2021 Outstanding Academic Titles: Women’s History Month

Five selections from the Choice Reviews 2021 Outstanding Academic Titles list. This week we share titles to celebrate Women's History Month.

1. Starring women: celebrity, patriarchy, and American theater, 1790-1850
Lampert, Sara E. Illinois, 2020
Pic of 2021 Outstanding Academic Title Starring Women

Starring Women reclaims the great, neglected actresses of antebellum American theater and returns them center stage to take their long-awaited bows as performers and professional theater women in the annals of theater history. With her meticulous scholarship and keen reexamination of the historic record through a gendered lens, Lampert (history, Univ. of South Dakota) uncovers a rich history of women as craftworkers and capitalists, active participants and agents in the transformation of 19th-century American theater into a burgeoning industry, despite the constraints of patriarchal society and the pressure to publicly demonstrate “true womanhood.” Lampert focuses on the 10-year period between the triumphant US tours of English dramatic actress Fanny Kemble (1832–34) and Viennese dancer Fanny Elssler (1840–42), both of whom were catalysts in promoting the American market and women’s place within it. She also probes the effects of family politics and celebrity on the careers of Mary Ann Duff, Anne Brunton Merry Wignell, Ellen Tree, and Celeste Elliott (billed simply as Celeste), among many others, in a final chapter, “American Actress’s Starring Playbook, 1831–57,” featuring the strategies for success employed by Matilda Heron, Josephine Clifton, and Charlotte Cushman. View on Amazon

2. Infamous bodies: early Black women’s celebrity and the afterlives of rights
Pinto, Samantha. Duke, 2020
Pic of 2021 Outstanding Academic Title Infamous Bodies

Infamous Bodies explores five Black women who became celebrities at different historical moments, warranting recognition for their accomplishments and their exploitation. Pinto (Univ. of Texas, Austin) foregrounds the cultural representations of Phillis Wheatley (the first published African American poet), Sally Hemings (Thomas Jefferson’s Black slave mistress), Sarah Baartman (who was exhibited as a specimen), Mary Seacole (a Victorian-era Jamaican nurse), and Sarah Forbes Bonetta (an African princess adopted by British royalty), employing a Black feminist critique to interpret the implications of their representations. Pinto’s approach “eschews both the ‘heroic’ and the ‘tragic’ as adequate frames to ask how [these] figures … are both erased in political histories and ‘come to stand for too much,'” both historically and “in contemporary negotiations of race, rights, and social justice” (p. 3). Invoking debates on “freedom, consent, contract, citizenship, and sovereignty” (p. 4), these women represent “capitalism’s seeming products—celebrity and commodity culture” (p. 11), and the discourse surrounding them informs modern depictions of mainstream Black women celebrities. View on Amazon

3.The Saigon sisters: privileged women in the resistance
Norland, Patricia. Northern Illinois, 2020
Pic of 2021 Outstanding Academic Title Saigon Sisters

The literature on the war in Vietnam includes hundreds of first-person sources by men on all sides in the conflict, but fewer than a dozen books about women are in print. Thus this collection of oral history interviews by Norland (formerly, US Department of State) is an important contribution. Norland focuses on a particular coterie of female peers educated at Lycée Marie Curie, the elite girls school in Saigon that served the daughters of Vietnamese who worked for the French. These privileged women were sisters in the cause of resistance who all engaged in resistance activities during the late 1940s and 1950s, some continuing throughout the entire wartime period. The individual stories are illuminating. While some of Norland’s subjects functioned under cover in society, others went into the field to assist the guerillas in a number of ways. While many of these highly educated students of the arts provided morale-building by presenting plays, musical performances, and poetry readings for the troops, others performed manual labor. All paid heavy costs in their own lives. Norland’s interviews, conducted over a 30-year period (1988 to 2018), reveal reflection and introspection, poignancy and sadness, particularly regarding events transpiring after the “liberation” of 1975 through their retirement years. View on Amazon

4. Daybreak Woman: an Anglo-Dakota life
Carroll, Jane Lamm. Minnesota Historical Society, 2020
Pic of 2021 Outstanding Academic Title Daybreak Woman

Daybreak Woman, also known as Jane Robertson (1810–1904), exemplified the fur trade people who led settlement in northern North America. She was Dakota on her mother’s side, and her father and husband were Scots immigrant traders on the US frontier. She lived nearly entirely in Minnesota––Mni Sota Makoce in Dakota. Carroll (St. Catherine Univ.) uses Daybreak Woman as an entry point to chart, and humanize, the 19th-century conquest of midwestern First Nations. Daybreak Woman is the complement to Laura Ingalls, the settler girl who inhabited the same big woods and prairie. The book remarkably winnows obscure local sources to create an actual biography of Mrs. Robertson, always engaged with her family, struggling to make a living in communities of their kind—Dakota women married to European and French-Canadian men. Never denying their Dakota kin, these families were caught in the inexorable push to capitalize on American land by expropriating it from First Nations people. This precipitated Minnesota’s Dakota War of 1862, recounted in several suspenseful chapters focused on the tragic suffering of the Dakota and their outmarried relatives.
View on Amazon

5Wicked flesh: Black women, intimacy, and freedom in the Atlantic world
Johnson, Jessica Marie. Pennsylvania, 2020
Pic of 2021 Outstanding Academic Title Wicked Flesh

Wicked Flesh explores Black women’s freedom practices in 18th-century New Orleans as a lens for understanding the role of intimacy in their experiences across the Atlantic world. Johnson (Johns Hopkins Univ.) shows that African women and women of African descent gave shape to the category of freedom through intimate and kinship practices centered on security and safety for themselves and their children. To explore these practices, she employs in-depth archival research across multiple continents and languages to reconstruct the journeys of individual women and girls through the West African region of Senegambia, the Caribbean, and the Gulf Coast. The first two chapters focus on Black women’s practices of marriage and baptism, cultures of pleasure and taste, and hospitality in the administrative outposts of Senegambia. Chapter 3 explores Black women’s practical invisibility in documentation on the Middle Passage. Chapter 4 turns to Black women’s experience on the Gulf Coast, and chapters 5 and 6 introduce the concepts of “null value” and “black femme freedom” to understand intimate and kinship practices in New Orleans. View on Amazon.

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