Women’s History Month 2022 Reading List (Curated by Debbie Gershenowitz)

Happy Women’s History Month! In celebration of this historical month, we’ll be sharing reading lists curated by our staff featuring all authors who identify as women. Today we’re sharing a list curated by one of our Executive Editors Debbie Gershenowitz. Last week we shared a list curated by Andreina Fernandez, one of our Acquisitions Assistants. Click here to check out Andreina’s reading list and learn more about how Women’s History Month came about.

If you’re interested in purchasing any of these books, don’t forget to use code 01DAH40 at checkout to get 40% off; this discount code applies to any other UNC Press book as well.


PUBLIC CONFESSIONS: THE RELIGIOUS CONVERSIONS THAT CHANGED AMERICAN POLITICS

BY REBECCA L. DAVIS

Personal reinvention is a core part of the human condition. Yet in the mid-twentieth century, certain private religious choices became lightning rods for public outrage and debate. 

Public Confessions reveals the controversial religious conversions that shaped modern America. Rebecca L. Davis explains why the new faiths of notable figures including Clare Boothe Luce, Whittaker Chambers, Sammy Davis Jr., Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Chuck Colson, and others riveted the American public. Unconventional religious choices charted new ways of declaring an “authentic” identity amid escalating Cold War fears of brainwashing and coercion. Facing pressure to celebrate a specific vision of Americanism, these converts variously attracted and repelled members of the American public. Whether the act of changing religions was viewed as selfish, reckless, or even unpatriotic, it provoked controversies that ultimately transformed American politics.

Public Confessions takes intimate history to its widest relevance, and in so doing, makes you see yourself in both the private and public stories it tells.

HER COLD WAR: WOMEN IN THE U.S. MILITARY, 1945-1980

BY TANYA L. ROTH

While Rosie the Riveter had fewer paid employment options after being told to cede her job to returning World War II veterans, her sisters and daughters found new work opportunities in national defense. The 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act created permanent military positions for women with the promise of equal pay. Her Cold War follows the experiences of women in the military from the passage of the Act to the early 1980s. 

In the late 1940s, defense officials structured women’s military roles on the basis of perceived gender differences. Classified as noncombatants, servicewomen filled roles that they might hold in civilian life, such as secretarial or medical support positions. Defense officials also prohibited pregnant women and mothers from remaining in the military and encouraged many women to leave upon marriage. Before civilian feminists took up similar issues in the 1970s, many servicewomen called for a broader definition of equality free of gender-based service restrictions. Tanya L. Roth shows us that the battles these servicewomen fought for equality paved the way for women in combat, a prerequisite for promotion to many leadership positions, and opened opportunities for other servicepeople, including those with disabilities, LGBT and gender nonconforming people, noncitizens, and more.

THE BIRTH CERTIFICATE: AN AMERICAN HISTORY

BY SUSAN J. PEARSON

For many Americans, the birth certificate is a mundane piece of paper, unearthed from deep storage when applying for a driver’s license, verifying information for new employers, or claiming state and federal benefits. Yet as Donald Trump and his fellow “birthers” reminded us when they claimed that Barack Obama wasn’t an American citizen, it plays a central role in determining identity and citizenship.

In The Birth Certificate: An American History, award-winning historian Susan J. Pearson traces the document’s two-hundred-year history to explain when, how, and why birth certificates came to matter so much in the United States. Deftly weaving together social, political, and legal history, The Birth Certificate is a fascinating biography of a piece of paper that grounds our understanding of how those who live in the United States are considered Americans.

A NATION OF DESCENDANTS: POLITICS AND THE PRACTICE OF GENEALOGY IN THE U.S. HISTORY

BY FRANCESCA MORGAN

From family trees written in early American bibles to birther conspiracy theories, genealogy has always mattered in the United States, whether for taking stock of kin when organizing a family reunion or drawing on membership—by blood or other means—to claim rights to land, inheritances, and more. And since the advent of DNA kits that purportedly trace genealogical relations through genetics, millions of people have used them to learn about their medical histories, biological parentage, and ethnic background. 

A Nation of Descendants traces Americans’ fascination with tracking family lineage through three centuries. Francesca Morgan examines how specific groups throughout history grappled with finding and recording their forebears, focusing on Anglo-American white, Mormon, African American, Jewish, and Native American people. Morgan also describes how individuals and researchers use genealogy for personal and scholarly purposes, and she explores how local businesspeople, companies like Ancestry.com, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Finding Your Roots series powered the commercialization and commodification of genealogy.

AT THE THRESHOLD OF LIBERTY: WOMEN, SLAVERY, AND SHIFTING IDENTITIES IN WASHINGTON, D.C.

BY TAMIKA Y. NUNLEY

The capital city of a nation founded on the premise of liberty, nineteenth-century Washington, D.C., was both an entrepôt of urban slavery and the target of abolitionist ferment. The growing slave trade and the enactment of Black codes placed the city’s Black women within the rigid confines of a social hierarchy ordered by race and gender. At the Threshold of Liberty reveals how these women–enslaved, fugitive, and free–imagined new identities and lives beyond the oppressive restrictions intended to prevent them from ever experiencing liberty, self-respect, and power.

Consulting newspapers, government documents, letters, abolitionist records, legislation, and memoirs, Tamika Y. Nunley traces how Black women navigated social and legal proscriptions to develop their own ideas about liberty as they escaped from slavery, initiated freedom suits, created entrepreneurial economies, pursued education, and participated in political work. In telling these stories, Nunley places Black women at the vanguard of the history of Washington, D.C., and the momentous transformations of nineteenth-century America.

UNCEASING MILITANT: THE LIFE OF MARY CHURCH TERRELL

BY ALISON M. PARKER

Born into slavery during the Civil War, Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954) would become one of the most prominent activists of her time, with a career bridging the late nineteenth century to the civil rights movement of the 1950s. The first president of the National Association of Colored Women and a founding member of the NAACP, Terrell collaborated closely with the likes of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Unceasing Militant is the first full-length biography of Terrell, bringing her vibrant voice and personality to life. Though most accounts of Terrell focus almost exclusively on her public activism, Alison M. Parker also looks at the often turbulent, unexplored moments in her life to provide a more complete account of a woman dedicated to changing the culture and institutions that perpetuated inequality throughout the United States.

Drawing on newly discovered letters and diaries, Parker weaves together the joys and struggles of Terrell’s personal, private life with the challenges and achievements of her public, political career, producing a stunning portrait of an often-under recognized political leader.

AN INTIMATE ECONOMY: ENSLAVED WOMEN, WORK, AND AMERICA’S DOMESTIC SLAVE TRADE

BY ALEXANDRA J. FINLEY

Alexandra Finley adds crucial new dimensions to the boisterous debate over the relationship between slavery and capitalism by placing women’s labor at the center of the antebellum slave trade, focusing particularly on slave traders’ ability to profit from enslaved women’s domestic, reproductive, and sexual labor. The slave market infiltrated every aspect of southern society, including the most personal spaces of the household, the body, and the self. Finley shows how women’s work was necessary to the functioning of the slave trade, and thus to the spread of slavery to the Lower South, the expansion of cotton production, and the profits accompanying both of these markets. 

Through the personal histories of four enslaved women, Finley explores the intangible costs of the slave market, moving beyond ledgers, bills of sales, and statements of profit and loss to consider the often incalculable but nevertheless invaluable place of women’s emotional, sexual, and domestic labor in the economy. The details of these women’s lives reveal the complex intersections of economy, race, and family at the heart of antebellum society.

BEYOND THE BOUNDARIES OF CHILDHOOD: AFRICAN AMERICAN CHILDREN IN THE ANTEBELLUM NORTH

BY CRYSTAL LYNN WEBSTER

For all that is known about the depth and breadth of African American history, we still understand surprisingly little about the lives of African American children, particularly those affected by northern emancipation. But hidden in institutional records, school primers and penmanship books, biographical sketches, and unpublished documents is a rich archive that reveals the social and affective worlds of northern Black children. Drawing evidence from the urban centers of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, Crystal Webster’s innovative research yields a powerful new history of African American childhood before the Civil War. Webster argues that young African Americans were frequently left outside the nineteenth century’s emerging constructions of both race and childhood. They were marginalized in the development of schooling, ignored in debates over child labor, and presumed to lack the inherent innocence ascribed to white children. But Webster shows that Black children nevertheless carved out physical and social space for play, for learning, and for their own aspirations. 

Reading her sources against the grain, Webster reveals a complex reality for antebellum Black children. Lacking societal status, they nevertheless found meaningful agency as historical actors, making the most of the limited freedoms and possibilities they enjoyed.