Memorable Memoirs: Women's History Month 2021 | Mechanics' Institute

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Memorable Memoirs: Women's History Month 2021

Did you know that Women's History Month started as a local celebration in Santa Rosa in 1978? It's true. Sonoma County organizers had planned a weeklong celebration to correspond with International Women's Day that year. As the movement spread across the country, other communities initiated their own Women's History Week celebrations the following year. 

Congress subsequently declared March as "Women's History Month" in 1987. During this year's celebration, we invite you to read one of MI Library's many inspiring memoirs about extraordinary women from all walks of life. This list contains staff favorites from the library's collection.  

Alpha Girls: the women upstarts who took on Silicon Valley's male culture and made the deals of a lifetime by Julian Guthrie - A powerful account of five women pioneers in the field of venture capital who bucked the system and found ways to survive in the cutthroat, male-dominated world of Silicon Valley.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein - Originally published in 1933, this 2020 version is a reinvention of quirky prose and illustrations by Maira Kalman.

Becoming by Michelle Obama - A women's reading list without Michelle Obama's classy and classic memoir, recently adapted for children in a young reader's edition, just wouldn't be complete. 

The Best We Could Do: an illustrated memoir by Thi Bui - A compelling story about a young Vietnamese immigrant describing her family's move from their war-torn home to the United States in graphic novel format. 

Broadband: the untold story of the women who made the Internet by Claire L. Evans - The history of technology isn't one of just men and machines. Women were present and part of the action, including Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Stacy Horn and many others. 

Free Thinker: the extraordinary life of Helen Hamilton Gardener by Kimberly Hamlin - This is the story of a woman who worked tirelessly toward the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that gave all women the right to vote. 

Funny in Farsi: a memoir about growing up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas - A light-hearted memoir of an engaging family that moved from Iran to Southern California in the 1970s. 

Hidden Figures: the American dream and the untold story of the Black women mathematicians who helped win the space race by Margot Lee Shetterly - An inside look at the World War II-era black female mathematicians whose invaluable assistance in the aeronautics industry while working under very segregated conditions tells an enduring story for future generations. The much-praised 2017 film by the same name was based on Shetterly's 2016 book. 

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren - A fascinating look behind the scenes of plant research told through stories of how Jahren grew up playing in her father's classroom laboratory. The author found sanctuary in science and her passion for plant life is evident throughout her memoir. The eAudiobook version is a real treat under Jahren's narration, making her story so much more personal and compelling. 

Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion - A dozen essays from a brilliant author, including one about her rejection from Stanford University. 

Memorial Drive: a daughter's memoir by Natasha Trethewey - A past U.S. poet laureate, Trethewey begins her graceful, moving memoir with her mother's 1985 murder when the author was a teen. A hopeful and redemptive story. 

Men We Reaped: a memoir by Jesmyn Ward - A gifted novelist writes eloquently of her youth in rural Mississippi, a life touched by racism, poverty and sadness. Also available as an eAudiobook

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayer - The first Hispanic-American judge on the U.S. Supreme Court tells a candid and personal story, describing her journey from a Bronx housing project to the federal bench. 

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem - Journalist, activist and organizer, Steinem discusses her early upbringing traveling extensively with her restless parents. As an adult, Steinem spent considerable time on the road, organizing national campaigns for women's rights, including the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and supporting female political activities. Also available as an eBook

Queen of Bebop: the musical lives of Sarah Vaughan by Elaine M. Hayes - A success story of one of America's most influential female musicians of the 20th century. Vaughan helped desegregate American airwaves, open doors for future African American artists. She was often a lone female in male-dominated world, singing as a teenager with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the Earl Hines band. 

Rachel Maddow by Lisa Rogak - Years before she became an anchor for MSNBC, Rachel Maddow went rogue while giving her 1990 high school graduation speech, calling on her conservative East Bay hometown to be more open-minded about sex education instead of banning textbooks and promoting prayer in public schools. Even then, it was apparent that young Rachel was unusually independent for her age and destined for future fame. 

Radium Girls: the dark story of America's shining women by Kate Moore - This exhaustively researched narrative about the female factory workers who painted glowing numbers on dials reads like a true crime novel. Readers may find it challenging not to feel outraged at the doctors, companies and laws that failed to protect these women from radium poisoning. 

Reading Lolita: a memoir in books in Tehran by Azar Nafisi - A sparkling memoir of life in post-revolutionary Iran. A teacher at the University of Tehran, Nafisi gathers seven former female students in her home to read forbidden works of Western literature, including Pride and Prejudice, Lolita, Ulysses and others. A rare glimpse into the lives of women in revolutionary Iran.  

Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit - As a young woman in San Francisco in the 1980s, Rebecca Solnit felt silenced by a society that effaced women and expected them to adopt a demure attitude that perpetuates invisibility. The author of Hope in the Dark (Haymarket Books, 2016) describes her development as a writer and as a feminist and her exploration of the forces that liberated her as a person. 

Rise of the Rocket Girls: the women who propelled us, from missiles to the moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt - The story of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's elite group of women mathematicians and scientists who began working in the 1940s on projects that would carry the U.S. into space. Their work eventually helped launch lunar missions, planetary explorations and satellites.

The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Sara Seager - A luminous memoir of an MIT astrophysicist's search for an exoplanet told against the backdrop of her own personal tragedy -- the death of her husband to cancer and the challenge of raising their children as a single parent. As she struggles to navigate life after loss, Seager discovers the earthbound connections that feel every bit as wondrous as her passion for the alien beauty of exoplanets and stars. 

This Will Be My Undoing: living at the intersection of black, female, and feminist in (white) America by Morgan Jenkins - In a series of linked essays, Jenkins meditates on how it feels to be a Black woman in the United States today. Jenkins' 2018 debut memoir was a New York Times bestseller. 

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala - A devastating and ultimately redemptive memoir of a woman who survived the 2004 Sri Lankan tsunami. Deraniyagala recounts how she lost her parents, her husband and their two sons to a natural disaster that somehow spared her. A sobering account that is made more powerful by its spareness of literary flourish. 

Wrapped in Rainbows: the life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd - When Zora Neale Hurston died in 1960 at the age of 69, she was buried in an unmarked grave and her books were out of print. Since then her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is regarded as a classic of African-American and feminist literature. Boyd has written a definitive biography of one of America's most influential writers. 

Posted on Mar. 11, 2021 by Celeste Steward