Review: The Tin Ticket

The Tin Ticket, Deborah J. SwissTeenagers Agnes and Janet stole clothing; Bridget stole milk; Ludlow pawned her employer’s spoons. In the early 1800s in Britain the sentence was not jail time, but transport.

These women — and thousands of others like them — were convicted by courts eager to populate Van Diemen’s Land (later Tasmania). Packed into ships like cattle, the convicts endured sickness and attacks from their captors. Of those who made it across the world alive, many arrived onshore pregnant.

The Tin Ticket tells the stories of four women and their incredible journeys from poverty in England and Ireland to exile in a country they were destined to shape for future generations.

Horrifying and amazing

If there’s one thing you can count on government for, it’s making terrible decisions in the name of nationalism.

For 80 years in the 18th and 19th centuries, the British Empire transported hundreds of thousands of men and women to Australia. Most of the 25,000 women exiled were first-time offenders convicted of minor crimes.

Author Deborah J. Swiss tells the stories of many of these women, focusing on Agnes McMillan, Janet Houston, Ludlow Tedder, and Bridget Mulligan.

Each of their stories is harsh and ultimately redemptive. Taken together, they represent the thousands of transported and abused women who served their sentences and then had to make new lives for themselves in a foreign land.

Not only did they survive, many of them thrived. They went on to marry, have children, and shape their society for the future. Their strength is incredible, and I’m so proud of all they did.

Review: Unmentionable

Unmentionable, Therese OneillIf you’ve always thought that a clean, simple frock is better than low-rise jeans, that you would enjoy living in the time of Charlotte Bronte, or that the centuries before ours were simpler and better…this book is not for you.

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners will disabuse you of the laughable notion that the 19th century would be a fun place to spend any time.

Not only is there arsenic in pretty much anything you put on your face, there’s also no refrigeration, no talking to a man who’s not your husband or father, and definitely no talking about s-e-x. There’s also an astonishing array of crotchless clothing, and fat-shaming is totally a thing.

Therese Oneill’s book is an awesome examination of the horror show that was the 19th century. Let’s check out the revolting details, shall we?

Hello, slattern

I figured any book that starts with these words is probably going to be amazing. And I was right! Unmentionable is a sassy, snarky look at an era many people tend to romanticize.

Oneill starts you off with getting dressed (hide those ankles, ladies), and shares makeup tips (you know what’ll take care of those freckles? Acid!). Then it’s on to discussing periods (no matter how you manage them, it’s not the right way) and how to land a husband (by never speaking to him, apparently).

Next up we’ve got the typical “Your womb is a wandering monstrosity that makes you crazy” garbage, followed by quotes from old white dudes who thought birth control, masturbation, and visiting museums was going to lead to humanity’s downfall.

And it’s all written in the best tone ever. For example, in a section called, “Give Him NOTHING”:

You are a prize to be won. He must work to capture your affections and approval. Only the stupid and slutty trout leap out of the water to gain the fisherman’s attention. The virtuous trout simply allows the sun to gleam briefly on her shining scales and then dives back to the shadowy depths. Only a skilled man with the finest of fake bugs can ream a metal hook through her mouth. You are that trout, and the metal hook you are about to be impaled on is holy matrimony.

Unmentionable had me chortling and reading sections aloud to my husband. He didn’t think it was as funny. Maybe I let a bum fisherman catch me? Oh well. I shall comfort myself by reading this book again and thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t born in the Victorian era!

Review: The Scarlet Sisters

The Scarlet Sisters, Myra MacPhersonVictoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claftin were two of the children of a backwater snake oil salesman. The sisters spent their childhoods telling fortunes and handing out quack cures. They were not destined for great things.

But the Gilded Age had a habit of propelling the least likely people to unimaginable heights. In a time when women were still considered property, Victoria and Tennessee did the unthinkable: they fought for women’s fiscal, political, and sexual independence.

Ahead of their time

These ladies were badasses.

They were friends with Cornelius Vanderbilt, Susan B. Anthony, and Karl Marx; they went toe-to-toe with Anthony Comstock, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher.

They were the first women to open a brokerage firm (the second woman-owned firm opened almost 100 years later), as well as the first female publishers of a radical weekly newspaper. In 1870, 50 years before women could vote, Victoria Woodhull announced her candidacy for President of the United States; a year later, Tennessee ran for Congress.

I’ve read so much about American history and all of these people; how the hell have I not heard of Victoria and Tennessee?

Fact vs. fiction

According to author Myra MacPherson, historians and biographers sometimes take the saying, “Never let the facts stand in the way of a good feature story” a little too seriously.

But it’s not all their fault. The sisters — perhaps embarrassed by their upbringing and interested in being fascinating figures — changed and embellished and ignored aspects of their lives when it suited. Newspapers were interested in sales, not facts, and sensationalized everything the sisters did.

The Scarlet Sisters is the result of MacPherson’s deep research into Victoria and Tennessee’s lives, including thousands of pages of books, letters, newspaper articles, and court records. It chronicles their sudden rise to fame, their involvement with the suffrage movement, and the scandal that eventually, if temporarily, ruined them.

In like lions, out like lambs

Victoria and Tennessee were popular, but they were also vilified. Rumors and scandal followed them wherever they went, and their radical views (particularly around “free love”) made them pariahs to the same movements they were trying to help.

I think at the end of the day, they were just tired. Tired of hiding and reinventing their histories, of being sued and jailed, of being eviscerated in the papers, of constantly having to defend their legitimacy as human beings.

Like many famous people of the Gilded Age, the sisters faded into obscurity in their later years. They moderated their radical beliefs, and in many ways became like the women they once seemed to pity and despise.

Did they truly believe all the things they said in speeches, their newspaper, and in court? Or was it merely another attempt to reinvent themselves, to escape from a dismal childhood and become fabulously wealthy and famous in the process?

We’ll probably never know the whole truth. But that doesn’t make Victoria and Tennessee any less worthy of mention in the history books. They were intelligent, courageous women far ahead of their time, and I think everyone should know more about them.

Review: Love, InshAllah

Love, InshAllah, Ayesha Mattu and Nura MaznaviFinding love is hard, no matter who you are. But it might be a bit harder for American Muslim women.

The 25 women who contributed essays to Love, InshAllah are planted between two worlds that seem very different on the surface. They are independent American women with careers and ambitions; they are also Muslim women who want to follow the rules of their faith. At times these two things seem incompatible.

These writers lead very different lives than most Americans, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see that we all want the same thing: happiness.

Interesting and challenging

For more than a decade, most Americans have not been encouraged to think well of the Muslim faith, or Muslim people. The religious and cultural divide seems too big.

But this book’s writers and editors aren’t interested in excuses. They want readers to understand that we all face the same challenges. How do we find love? How do we reconcile our faith and our culture? What do we do when love disappoints us? Where do we find the courage to stick with — or break — religious and family traditions?

This book was not a comfortable read for me. At first I thought it was because the writers are Muslim, and there are aspects of the religion with which I disagree. But then I realized I’d be just as uncomfortable reading stories like this written by Catholics, Baptists, or Jewish people.

Whether I’m right or not, I think most religions are too oppressive. Islam may have a reputation as being the “most” oppressive, but I know women of other religions who experience just as much pressure to stay pure until marriage, marry young, have children, and practice their faith perfectly.

I didn’t like much of what I read. These women have so many expectations placed upon them, and feel unworthy and unlovable — or face ostracism from their families — if they don’t do things “right.” That’s not something I can understand, regardless of what religion they practice.

The stories I enjoyed most were the ones in which the author took control of her own destiny, and synthesized what she believed are the best pieces of being American with the best pieces of being Muslim. There was the girl who met a man online and asked her parents to arrange a marriage with, and the woman who joined a polygynous marriage after her divorce.

The creators of Love, InshAllah shared their stories because they wanted to poke holes in the stereotypes they see playing out in the media and pop culture. The book gave me some interesting insights into the logistics of Islam — how conversion works, how divorce works, how arranged marriages work, etc. — but in the end I think it ended up reaffirming my dislike of religion in general.

Like the authors of these stories, I want to find my own way through life.

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. January’s challenge was to read a book with a character — or written by an author — of a race, religion, or sexual orientation other than my own.)

Review: Dear Abigail

Dear Abigail, Diane JacobsJohn and Abigail’s letters to each other are famous; less known are the letters between Abigail and her sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. They were separated by geography, family life, and in some cases ideology, but throughout their lifetimes relied on each other for knowledge, comfort, and humor.

In Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and her Two Remarkable Sisters, author Diane Jacobs presents these letters as well as the Revolutionary times in which they were written.

The Smith sisters’ letters are remarkable not only because they give us a peek into America’s very beginnings as a nation, but also because they introduce us to three women who were themselves revolutionaries.

Oh so very good

I read and enjoyed The Letters of John and Abigail Adams in 2011, but it never occurred to me that of course Abigail wrote letters to other people. Reading Dear Abigail has been one of the most enjoyable and interesting experiences of my summer.

Most of the books written about the American Revolution focus on the lives of the men who led it, and who struggled to keep the newly-fledged nation alive. It’s interesting to read a book featuring women who were just as smart and opinionated as men, and were incredibly frustrated by the limitations of being merely females.

Abigail is the most famous (as is her exhortation to John to “remember the ladies”), but her sisters were just as determined to make their own marks on the world. Oldest sister Mary became a well-respected, if unofficial, town leader; youngest sister Elizabeth founded the second co-educational school in the country. This on top of dealing with sick or abusive spouses, raising children, and keeping their own farms productive.

I loved reading about how these women viewed the war, politics and politicians, and were excited and worried for their new country’s future. Abigail in particular was always at her husband’s shoulder, advocating for the rights that would give future female generations the ability to participate in politics on (kinda sorta) the same footing as men. The sisters believed women deserved the same educational opportunities as men, and deserved the same right to decide the future of their country. They didn’t want the women of the future to have to rely so entirely on their fathers and husbands in order to survive and thrive.

While this book looks at the lives of all three sisters, it is Abigail on whom Jacobs’ writings focus most. As a Puritan wife, she believed that she must be subservient to her husband. But as a political force of her own (and eventual First Lady), she wanted to express her own beliefs about equality. Her personal and political beliefs around what being a good woman and a good wife meant changed throughout her life — her letters reflect these changes.

It was comforting to see that even as dedicated an American as Abigail Adams could at times doubt her leaders, her country, and even herself.

All three women were admirable, capable, strong human beings. They deserve acknowledgement for the way they captured history in their letters to each other, and for setting the stage for future generations of women to succeed on their own merits.

I recommend Dear Abigail to anyone — particularly women and girls — who wants to learn more about how women helped shape the United States from the very beginning.