April 26, 2007


Women Who Dare: Marian Anderson; Margaret Mead; Women for Change; Women Explorers. By Howard S. Kaplan (Anderson); Aimee Hess (Mead); Sara Day (Change); Sharon M. Hannon (Explorers). Pomegranate. $12.95 each.

      The excellent Women Who Dare series from Pomegranate and the Library of Congress continues its explorations of outstanding women and outstanding photos in these four books – although one of these, on Marian Anderson, is unlike the others in most ways except format: all these hardbound works are brief (64 pages apiece) and small in size (about six inches square).

      Each book contains more than 40 photos that do much of the storytelling of some remarkable women of the past. The authors subsume their personal writing styles within a kind of institutional narrative that makes up in clarity what it lacks in fervor. Aimee Hess is from the Library of Congress Publishing Office, while Sara Day and Sharon M. Hannon are freelancers who have previously done Library of Congress work. Howard S. Kaplan is the first man to write a Women Who Dare book and the first author not associated directly with the Library of Congress: he is a poet and the author of a number of books for adults and children. And this is only one difference between his book and the others: in his alone, the majority of photos come not from the Library of Congress itself but from other sources, most notably the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania.

      Readers may not care about differences among the books, though, since all flow from essentially the same idea – that women, some famous and many others less-known, have made huge and frequently unacknowledged (or at least under-acknowledged) contributions to American and world life and culture.

      Marian Anderson and Margaret Mead are household names nowadays, but the details of their stories are not particularly familiar, and these attractive little books fill in their biographies quite effectively. The photos of Marian Anderson at age one; of her first accompanist, William “Billy” King; and of her vocal instructor, Giuseppe Boghetti, who called her “the world’s greatest singer,” are among the many that help humanize an icon of the music world and a celebrated civil-rights pioneer. And although Margaret Mead’s anthropological studies are themselves studied frequently, her baby photo (she was nicknamed “Punk”); the picture of her mentor, the enormously influential anthropologist Franz Boas; and the photo of Mead on crutches made from canoe poles by the Manus people after she broke an ankle in 1929, show Mead as a vulnerable human being as well as a dogged pursuer of field studies of many groups of people.

      Women for Change and Women Explorers tell the stories of less-famed women whose commitment to change frequently came in group action rather than as individuals. The first book includes missionaries, advocates of equal rights and economic independence, opponents of unsafe working conditions and more. The second focuses more on specific people, telling the stories of such women as Gertrude Bell, who explored the Middle East and is seen in a photo riding between Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”); Ida Pfeiffer, who journeyed around the world in 1846-8 and had to dress as a man in China so she could walk about freely; Harriet Adams, considered the foremost woman explorer in the United States in the early 20th century – she was the most prolific woman writer ever for National Geographic; and many more. These books, individually and combined, go a long way toward redressing the male focus of the majority of books on society and those who further and challenge it. And all are at least as fascinating to look at as they are to read.

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