A few good reads

Jessica Bratt Uncategorized 1 Comment

As women’s history month wraps up, I thought I’d feature some books that have made an imprint on me in the past year or two and which I routinely find myself recommending to others. First up:

When Everything Changed: The amazing journey of American women from 1960 to the present, by Gail Collins

I listened to this book in my car last summer on the long drive between Boston and Grand Rapids; it was a good setting for all the comments I was compelled to make out loud when I heard the stories of what life was like for American women in such recent decades. Cover Women of my mother’s generation on up will encounter the timeline of these stories with knowing nods, but for women of my generation, it is nearly impossible to imagine a time when, say, airline stewardesses were routinely fired once they got married, or a judge could dismiss a woman from a courtroom because she was wearing PANTS. I came away from the book with a renewed appreciation for what a complex mix of emotions might lie beneath the comments that I and my peers often hear from older women. Yes, we have a dizzying array of choices and paths, and no, we probably don’t have much of a clue about, much less an adequate appreciation for, what our predecessors went through and put up with in order to get us here.

Also, as I’ve been soaking up time with my four year old niece this past weekend, I can’t help but wonder what kinds of things will be hard for her to picture someday. I hope it will be hard for her to imagine a time when girls couldn’t grow up to be ministers. And I hope Americans will have long since evolved from the days of listening to–and tolerating–people like Rush Limbaugh getting away with calling a female law student testifying in front of congress a “slut.” One can dream.

Half the Sky: Turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Alongside the overwhelming changes for American women, there remain overwhelming challenges for women worldwide, especially in developing countries. Cover New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn offer glimpses into the lives of women affected by things like sex trafficking, obstetric fistula, and extreme poverty. The realities of their lives can be depressing to read about, especially for Westerners who are blissfully unaware of them, but Kristof and WuDunn also manage to offer hopeful glimpses of how women and their communities can drastically benefit from access to education and enterprise. Warning: you will come away from this book convicted about the need to do something, and convicted that you have the power to do something. Luckily, there are great resources at the end of the book to point you in the right direction. If you need a shot in the arm now and then, just read Kristof’s op-ed pieces in the New York Times, where he routinely and adeptly puts faces and names to seemingly insurmountable issues. I think we could pick up the pace of improving women’s lives around the globe if more men like Kristof would use their influence and audience to get people informed and motivated. May his tribe increase.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Read. This. Book. You will continually have to remind yourself that yes, this is a true story, because it reads like an amazing work of fiction. Cover You will wonder how it is possible that this woman and her family never got credit or compensation for their immeasurable and involuntary contributions to science. You will find yourself in a web of history, racism, bioethics, medicine, anthropology, scientific discovery. If you’ve ever been vaccinated against polio, or been impacted by any of the numerous advances that Henrietta’s “immortal” cancer cells helped bring about, you will realize that you have personally benefited from this black woman’s unwitting participation in research. The author, Rebecca Skloot, heard a passing mention of Henrietta Lacks in a high school science class, and eventually spent nearly a decade researching the story and getting to know the Lacks family. When I subsequently read The Help, I had a hard time with its fictionalized and rather cutesy version of white-woman-helps-black-woman-tell-her-story; the true story of Henrietta Lacks is a lot more engaging and worth your time. It will hit uncomfortably closer to home for many of us than The Help’s stories of southern families’ domestic help, but I think that’s a good thing.

And a final note–if the intensity of any of these books weighs you down too much, I heartily suggest Tina Fey’s Bossypants as a humorous antidote.

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