My Favourite Texts on Women’s History

(Image from here)

These are some of my favourite texts on Women’s History. The vast majority are about women’s experiences in the Holocaust but I’m always looking for new recommendations!

Elizabeth R. Baer & Myrna Goldenberg, eds.. Experience and Expression: Women, the Nazis, and the Holocaust, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003)

Judith Tydor Baumel, Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust, (London: Vallentin Mitchell, 1998)

Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia

Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War Two, (Penguin Books, 1997)

Esther Fuchs, Women and the Holocaust: Narrative and Representation, (University Press of America, 1999)

Marlene E. Heinemann, Gender and Destiny Women Writers and the Holocaust, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986)

Esther Hertzog, Life, Death and Sacrifice: Women and Family in the Holocaust, (Gefen Books, 2006)

Marion Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)

Felicja Karay, Death Comes in Yellow, Skarzysko-Kamienna Slave Labor Camp, translated from the Hebrew by Sara Kitai, (The Netherlands: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996)

Ronit Lentin (ed), Gender and Catastrophe, (London: Zed Books, 1997)

R. Ruth Linden, Making Stories, Making Selves: Feminist Reflections on the Holocaust, (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1993)

Dalia Ofer & Lenore J. Weitzman: eds. Women in the Holocaust, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998

Anna Reading, The Social Inheritance of the Holocaust: Gender, Culture and Memory, (Palgrave, 2002)

Leslie J Reagain, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine and Law in the United States. (University of California Press, 1997)

Carol Rittner & John K. Roth, Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust, (Minnesota:Paragon House, 1993)

Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (Vintage, 1999)

Rochelle Saidel, The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)

Rochelle Saidel & Sonja M Hedgepeth, Sexual Violence against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, (Brandeis Press, 2010)

Penny Summerfield, Reconstructing women’s wartime lives: Discourse and subjectivity in oral histories of the Second World War, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998)

Nechama Tec, Resilience and Courage: Women, Men and the Holocaust, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003)

Zoe Waxman, Writing the Holocaust: Identity, Testimony, Representation, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible was the most recommended book on the Mumsnet Feminist Book Club board when I started my #readingonlybookswrittenbywomen. Honestly, you’d think I’d admitted to kicking puppies for shits and giggles due to the level of shock by my admittance that I hadn’t read it.

For those heretics who have not yet read it, The Poisonwood Bible is the story of an American family who travel to the Congo as missionaries in 1959. The father is an emotionally abusive, misogynistic and racist evangelical Baptist who drags his wife and 4 daughters across the planet in order to “save the savages through Christ”. He’s an arsehole whose arrogance tears his family apart. The redemption of his daughters in postcolonial Africa is the story of women paying for the crimes of men but it’s also the story of sisterhood and the binds of family that tie us together. 

I could go on forever blathering about my love for this book but the best review was from a woman sitting near me on train who told me she was jealous that I was reading it for the first time. Now, I feel the same. I am jealous of those just reading it for the first time.

Aminatta Forma’s Ancestor Stones

“After I married  learned a lot. I did not learn so much about men – after all, Osman Iscandari was not all men. Rather I learned about myself. I learned about women – how we shape ourselves, how we shape each other.”

The first book I read by Aminatta Forna was The Memory of Love which I loved but I love Ancestor Stones more. Normally, the first book I read by an author remains my favourite but Ancestor Stones is so powerful and wise that I just want to reread it all over again today.

Ancestor Stones is set in an unnamed place in West Africa, although Forma has since confirmed that it is indeed Sierra Leone, the country in which she was born. The novel is narrated by four women, Asana, Mary, Hawa and Serah, within the Kholifa family whose mothers are all married to the patriarch Gibril; a man rich enough to have 11 wives. It is simply the story of women: of loss, friendship, desire, and motherhood set within a culture slowly destroyed by misogyny, racism, colonialism, independence and civil war. These ‘simple’ stories, much maligned by male literary critics, are never simple but the reality of women’s lived experience is always dismissed as irrelevant in the face if men’s lives. 

I knew I was going to love this one a few pages in when I read this (referring to arrival of Portuguese soldiers near Cape Verde islands):

The sailors saw what they took to be nature’s abundance and stole from the women’s gardens. They thought they had found Eden, and perhaps they had. But it was an Eden created not by the hand of God, but the hands of women.

Women’s work is consistently devalued and elided from history. When men aren’t taking personal ownership for our work, they are attributing it work to God.

I believe, with all my heart, that women are the keeper of stories:

“For the past survives in the scent of a coffee bean, a person’s history is captured in the shape of an ear, and those most precious memories are hidden in the safest place of all. Safe from fire or floods or war. In stories. Stories remembered, until they are ready to be told. Or perhaps simply ready to be heard.
And it is women’s work, this guarding of stories, like the tending of gardens.”

We create beauty and we remember beauty. We pass on our stories. After all, what is the much maligned toddler group but a way for women to gather and tell our stories to the only people who will listen: other women. 

Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Axt of Esme Lennox

Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Axt of Esme Lennox is one of my school Christmas Fair finds. There is a reason I always ‘help’ at the book stall. This year I did exceptionally well on the first trawl through the donations. And, promptly wrapped them up and shoved them under the Christmas Tree as ‘birthday presents’. The best part of having a Christmas birthday is being able to put another stack of presents under the tree. Inevitably, I wind up buying myself books in charity shops whilst trawling through them for the teenager [and a big thank you to whoever donated all the Anne Rice books. That was the Teenager sorted].

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is so very beautiful and so very heart-breaking. It is just the story of two young girls born in India who return “home” to Edinburgh to find husbands. As with so many of the children of British Raj, the two girls are traumatised and lonely. They are the unloved pawns of a society obsessed with appearance. They, inevitably, are punished for the transgressions of their parents and their parents’ parents. 

It is about families and betrayal and the destruction of generations after one malicious act. It is the story of madness, rape, betrayal and the Patriarchy. 

There is no redemption. There is no forgiveness. There is only the waves of destruction which threaten them all.

Rose Tremain’s Restoration

This is a beautiful book. It is well-written, historically intriguing and full of fascinating characters. But, I couldn’t get into it. I just couldn’t. Normally, I’d devour a book like this in one sitting and I’ve had it hanging around for more than a week. The last few books I’ve read have been like this. I’m a book devourer. I’ve been trying to work out why I’ve been so disappointed by the last few books; except for Lisa O’Donnells’ The Death of Bees which is just fucking brilliant.

Tonight, I worked out why. I don’t think I’m content just reading books written by women. I want to read books written by women and about women. I want to read stories about women’s lives and women’s desires. I’m not really interested in reading about men anymore; even ones like Restoration. So, I’m changing the goal posts. So, now, I’m reading only books written by women by women.

Marian Keyes Does NOT write ‘chick lit’

If Keyes had a penis, she’d just be listed as fiction since she writes about drug abuse, alcoholism, depression, rape and violence against women. “Chick lit” is the dismissive term used to label books written by women aimed at women-only audiences about subjects that “real” women are supposed to read. It’s the literary equivalent of Sex and the City’s mantra about buying shoes if you don’t have a man otherwise your life isn’t worth living. I don’t read books which are published under the genre of “chick lit” because, like romcoms, they reinforce the same old misogynistic bullshit about women. Frankly, I get enough of that whilst trying to watch the evening news. I’m not going to waste my time reading books which reinforce my status as the lesser human especially since I don’t buy into the discourse that I only have value if I pass the Patriarchal Fuckability Test; you know be being 18, blond, malnourished and willing to blow any man who snaps his fingers at me. 

That’s what pisses me off so much about Keyes being labelled “chick lit”. It’s just not. Writing about the aftermath of rape and domestic violence isn’t “chick lit”. Exploring the issues around addiction, depression and abortion isn’t “chick lit”. These are the everyday lived experiences of women’s lives and, whilst Keyes is a brilliant and funny writer, the issues she explores aren’t patriarchy-approved topics. The patriarchy only likes books about shoe shopping and women desperately searching for a man to “complete” them. Keyes writes about real women with real lives struggling within a society which punishes women for not passing the Patriarchal Fuckability Test.

I would never have read anything by Keyes if a radical feminist I know hadn’t passed me her copy of This Charming Man. I just saw the pink covers and walked right past her books. And, I would have missed so many incredible, brilliant and thought-provoking books. In fact, as I’ve been boring my friends senseless with my new adoration of Keyes, a number of them have pointed out that not only have they been reading her for years but that Keyes’ books have been directly responsible for them seeking help about specific issues in their lives. That’s the real power behind books written by women for women: changing our lives and destroying the Patriarchy from within. It’s a travesty that the rules of cultural femicide dictate that Keyes’ needs to be published as “chick lit”when she is nothing less that a true Feminist writer defending and redefining the sisterhood [but I am so glad that Helen isn’t my sister].

Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything

Warning: Triggering and Spoilers

I bought this yesterday in the Jubilee Kindle sale on Amazon. I really have to stop buying books based on price because, so far, it hasn’t gone well [Christa Allen’s Walking on Broken Glass being a prime case in point; nasty misogynistic rape/ domestic violence apologist shite]. I did buy Helen Castor’s She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth for 99p in the sale. I have high hopes for that book.

The basic plot of Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything is the disappearance of a 13 year old girl told from the viewpoint of her best friend. The product description is this:

Lizzie and Evie are inseparable. They walk home from school together, sleep over at each other’s houses, even flirt with boys together. And they tell each other everything. Or at least, that’s what Lizzie thinks — until Evie goes missing, and Lizzie suddenly realises their friendship wasn’t quite what she thought.

I have to say I find this description quite creepy. They don’t “flirt” with boys together. There are several scenes of “small sexual assaults”; one in which Lizzie is bullied into allowing a 16 year old boy touch her breasts whilst he masturbates. That’s not “flirting”. It’s a criminal offence. Dusty, the older sister of Evie, is being stalked by not just one boy who insists of parking outside her house night after night but by several other boys as well. There are no healthy sexual relationships amongst the teenagers. It is a catalogue of sexual abuse by teenage boys who believe they are entitled to abuse the bodies of two barely 13 year olds. Lizzie is incredibly naive about sexuality whilst Evie knows more than a child should.

And, that’s what I find really troubling about this book. What it really is about is Lizzie discovering Evie’s “secrets” which amounts to the long-term rape of her sister Dusty by Evie’s father. Evie “runs away” [and both Dusty and Lizzie define it in these terms] because she is jealous of her father’s relationship with Dusty. Evie is an emotionally abused child living in a house poisoned by incest. It is not her “choice” to run away with the child rapist; nor can she “consent” to her rape as Evie tries to justify it to herself. Her mother remains peripheral due her drug dependency although it is quite clear that the mother knows what is happening to Dusty and only emerges from her drug haze to care for Evie after she has been raped by the man who kidnapped her. All the adults in Evie’s life have let her down. Her best friend Lizzie is trapped in a delusion of “love” and is too blind to see Evie asking for help.

The book ends with Lizzie helping Evie and Dusty cover up the incest in order to protect their father [a man who tries to groom Lizzie after Evie disappears]. And, yes, it’s a book based on a 13 year old’s understanding of a situation that no child should have to understand but still the book read wrong to me. I was racing to finish it with a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach hoping that the secret wasn’t what I thought it would be but it was. I really didn’t like this book. It just read false is so many ways. I can see what Abbott was trying to do but I don’t think she succeeded.

Sexualised Violence Against Jewish Women in the Holocaust

In December 2010, a significant text on the experience of Jewish women in the Holocaust was published. The book, Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, wasn’t the first text to address the issue of sexualized violence in the Holocaust. After all, survivors started writing about their experiences in diaries during the war and testimonies published in the immediate post-war era. However, and as with the experience of many women in history, these stories were subsumed and eradicated in a discourse that universalised the experience of men; even though men also experienced sexual violence during the Holocaust.*  Rape, during the Holocaust, was not a systemic part of the genocide, as seen in Bosnia, but the frequency with which it occurred suggests, at the very least, a policy of mass-rape as a by-product.

It is an honour and a privilege to be a contributor to this text and I cannot thank Rochelle G Saidel and Sonja M Hedgepeth for their tireless work in ensuring that Jewish women’s experiences aren’t forgotten. It is a testament to their work that  Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust was one of the key pieces of research that led to Gloria Steinam to founding the Women Under Siege online project. It features 6 conflicts during the 20th century in which rape is used as a tactic of war: Holocaust, Bangladesh, Rwanda, Darfur-Sudan, Egypt and Libya as well as blog posts on sexualised violence in other war zones in the 20th century. The erasure of the gendered experiences of women in war from mainstream political and historical analysis is shameful and the most concrete example of Patriarchal-Capitalist Misogyny in practise.

This International Women’s Day, we need to stand up for these women and make sure their voices are heard; that their experiences are no longer white-washed out of history in order to support the aims of the destructive patriarchal  military-industrial complex.

Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust Contents

1. Aspects of Sexual Violence

Death and the Maidens: Prostitution, Rape and Sexual Slavery during World War Two by Nomi Levenkrom

Sexualised Violence against Women during Nazi “Racial” Persecution by Brigitte Halbmayr

Sexual Exploitation of Jewish Women in Nazi Concentration Camp Brothels by Robert Sommer

Schillinger and the Dancer: Representing Agency and Sexual Violence in Holocaust Testimonies by Kirsty Chatwood

2. Rape of Jewish Women

“Only Pretty Women Were Raped”: The Effect of Sexual Violence on Gender Identities in the Concentration Camps by Monika J. Flaschka 

The Tragic Fate of Ukrainian Jewish Women Under Nazi Occupation, 1941-1944 by Anatoly Podolsky

The Rape of Jewish Women during the Holocaust by Helene J. SinnreichRape and Sexual Abuse in Hiding by Zoe Waxman

3. Assaults on Motherhood

Reproduction Under the Swastika: The Other Side of the Glorification of
Motherhood by Helga Amesberger

Forced Sterilisation and Abortion as Sexual Abuse by Ellen Ben-Sefer

4. Sexual Violence in Literature and Cinema

Sexual Abuse in Holocaust Literature: Memoir and Fiction by S. Lillian Kremer

“Stoning the Messenger”: Yehiel Dinur’s House of Dolls and Piepel by Miryam Sivan

Nava Semel’s And the Rat Lauged: A Tale of Sexual Violation by Sonja Hedgepath and Rochelle Saidel

“Public Property”: Sexual Abuse of Women and Girls in Cinematic Memory by Yvonne Kozlovsky-Golan

 5. The Violated Self

Sexual Abuse of Jewish Women during and after the Holocaust: A Psychological Perspective by Eva Fogelman

The Shame is Always There by Esther Dror and Ruth Linn

Other Academic Texts Discussing Sexualised Violence During the Holocaust
Elizabeth R. Baer & Myrna Goldenberg, Experience and Expression: Women, The Nazis and the Holocaust, (Detroit: Wayne University State Press, 2003)Judith Tydor Baumel, Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust, (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1998)

Renate Bridenthal, Atina Grossmann & Marion Kaplan, When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984)

Jonathon C. Friedman, Speaking the Unspeakable: Essays on Sexuality, Gender and Holocaust Survivor Memory, (Lanham: University Press of America, 2002)

Esther Fuchs, Women and the Holocaust: Narrative and Representation, (Lanham: University Press of America, 1993)

Marlene E. Heinemann, Gender and Destiny: Women Writers and the Holocaust, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986)

Esther Hertzog, Life, Death and Sacrifice: Women and Family in the Holocaust, (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 2008)

R. Ruth Linden, Making Stories, Making Selves: Feminist Reflections on the Holocaust, (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1993)

Dalia Ofer & Lenore Weitzman, Women in the Holocaust, (Yale: Yale University Press, 1998)

Carol Rittner & John K. Roth, Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust, (Minnesota, Paragon House, 1993)Rochelle Saidel, The Jewish Women of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)

Zoe Waxman, Writing the Holocaust: Identity, Testimony and Representation, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)