On Tuesday night on the floor of the Senate, Elizabeth Warren was silenced when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) invoked “Rule 19.” He argued that Warren had impugned the reputation of Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who had been seeking confirmation as Attorney General.
Warren had been reading from a letter from Civil Rights leader Coretta Scott King when McConnell silenced her. When asked why he had taken such an extreme measure against the senator from Massachusetts, McConnell entered the feminist history books, saying “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
#ShePersisted trended on Twitter all of Wednesday, and women filled the time line with images of women who have persisted against those who have told us to sit down and shut up. It inspired Signature to put together a reading list of historical women who have refused to be silenced, beginning with Senator Warren herself, whose new book, This Fight is Your Fight, comes out in April.
The memoir of the woman of the hour, Warren recalls a hardscrabble childhood in which she stepped into adulthood at the age of twelve in order to reassure her mother, who was venturing back into the workforce after not working outside the home for years. Warren also details her years fighting against mortgage lenders and big banks that she alleges rip off consumers. A great book for understanding how Warren’s leadership qualities were honed, and what drives her passion for defending the middle class.
Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) was the first woman to be named an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society in England. Born in Germany, she traveled to England to “keep house” for her brother, who was also an astronomer, but Caroline was far more talented and brilliant than her brother. Despite proscriptions against women in the sciences, during her lifetime, Caroline discovered several comets. In Carrie Brown’s novel, Caroline’s splendid life shines from the pages. Brown’s research pays off: readers will feel well-versed in star gazing, and proud to know of Herschel’s early contribution to our knowledge of the universe.
The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, Author of Silent Spring
Rachel Carson was attacked by the chemical industry when she published Silent Spring in 1962. Carson documented the disastrous effects of DDT on birds, which resulted in a lack of bird song; thus, a “silent spring.” But Carson also documented the harm that other chemical pesticides were doing to the environment, and how pesticides were seeping into products that human beings used. The result was an increase in cancers. Many consider Silent Spring to be one of the single most important scientific books ever published, second only to Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species.
Elizabeth I was not the child her father wanted. Henry VIII had divorced his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, because she could not give him a son (he had no idea of the role that men play in sex selection). He married Anne Boleyn, expecting her to produce an heir. When Elizabeth was born, Henry was enraged. After her mother was beheaded when Elizabeth was three, she grew up in a precarious position. At one point, she was imprisoned by her sister, Mary, who had ascended to the throne when their younger brother, Edward VI, died. But Elizabeth survived prison, and upon Mary’s death became England’s greatest queen. Margaret George brings years’ worth of research into her fictionalized version of the flame-haired queen who defeated an Armada and inspired William Shakespeare.
Marinella (1571-1653) was an ardent feminist, a genius, and one of the most gifted writers of her age. She lived in Venice, the same city that produced another gifted woman writer, Veronica Franco. Marinella wrote extensively as a philosopher. She wrote The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men in response to a misogynist polemic which outlined women’s faults and implied that women were not human, they were animals. Lucrezia took the argument apart. When she wrote her defense of women, she argued that women’s physiology made them morally and intellectually superior to men, and that God had given to women these powers. She was a forza to be contended with.
Poems and Fragments
Plato called Sappho the “tenth Muse.” At one point, nine full papyrus rolls of her writing were safeguarded in the great library at Alexandria. Today, only fragments remain. One of the remaining poems — “To a Rich Vulgarian” — may sound as if it was written for someone in our current political culture, although Sappho lived 150 years after Homer, around 620 B.C.E. She was born on the Isle of Lesbos. Sappho makes perfect reading when you’re looking for a saucy comeback to someone who is patronizing you, but she is also a comfort for nights when you may be missing the one you love.
The U.S. government got so tired of telling Emma Goldman to “be quiet” that, in 1919, it stripped her of her naturalized citizenship and deported her back to Russia, a country she hadn’t been in since she was a child. Labor organizer, women’s rights campaigner, sexual liberation advocate, and a teacher of birth control methods, Emma Goldman was an anarchist. She was unfairly accused of being the inspiration for the assassination of William McKinley, and the government regarded her as a danger to the state. Goldman’s autobiography details not only her philosophy, but also her scandalous love life, which included her refusal to marry her live-in lover and her insistence that love did not mean ownership.
The first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, Sonia Sotomayor is persistence personified. Born into an alcoholic household in the Bronx, Sotomayor learned early that she would have to rely upon herself, especially when she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, and the girl learned to administer her own insulin shots. Sotomayor earned high honors at Princeton and again at Harvard Law School, and was appointed to a Federal judgeship before her fortieth birthday. In her memoir, Sotomayor candidly recounts not only her successes in school and career, but the struggles in her marriage. She also writes about family, and how she has created family not out of people who are related to her by blood, but by surrounding herself with those she loves and by whom she is loved.
Malala Yousafzai was fifteen when she was shot in the head by members of the Taliban. She was riding on the schoolbus with members of her class when the bus was attacked. Her crime? Insisting that girls were entitled to an education in her native Pakistan. Malala wanted to become a doctor, and she was a student at her father’s school in the Swat Valley. But when the Taliban invaded the area, they closed down all schools where girls were being educated. That’s when Malala started speaking out and keeping a blog. I Am Malala tells her incredible story. Having survived the attack, she continues to speak out for girls everywhere, persisting with the idea that all girls, everywhere, have a basic right to an education.
Anne Hutchinson is responsible for the founding of Harvard College, but not for the reasons you might think. In a situation that might remind you of what happened with Elizabeth Warren, Hutchinson was forced to stand, while pregnant with her sixteenth child, in front of a group of forty male judges, in order to defend her positions on politics and religion. The judges were so threatened by her that they expelled her, judging that she was behaving in a way they judged to be “not comely for [her] sex.” Then, having expelled Hutchinson, the men founded Harvard College so that they might teach political and religious orthodoxy. Hutchinson co-founded a new colony — Rhode Island, becoming the only woman to co-found one of the American states.
Coretta Scott King
It was Coretta Scott King that Elizabeth Warren was quoting when she was removed from the Senate floor on Tuesday night, so it’s appropriate that we end our list here with her autobiography. Coretta Scott was a graduate student at the New England Conservatory of Music when she met Martin Luther King, Jr., but her own work on behalf of peace and social justice had begun when she was an undergraduate at Antioch College.
After Dr. King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King founded the King Center for Non-Violent Social Change (The King Center) and became a respected leader in both the Civil Rights Movement and the Movement for LGBTQ rights. In her letter regarding Jeff Sessions’s nomination for a federal judgeship, she wrote, “Based on his record, I believe his confirmation would have a devastating effect on not only the judicial system in Alabama, but also on the progress we have made everywhere toward fulfilling my husband’s dream that he envisioned over twenty years ago.” Until her dying day, Coretta Scott King worked for social justice. #ShePersisted.