Book Review: Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

Book Review: Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

by Pamela D. Toler

Blurb:

Who says women don’t go to war?

From Vikings and African queens to cross-dressing military doctors and WWII Russian fighter pilots, these are the stories of women for whom battle was not a metaphor. The woman warrior is always cast as an anomaly—Joan of Arc, not GI Jane. But women, it turns out, have always gone to war. In this fascinating and lively world history, Pamela Toler not only introduces us to women who took up arms, she also shows why they did it and what happened when they stepped out of their traditional female roles to take on other identities.

My Review

Just as Women’s History Month closes for 2019, Women Warriors: An Unexpected History joins my research bookshelf with a handful of academically rigorous books. These books on “women doing unexpected things” include surveys of warrior queens, music composers, mathematicians and philosophers, as well as dozens of biographies of famous, accomplished women. I have several more popular history books on scandalous women, bad princesses, and overlooked scientists. The latter seem to dominate the marketplace. I enjoy their breezy modern take while introducing the reader to (mostly) forgotten women. (Reviews of those books can be found here.)

Needless to say, this was not an “unexpected history” for me—at lease in terms of the female historical figures. From the mythical Mulan to the female Dahomean King’s Guards (likely inspiration for the fictional Dora Milaje personal guards of the Black Panther movie), I was aware of most of Toler’s subjects. What was unexpected—and most welcome!—was the analysis and in-depth research. Unlike most authors of these survey books, Toler is an academic.

Thankfully she doesn’t write like one. Her prose is clear and readable.

Toler organizes her material into eight chapters with titles such as “Don’t Mess with Mama” and “Her Father’s Daughter.” In each chapter she surveys typical women warriors, from across time and cultures, who fit the title. She puts their decision to fight in the context of the times and explores the consequences of taking these dramatic actions. After every two survey chapters, a several-page “Checkpoint” covers a single subject in more detail. Substantial footnotes provide additional information and source references.

Toler concludes her book by asking the question: Are these warrior women “insignificant exceptions”? Most academics and historical military commanders felt so. Modern US military leaders used that to argue against allowing women in combat roles. They argued this at a time when Israeli women were drafted and served with their male counterparts. They argued this long after all female battalions fought in WWI and WWII. They argued this long after Soviet “Night Witches”—an all female bomber squadron (women pilots, navigators, and maintenance crews)—terrorized the Nazis on the Eastern front. Several ex-military women ran for US congress in 2018, highlighting their impressive service records, and many won. The bravery and accomplishments of modern women in combat around the world should forever lay that argument to rest.

Toler answers her own question: “Exceptions within the context of their time and place? Yes. Exceptions over the scope of human history? Not so much. Insignificant? Hell no!”

Highly recommended. Check out Author Pamela D. Toler talking about her book Women Warriors in the video below.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The details:

  • Title: Women Warriors: An Unexpected History
  • Author: Pamela D. Toler
  • Publisher: Beacon Press (February 26, 2019)
  • Available in: Hardcover, eBook, Audiobook
  • ISBN-10: 0807064327
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807064320

Women Warriors cover

About the Author

Armed with a PhD in history, a well-thumbed deck of library cards, and a large bump of curiosity, author, speaker, and historian, Pamela D. Toler translates history for a popular audience. She goes beyond the familiar boundaries of American history to tell stories from other parts of the world as well as history from the other side of the battlefield, the gender line, or the color bar. Toler is the author of eight books of popular history for children and adults.  Her newest book, Women Warriors:  An Unexpected History is due out February, 2019.  Her work has appeared in Aramco World, Calliope, History Channel Magazine, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History and Time.com. 

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Book Review: Leadership in Turbulent Times

Book Review: Leadership in Turbulent Times

Leadership in Turbulent Times

by

Doris Kearns Goodwin

 

Blurb:

Leadership in Turbulent Times cover“In Leadership in Turbulent Times, Goodwin draws upon the four presidents she has studied most closely—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson—to show how they recognized leadership qualities within themselves and were recognized as leaders by others. No common pattern describes the trajectory of leadership. Although set apart in background, abilities, and temperament, these men shared a fierce ambition and a deep-seated resilience that enabled them to surmount uncommon hardships. At their best, all four were guided by a sense of moral purpose. At moments of great challenge, they were able to summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.”

My Review

Team of Rivals coverI really looked forward to this book. I’ve studied leadership—not at the presidential level, but I have worked with several Fortune 50 CEOs and dozens of executives in my professional career. I also taught leadership and change management to ambitious young managers in MBA courses. Effective leadership is key to a company/country’s ability to survive and thrive. In addition, I’ve had an abiding interest in the lives of Lincoln; and Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt and have read several biographies about them. Although I’ve seen Doris Kearns Goodwin on TV frequently, the only one of her books I’d read previously was Team of Rivals, an 890-page tome about Lincoln’s time in office, which I thoroughly enjoyed. So I looked at Leadership in Turbulent Times from two perspectives: Was it good history/biography? Was it good leadership analysis?

My answer to both questions (with one caveat) is “Yes!” (more…)

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Exceptional Women in History Part II

Exceptional Women in History Part II

Exceptional Women in History Part II:

She Captains, Scientists, and Musicians

Last week in Part I, I introduced you to three books of exceptional women in history which primarily covered royals and aristocrats. This week we look more closely at (un)common women in three books. Readers and writers alike will find inspiration here!

 

She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea

by Joan Druett

She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea

This one sat on my TBR shelf for far too long, but finally got its chance. First of all, I’d say the title is misleading. I expected a book of She Captains to be primarily stories of women who captained ships and lead crews. Druett starts off with 78 pages on ancient queens who sailed with their own navies, female Vikings, and actual female pirates. The rest of the book is devoted to women who are captains’ wives or mistresses, victims of pirates, or involved in the business end. Their stories are fascinating and I enjoyed hearing about them, but that is not what I expected.

The writing is a bit dry and some of the stories seem like padding. I could have done without the chapter on women being captured by Barbary pirates and the space given to Lady Hamilton (Admiral Nelson’s paramour), neither of which seem to fit the premise of the book. What did work was the astonishing number of documented women who went to sea as crew disguised as men; or accompanied their husbands on war ships, whalers, or exploratory expeditions. I had no idea that captains regularly took their wives and children with them on long voyages. I’d always suspected that a number of women made their livings from the sea, especially wives, widows and daughters of seaman, fisherman, and shipping magnates; and was glad to have that confirmed. From the chapter on Ice Queens:

“The winters of the last two decades of the nineteenth century regularly discovered a dozen or more whaling vessels snugged up in Pauline Cove at Herschel Island in the western Arctic, all neatly roofed over and with the sides banked up with blocks of snow. Quite a town would be established around these strange residences, for native, intrigued by the exotic community, build their snow houses near by on the ice. Inside the ships, it was cozy and both inside and outside it was sociable…In the 1894-95 season there where no fewer than seven European females at Herschel Island…It was a strangely formal existence, with dances, whist parties, costume balls, concerts (one concert party being called “The Herschel Island Snowflakes”), and amateur theatricals. Dinner parties were staged, complete with amazing menus. One included “Lobster salad & olives, Oyster Pate with French peas” and “Bartlett Pears, with citron & sponge cake” for dessert.”

The book seems well-researched. Druett doesn’t use footnotes or offer a comprehensive bibliography, but does have a sixteen-page chapter by chapter list of bibliographical notes and a thirteen-page index. I’d recommend this book for anyone who needs to have their consciousness raised about women and the sea (it wasn’t just the boys sailing out there!) It’s the kind of book, that doesn’t quite rate as a research book, but can inspire additional research into the stories of the individual women covered.

(more…)

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Exceptional Women in History Part I

Exceptional Women in History Part I

Exceptional Women in History Part I:

Scandalous Women, Bad Princesses

and Female Kings

It’s Women’s History Month and I thought I’d provide readers and writers alike with some resources on exceptional women in history. I have a soft spot for a particular a kind of history book; collections of short bios of (mostly) unknown women who are remarkable for doing daring/unusual things down through history. They generally follow a pattern of one to five page biographies written in a breezy, modern style emphasizing the outrageousness (for her time) of the woman’s actions.Some of these books are little more than gimmicks or novelty books, best known for their wretched research. Usually there are one or two women that I’ve studied or read about extensively. How accurate the author is with that particular woman is my gauge on how well she’s researched the others.

Why do I like these kinds of books? To be honest, they’re snack food—light fluffy reads that give me a break from heavy turgid research books. They also remind me that—despite what the history books tell us—some women of every age, somewhere in the world were doing remarkable things. The majority (like today) lived ordinary lives, but a few women always stood out and lived extraordinary ones. I like learning about them and being inspired to tell their stories. This kind of book is a good starting point for any historical novelist looking for inspiration. In this post, I’ll do quick reviews of three of my favorites. Next week I’ll do three more. (more…)

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Book Review: Notorious RGB: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Book Review: Notorious RGB: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik

Notorius RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader GinsbergIt’s Women’s History Month so here is another entry in books by and/or about women. I’ve been a fan of Ruth Bader Ginsburg since my earliest feminist days. The second woman to join the Supreme Court (appointed by Bill Clinton in 1993), she’s served for twenty-five years as a liberal voice, sometimes shouting into the wilderness; other times changing minds. As the sole women in a tenured position in the Columbia Law School, she co-founded the Woman’s Rights Project at the ACLU in 1971. RGB shepherded some of the most ground-breaking sex discrimination suits through the courts, arguing six cases before the Supreme Court. She won five. She carefully built a foundation of decisions that led to an inevitable conclusion. Discrimination based on gender was unconstitutional. (more…)

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Book Review – March: Book Three

Book Review – March: Book Three

March: Book Three

by John LewisAndrew Aydin (co-authors), Nate Powell (Illustrator)

I finished the third volume in civil rights icon John Lewis’ graphic memoir about his early days in the movement leading up to the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. (If you missed it my review of the first two books is here.) March: Book Three is the longest of the trilogy and covers the shortest amount of time. It opens in September 1963 with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four young girls. Everyone remembers the horror of that act of terrorism, but I didn’t know this was the church’s annual “Youth Day” and 24 other children were injured. The terrorists deliberately targeted African American children in their church. Shortly after that, a group of Eagle Scouts, who had just attended a clan rally, shot a 13-year-old black boy from his bicycle and killed him; and a police officer shot and killed a 16-year-old black youth who chucked a rock at a car full of teens who were celebrating the deaths of the girls. The book continues through to March 7, 1965, Bloody Sunday in Selma which included the beating death of Unitarian minister James Reeb, the later peaceful march to Montgomery, and the assassination of Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old mother from Detroit who was shuttling volunteers from Birmingham back to Selma. Four months later on August 6, President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law. (more…)

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