An (Immortal) Women’s History Month Reading List

I love books, and here are three of my favorites for March reading.

By Rinku Sen Mar 18, 2011

The most enduring love of my life has been with reading, and you can expect me to go on and on in this space about books that made a big difference to me. Here are three great ones that should be on everybody’s Women’s History Month list. They are all about women who are immortal in some way.

  1. Cleopatra, by Stacy Schiff. Schiff won the Pulitzer for this biography of the Queen of Egypt, I think because she so totally redefines Cleopatra. I read this pageturner entirely on my iPhone because I could not wait to get an actual book. It turns out that Cleopatra was not beautiful, not even a little bit. But she was very, very smart. Her charisma came from being extremely well educated and interested in everybody who crossed her path. Schiff does a brilliant job of positioning Cleopatra as the leader of the world’s wealthiest nation at the end of the ancient era, and of locating the original whorish image in the writings of men who resented her power. Apparently Angelina Jolie will play her in the movie, which is too bad, as she is obviously too pretty to represent properly.

  2. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks died at Johns Hopkins after receiving indigent care for cervical cancer in the "colored" ward. Doctors took a sample of her cells without her knowledge and sent it to researchers. Scientists had tried for years to grow human cells outside the body so that they could see how disease worked and test medicines. Henrietta’s cells were the first ever to reproduce in a lab, and they have continued to do that ever since. They’ve been used to understand HPV and cervical cancer, to refine the polio vaccine, and to develop AIDS treatments. Skloot tells the story of Henrietta’s family, who learned of this 20 years after the fact, along with the story of the science, along with the story of Henrietta’s deaf and epileptic daughter who was institutionalized and also the subject of experiments. The book gives us a very personal perspective on the long and shameful history of medical testing on poor people and people of color.

  3. Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler. This is one of Butler’s classic novels, and I remembered how much I loved it when Feministing asked me about my favorite fictional heroine. It starts in Africa in 1690 and spans many generations and two continents. The book’s narrative and moral center is Anyanwu, a shape shifter whose immortality comes from her ability to heal herself from any injury or disease. She refuses to have children because she doesn’t want to watch them die, but eventually meets Doro, who promises her offspring who will live forever, too. Doro gets his life force from taking over the bodies of other people. So she lives by healing, and he lives by killing, and their union highlights the clash between their fundamental natures. Butler messes with your sense of male and female, as her creations each take on the other gender at different times, and it is a beautiful exploration of desire, power, and love.