“RAD American Women A–Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History … and Our Future!”
by Kate Schatz
Illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl
64 pp., City Lights Publishers
Reviewed by Dr. Louise Mirrer
President and CEO, New York-Historical Society
What better evidence for the importance of studying women’s history than “RAD American Women A–Z”? This new and eye-opening book, written by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl, populates every letter of the alphabet but “X” with biographies of history-making American women. (“X” is reserved, as the books says, “for the women whose names we don’t know.”)
The women represent different races and ethnicities, and they come from various parts of the United States. Some are wealthy, some are poor; some lived long ago, others are still alive. What do these women have in common? The book answers the question: “All said, ‘Yes I can.’”
The “RAD” in RAD American Women A–Z means “radical,” as in advocating political or social reform. But in many cases, the women described were “RAD” only because they were far ahead of their times. Angelina and Sarah Grimke, for example — two sisters from Charleston, SC — opposed slavery decades before the Civil War.
Jovita Idar believed in free and equal education for children in early 20th century Laredo, TX, when people of Mexican descent were victims of discrimination, and the schools that served their children were hardly funded at all. Idar also rounded up Mexican women to create bilingual lessons more than a half-century before it became a common practice in schools serving Latino children. Others like Angela Davis, who lost her job as a college professor in California because of her political beliefs, were “RAD” in the sense of “revolutionary,” or “path-breaking” as was Kate Bornstein, who was born a boy.
Some women featured in the book broke boundaries in sports, such as Billie Jean King and Florence Griffith–Joyner; or, in architecture and art, like Maya Lin; in music, like Odetta. Some of the names — Patti Smith, for example, are easily recognizable: while others like Nellie Bly and Ella Baker are obscure. The book should remedy this.
“RAD American Women A-Z” ends with advice for girls’ empowerment, offering 26 ideas. As statistics show, girls and women still lack opportunities in many fields and they tend not to be encouraged to become fully skilled in the new 21st century technologies that would equip them for the latest jobs. Understanding women’s history and knowing where women have been is useful in itself.
But it is also refreshing to find advice that is such serious fun, ranging from the psychological — “Believe in yourself” — to the practical — “Educate yourself.” Being “RAD,” the advice section shows, can simply mean being human and humane, or supporting others and making people laugh. The book also provides a helpful resource guide and a bibliography that shows there is much more women’s history to learn. Indeed, the book fully recognizes that, in the best of circumstances, its brief biographies will only whet the appetite for learning more.
Dr. Louise Mirrer, who joined the New-York Historical Society as its president and CEO in 2004, works to foster greater public understanding of history and its impact on the world of today, to support and encourage historical scholarship, and to develop education initiatives for young people, students, and adults.
Prior to joining the New-York Historical Society, she was CUNY executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, where she spearheaded the US History Initiative. Her own research focuses on how the creation of historical narratives helps to shape and define social institutions.