Carmen Maria Machado writing as activism

Carmen Maria Machado is an acclaimed short story author, essayist, critic, and memoirist. Her first collection of short stories, Her Body and Other Parties (2017), won a Shirley Jackson Award, a Bard Fiction Prize, a Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, a Brooklyn Public Library Literature Prize, and a National Book Critics Circle prize. The New York Times listed Her Body and Other Parties as one of fifteen “remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the twenty-first century” in 2018. The author says her stories cover a wide range of topics, including “the oppressed body, gender, sex, and sexuality, media, myths, and legends, and ghosts and
the uncanny.”

Born in 1986, she was raised in Allentown, a mid-size industrial city an hour north of Philadephia. She went on to obtain an MFA degree from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and has received several fellowships, including one from the Guggenheim Foundation. She has also studied under authors including Ted Chiang at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. She is the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania; she and her wife reside in Philadelphia. As of this writing, her 2019 memoir In the Dream House, described by Nylon magazine as “brilliant, twisting, provocative,” has just been released.

Something I’ve struggled with all of my life is this perception of what women are. You hear that a lot: “Women are this. Men are this.” And that sentence is never actually true and is always sexist, even if it’s well-intentioned. And yet, there is something that binds women together: the oppression of our bodies.

Carmen Maria Machado, in a 2016 interview with Solstice Literary Magazine

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

DOROTHY PARKER queen of the round table


The very name of this writer rolls trippingly off the tongue, Dor-o-thy ending with two sonorous, sharp, deliberate syllables, Par-ker. Immediately, a picture forms of high style and hard drinks at the Algonquin Hotel. Deadly wit and comic timing aside, all was not glamour for this highly readable and addictively quotable character. Dorothy’s life was hard.

A West End, New Jersey, girl, Dorothy Rothschild’s mother was Scottish and her father was Jewish. After Dorothy’s birth in 1893, her mother passed away when Dorothy was quite young. She was raised by her father, a garment manufacturer, and her stepmother, who took up residence on New York’s Upper West Side and sent her to a convent school and later to Miss Dana’s School, an upper-crust girls’ school in Morristown, New Jersey. Dorothy regarded her parents as tyrants, alternately fearing and loathing them.

She escaped into writing and discovered she had a way with words. Her first job was writing photograph captions for Vogue, where she charmed readers and editors alike with her perfect bon mots: “Brevity is the soul of Lingerie” for undergarments was one such nugget. In 1917, Dorothy met and married Wall Street businessman Edwin Pond Parker II. The marriage was rocky, and the young Mrs. Parker despaired over an abortion in 1923 and made her first attempt at suicide. Things completely fell apart when Edwin Parker returned from his tour of duty in World War I, and the couple divorced in 1928.

During this time, Dorothy’s sense of drama gained her employment as a theater critic for the magazines Ainslee’s and Vanity Fair. Her first volume of poetry, Enough Rope, was published in 1926 and was a triumph. She was chummy with Harold Ross, Robert Sherwood, and Robert Benchley, and was soon ensconced at the Algonquin Hotel’s Round Table lunches. Ross and she were utterly simpatico, and he saw her potential to add punch to his new magazine, the New Yorker. Ross proved prescient; Dorothy Parker’s columns, reviews, and stories helped shape the landmark magazine. Parker quit Vanity Fair immediately and basked in the accolades for her intelligent humor and satiric edge.

While popular success was hers, some critics sharpened their pens to match wits with her and dismissed her writing as insubstantial. Parker was very unhappy personally and had a series of messy affairs, drank a lot, and sank into depression. She attempted suicide three times in the ’20s, but managed to keep writing even during the desolation. Three more books, Sunset Gun, Death and Taxes, and Not So Deep as a Well were greeted with plaudits.

Her next marriage, to fellow writer Alan Campbell, was even less stable than her first. Campbell was bisexual and eleven years younger than Dorothy Parker. The two worked on screenplays together and collaborated on the fantastic A Star Is Born. While marriage wasn’t the right fit, there was a strong connection, and they remarried, split up, and got back together several times.

Dorothy Parker’s political views were progressive. She was very vocal in her protest of the execution of accused anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, and she spoke out against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Hollywood didn’t approve of this political activism, and both Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell were summarily blacklisted in the 1940s, costing them their livelihood of five thousand dollars a week.

Parker’s moods swung with the ups and downs of the marriage until Campbell died in 1963. A dispirited Dorothy Parker then spent her remaining years drowning her insecurities in drink. Not unlike the lonely women who inhabited her stories, Parker lived an unconventional life, taking risks and expressing her views even at great personal cost. More than fifty years after her passing, her sensibility still shapes our culture. A truly original mind, she never hesitated to speak it.

Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; you might as well live.

Dorothy Parker, from “Resume”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

MARGE PIERCY poet, novelist, and activist for a new world


Marge Piercy is best known for her nearly twenty volumes of poetry and her novels, including Small Changes, Woman on the Edge of Time, her cyberpunk novel He, She and It, and her sweeping World War II historical novel Gone to Soldiers, which was a New York Times bestseller. She has received many awards and prizes as well as four honorary doctorates, but the road there was not a smooth one.

She was born in Detroit in 1936; her family, like so many others, was affected by the Depression. Her grandfather Morris was a union organizer who was murdered while organizing bakery workers. His widow, maternal grandmother Hannah, was the daughter of a rabbi and was born in a shtetl in Lithuania; Piercy describes her as having been a great storyteller. Piercy’s father went through a period of unemployment but managed to find a job working with heavy machinery at Westinghouse.

Piercy remembers having had a fairly happy early childhood. But halfway through grade school, she almost died from the German measles (for which no effective vaccine existed until the 1960s) and then caught rheumatic fever; this illness transformed young Marge from an attractive, healthy child into a thin and bluish-pale youngster given to fainting. She turned to reading for comfort, following in the footsteps of her mother, an avid reader whom Piercy credits with making her into a poet. But as she grew into more independence, they clashed fiercely, and Marge left the family home and started college at age seventeen; this was made possible by a scholarship she won that paid her tuition at the University of Michigan. She was the first member of her family ever to attend college.

Though the academic work was not exceptionally difficult for her, life as a 1950s college student was far from comfortable in a personal sense for Piercy, whose ambitions and bisexuality were seen as “unwomanly” in a time when conformity was a huge expectation. But she persisted, and in 1957, she won the Hopwood Award for Poetry and Fiction, which greatly improved her financial situation during her senior year and enabled her to travel to France for a time following her graduation. She went on to earn a master’s degree at Northwestern University, where she had a fellowship. She was briefly married to an Algerian Jewish French particle physicist, but the union did not last, in part because of his traditionalism. He was unable to understand how much her writing mattered to her. Afterwards, she lived in Chicago and endured very tight financial straits.

While endeavoring to develop herself as a writer of poetry and prose, she worked at all sorts of part-time jobs, ranging from art modeling to low-paid part-time college instructor gigs. She remembers this time as the hardest years of her adult life; fifties society judged her as a failure just for being divorced, and she felt completely invisible as an author, writing novel after novel but receiving only rejection slips. Piercy has said that, like Simone de Beauvoir, who was a major influence, she desired to write fiction that integrated aspects of the political. She wanted real women to be seen in her narratives, people from the working class whose inner lives were not encompassed by a simplistic surface view.

She wed a computer scientist in 1962; it was an unconventional open relationship that by turns enriched and complicated her life. Later, her novels at times explored polyamorous relationships and communal living; Small Changes (1973) and Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) were ahead of their time in this regard. The couple lived in Cambridge, San Francisco, and New York, eventually settling in Boston; Piercy made frequent visits to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she was part of organizing the group that would become the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). She had been active in the civil rights and antiwar movements for some time and became a significant voice for feminist concerns in the SDS and the New Left movement, as well as contributing to the growth of environmental thought.

Her first book of poems, Breaking Camp, was published in 1968. In 1971, she was poet in residence at the University of Kansas at Lawrence; later that year, she moved to Cape Cod with her husband. On Cape Cod, she wrote 1973’s Small Changes, which Myrna Lamb of the Washington Post called “groundbreaking,” and then Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). Piercy has stated that there was a change in her writing and poetry following the move—gardening became a part of her life then, and leaving behind urban environments may have resulted in an experiential shift. She did some teaching stints at other colleges in the following years. Her second marriage ended in the late 1970s.

With Woman on the Edge of Time, considered a classic of speculative fiction as well as of feminist literature, Piercy broke into the traditionally male field of dystopian fiction, but fused the novel’s dystopian aspects with a contrasting futuristic utopia in the frame of a time travel story. She later wrote that the genesis of the tale was that she “wanted to take what I considered the most fruitful ideas of the various movements for social change and make them vivid and concrete.” William Gibson credits this work as the origin of the cyberpunk genre; it is often compared to such classics as Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, as well as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Piercy later tackled the dystopian genre once more with He, She and It, set in a world where ever-expanding megacities have brought about ecological collapse. Again, the human dimension makes the story approachable, as the main character seeks to recover her young son; mystical elements of Judaic tradition, such as the golem, are also intertwined with the narrative.

In 1982, she married Ira Wood; they have written several books together, including the novel Storm Tide and a nonfiction text about the writer’s craft. In 1993, they started Leapfrog Press, which publishes an eclectic selection of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. They sold Leapfrog to new owners in 2008.

Piercy is author of nearly twenty volumes of poems, among them The Moon Is Always Female (1980, considered a feminist classic) and 1999’s Early Grrrl and The Art of Blessing the Day, as well as eighteen novels, one play in collaboration with her third (and current) husband Ira Wood titled The Last White Class, one essay collection, three nonfiction books, and a 2002 memoir, the amusingly named Sleeping with Cats. Her most recent collections of poetry include The Crooked Inheritance (2006), The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems 1980–2010 (2012), and Made in Detroit (2015). She lives on Cape Cod with her husband in a home she designed.

Never doubt that you can change history. You already have.

Marge Piercy

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

EDITH WHARTON “historic ravager”

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

I wonder what Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Jane Austen would think if they realized that, long after the span of their own lifetimes, their works rule Hollywood as favorite novels-turned-movies? Henry James, mentor to Edith Wharton, would probably not be surprised at their dominion over the current fascination with social mores. James couldn’t seem to reach high enough heights with his hyperbolic praise for Wharton, calling her “the whirling princess, the great and glorious pendulum, the gyrator, the devil-dancer, the golden eagle, the Fire Bird, the Shining One, the angel of desolation or of devastation, the historic ravager.”

Born in 1862 in New York to a wealthy family, Edith Newbold Jones was from the privileged background she described in her novels. She summered in Newport, Rhode Island, and lived abroad in Italy, Germany, and France, riding out the depression that immediately followed the Civil War and affected her family’s fortunes.

She was homeschooled by a governess and prepared for her debut into society at the age of seventeen. Unlike many of her fellow debs, however, Edith Newbold Jones was already writing. The teenager took her craft very seriously, at sweet sixteen producing a volume of poetry that her parents had printed despite their misgivings about her pursuit of writing as a career. She also read insatiably, devouring the books in her father’s library; otherwise, she claimed, her “mind would have starved at the age when the mental muscles are most in need of feeding…. I was enthralled by words…. Wherever I went they sang to me like the birds in an enchanted forest.”

In 1885, she married Edward “Teddy” Robbins Wharton, the son of an elite Boston family. Teddy was thirteen years her senior, and they quickly created a life reflecting their genteel parentage. Sadly, Edith’s husband was not her intellectual match and had few interests in that direction; he was more interested in having children, which rapidly became a major issue in their marriage. They remained childless and kept up a façade of compatibility to the world.

Meanwhile, Edith struggled to write on a level in accordance with her own ambitions, finally getting her inspiration and footing after a voyage through the Greek Isles. She then wrote and published a series of very well-received articles for Scribner’s, Harper’s, and Century, even collaborating with a Boston architect, Ogden Codman, Jr., on a book entitled The Decoration of Houses in 1897. Despite these efforts, she fell into a severe depression she called her “paralyzing melancholy” and had to get a “rest cure” for nervous illnesses.

In 1899, two collections of her short stories were published, coinciding with the end of her nervous condition and depression. After this, she consigned herself over to writing completely and published a book a year for the remainder of her life. In 1905, with The House of Mirth, she achieved the height of her power and range as a writer. Subsequent novels, such as The Reef, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence, caused comparisons to her friend and counselor, as a “female Henry James.” She was clearly on her own track, while also making a study of symbolists such as Joseph Conrad and the modern musical compositions of Igor Stravinsky.

Edith Wharton began an affair with a member of her literary circle, James’ protégé Morton Fullerton. While the Whartons’ marriage crumbled around them, Edith and Teddy sold their stately Lenox home, “The Mount,” and moved to France. Teddy suffered a nervous breakdown and checked into a Swiss sanatorium; he divorced Edith in 1913. She remained in Europe, making a home for herself in France.

Edith Wharton found the life of a divorcée to be revelatory. She could travel, entertain, write, and have friendships with men without any interference. She also got involved in public and political affairs, and among her significant charity works, founded shelters for refugees during World War I.

In 1930, Edith Wharton was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and four years later, to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lived to the age of seventy-five, at which time she had a fatal stroke. During her life of letters, she contributed enormously to the novel form. Her subtlety and sophistication continue to bring her books to many readers, far beyond the bounds of the new elite of Hollywood.

The books ARE in bad shape, and as some are interesting it’s a pity. I told Miss Hatchard they were suffering from dampness and lack of air…. I’m so fond of old books that I’d rather see them made into bonfire than left to moulder away like these.

Edith Wharton, from Summer

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

NADINE GORDIMER the alienist


South African Nadine Gordimer’s unstinting literary resistance and refusal to back down is a testimony to bravery. She dared to face powerful opposition to her writing about government-sanctioned racial oppression, repressive policies that normalized daily beatings, jailings, and murder. Three of her books were banned, but she never stopped exercising her right as an artist to openly state her condemnation of apartheid. Beloved by anyone who had read her fiction and hated by anyone who feared the polemic potential of her writing, this defiant woman helped create the post-apartheid future she envisioned in her novels.

She was born in 1923 in the East Rand town of Spring, the daughter of a Latvian jeweler father, who had been drawn to the diamond mining money in the southern Traansvaal tip of Africa, and a hypochondriac British mother. Nadine was frequently kept home from convent school by her housebound mother, and at age nine, felt the urge to pick up a pen. By the time she was fifteen, Forum magazine had published a story by the gifted girl.

Through her father’s business she came to learn of the terrible conditions in the diamond mines. The mines, which were managed by whites who sent Black South Africans into the hot and dangerous shafts, quickly taught the sensitive and observant Nadine about the stratified society ordained by the white Afrikaners in power. The sense of injustice that informed her sensibility as a young woman only developed with time as the incongruity of colonial cruelty increased in a country straining toward modernity.

Gordimer claims as a major influence Georg Lukacs, a Hungarian philosopher and essayist whose writings at the turn of the century and beyond helped shape European realism. Gordimer’s first book, The Lying Days, was published in 1953 and traced the impact of Europeans in South Africa. From this historical beginning, her short stories and novels amplified her complaint against acculturated segregation and a caste system enforced upon the people native to Africa. Reviewer Maxwell Geismar declared her fiction “a luminous symbol of at least one white person’s understanding of the black man’s burden.”

The novels that have emerged as a legacy for this outcast writer include
The Conservationist, July’s People, and Burger’s Daughter. Readers praise Gordimer’s painterly quality of rich detail, full characterization, and symbolic setting, though a few object to the mechanics of her narratives, judging it as unfashionable to see a story through to completion. A few critics even carp at her attention to race and lack thereof to feminism, but her own insistence is to speak to the issues of humankind, inclusive of race and gender.

Decried by whites in her home country, Nadine Gordimer continued to live in Johannesburg despite pressure to leave. For a time, recognition of her skill as a writer and the validity of her message only came from abroad. The New Yorker published her often, and she taught in American universities during the politically restive ’60s and ’70s. After the Soweto uprising in South Africa, her powerful novel Burger’s Daughter was banned for its potential to inflame insurrectionists. In response, Gordimer focused with greater intent on her political opposition to apartheid and cofounded the Congress of South African Writers. She went on to work in documentary films along with her son, Hugo Cassirer, and published nonfiction about subjects specific to South Africa. She refused the Orange Award because of its restriction to women, but joined the exclusive ennead of Nobel-winning women in 1991. The academy had previously passed her over a number of times, and she herself stated, “I had been a possible candidate for so long I had given up hope.” Gordimer said upon accepting the prize that as a young writer, she feared that the isolation of apartheid separated her from “the world of ideas,” but eventually came to realize that “what we had to do to find the world was to enter our own world fully first. We had to enter through the tragedy of our own particular place.”

At great personal risk and in spite of the constant threat of ostracism, this woman’s pen marked the dividing line between white and Black South Africa and the ways of life on either side. With unmatched lucidity, she examined the rituals of persecution and life under the fist. Her Nobel Prize for Literature was a tribute to her singular courage and life’s work of telling the truth through fiction.

Perhaps more than the work of any other writer, the novels of Nadine Gordimer have given imaginative and moral shape to the recent history of South Africa.

Jay Dillemuth, The Norton Anthology of English Literature

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

DORIS LESSING observant eye & fearless fighter against racism and war


Doris Lessing was a British-Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) novelist, essayist, and playwright who won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, with the Swedish Academy particularly recognizing her epic work in writing about “the female experience” with “skepticism, fire, and visionary power.” Lessing, for her part, when previously under attack as “unfeminine” for having expressed female anger and aggression, responded, “Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, [and] experiencing came as a surprise.” She explored the politics of race as well as gender in her writing and examined the role of the family and the individual in society in new ways.

Doris May Lessing (née Tayler) was born in 1919 in Persia, now known as
Iran, to British parents; her father, who had lost a leg during military service in World War I, had met her mother, a nurse, at the hospital where he recuperated from the amputation. Her family moved to the south of Africa, and Doris grew up on her parents’ farm in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Her mother was very strict and eventually sent her to a convent school, then an all-girl high school, from which Doris, age thirteen, soon dropped out, ending her formal education. But she read, and then read some more: Kipling, Stevenson, Scott, and Dickens; then Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Stendhal, and D.H. Lawrence. To free herself from her hidebound mother’s sphere of influence, she left home at fifteen, taking a job as a nursemaid and reading further in sociology and politics. She also began to write and sold two stories to South African magazines that year. In 1937, she moved to Salisbury (now Harare), where she worked
as a telephone operator for a year. Then at nineteen, she married and had two children; but feeling trapped, she left her new family in 1943. Doris joined a local leftist reading club, a group of people “who read everything, and who did not think it remarkable to read.” She was drawn to Gottfried Lessing, one of its central members; they soon married, and in 1946, had one child.

When her second marriage ended in 1949, Lessing was done with colonial Africa. She moved to London with her young son; her first novel, The Grass is Singing, was published there in 1950. The novel established Lessing’s reputation: it explores the shallowness, complacency, and contradictions of white colonialist society in Southern Africa. Her Children of Violence novel series (1952–1969) was majorly influenced by her involvement with communism and rejection of the wifely domestic role; like many of her fiction works, the five novels were influenced by her own life experiences to the
point of being semiautobiographical. She was banned from South Africa and Rhodesia in 1956 due to her frank writing about the dispossession of Black Africans by white settlers and her anti-apartheid activist work. She also actively campaigned against nuclear arms.

In 1962, she broke new ground with The Golden Notebook; according to Natasha Walter of The Independent, it “rip[ped] off the masks that women were accustomed to wearing, and…show[ed] up the dangers and difficulties that many women encounter if they try to live a free life in a man’s world.” The protagonist, Anna, eventually goes through a nervous breakdown. Only through disintegrating is she is able to come to a new and more authentic wholeness. Lessing returned to the theme of pressures to socially conform in her next two novels, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), an amnesia story, and The Summer Before the Dark (1973); Kate, its heroine, comes to a degree of enlightenment through another breakdown process. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she further explored the role of the family and the individual in society in her five-volume Canopus in Argos series of “space fiction.” The fourth of these speculative fiction works was adapted as an opera by noted composer Philip Glass, with Lessing writing the libretto. They later collaborated again on a 1997 opera adaptation of the second Canopus in Argos novel.

She returned to realistic fiction with Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could… (1984); but in a twist, submitted them for publication under the name Jane Somers. After numbers of rejections, they were printed, but only in small runs that did not receive much reviewer attention. Naturally, when their true authorship was revealed, the books were reissued and much more warmly received. In 1985’s The Good Terrorist, Lessing returned to politics with the story of a group of political activists who set up a squat in London. 1988’s The Fifth Child carried on her themes of alienation and the dangers of a closed social group.

In 1995, she received an honorary degree from Harvard, and that year, she visited her daughter and grandchildren in South Africa, the first time she had been there in four decades; in an ironic twist, she was acclaimed there as a writer on the very topics for which she had been banished in 1956. She also collaborated with Charlie Allard on an early SF graphic novel, 1995’s Playing the Game. Her autobiography was published in two parts: Under My Skin (1994), followed by Walking in the Shade: Volume II of My Autobiography 1949–1962 (1997). In 2007, Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The entire lecture she gave to the Swedish Academy when accepting the prize was published under the title On Not Winning the Nobel Prize (2008). She also produced a book of essays based on her life experiences and the novel Alfred and Emily (2008), which explored the lives of her parents. She lived to be ninety-four, publishing more than fifty novels in total.

There [was] a whole generation of women, and it was as if their lives came to a stop when they had children. Most of them got pretty neurotic—because, I think, of the contrast between what they were taught at school they were capable of being and what actually happened to them.

Doris Lessing

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

LORRAINE HANSBERRY young, gifted, and Black


Chicago native Lorraine Hansberry was born in 1930 to a politically aware and progressive family who knew that they had to work to make the changes they wished to see. But they paid a price. When Lorraine was only five, she was given a white fur coat for Christmas but was beaten up when she wore it to school.

In 1938, the Black family moved to Hyde Park, an exclusive and exclusively white neighborhood. Lorraine’s first memories of living in that house are of violence—being spit on, cursed at, and having bricks thrown through the windows. Her mother Nannie kept a gun inside the house in case it got any worse. An Illinois court evicted them, but her real estate broker father hired NAACP attorneys and had the decision overturned at the Supreme Court level, winning a landmark victory in 1940. He died at a relatively young age, which Lorraine ascribed to the pressure of the long struggle for civil rights.

Lorraine Hansberry’s parents’ work as activists brought them into contact with the Black leaders of the day. She was well accustomed to seeing luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. DuBois in her home. Educated in the segregated public schools of the time, she attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison before she moved to New York for “an education of another kind.”

Throughout her life, she stayed dedicated to the values her parents had instilled in her and worked steadfastly for the betterment of Black people. At a picket line protesting the exclusion of Black athletes from college sports, Lorraine met the man she would marry, a white Jewish liberal, Robert Nemiroff. Lorraine worked for Paul Robeson’s radical Black newspaper Freedom until her husband’s career as a musician and songwriter earned enough to support them so that Lorraine could write full-time.

Her first play, A Raisin in the Sun, was a huge hit, winning the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award as Best Play of the Year in 1959. Hansberry was the youngest American and the first Black person to receive this prize. This proved to be a watershed event; after the success of A Raisin in the Sun, Black actors and writers entered the creative arts in a surge. Lorraine continued to write plays, but in 1963 was diagnosed with cancer. She died six years after winning the Drama Critics’ Award at the age of thirty-four, tragically cutting short her work. Nevertheless, she made huge strides with her play, forever changing “the Great White Way.”

Racism is a device that, of itself, explained nothing. It is simply a means, an invention to justify the rule of some men over others.

From Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.



The image of an eight-year-old black girl in her perfectly starched blouse and skirt walking through a gauntlet of hatred to go to school was etched in the minds of every American in the sixties. Everyone was touched by the grace and dignity shown by the young girl who was spat at and heckled, as cameras shoved in her face recorded it for all posterity. Activists for integration won a huge victory that day and with an even greater strength and resolve went on to flatten every segregation wall that presented itself.

Daisy Bates was one of the civil rights warriors who were first called into action in the fight for desegregation. Born in 1920, Daisy was adopted into a loving family in Little Rock, Arkansas, and never knew what happened to her birth mother until the taunts of schoolchildren made the eight-year-old question her adoptive mother. On that day, she found out that her mother had been raped and murdered by three white men who then dumped her body in a pond. Her father left town to escape having the crime pinned on him.

When Daisy was twenty-one, she married L.C. Bates, a black man who had been educated as a journalist. Together, they took over a Little Rock newspaper, the Arkansas State Press, and turned it into a platform for “the people,” reporting crimes committed against blacks that the white paper ignored. Daisy worked as a reporter, covering with complete honesty, for example, the cold- blooded murder of a black soldier by military police. The white business community was outraged over the State Press’ coverage: They feared the army would leave their town and withdraw all advertising. However, the Bates’ brave courage in the face of brutality to blacks curtailed these crimes, and Little Rock became a more liberated town despite itself.

Then the movement toward desegregation heated up, with Daisy Bates right in the thick of things. The Supreme Court had declared segregation of schools unconstitutional in May of 1954, giving Southern schools the chance to describe how and when they would make the required changes. The local school board had responded by saying that they would take on the notion of integration “gradually.” Little Rock’s black community was up in arms about the foot dragging and after butting their heads in the many stony-faced meetings, they opted to take matters into their own hands. The state and local NAACP decided that they would try to enroll the students into the segregated schools and build up cases of denied admission in order to create a true challenge to the policy of gradualism. Daisy Bates, as president of the NAACP in Little Rock, worked with the State Press and other papers to publicize this flouting of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Finally, in 1957, they decided to integrate the high school, come hell or high water. The children who would put their bodies on the line would become famous overnight as “Daisy’s children” and suffer personal agony for the cause of racial injustice.

When nine children were selected to attend the “whites only” Central High School, Daisy acted as their escort and protector. Answering a poll screened by school officials, the group of young heroes and sheroes consisted of: Carlotta Walls, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Ernest Green, Terrence Roberts, Gloria Ray, Minnijean Brown, Jefferson Thomas, and Elizabeth Eckford. When Little Rock school superintendent Virgil Blossom decreed that no adults could accompany the black students, Daisy called all of their homes and told them there would be a change of plans.

Elizabeth Eckford’s family had no telephone, so she showed up on opening day—to be faced by an angry white mob who also attacked the reporters and photographers. The mob siege lasted seventeen days until 1,000 paratroopers showed up in response to orders from the White House to carry through the order of legal integration of the school.

However, the students were on their own once inside, prey to taunts, shoving, and threats of violence. Daisy Bates continued to protect and advise the children throughout the ordeal, accompanying them to every meeting with a school official when racial incidents happened. The struggle at Little Rock was only the first in a round of actions that ultimately led to full legal desegregation. Though difficult, the victory was entirely to Daisy and her “children” who showed the nation that you could stand up to hatred and ignorance with honesty and dignity. You can fight a losing battle and win.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


Oberstes Gericht, Globke-Prozess, Publikum
Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive

Eslanda Goode Robeson was the wife of the famous singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. However, she was an important shero in her own right, distinguishing herself both in political activism and as an anthropologist.

The daughter of a freed slave, Essie, born in 1896, was passionately interested in Africa and the conditions that made the mother continent vulnerable. Her mother, Eslanda Cardoza Goode, was of mixed race, born among South Carolina’s free blacks to an octoroon mother and a wealthy Spanish Jew, Isaac Nunez Cardoza. Essie’s uncle Francis Louis Cardoza was named as “the most highly educated Negro in America” by Henry Ward Beecher. When Essie was six, her father died of alcohol abuse and the family moved to New York City just in time for the birth of the Harlem Renaissance. Essie was well educated herself, attending Teachers College at Columbia University and one year of medical school, ultimately receiving her degree in chemistry from Columbia. Her other interests included a strong proclivity for politics and the desire to fight for racial equality. Essie was on her way to becoming a model for the new equality when she became the first black person to work in the pathology and surgery departments of Columbia Presbyterian, where she ran the lab. In the twenties, she met and married Paul Robeson; after hearing him sing at a party, Essie became convinced he had a future in show business. She talked him into performing and soon his career was launched. By the mid-twenties, Paul was the toast of Europe and America; Essie quit her job to travel with Paul and manage his career. However, over and over the duo suffered the sickening hypocrisy of a white society that lauded Paul as the toast of stage and screen while not allowing Essie and him to eat in the same restaurants as the white music patrons. To avoid the pain, Essie began to stay home and focus upon their shared dream of a modern black family— emancipated, educated, and enlightened. In the thirties, the ever intellectually restless Essie developed an intense interest in anthropology and in Africa. Studying at London University and the London School of Economics, she became even more radicalized: “I soon became fed up with white students and teachers ‘interpreting’ the Negro mind and character to me,” she wrote later. “Especially when I felt, as I did very often, that their interpretation was wrong.”

She decided to make her own conclusions. She traveled to Africa several times, exploring widely, up the Congo and into the heartland by any means available. Her exploration led her to emphasize the importance of racial pride in overcoming racism, and she banded with other black people to found the Council of African Affairs. She was always extremely outspoken about the plight of her people as a result of slavery and colonialism and never backed down from a debate. She drew fire when she suggested the Soviet Union had created a better foundation for equality than the United States. In the forties, during World War II, she was especially vocal, perceiving that the war against Fascism was an opportunity for a more racially united and equal opportunity America. Her book, African Journey, was published in 1945; that same year, as a representative of the Council on African Affairs, Essie participated in the conference that founded the United Nations.

In the fifties, the activity and views of the Robesons were brought to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy who called her before the House Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthy was no match for the brilliance and verbal dexterity of Essie, who turned the tables on him, drilling him with questions about the black civil rights issue. But McCarthy got his revenge, revoking both their passports, reducing Paul’s income from international concert tours to almost nil.

This only spurred Essie on to greater activism—ultimately her passport was reinstated and she traveled to Germany to receive the Peace Medal and the Clara Zetkin Medal,
a governmental award for women who have fought for world peace. She continued to write articles and give speeches on behalf of equality and justice until she died in 1965. No matter what the personal cost, Essie fought to free her people from the invisible bonds that still held them back. Her work was invaluable in the civil rights movement; her call for absolute racial equality rang clear and true: “No man can be free until all men are free.”

“I believe there will never be peace in the world until people have achieved what they fought and died for.”

— Eslanda Goode Robeson

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Dorothea Lange: Activist Photographer

By Rondal Partridge – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID fsa.8b27245.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain, Link

“The discrepancy between what I was working on in the
printing frames and what was going on in the street was
more than I could assimilate,” wrote Dorothea Lange of
the reason she quit her job as a society photographer to
record the misery of the Depression of the 1930s. Lange’s
sympathy for human suffering shines through in her
luminous photographs, including her famous “Migrant
Mother” and “White Angel Breadline.” Her compassion
came under attack later, however, when she was viewed
as being overly empathetic with the Japanese Americans’
internment during World War II. Though she was hired
to record this event for posterity, the photographs were
impounded and not shown until 1972, seven years after
her death. Nonetheless, Lange was not deterred from her
personal mission to capture the essential and universal
humanness shared around the world. Her genius was in
documenting that which might be ignored if not for her
artistic eye compelling us to look.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.