, but profound: “Language is no simple thing.”
                And the last line of Judy's poem makes a good tag line, I think, for Women’s History Month.  
                Learn herstory. Balance the world!

Editor's Note:
Tonya Bolden is the author/editor of more than twenty books. You can learn more about her work at

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Women Writers - A Map for the Journey

March 23:  Today's post provided by Erica Silverman

Women Writers – A Map for the Journey
As a child, I didn’t know I would grow up to be a writer, but it seems there was always a longing inside that was pulling me in that direction.  I was drawn to words, to reading, to writing, to poetry. And I was drawn to books about the lives of creative people.  I consumed biographies of artists, musicians, especially writers.  I identified with them.  I imagined myself into their lives.  I didn’t consciously notice that they were all men until I stumbled upon – finally – the biography of a woman writer.  The Silver Answer – a Romantic Biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.    How I loved this book that opened up new ways to see my life.
Later as a young feminist in high school and college, I learned about many of the women written out of history.  My focus remained creative women.  I wanted to know everything about them. What was their creative process?  How did they learn their craft? Who helped them? Who hindered? How had they dealt with failure? With success? I was seeking a road map for my own writing path. 
And so when I decided to write about Emma Lazarus, I came to the task with that same hunger, the hunger of my childhood, to find a map for the journey, to explore what it is means to be a girl who grows up to be a writer. 

Emma Lazarus, whose famous words are engraved on the Statue of Liberty, was studious, serious, intense, and driven to write. By the time she was seventeen, she had written enough poetry to fill a thick volume that her father published for their family.  Picked up a year later by a publishing house, it received good reviews.  It was this volume that Emma had the courage to send to Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Her desire to grow as a writer was such that when he responded to her book with praise, she pressed him for criticism and guidance. 

Years later, her courage manifested in another way.  She became a spokesperson for the Russian Jewish immigrants who, fleeing pogroms, were arriving at New York Harbor by the thousands.  She chastised the Jewish community for failing to come to the aid of its immigrants.  Although she traveled primarily in Gentile social circles in which "polite" whispered anti-Semitism was common, she wrote confrontational articles condemning the persistence of anti-Semitism in Christianity.  While quick to explain that she was not religious, her Jewish heritage informed some of her most powerful poems.  She became an energetic activist for immigrants.  Lazarus turned out to be as passionate about politics as about poetry.  Being a Jew and a woman informed her writing and her politics.  She wrote, "Until we are all free, we are none of us free." 

In Emma Lazarus, I discovered a passionate, powerful, courageous, creative role model.  In writing about her, I was speaking to the little girl with a longing to write that I once was, and also to girls today who share that dream.

Another inspiring American woman poet I wish I had been able to read about as a child is Phillis Wheatley.  There are two picture books that introduce young readers to her moving story:

          Phillis Sings out Freedom by Ann Malaspina

     Phillis’s Big Test by Catherine Clinton, illustrated by 
                                           John Qualls

The filmmaker/feminist/educator Martha Wheelock has been exploring the lives of creative women, bringing them to light in beautifully crafted educational films. How I wish there had been films like this available when I was little!  You can find her films, about the lives of such women as Madeleine L’Engle and Berenice Abbott at:

Martha is also the creator, along with Kay Weaver, of a wonderfully rousing feminist music-short, called One Fine Day.  I just love this!  It never fails to give me goose bumps and fill me with hope.   
                Go see it on youtube:  
(you can also purchase it at
One Fine Day: A Film By Kay Weaver and Martha Wheelock

Happy Women’s History Month!
Editor's Note:  Erica Silverman is a librarian and also the award-winning author of beginning readers (Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa series) and picture books.  A curriculum guide for her newest book on Emma Lazarus is available at her website,