Virtual Bookshelf: Women’s History Month

Photo caption

from the NEH-funded series Unladylike2020

(March 4, 2024)

Join NEH in celebrating Women’s History Month this March with a selection of NEH-funded projects examining women’s achievements and contributions to history, culture, and society.

NEH-Funded Projects:

The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts
In 1857, a woman escaped enslavement on a North Carolina plantation and fled to a farm in New York. In hiding, she worked on a manuscript that would make her famous long after her death. The novel, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, was first published in 2002 to great acclaim, but the author’s identity remained unknown. Over a decade later, Gregg Hecimovich unraveled the mystery of the author’s name. His NEH Public Scholars book, The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts tells the story of the first Black female novelist and her life as an enslaved woman.

The Sisterhood: How a Network of Black Women Writers Changed American Culture
One Sunday afternoon in February 1977, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, and several other Black women writers met at June Jordan’s Brooklyn apartment to eat gumbo, drink champagne, and talk about their work. Calling themselves “The Sisterhood,” the group—which also came to include Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall, Margo Jefferson, and others—would get together once a month over the next two years, creating a vital space for Black women to discuss literature and liberation. Written with support from an NEH Public Scholars grant, Courtney Thorsson’s Sisterhood looks at how this network of Black women writers in the 1970s transformed American culture.

Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400-1800
Called a “must-see” exhibition by Vogue and a “sure-to-be-historic show” by The New York Times, “Making Her Mark: A History of Women Artists in Europe, 1400-1800" features various artworks from the 15th to 18th century created by women. The recent exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art corrected the assumption that women didn’t create art during this period. Read a review of the exhibition in Humanities magazine.

Marisol: A Retrospective
Currently on display at the Toledo Museum of Art, the NEH-fundedMarisol: A Retrospective” introduces visitors to the life and artworks of Venezuelan-American sculptor Marisol Escobar. The exhibition, which was organized by the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, includes 224 pieces addressing themes like politics, gender norms, and ecological and societal concerns.

Storming Caesars Palace
This NEH-funded documentary tells the story of Ruby Duncan, who lost her job at a Las Vegas hotel and joined a welfare rights group of mothers who defied notions of the “welfare queen.” In a fight for guaranteed income, Ruby and other activists took on the Nevada mob in organizing a massive protest that shut down Caesars Palace. The film is available on your local PBS station or online.

La Malinche
“Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche”, which recently ended a three-museum tour across the Southwest, centers on the cultural legacy of the Indigenous woman who was at the heart of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico. Exhibiting at the  Denver Art Museum, the Albuquerque Museum and the San Antonio Museum of Art, “Traitor, Survivor, Icon” is the first museum exhibition to present a visual exploration of Malinche’s impact on communities on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Read more about La Malinche and the NEH- funded exhibition in Humanities Magazine.

New Angle: Voice—Pioneering Women of American Architecture
Check out the new season of the NEH- and NEA-funded “New Angle: Voice” podcast about pioneering women in architecture. Hear from historians, family, colleagues, and the women themselves how it was to be an architect coming up in the early 20th century. Tune in wherever you get your podcasts.

Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands
Streaming now at PBS’s American Experience, this NEH-funded documentary explores the life, career, art, and legacy of the famous singer who became an icon for the civil rights movement. The documentary draws on Anderson’s key performances and archival interviews to show how her quiet genius and breathtaking voice set the stage for Black performers in classical music.

The Vote
This two-part documentary tells the story of the transformative cultural and political movement that resulted in the largest expansion of voting rights in U.S. history. The film examines the major turning points within the women’s suffrage movement in its final decade between 1909 and 1920, the debates among its leaders about the best tactics for effecting social and political change, the unsung leaders of the movement, and the controversies over gender roles and race that divided the nation. The Vote, produced with support from NEH, premiered on public television in 2020 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment. Watch the film online at PBS’s American Experience.

This NEH-funded multimedia series and PBS American Experience documentary illuminates the inspiring stories of 26 American women who forged new paths across the fields of science, business, aviation, journalism, politics, medicine, exploration, and the arts. Short online documentaries examine the lives of women such as Bessie Coleman, the first African American to earn an international pilot’s license; Susan La Flesche Picotte, the country’s first Native American physician who also founded the first privately funded hospital on an American Indian reservation; Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress; and Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim across the English Channel. Find free lesson plans about the women featured in the series at PBS Learning Media.

The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine
This NEH Public Scholars book by Janice P. Nimura details the life of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in America to receive a medical degree, in 1849, and her younger sister Emily, who received her degree five years later. Together, the sisters founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, the first hospital staffed entirely by women, which they expanded to include a women's medical college a decade later. From Bristol, Paris, and Edinburgh to the rising cities of antebellum America, Nimura’s richly researched biography celebrates two complicated pioneers who exploded the limits of possibility for women in medicine. Read an excerpt from the book at Humanities magazine.

Eleanor Roosevelt Papers
Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most significant American women of the twentieth century and remains one of the most admired. As first lady, journalist, activist, diplomat, Democratic Party leader, and public speaker, Roosevelt helped shape not only the United States but also the United Nations and the path we still follow toward the greater protection of human rights. This NEH-funded project at George Washington University is working to publish both digital and print editions of Eleanor Roosevelt's political papers and a digital archive of her radio and television broadcasts. Read an article from Humanities magazine about Eleanor Roosevelt’s long-running “My Day” newspaper column.

9to5: The Story of a Movement
When Dolly Parton sang “9 to 5,” she was doing more than just shining a light on the fate of American working women. Parton was singing the true story of a movement that started with 9to5, a group of Boston secretaries in the early 1970s. Their goals were simple—better pay, more advancement opportunities, and an end to sexual harassment—but their unconventional approach attracted the press and shamed their bosses into change. Featuring interviews with 9to5’s founders, as well as the actor and activist Jane Fonda, the NEH-funded documentary 9to5: The Story of a Movement is the previously untold story of the fight that inspired a hit and changed the American workplace. Available through PBS’s Independent Lens.

In Her Own Right: A Century of Women’s Activism, 1820–1920
With support from NEH grants, the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSL) is digitizing and making available online historical materials related to the women’s suffrage movement from 45 different collections held by PACSL member institutions. The online archive documents the work of women in the greater Philadelphia area who advocated and organized for their own and others’ rights in the century leading up to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. ­­

Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart
This Peabody Award-winning documentary explores the inner life and works of the activist, playwright, and author of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry. The film draws from Hansberry’s personal papers and archives, including home movies and rare photos, and examines the influences that shaped her childhood, future art, and activism. The NEH-funded film premiered on PBS’s American Masters in 2018. Read about the film at NEH’s Humanities magazine.

Peace on Our Terms: The Global Battle for Women's Rights After the First World War
In the watershed year of 1919, world leaders met in Paris, promising to build a new international order rooted in democracy and social justice. Excluded from the negotiating table, women met separately, crafted their own agendas, and captured global headlines with a message that was both straightforward and revolutionary: enduring peace depended as much on recognition of the fundamental humanity and equality of all people—regardless of sex, race, class, or creed—as on respect for the sovereignty of independent states. Supported by an NEH Fellowship, Mona L. Siegel’s Peace on Our Terms follows dozens of remarkable women from Europe, the Middle East, North America, and Asia as they crossed oceans and continents; commanded meeting halls in Paris, Zurich, and Washington; and marched in the streets of Cairo and Beijing. Drawing on a wide range of sources, Peace on Our Terms demonstrates the centrality of women’s activism to the Paris Peace Conference and the critical diplomatic events of 1919. Siegel tells the story of how female activists transformed women’s rights into a global rallying cry, laying a foundation for generations to come.

When Women Lost the Vote: A Revolutionary Story, 1776–1807
Women voted in Revolutionary America, more than a hundred years before the United States Constitution guaranteed that right to women nationally. The 1776 New Jersey State Constitution referred to voters as “they,” and statutes passed in 1790 and 1797 defined voters as “he or she.” This opened the electorate to free property owners, Black and white, male and female, in New Jersey. This lasted until 1807, when a new state law said only white men could vote. This NEH-funded exhibition at the Museum of the American Revolution examines the little-known history of the nation’s first women voters.

Journeys and Pathways: Contemporary Pueblo Women in Leadership, Service, and the Arts
An NEH grant to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is supporting an oral history project to interview women from the nineteen New Mexico Pueblos and produce teaching and public programming resources examining the intergenerational group of women who have often been the “first” in their fields or have contributed to their communities in lasting ways.  Watch a selection of these oral history interviews with Pueblo women leaders online.  

All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake
A 2021 National Book Award winner, Tiya Miles’ All That She Carried traces the poignant human history behind a single artifact—an embroidered mid-1800s cotton sack on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture—through the lives of three generations of Black women. Researched and written with support from an NEH Public Scholars award, the book “honors the creativity and fierce resourcefulness of people who preserved family ties even when official systems refused to do so, and it serves as a visionary illustration of how to reconstruct and recount their stories today,” per its publisher, Penguin Random House. Read an excerpt at NEH’s Humanities magazine.

Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page
This NEH-funded documentary offers an unvarnished look at the unlikely author whose autobiographical fiction helped shape American ideas of the frontier and self-reliance. A Midwestern farm woman who published her first novel at age 65, Laura Ingalls Wilder transformed her childhood into the best-selling Little House series. Watch the film streaming online at PBS's American Masters.

Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk
This NEH Public Scholars book by Amy S. Greenberg tells the little-known story of remarkable First Lady Sarah Polk—a brilliant master of the art of high politics and a crucial but unrecognized figure in the history of American feminism. The biography offers a portrait of Sarah, the daughter of a frontiersman who raised her to discuss politics and business with men, whose savvy and charm helped her brilliant but unlikeable husband, James K. Polk, ascend to the White House. Lady First examines the truly extraordinary power she exercises as first lady, quietly manipulating elected officials, shaping foreign policy, and directing a campaign in support of America’s expansionist war against Mexico. And it introduces us to the enslaved men and women whose difficult labor made Sarah’s political success possible.

We are Veterans Too: Women’s Experiences in the U.S. Military
An NEH Dialogues on the Experience of War grant to Messiah College supported training for group leaders to facilitate humanities-based discussion groups with female veterans and service members on cultural issues affecting women in the military. Workshop sessions at institutions in Texas, California, Florida, Virginia, and Georgia, which have the highest concentration of female veterans, used historical documents, oral histories, literature, artifacts and visual materials to examine the roles played by women in military service in the U.S. Civil War, World War II, and the war in Afghanistan.

Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker
The “First Lady of Show Business” and the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” Sophie Tucker was a star in vaudeville, radio, film, and television. A gutsy, song-belting stage performer, she entertained audiences for 60 years and inspired a host of younger women, including Judy Garland, Carol Channing, and Bette Midler. Tucker was a woman who defied traditional expectations and achieved success on her own terms, becoming the first female president of the American Federation of Actors and winning many other honors usually bestowed on men. Dedicated to social justice, she advocated for African Americans in the entertainment industry and cultivated friendships with leading black activists and performers. Tucker was also one of the most generous philanthropists in show business, raising over four million dollars for the religious and racial causes she held dear. Drawing from the hundreds of scrapbooks Tucker compiled, NEH Public Scholar Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff presents a compelling biography of this larger-than-life performer.

Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener
When Ohio newspapers published the story of Alice Chenoweth’s affair with a married man, she changed her name to Helen Hamilton Gardener, moved to New York, and devoted her life to championing women’s rights and decrying the sexual double standard. She published seven books and countless essays, hobnobbed with the most interesting thinkers of her era, and was celebrated for her audacious ideas and keen wit. Opposed to piety, temperance, and conventional thinking, Gardener eventually settled in Washington, D.C., where her tireless work proved, according to her colleague Maud Wood Park, “the most potent factor” in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Kimberly A. Hamlin’s NEH Public Scholars book Free Thinker is the first biography of Helen Hamilton Gardener, who died as the highest-ranking woman in federal government and a national symbol of female citizenship.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life
An NEH Fellowship to political historian Jane Sherron De Hart supported research for her monumental biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the most influential and revered Supreme Court justices of the last century. De Hart explores the central experiences that crucially shaped Ginsburg’s passion for justice and her advocacy for gender equality.

Women in World History
This online resource offers educational materials and modules for teaching the history of women in the world, from the female Bhakti poet-saints of sixth- to thirteenth-century India to conditions for women within Stalin’s Soviet Union.

A Midwife’s Tale
Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s groundbreaking micro-history of midwife and healer Martha Moore Ballard’s life and society in Revolutionary New England hit the bookstores in 1990. It won a Pulitzer Prize, a Bancroft Prize, the Joan Kelly Memorial Prize in Women’s History, and several more. A Midwife’s Tale was based on Ballard’s cryptic diary that she kept diligently for more than twenty-seven years between 1785 and 1812—9,965 days to be exact. 

NEH’s education website, EDSITEment, offers a curated selection of lesson plans, close readings, and classroom resources geared toward educators and families on a variety of topics. EDSITEment’s Women’s History in the United States teacher’s guide brings together curriculum and lesson plans, articles, and primary sources on pioneering women and significant events and movements in U.S. women’s history. The site offers numerous classroom resources on the women’s suffrage movement and the Nineteenth Amendment, including a lesson plan on the Western states that were first to grant women the right to vote, a lesson plan for grades 6-12 on the early “foremothers,” both prominent and overlooked, who helped pave the way for women’s equality movements; and this high school lesson plan on the nineteenth- and twentieth-century arguments for and against women’s suffrage. Other materials focus on teaching women’s history through great speeches, the women leaders of the civil rights struggle, and tracing women’s history through the headlines of the Chronicling America database of historic newspapers.

State Humanities Councils:
Many of NEH’s local partners throughout the country, the state and jurisdictional humanities councils, will host public programs and workshops in celebration of Women’s History Month. Washington Humanities will host And It Has Pockets! The Battle for Women’s Clothing Equality several times during the month of March, showing the history of inequality between men’s and women’s clothing. Floridians can learn about some of the influential women in Florida history at More Than Orange Blossoms: The Feisty, Fabulous Females of Florida, held at multiple locations throughout the state. Virginia Humanities is supporting “Back to Front: Artists’ Books by Women, an exhibition currently on display at the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College. Changing the Face of Power: Women in the U.S. Senate will open at the Temple Railroad and Heritage Museum on March 30 with support from Humanities Texas.

Blog Posts:
History Through the Eyes of College Women
Women’s History Month at the Movies
Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran
From the Local to the Global: America’s Newspapers Chronicle the Struggle for Women’s Rights
Chronicling America Dispatches: Oregon Paves the Way for Women’s Suffrage
Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Q&A with NEH Summer Stipend Recipient Allison Lange

Silent No More: Lifting the Veil on Women and People of Color in Silent and Short Film

Humanities magazine articles:
Women’s Trousers and Such
Monumental Women
Virginia Woolf Was More Than Just a Women’s Writer
The Women Pioneers of Unladylike2020
Teensy-Weensy, Itty-Bitty Shoes
The Color of Fashion
How Black Suffragists Fought for the Right to Vote and a Modicum of Respect
Seven Sisters Join Forces to Tell Shared History of Female Education
The Forgotten Suffragists
Winning the Vote
Old Friends Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Made History Together
Not Your Typical Colonial Dames
Taking Little Women Seriously
Incognito in the Infantry
Super Role Model
La Malinche, Hernán Cortés’s Translator and So Much More
Gabrielle Suchon, Philosopher Queen of the Amazons
M.F.K. Fisher Taught Americans How to Nourish Bodies and Souls
When an Ark Was Built in Newark
Charlotte Perkins Gilman Did More Than Write One Classic Short Story
Before the Brontës, There Were the Porters
The Late Valerie Boyd Was a Writer, an Editor, and a Friend of the Humanities
Jane Addams: A Hero for Our Time
The Art of Alma Thomas Comes Full Circle at the Phillips

Mother Cabrini, the First American Saint of the Catholic Church
Ursula Parrott and the Secret Lives of Ex-Wives
Married to Her Writing
A 1929 Air Derby Helped Female Pilots Break Barriers
The Value of Difference
Lois Weber: An Early Hollywood Filmmaker with Her Own Studio
A Voice for Freedom
Layli Long Soldier, Oglala Lakota Poet, Catalogs the Untold
The Heroines of Old-Time Music
Severed Heads and Women Artists