Happy May Day whether you celebrate it as an activist or a pagan. Or even as “Law Day,U.S.A.” as declared by President Dwight Eisenhower. I’m celebrating it by appreciating picture books showing the accomplishments of four women who paved the way for equality. You can celebrate these women by giving one of the books to a young reader you know or donating one—or more—to a library.
Two centuries ago, Belle Baumfree was famous for her escape to freedom from her slavery under cruel masters. The Pinkneys, Andrea and Brian, have written a powerful portrait of her that begins with the ugliness of slavery and moves into her mesmerizing speeches of abolition and feminism, demanding equal rights for blacks and women. Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride (Jump at the Sun Books/Disney, 2009) speaks with the same energetic fire shown by tall, black, and beautiful Sojourner who changed her name from Belle. The bold yellows and oranges match the lively narrative about how her courage helped change America. The climax of this book is her famous “And ain’t I a woman” at a women’s rights convention in Akron,Ohio, in 1851, in answer to the claims from men that women are too weak to deserve equal rights. This version of Sojourner’s exciting story has headed up Oprah’s reading list for kids.
Today’s woman can go out into the world, find a job, and ride bicycles. These tasks were much more difficult for Tillie Anderson at the end of the nineteenth century. Sue Stauffacher’s Tillie the Terrible Swede: How One Woman, a Sewing Needle, and a Bicycle Changed History, illustrated by Sarah McMenemy ( Knopf, 2011), describes how she came to America with little more than a needle, leading her to get a job in a tailer shop. When she wanted to follow her dream of racing bicycles, people told her, “bicycles aren’t for ladies.” Tillie took her needle, made shocking clothes, and became the women’s bicycle-riding champion of the world. She set an example when she refused to let expectations for women stop her from her dream. Children (and some adults) won’t believe the visual reactions shown in the book to Tillie’s adventures as the men in the Associated Cycling Clubs said, “Too man-like and that is a great sin.”
This month the author, dressed in clothing much like Tillie wore, will ride from Grand Rapids (MI) where she learned about Tillie to Chicago (IL) where the young Swedish immigrant worked in a tailor shop and started her bicycle racing. Along the way she plans to stop to tell young people about the Tillie’s lessons of fitness, perseverance, and independence.
Until the last century women were prevented from participating in sports. Even then they had to fight for the same rights as men. One example is the story of Agnes Morley, sent from her New Mexico ranch to Stanford University to become a lady. Instead she participated in the first women’s intercollegiate game in 1896 between Stanford and Berkeley. Action-packed paintings from Matt Collins illustrate Sue Macy’s Basketball Belles: How Two Teams and One Scrappy Player Put Women’s Hoops on the Map (Holiday House, 2011). The author’s note gives information about the game, the history of women’s basketball, and Morley’s life, including her writing the award-winning memoir, No Life for a Lady.
A few years later, an activist who believed that black people should own the businesses where they shopped and worked, took on the male-dominated field of baseball, co-owning the Newark Eagles, a Negro League team. Born about the same time when Agnes Morley played basketball in the first women’s intercollegiate game, Effa Manley fought against the mantra of racism, “That’s just the way things are.” Throughout her 84 years she fought for black rights. As a result, she was the first—and only—woman to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Audrey Vernick’s She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story, illustrated by Don Tate (Collins/Balzer + Bray, 2011), shows how Manley fought racial and sexist injustices.
Kirkus Reviews has provided a list of other books about women who blazed the trail for today’s female athletes.