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Talking about the impetus behind Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World, author Mackenzi Lee said, “There’s this myth [we] perpetuate through our silence that women weren’t a part of history, even though there’s evidence to the contrary. If we don’t tell these stories, we just perpetuate this idea that women [were] so busy being oppressed that they didn’t have time to do anything to contribute to history, or to do anything other than interact with their oppression and their identity.”

This idea — that women were too busy being miserably oppressed, or fighting against their oppression, to make any substantial contribution to other types of history — is the underlying theme of most history lessons from primary school all through to university, as well as of mainstream public discourses about history. Apart from a handful of women such as Helen Keller or Marie Curie, or a Rani of Jhansi here and there, it would seem history was populated by men alone.

Two books cheerfully challenge and dismantle this myth by bringing to light fascinating women across time, from all over the world, through lively, engaging prose and gorgeous illustrations. Both Lee’s book and Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo’s Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women are joyful, celebratory books that remind us that women of all races, ethnicities, religions and sexualities have been leading remarkable lives and doing incredible work throughout history.

History is mostly about men. Two well-produced books relish demolishing that characterisation

How both these books came to be created says a great deal about the extent to which such stories are needed and wanted. Lee started out with the Twitter hashtag #bygonebadassbroads. An avid history fan and author of historical fiction, every week she tweeted about one woman whom history had forgotten or deliberately ignored. The hashtag’s popularity grew, thousands of people tuned in to read about empresses, spies, midwives and pirates, and then a publishing house approached her to develop her tweets into a book.

Good Night Stories also went from idea to reality through the internet; Favilli and Cavallo turned to Kickstarter, where their idea became the most- and fastest-funded publishing project in crowdfunding history. A second volume is also out. Written by Favilli and Cavallo and illustrated by 60 female artists from around the world, the book quickly became a New York Times bestseller.

There are many striking things about both books — their existence in the first place, the aesthetic value of the beautiful full-page portraits and the celebratory flair of the prose — but what stands out most is the carefully curated list of women; the authors of both went to great lengths to ensure that women of all races, nationalities and ethnicities, not just Western, white women, were included.

Good Night Stories — more expansive with 100 women — features well-known figures such as Jane Austen, Michelle Obama and our very own Malala Yousafzai amidst lesser known, but no less interesting women. There is weightlifting champion Amna al Haddad from the United Arab Emirates, Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini who participated in the Olympics as a member of the first ever refugee team, Nigerian activist Balkissa Chaibou who fights against forced marriages in her country and Afghan rapper Sonita Alizadeh. There are scientists and mountaineers, warrior queens and ballerinas. Each gets a one-page biography written in a fairy tale-esque manner that will immediately engage younger audiences; for Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first computer programme in history back in 17th century Britain, the story begins “Once upon a time, there was a girl named Ada who loved machines.” The wide-ranging stories — about a boxer in India, a surfer in Brazil, a spy in Columbia and an astronomer from China — often manage to explore serious topics with a light touch. For instance, Virginia Woolf’s story mentions her lifelong struggles with mental illness in an accessible and thoughtful manner: “Virginia suffered from an illness known as depression. Virginia and Leonard were incredibly happy together and loved each other dearly, but sometimes Virginia’s depression made it hard for her to feel joy.”

The variety of women and witty writing is even greater in Bygone Badass Broads. As it is for an older, more general audience, Lee writes in an easygoing voice, pointing out with frank humour the absurdities and inequities with which these women had to grapple, and celebrates them with infectiously joyous prose. It’s like your whip-smart friend casually telling you about these women’s lives with plenty of snarky jokes and incisive social commentary.

For example, about 19th century suffragette Edith Garrud, Lee writes, “So it’s 1908. The suffrage movement in England is reaching critical mass, and the police are getting brutal because they thought girls just wanted to have fun, but it turns out they actually want to have fundamental human rights. What’s a girl like Edith to do when she sees women beaten in the street by men twice their size just for asking for the right to vote? Open a jujitsu school to teach suffragettes to unleash their feminine fury on the men standing in their way.”

Lee isn’t afraid to include women with morally dubious actions, either. There is Sayyida al Hurra, a Muslim woman in 15th century Morocco and first lady of the city of Tétouan: as revenge against the Spanish who had conquered Granada, she became a pirate queen commanding a large fleet of ships that looted the ships of the Spanish and other European conquerors. There are Ana Lezama de Urinza and Eustaquia de Sonza, a duo of badass, sword-fighting ladies in 17th century Peru, who took to the mean streets of their town to dole out vigilante justice to criminals. On the inventive front, all the way back from 2700 BC China, there is Empress Xi Ling Shi who discovered how to extract raw silk from silkworms, making the ancient Chinese empire a powerhouse for centuries.

Even with more recent, well-known history, Lee reaches deep into the recesses to highlight impressive women such as Noor Inayat Khan, the Indian princess who became an important spy for the French and Allied Forces during the Second World War. As in Good Night Stories, Bygone Badass Broads also features women who did important work in a range of fields, such as Clelia Duel Mosher, a 19th century American doctor who helped dispel the Victorian myth of the fragility of female bodies and did some of the earliest research on menstruation and period cramps.

With a format and style that will appeal to all readers, these books make learning about remarkable women fascinating as well as fun. Both should be required reading for anyone who wants to get a fuller, richer picture of the history of the world — which should be all of us.

The reviewer teaches comparative literature at Habib University, Karachi

Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten
Women Who Changed the World
By Mackenzie Lee
Harry N. Abrams, US
ISBN: 978-1419729256
176pp.

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls:
100 Tales of Extraordinary Women
By Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo
Timbuktu Labs, Inc, US
ISBN: 978-0120420476
212pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 13th, 2018