nonfiction

The Best Book I Read This Month: Inferior by Angela Saini

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The best book I read this month was one that got me all riled up. Angela Saini’s Inferior is basically about how science has done women wrong.

For years, I’ve heard stories about how medical science has treated women badly, from doctors who dismiss women’s pain as hysterical to FDA studies that only tested medications on men to the lack of research funding for women’s cancers. I expected to find all of that in this book. I was wrong on that count. Saini addresses some of the above, but her discussion of women’s treatment in medicine forms only a very small part of the book.

Saini explores not only how medical science has dismissed, ignored, and mistreated women, but also how scientists across disciplines—neurology, anthropology, and evolutionary biology, to name a few—aren’t quite sure how to account for women in their research. A number of scientists (mostly men, it seems from Saini’s examples) are hell-bent on finding genetic or biological differences between the sexes. Other scientists (mostly women, judging by Saini’s examples) insist that differences do not exist and that any difference between the sexes is cultural or environmental.

Saini convincingly illustrates the extent to which bias has influenced the methodology and conclusions drawn by researchers into sex differences and women’s roles and the extent to which these researchers have been dismissive of cultural and environmental influences—both on themselves and on their subjects.

As a woman, I am frustrated and upset by Saini’s examples, but as a reader, I am grateful that she makes the science so accessible. Her writing is not drowning in jargon, and when she does use scientific terminology, she explains it in terms that any non-scientist could understand. The book is short (about 185 pages without the endnotes and bibliography) and easy to read but packed with information. It was definitely a good reading choice for Women’s History Month.

Women's History Month: My Favorite (So Far) Women's History Books

March is Women’s History Month. I would love to spend the month posting biographies of my favorite historical women, but alas that will have to wait for a year when I’m not drowning in work. For now, though, here are my favorite history books about women (so far).

By next year, I hope to have even more to add to this list! If you have any recommendations of your own, please share them in Comments. I’m always looking for a good historical read.

The Best Book I Read This Month: Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

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The best book I read this month was another edition of “our Founding Fathers were jerks”—this time about George Washington. The book, Never Caught, tells the story of Ona Judge, a woman enslaved by the Washingtons who successfully escaped to freedom.

As history books go, this one was relatively short—about 200 pages, not counting the copious notes and acknowledgements at the end. It was an easy read, too, thanks to Dunbar’s plain-spoken style.

What is remarkable about Judge, beyond her escape from the home and control of the president of the United States, is the amount of information available about her—including her own words. We have very little record of any enslaved persons from that time period. But not only have George Washington’s records and letters referring to Judge, we also have two interviews that she gave later in her life. (If you get the paperback version of the book, it includes transcripts of those interviews. They are not included in the hardcover edition.) It was because of these sources that Dunbar was able to craft this narrative. And as many historians do, she filled in the gaps with conclusions and inferences based on available data.

Dunbar does not sugarcoat Judge’s experiences, either, whether those experiences were working for the Washingtons or trying to survive as a fugitive free woman. Sometimes, in an effort to emphasize the risks and dangers Judge faced, Dunbar gets repetitive. But that was a small price to pay for the story of such a strong, determined woman.

The Best Book I Read This Month: The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed

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The best book I read this month is a remarkable work by historian Annette Gordon-Reed: The Hemingses of Monticello. To be perfectly honest, I am still reading it. It's a massive work--662 pages, not including the notes and other back matter. I've got a little more than two hundred pages left to go, but I will be reading every word.

I'd heard about the book and the acclaim surrounding it (it won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award) when it came out in 2008, but it took me until this month to actually pick it up and read it. My book club was reading a work of historical fiction, America's First Daughter, which told the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings through the eyes of Jefferson's oldest daughter, Patsy. My book club loved the book, but I didn't, for reasons I still can't entirely pinpoint. I put it down about 200 pages in. I still wanted to know more about Hemings and Jefferson, though, so I picked up Gordon-Reed's book.

I was not disappointed. Gordon-Reed tells the story not just of Sally Hemings, but of Hemings's family--from her grandmother, who was brought over from Africa, to her children, some of whom passed as white. In doing so, Gordon-Reed also tells the story of Jefferson and slavery in colonial America--not from the usual white plantation owner perspective, but from the perspective of the enslaved and of society at the time. She points out how our modern perceptions of life in that era are narrow and do not account for the varied realities of enslaved people, but neither does she skimp on the harshness of  those realities.

It's an eye-opening read. Every paragraph is packed with information. (Hence, the slow reading pace.) Gordon-Reed did a remarkable amount of research, and it shows in her work. We have no writings left by Sally Hemings or her mother. If Jefferson wrote about Sally, those letters and papers have been destroyed. (Many historians believe that Jefferson's daughter Patsy and her children purged Jefferson's papers after his death, removing all references to his relationship with Sally Hemings.) So Gordon-Reed pieced together their story from public records and scraps about Sally left by others and by examining patterns of life in colonial Virginia, pre-Revolutionary France, and the early United States. The conclusions she draws and inferences she makes are well supported by a wealth of facts and details.

What I particularly liked, in addition to the plethora of historical details, was that Gordon-Reed paints a picture of Sally Hemings as a woman with agency, not as a helpless victim of circumstance. The same is true for many of the other Hemingses. That agency was possible partly because of the Hemings's white forebears and partly because of the value Jefferson saw in them as a family. He treated the whole Hemings clan very differently than he treated the other enslaved workers on his plantations.

I will say that Gordon-Reed is far kinder to Jefferson than I would be. From the other reading I've done, he seems to have been a manipulative narcissist. She does not go that far in her assessment of him, but she does make the point that Jefferson was not the broad-minded, forward-thinking Founding Father that our textbooks so often paint him as. He was very much a man of his time, especially when it came to his views of women and race.