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Working Girls: 6 Books About Women and Girls Who Changed America

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • September 02, 2019

Who Runs the World?

Many of us think of Labor Day simply as one of the bookends of summer—an opportunity for some good sales and one last backyard barbeque. But like its partner, Memorial Day, it represents something greater. Established in the late nineteenth century, the holiday honors the social and economic achievements of American workers. It is also a time to reflect on working conditions and the rights of all who contribute to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

Women have been important figures in industry throughout American history, particularly during the last century. These days, nearly half of the U.S. workforce is female and more than half of management positions belong to women. Here we reflect on some of the important contributions of women to the rights and assurances that today's workers enjoy.

"Well behaved women seldom make history"

This quote has been attributed to several ladies including Eleanor Roosevelt and Marilyn Monroe. But according to our research, it was actually coined by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. In any case, it is an apt summary of the stories told in these two terrific books that chronicle historic accounts of women fighting for safe and equitable working conditions.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

During World War I, and for several years afterward, hundreds of young women were employed to paint glowing numbers and symbols onto watch faces and mechanic dials using paint infused with a newly discovered element—radium. After work, the powder covered their bodies from head to toe making them, literally, glow in the dark. Years later they begin to suffer mysterious and deadly symptoms. Read this haunting account of what they suffered, and how they took the culpable companies to task, bringing nationwide attention to the importance of workplace safety standards.

Holding the Line by Barbara Kingsolver

Like Kingsolver's award-winning novels, her first nonfiction book published in 1989, combines powerful characters and elegant prose to tell a compelling story. As a young journalist covering the epic 1983 strike against Arizona's Phelps Dodge Copper Corporation, Kingsolver took a vested interest in the battle, which permanently changed the culture of the small mining towns involved. When injunctions barred union men from picketing, their wives and daughters bucked tradition to stand the lines. Even after men left to seek jobs elsewhere, the women continued to organize and fight for their rights. "Nothing can ever be the same as it was before," said Diane McCormick of the Morenci Miners Women's Auxiliary. "Look at us. At the beginning of this strike, we were just a bunch of ladies."

"I'm not afraid of storms, for I'm learning to sail my ship."

The words of Louisa May Alcott are a great foundation for these two novels about women who weather some fierce storms as they fight for their rights and champion the lives of others.

The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

This newly released historical novel from the bestselling and award-winning author of The Sparrow, tells the story of a young woman, who—against all odds—took on the largest copper mining company in the world. It was 1913 and 25-year-old Annie Clements had had enough. Against the better judgement of almost everyone in the small mining town of Calumet, Michigan, Annie managed to spark a rebellion against the powerful company that controlled and oppressed its employees. Her controversial stand launched a movement.

The Street by Ann Petry

Meet Lutie Johnson, a spirited young black woman fighting to support herself and her family in 1940s Harlem. She encounters sexism, violence, and hostility, even from her own husband, but she continues to push boundaries and make waves. Lutie's story isn't always a cheerful one, but it is an honest and searing example of the struggles of many a woman in our herstory. This award-winning bestseller, first published in 1946, is still powerfully relevant today.

"And though she be but little, she is fierce."

William Shakespeare created a lot of strong female characters. This line is about Hermia from A Midsummer Night's Dream, but it's also a great description of the characters depicted in these two novels, perfect for younger readers. (And really anyone else!)

Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix

This excellent historic novel reimagines the tragic 1913 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 young immigrant workers, mostly teenaged girls. Told from the perspective of three very different young women, the story shines a light on the terrible situation imposed on these girls as they toiled for 12-hour days in dangerous and unhealthy conditions. Recommended for middle school and above, readers of all ages will fall in love with these plucky girls as they build the confidence to fight for a better life.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Young Esperanza is accustomed to privilege and abundance on her family's ranch in Mexico. But a sudden tragedy forces her and her mother to flee to California where they land in a Mexican farm labor camp. Set during the great depression, Esperanza's story incorporates the history of the ongoing immigrant struggles for better work conditions and fair pay. This novel which is appropriate for readers as young as six, presents a compelling and inspiring perspective.


We love these stories of women and girls who fought to make a difference in the world today and we hope you do too. Let us know if you have any great reads to add to the list! And follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to get daily book recommendations and more.

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History | Nonfiction | Women_Authors
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