Five Best Books on Unsung Women

From a Wall Street Journal books column by Leah Redmond Chang headlined “Five Best Books on Unsung Women”:

The Return of Martin Guerre
By Natalie Zemon Davis (1983)

1. Don’t ask “Who is the real Martin Guerre?” Ask rather: At what point did Martin’s wife, Bertrande de Rols, realize that the man who returned to her after an eight-year absence was an impostor, the wily Arnaud du Tilh? Set in the 16th-century Pyrenean village of Artigat, Natalie Zemon Davis’s account of this true story steers away from royal courts and into the hearts and minds of French peasants. Bertrande embraced Arnaud’s duplicity, as Ms. Davis makes plain.

Why wouldn’t she? With the old Martin, a reticent young man, she’d been an unhappy child bride. “What Bertrande had with the new Martin was her dream come true, a man she could live with in peace and friendship . . . and in passion.” In the age of the Protestant Reformation, perhaps the new religion gave Bertrande courage to seek a better life. One of the first popular microhistories, Ms. Davis’s narrative explores the ties among personal identity, desire and one’s place in community.

Book of Ages
By Jill Lepore (2013)

2. Meet Jane Franklin: wrangler of babies and domestic warrior, up to her elbows in suds and tallow, living at the precipice of poverty. Benjamin Franklin’s beloved younger sister and devoted correspondent was a woman of wit and grit. She called him Benny; he called her Jenny. She possessed the intellect of her older brother but lacked the opportunities. While young Benny “was improving his writing by arguing about the education of girls, Jenny was at home, boiling soap and stitching.” But she did write one book. On “four sheets of foolscap, stitched together,” she recorded the events of an ordinary woman’s life: marriages and births, the ages of tiny children who died, the joys and sorrows of a wife and mother.

Along with a few letters, this slender book is all that remains of Jane. Why write of her, then? An Everywoman living at the dawn of a new age, Jane, too, helped invent America—she serves as a stand-in for so many forgotten colonial women who built a new nation with “flesh and blood and milk and tears.”

All That She Carried
By Tiya Miles (2021)

3. In the 1850s, an enslaved woman named Rose placed a handful of pecans, an old dress and a braid of her hair into a cotton sack. Then she handed the bag to her daughter, 9-year-old Ashley, who had just been sold. The objects within would sustain Ashley in the coming days. Nuts feed; dresses clothe; a lock of hair nourishes memories. The tangibles disappear, but the intangibles endure. “It be filled with my LOVE always,” Rose told her daughter, explaining the most essential item. Ashley would not forget.

Decades later, Ashley’s granddaughter, Ruth, embroiders the sack with a poem, a history in needle and thread, a testament to the violence of slavery and the resilience of women’s work. Tiya Miles rethinks the nature of black women’s legacies: cultivated over decades, they are built through stories told by mothers to daughters, memories inscribed onto the objects that they carry and pass onward.

Galileo’s Daughter
By Dava Sobel (1999)

4. “Your suffering will be all the greater, Sire, as truly you have no one else left in your world,” wrote Maria Celeste to her father, Galileo, upon the death of his sister. This was only a partial truth: Galileo had Maria Celeste herself, although she was not quite of his world. Curious and creative like her father, Maria Celeste was nonetheless consigned by gender and illegitimate birth to a convent at age 13.

Galileo looked skyward, and Maria Celeste looked inward. He pondered the laws of the cosmos; she bent her will to the rule of St. Clare. She knew her father best: brilliant, yet imperfect like any human. He was not handy. “That the work is rather more suited to a carpenter than a philosopher gives me pause,” she admitted as she sent him some items in need of repair. He fixed her windows; she gave him strength through trials and censorship. Love bound them together, and Maria Celeste found her own ways to bridge faith and science. In Dava Sobel’s exquisite prose, Maria Celeste emerges from her father’s shadow.

Stranger in the Shogun’s City
By Amy Stanley (2020)

5. The predictable life of a country wife was not for the headstrong Tsuneno, a 19th-century woman living in the age of the shogunate. Yearning for adventure, she found herself drawn to the city of Edo (now Tokyo). Soon Tsuneno’s illusions would crumble amid physical and sexual abuse, along with the scolding of her brother Giyū, head of the family and a homebody who could not stomach his sister’s wanderlust.

In Edo, Tsuneno’s own stomach panged with hunger while her clothes hung in rags. “Nothing has gone the way I’ve planned,” she admitted in a letter, her characters brushed with ink onto the page. “I never intended to struggle so much.” And yet she stayed. She chose independence, but at what cost? “Maybe, by the time she put down her brush for the last time, she thought it was worth it,” surmises Amy Stanley. The indomitable Tsuneno refused to surrender. No regrets—or if there were, she took them to her grave.

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