Spies in Palestine — James Srodes’ Account of Early Jewish Settlers Who Spied on Behalf of Britain During World War I

James Srodes’s Spies in Palestine — Love, Betrayal, and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn is a concise account of a relatively obscure bit of Israeli history — the spying activities of Sarah Aaronsohn and her family during World War I.   Sarah Aaronsohn stands out as a liberated woman from birth.  Her confidence and initiative were strikingly uncommon for women of her era and made her an unusually placed and fascinating feminist hero.  A very active horsewoman, Sarah  roamed widely with little apparent regard for convention.  The book recounts her relationships with various men in her life.  Although it does not appear that she and T.E.  Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) had an affair, Lawrence keeps wandering in and out of Sarah and her family’s milieu.  In comparison to boisterous energy of Sarah and her family, Lawrence comes across as a bit of an ineffectual wimp, not at all like the strong, gorgeous hero portrayed by Peter O’Toole in the epic movie Lawrence of Arabia.

The Aaronsohns were Romanian Jews who settled in Palestine under the Ottoman Empire in the 1880’s.  Sarah was born in Palestine and lived there most of her life, except for a short, unfortunate marriage that took her to Constantinople.  Her family was based in Zichron Ya’akov and was relatively well known.  Indeed, Sarah’s eldes brother Aaron developed an international reputation as an agricultural expert and used that to leverage international contacts and ultimately to begin spying on behalf of the British.  The Aaronsohns’ spying effort were inspired by the Turks’ oppression of Palestine’s Jewish settlers during World War I.  As it happens, the intelligence provided by the Aaronsohns  through their spy ring was largely unsolicited by the British and sadly lacked discipline.  In fact, it was almost comical how difficult Aaron and his family found it to help Britain.  The Aaronsohns aggressively acquired information on Turkish positions in Palestine in order for the British to plan an effective invasion, but the British did not particularly trust the information and were not particularly interested.  Even when the British decided to accept the Aaronsohns help they showed little concern for their safety and their military efforts were ineffectual.

Sarah become involved after she fled her marriage in Constantinople and returned to Palestine.  On her way home she had observed first hand the Turks’ outrageous treatment of Armenians, and her entire family was appalled by the Turks’ treatment of Jews.  Her brother Aaron had left Palestine to engage in efforts elsewhere, and so Sarah assumed leadership of the spy ring upon her return to Palestine.  Although the information provided the Aaronosohns was good, the group’a execution was amateurish, particularly since the British mixed their lack of interest with a healthy dose of incompetence. They were easily betrayed, and tragedy ensued.  

This is the story of successful espionage, but rather the story of an unbelieveably brave woman who voluntarily led a major effort to gather intelligence for Britain.  Although it did not end well, Sarah’s heroic efforts deserve to be known and honored.

I liked this book for a lot of reasons.  It was well-written and kept a good pace.  More importantly, I learned about an early Jewish feminist who played a significant part in the early history of Israel.  The historical backdrop of early twentieth century Palestine, Turkey and Britain, combined with the presence of the international Jewish community and a fantastic cast of characters made this a compelling read.

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Leon Stein’s Epic Book about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is a Timely Reminder of How Poor Women Suffer When Rich Male Employers Make Their Own Rules

Leon Stein wrote The Triangle Fire in 1962.  Stein, who died in 1990 was the editor of Justice, the official publication of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.  

The Triangle Fire recounts the horrific story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, when 123 young women and 23 men died in a New York sweatshop that had locked doors and utterly inadequate escape routes.  This is a very timely book.  This kind of tragedy is what happens when employers of defenseless and desperate poor women ignore fire laws (which weren’t all that great anyway) and lock their employees into their workplace, just to maintain complete control and perhaps make a few more dollars.  While industrial accidents are scarcely unknown in this country, they happen regularly and often on a much larger scale in third world countries where so many of our clothes, electronics and other consumer goods are made.  (William Greider’s excellent introduction to The Triangle Fire does an excellent job of recounting some of these more recent tragedies.)

 Stronger unions, better fire laws and arguably better fire enforcement all ensued after the Triangle Fire, but the fire didn’t need to happen and all those workers certainly didn’t need to die.  Ironically, Stein writes that because of the way the owners were permitted to overinsure their buildings, they may well have profited from the fire.  The sad fact remains that 146 immigrant women, mostly Jewish and Italians, were killed  — many of them by jumping out the windows of the sweatshop to avoid being burned to death.

This book is a strong reminder that workers need protection from their bosses, who cannot be relied upon to put safety first.  Safety regulations, effective enforcement and constant vigilance are required to prevent industrial tragedies.  Unfortunately the strong anti-government, anti-regulatory fervor that has gripped Washington doesn’t bode well for protecting our workers, and this country’s current leadership has given no indication whatsoever that it cares about the safety of American workers, much less the safety of third world workers who make so many of our products.  To the contrary, the focus seems to be on freeing the rich of all those nasty curbs on their freedom to get richer on the backs of everyone else.

This is a relatively short and very clear book.  I recommend it because it tells an important story about one of this country’s most disastrous industrial tragedies and because it reminds us how vulnerable this country’s workers still are.

In the Land of Invisible Women — A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom

Quanta Ahmed’s memoir In the Land of Invisible Women – A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom is an absorbing tale of Dr. Ahmed’s two years spent as a physician in Saudi Arabia.  The author, a Muslim woman of Pakistani descent, was educated in Britain and trained in the United States.  Her decision to go to Saudi Arabia just two years before 9/11 came about when she had to leave the United States at the end of her training.  Ahmed was a modern Muslim, who had never covered herself or been subject to male domination, so being enveloped in a stifling abbayah and losing her freedom of movement outside her apartment and the hospital in Riyadh was a considerable shock.  At times Ahmed got plenty mad, but fortunately she also got curious.  She used her time well and met and spoke with as many Saudi women as she could find during her time there.  

Ahmed was continually horrified by Saudi women’s lack of freedom and their vulnerability to the dangerous bullying of the religious police.  At the same time, she grew to appreciate the women’s devotion to their religion and their country and their insistence on enjoying their lives, no matter how circumscribed.  The female-only parties Ahmed attended sound like great fun and proved excellent opportunities for her to observe and speak with an impressive number of Saudi women when they literally had their hair down and their abbayah’s off.

The book is a huge mix of good and bad times.  Ahmed was tremendously moved by making the hajj to Mecca and reminded of all the things she treasured about Islam.  On the other hand, she hated and feared the religious police and was troubled by the extent to which her Saudi colleagues meekly accepted their abuse.  To some extent, the hospital provided a safe haven and rewarding opportunities to practice medicine, but even there Ahmed noted how hyper-strict religious observances and male supremacy often prevailed.  Sadly, there was a particularly jolting event at the end of Ahmed’s stay, but I won’t spoil it by divulging it here.

So the book convinced me that I won’t be going to Saudi Arabia unless they have an unforseeable turnabout on human rights in my lifetime.  At the same time, I loved the book and appreciated all Ahmed had to say.  Much of the book involved her sitting down and posing thoughtful questions to many different and very interesting Saudi women.  At times there is a bit of awkwardness to prose because of all the Q and A, but Ahmed asked the questions I wanted to know.  Her genuine respect and curiosity shines through.  In the end, I learned a lot and came to appreciate these Saudi women and their perspectives even as I thought of Charles Grodin’s immortal line to Kevin Kline in the movie Dave:  “Get out.  Got out as fast as you can.”

Ahmed currently practices medicine in the United States and is frequently seen on CNN.  I really recommend this book.

Lady of Yaddo — The Remarkable Philanthropy of Katrina Trask

Katrina Trask and her husband Spencer Trask were visionary philanthropists at the turn of the century.  Lynn Esmay has written a lovely novel based on Katrina Trask’s diaries and presented as her memoir.  After suffering terrible family tragedies, the Trasks focused on leading meaningful lives and contributing to the welfare of others.  The couple supported all manner of philanthropy, particularly in the vicinity of Saratoga, New York.  The couple lived in both New York City and Saratoga, and seemed to know most of the notables of their day.  Katrina Trask was a published poet and playwright, but her biggest legacy was a colony for artists that she and her husband established at Yaddo, outside Saratoga.  To this day artists and writers enjoy residencies at Yaddo.  This novel tells a heart-warming tale of privileged people who lived elegant lives and yet worked hard and mindfully to create a lasting legacy of artistic nurturing and taking care of the needy.

To Tell the Truth Freely – The Life of Ida B. Wells — A Life Long Crusader Against Lynching

Ida B. Wells’s life is well-told in To Tell the Truth Freely – The Life of Ida B. Wells by Mia Bay.  Ida B. Wells is one of those African American leaders whose name is familiar, but I didn’t know enough about her.  Mia Bay’s excellent biography solves the that problem.  Much of it is based on Wells’ own unfinished autobiography.  This is a clear, focused book that fills a gap in civil rights history.

Wells was born a slave during the Civil War.  Her parents were sort of middle class by reconstruction standards, and they made sure Wells received an education.  Although she never received a college degree, Wells taught school for much of her early life.  Her relatively secure life was shattered when her parents both died and left her an orphan at 14 with a bunch of younger siblings.  Wells succeeded in keeping her family together and supported them by teaching school.  All that is remarkable enough, but then her life gets amazing.

From he beginning, Wells had a firm sense of who she was and her own personal liberties, so she didn’t hesitate to sue a railroad that refused to allow her to seat in the ladies section despite the first class ticket she had purchased.  The litigation was protracted and, although Wells prevailed at the trial court level, ultimately she lost on appeal.  It is really hard to imagine an African American woman having the nerve to sue a railroad for not treating her as she deserved in the late 1870’s.  Wells was tough and she was determined.

Wells was a writer and ultimately ran an African American newspaper in Memphis.  At the same time she found her lifelong cause – anti-lynching.  She called out lynching for what it was and never let go of the subject.  It wasn’t a particularly popular topic, but she pushed it relentlessly and actually helped save some potential victims.  Thanks to her anti-lynching activities she was run out of Memphis and her newspaper was burned out.  Along the way she became friends with Frederick Douglass and knew many of the other civil rights leaders of her day.   She and Booker T. Washington never got along — he was a sell-out in her view.  As the NAACP and other civil rights organizations were formed, Wells was frequently left behind.  She was female and she was not of the college educated African American elite of her day.  When others saw promise in enlisting white allies, Wells blazed on with her pamphlets and her lectures.  She never got the memo that she was supposed to sit down and shut up and let the men take the lead.    In that light, she was a precursor of Diane Nash, the amazing civil rights activist of the 1960’s who never got her due as the likes of Martin Luther King, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson took center stage.  Unlike Nash, Wells refused to fade into the background.

Wells lectured all over the country and in Britain.   She ultimately settled in Chicago where she married in her 30’s and had four children.  Supported by her family, she kept up her political activities in Chicago and nationally, even as she had to take time out to make a living.   As a last point, she also engaged in direct social services activity for her community in Chicago and stymied lynching in Illinois — she was no “mere” journalist and lecturer.

There is obviously much more to her story.  I recommend this book about a strong, focused woman who was insufficiently appreciated in her day or in the years since.

Plucked from Writing Book Reviews and Sent to the McCarthy Hearings

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In 1954, Mary McGrory was a single woman who had been writing spirited book reviews for a number of years.  After her boss at the Washington Evening Start ascertained that she wasn’t planning to get married any time soon, McGrory was suddenly transferred to the news desk at and sent off to cover the McCarthy Hearings.  What an amazing way to jump start a nearly fifty year career as one of the country’s most successful political columnists.  Somebody really needs to make a movie of about McGrory.  She was an epic character in an epic time.

In the meantime, John Norris has written an excellent biography of McGrory – Mary McGrory – The First Queen of Journalism.  While Nellie Bly enthusiasts may quibble about the “First Queen” designation, McGrory undoubtedly reigned as  queen of the Washington political reporting scene for half a century.  She could be imperious, selfish and demanding, but she wrote a heck of a column.  As a long-time columnist, she knew everyone and covered presidential campaigns from Adlai Stevenson through the George W Bush years.  The campaign stories alone are worth reading this book, particularly since McGrory started out at a time when reporters knew a lot of dirt about politicians, but didn’t necessarily spill it.  The stories of politicians trying to charm her or squirm out of answering deceptively mild yet go-for-the-jugular questions are priceless.

Although McGrory was an unabashed liberal and wrote highly opinionated columns, she did give politicians on both sides of the aisle a difficult time.  Bill Clinton was said to get apoplectic about her critical columns.  At the end of the day, McGrory was a very strong personality who was hard to pigeonhole.  She could be nice or she could be horrible to competitors.  The stories are hilarious, but they carry a serious bite.

I can’t help but wonder how McGrory would have reacted to the present school of journalism, where Fox is consistently conservative and constantly accused of skewing its news reporting accordingly and MSNBC often faces similar accusations from the other side.  In her day, unfazed by political neutrality niceties,  McGrory didn’t just express her political view point in her columns.  She took it a significant step further.  She could be a political activist and push people like Bobby Kennedy to run for office.  Despite the highly opinionated tone of her columns, McGrory’s column almost always appeared on news pages, rather than editorial pages, and she waged ferocious battles to keep it that way.  Issues  of journalistic ethics crop up throughout the book, but it seems that McGrory’s powerful personality held sway for her columns.

John Norris has done a skillful job of showing us McGrory, with all her fine points and her not-so-fine points.  Above all, I am just grateful that he has given us a highly readable record of a unique and powerful life.  I wasn’t familiar with McGrory’s story and am really grateful that now I know about her.  I strongly recommend this book.

 

The Seven Sisters in the late ’50’s

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It is both comforting and realistic to have a college memoir written by someone who wasn’t all together comfortable with college.  In Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East, Susan Allen Toth writes about her days at Smith.  Toth, then called Susan Allen, left Ames, Iowa, to attend Smith College in 1957.  She achieved great academic success there, but she didn’t always love it.  Smith wasn’t warm and fuzzy, and Toth was on a scholarship at a time when Smith apparently housed all the scholarship kids together.  (That wasn’t necessarily unusual at the time.)

Toth wasn’t particularly comfortable at Smith.  Upon arrival she was miserably homesick and, as a poor scholarship student, painfully aware that her clothes weren’t up to snuff.  She felt heavy pressure to be happy and love it, which is a tall order for many college freshmen.  She had enjoyed great academic success in order to get admitted to Smith, and at times she seemed almost overwhelmed by her own expectations of success.  She had got what she wanted when she was admitted to Smith, but actually being there wasn’t all that amazing.

There were no major dramas to overcome, but there was a lot of hard work.  Massive amounts of studying and an almost total emphasis on academics are at the core of this thoughtful memoir.  The all-women environment was also key to Toth’s experience.    Lots of her classmates were dating and had serious boyfriends, but Toth kind of drifted in and out of it.  Romance wasn’t a vital component or measuring stick for her college experience.  Toth’s depiction of the dorm environment and the women around her ring very true.  There is very much a sense that this is how hard working, motivated women interact when there are no men around.

Toth’s book is written from a distance of about 15 years and after a PhD and a divorce.  She still doesn’t feel like a success, but she has gained perspective and an academic career.  Her reflections about her time at Smith should give lots of college students  some reassuring perspective that it is okay to feel insecure, pressured and not particularly happy as a college freshman.

I really liked this book, which had been sitting on my “to be read” shelf for years.

Still More English Princesses

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I can’t quite kick the habit of reading royal biographies, but at least I’m coming to terms with the fact that English princess led boring lives, largely devoid of intellectual challenge.  The bored looks on the cover photos of Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, and Queen Elizabeth II as a girl pretty much make the case that there lives were neither interesting nor fun.  As depicted in their respective biographies, Queen Victoria’s Mysterious Daughter – a Biography of Princess Louise, by Lucinda Hawksley, and Young Elizabeth, the Making of the Queen, by Kate Williams, both Princesses Louise and Elizabeth had some intelligence and potential, but their parents pretty much squeezed it out of them.

Queen Victoria couldn’t see beyond her own excessively demanding personal needs and generally regarded her children as her slaves throughout their lives.  Princess Louise apparently had some artistic talent and was provided with some opportunities to sculpt, but her personal life and interests were consistently disregarded by her mother.  Queen Victoria never got over thinking that her daughter Louise was difficult and needed to be watched.  Lucinda Hawksley, the author of Louise’s biography, takes some imaginative  leaps and provides Louise with a scandalous love story.  If true, it makes her story all the sadder, given her subsequent marriage.

Queen Victoria at least had the excuse of being a widow and having nine children, although it’s card to imagine her being a loving and caring mother under any circumstances.  Queen Elizabeth’s parents, George VI and his Consort Queen Elizabeth, should have had it a bit easier.  They were a loving couple, and they only had two children.  There seems to have been a decent amount of love and affection to go around.  It is true they were traumatized by George’s sudden ascent to the throne after his brother Edward VIII abdicated to “marry the woman he loved.”  Still, Elizabeth’s parents spent time with her.  Unfortunately they completely short-changed her when it came to education.  They were so determined that their daughters have a carefree life, that they didn’t bother to give them an education.  They seemed to think that education was a loathsome thing to be avoided.  Trivial pursuits and playtime pretty much ruled the day.  One will never know if Elizabeth could have become an intellectual, but it certainly seems possible that she might have expanded her interests between horses and dogs had she been given a broader education.  The one lesson Elizabeth seems to have learned very well was to fulfill her responsibilities as a monarch.  That she has done.  She has also picked up a certain amount of political acumen and appreciation for other cultures along the way.  Her life hasn’t been a tragedy, but so much of it has seemed boring and useless waste.

Both of these women suffered from being born into impossible and ridiculous lives of privilege, but their parents certainly made things worse.  Victoria crushed and disdained her Louise, as she did her other children.  Elizabeth’s parents just abdicated their responsibility to educate her.  In a way, that seems the saddest deficit of all.  If nothing else, these books made me think quite a lot about what it means to be a good parent and what we really owe our children.

 

The Ultimate Jane Austen Biography

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What could be better than reading snippets of Jane Austen’s own correspondence, where she surgically dissect the foibles and the pretenses of her circle of friends and acquaintances?  It is an absolute treat to read what the author of Pride and Prejudice had to say about some of the silly and self-important people around her, and it is reassuring to know that she took up a pretty wicked pen at times.  Austen’s correspondence with her sister, unbridled with the need to be kind or conventional, makes for especially wonderful reading and an enhanced understanding of Jane Austen’s personality and the inspiration for her books.

Sadly, very little of Austen’s own correspondence survives.   Much of it was destroyed by her family after her death.  The motivation for this inexcusable destruction isn’t altogether clear, but some of these literary vandals seemed determined to present a more prim and proper depiction of Jane Austen than her own correspondence would support.

Fortunately Claire Tomalin’s brilliant 1997 biography, Jane Austen – A Life, pushes through clumsy familial attempts to deify Jane Austen.  Tomalin makes full use of the correspondence of Austen and her family and friends, as well as a number of descriptions of Austen by her contemporaries, to provide a robust and convincing portrait of this transformative and beloved author.  Jane Austen, as described by Claire Tomalin, is highly intelligent, impatient and flawed.  She also craves independence.  Austen was often described in less than glowing terms by people who met her, but their negative comments often help delineate her personality and independence.  It is impossible to know all, but it seems that Austen was blessed with an independent spirit and wasn’t unduly hampered by the need to please and win over everyone she met.  This Jane Austen likely toned it down a bit when she wrote her novels.  As it happens, the Jane Austen presented in this masterful biography is far more endearing and affirming to a modern feminist readership than a well-behaved and conventional Austen could ever be.

Tomalin provides a comprehensive and compelling analysis of how, when and why Jane Austen came to write her glorious novels.  Full-time authors frequently struggle to find the time and the will to write.  For Austen, a maiden aunt distracted with the demands of a very large, extended family and struggling with genteel poverty, the impediments might have proved insurmountable.  Moreover, Austen lived in a period where women’s education was frequently hit or miss, where very few women wrote books and where access to literature was often limited.  Fortunately, she acquired sufficient education and access to literature to provide a springboard for her writing.  No matter how busy she may have been with household tasks and the needs of her family, Austen was lucky enough to have time to read the literature of her day and to begin writing plays and stories from an early age.  She was also lucky to have an encouraging family that read and listened to her writing and then to helped with the publication of her books.

Austen’s single status also seems to have been crucial to her development and success as a writer.  Her realization that she didn’t need to marry and that she might prefer life as a single woman, gave Austen far more freedom than the average woman of her time.   It must be noted that remaining single also kept Austen alive — the book is strewn with all too many accounts of women dying in childbirth after bearing as many as eleven(!) children.   Austen’s awareness of the relative benefits and risks of matrimony and motherhood provide fertile inspiration, particularly for the female characters in her books.

Tomalin shows that instead of being thwarted by her limited means and often parochial surroundings Austen used them.  Because Austen had no home to call her own and because she had a large extended family , she frequently traveled as a poor relation from one relative’s house to another.  This involuntary nomadic existence presented its own humiliations and challenges, but it also gave Austen the opportunity to observe how others lived and related to each other.  Although she may have been impatient with the constant travel and unvarying routines of these households, she was astute enough to use what she saw as the basis for the characters, settings and circumstances of her remarkable books.

As Malcolm Gladwell has written, when it comes to success there is no substitute for working very hard for a very long time.  Jane Austen produced relatively few books, but she really worked on them over periods of years.  She went through multiple revisions of her novels over the span of her short life.  There were periods of years when she doesn’t seem to have been able or inspired to work on her books at all, and yet she had the fortitude to return to them and keep writing.

Austen worked for years with no publishing success, and even when her books were successfully published, she made very little money from them.  Thought the financial returns were small, it is heartwarming to know how much Austen appreciated these small amounts, because they gave her, at last, some money to call her own.  With that money, came a blessed sense of increased independence.  It is good to know that she had that.  Even better, Austen’s books were successful in her life time. Before she died she knew that her books were widely praised and appreciated by her contemporaries.

This wonderful biography is enriched by its frequent references to the status of the various drafts of Austen’s books and where she may have gotten the inspiration for various characters, settings and plot lines.  Each of the novels receives its own review within the context of Austen’s development and intentions as a writer.  If you have missed or forgotten any of Austen’s novels, Tomalin will point you in their direction.

This is really the perfect literary biography.    Claire Tomalin provides a warm, yet brilliant, depiction of Jane Austen, her books and her times.

 

African American Women Suffragettes

The subject covered by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920, is painful.  Simply put, during the struggle for women’s suffrage, white women frequently ignored or even hijacked African American women’s equally compelling efforts to secure the vote.  To make matters worse, the history of women’s suffrage in this country has pretty erased the contributions of African American women, beginning with Harriet Tubman and continuing on through succeeding generations.   In addition to blatant racism, white suffragettes repeatedly “forgot” their African American sisters or made strategic decisions to back-burner their cause so as not to downplay the possibility that women’s suffrage would enfranchise African American women, as well as white women.  The South was a particular problem, but many white suffragettes north of the Mason-Dixon Line were little better.  Racists need not have worried too much about an onslaught of African American women voters, because even when these women won the constitutional right to vote through the 19th Amendment, numerous obstacles were thrown in their path and often precluded them from voting.

It should be noted that a number of African American men of the time were quite dismissive of their sisters’ rights.  As repeatedly emphasized throughout this book, African American women repeatedly faced dual discrimination  — on the basis of sex and race.  The chronicles of the Civil Rights movement during the latter half of the 20th Century reveal that the problem stubbornly persisted.   Strong and brilliant African American women who risked all in support of Civil Rights were frequently ignored and relegated to supporting roles.  As just two examples, African American women generally didn’t get to speak at rallies such as the March on Washington, and Diane Nash, one of the major heroes of the Civil Rights movement, is largely forgotten despite her courageous and savvy strategic contributions to Martin Luther King and others.  (This may be straying a bit from the point, but Diane Nash deserves to be remembered and honored.)

The Struggle for the Vote  isn’t particularly easy to read.  It is fairly short,but the narrative doesn’t flow.  The author is careful to cite original sources and to pore through lists of meeting attendees and committee members in order to record the names and contributions of those who would otherwise be forgotten.  This is important information, and the author is right to be specific.  The contribution of these women needs to be recorded and celebrated.    Terborg-Penn also writes from a strong point of view:  African American women were important contributors to the women’s suffrage movement and yet received little or no recognition for their efforts.

I do recommend this book.  As racial and sexual inequality continue to plague this country, it is a good reminder that neither issue can be meaningfully addressed in isolation from the other.