Sunday, May 30, 2010

More Than Petticoats Remarkable Pennysylvania Women by Kate Hertzog

Though the title is rather embarrassing (who thought putting that tagline on this title was necessary), I always enjoy books like these. Sometimes you just want a book that's going to give you a brief overview of someone's life, not the comprehensive history of every time they used the bathroom.

In this case, Remarkable Pennsylvania Women gives the reader at fifteen women with ties to the Keystone State, and why they are important enough to read about. No section is very long, but if the reader wishes to learn more, they can either do a search on their own or refer to the bibliography in the back of the book. Personally, I probably don't need to go and read a lot more on any of these figures, though I might for one or two. However, I really like that the author took time to include this section for those who really do like to get down and dirty in the details.

I must admit to being a bit ashamed that I did not recognize the stories of more than one third of the women in the book. I kinda figured I'd be a bit better steeped in non-traditional PA history than I apparently am. It's easy to pick up on Rachel Carson, of course, but it's not every day you talk about Sybilla Masters, the first woman to get a patent from the King of England and the first person to do that in America, period.

Or there's Margaret Corbin, one of the women who, I've learned over time, fought in the Revolutionary War as a soldier. If you're of a more peaceful mind, try Amanda Berry Smith, an African American who started life as a slave but ended as a missionary who traveled overseas. Is medicine more to your liking? In addition to the Civil War story I knew, I was introduced to Florence Seibert, who worked in the TB test.

These are just a few of the tales that were new to me. Depending on what era of history you've concentrated on the most, your experience will vary, but I'd wager that almost anyone picking up this book will find quite a few new faces staring back at them, with a short set of pages ready to tell you why they are important.

Short is the operative word here. I do admit that, while I like my biographies brief, these sketches are only slightly longer than an encyclopedia entry (does anyone use an encyclopedia anymore?) and thus are lacking in depth. This book is clearly meant to be a sampler, which makes it ideal for the casual reader or a student.

It's the latter group that I think can most benefit from this book. It's important for young people to realize that while we always focus on the biggest names from any conflict or issue, there are a lot of Americans, of all races, genders, and social standing, who came together at one point or another to make this country what it is today. Highlighting women, some famous, some not so well known, gives a student a better sense of context and also gives a chance to look further, if they're so inclined. This is also true of adult readers, of course, but I think it's crucial that a person learning their sense of the world and sense of self see that while George Washington might lead the battle, it takes the Lydia Darraghs of the world to help him do it.

Remarkable Pennsylvania Women may not be a remarkable book, but it is a good introduction to the lesser known side of history. I learned a lot from its brief pages, and would recommend it to anyone who is looking for insight into the role of women, particularly those in Pennsylvania, in the making of America.

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