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Writing from the Library Winter 2021

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Three authors of recent works of biography—about pioneering women doctors, journalists reporting from Europe in the mid 20th century, and an environmental activist within a Black internationalist movement—relied on Schlesinger collections for their research.

Janice P. Nimura, The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine (W. W. Norton, 2021) 

Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell hold the distinction of being the first and third women doctors in the United States, respectively. Despite their achievements, these members of the illustrious Blackwell Family—whose papers, now digitized, are held in the Schlesinger—are hardly household names. But a new biography by Janice P. Nimura, researched using the collection, elevates their lives and work without simplifying either. “The broad outlines of their lives could have made for a salutary tale about the formidable achievements of pioneering women,” says Jennifer Szal in a New York Times review. “Instead, Nimura—a gifted storyteller whose previous book, Daughters of the Samurai, recounted another narrative of women’s education and emancipation—offers something stranger and more absorbing.”

The biography offers that Elizabeth was driven neither by a love of medicine nor an interest in women’s rights; in her autobiography, she wrote of being repulsed by the body, and she opposed women’s suffrage. And despite closely observing her father’s terminal illness (likely from malarial complications), she did not cite that experience as inspiration for her chosen path. “Instead,” writes Casey Cep in a New Yorker review, “she describes how a female friend encouraged her to consider medicine: ‘If I could have been treated by a lady doctor,’ Blackwell remembers her saying, ‘my worst sufferings would have been spared me.’”

Elizabeth possessed deep confidence in her own abilities—and decisions—and she recruited her sister to follow in her footsteps. “Emily was six years younger, and her legacy has been obscured by her sister’s pioneering example, yet Nimura makes the case that it was Emily who truly loved the practice of medicine, and that her partnership was vital to their shared success,” writes Joanna Scutts in another New York Times review. Neither sister was satisfied with the teaching or practice of medicine at the time, and they went on to further revolutionize the profession by opening the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children and, later, the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary. (Albeit grudgingly, as neither sister had particular confidence in the temperament or abilities of other women.)

“To her credit, Nimura … doesn’t strain to fit the sisters into the narrow shape allowed to feminist pioneers, as either virtuous role models or ‘badass’ rebels against society,” says Scutts. “Instead, they emerge as spiky, complicated human beings, who strove and stumbled toward an extraordinary achievement, and then had to learn what to do with it.” 

Nancy F. Cott, Fighting Words: The Bold American Journalists Who Brought the World Home between the Wars (Basic Books, 2020)

Nancy F. Cott’s most recent book is a group biography of four journalists—John Gunther, Rayna Raphaelson, James Vincent Sheean, and Dorothy Thompson—working in Europe between the world wars. “They were young and restless Americans who each went recklessly abroad and reinvented themselves as international journalists while living very tumultuous personal lives,” Cott, who is the Jonathan Trumbull Research Professor of American History at Harvard and former Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library, told the Harvard Gazette in a Q and A.

During her research, Cott consulted the Schlesinger-housed papers of Frances Fineman Gunther, the wife of John Gunther and a journalist herself. According to the finding aid, the collection contains book manuscripts, diaries, correspondence, notes, photographs, and clippings that “document the personal and intellectual development of a modern Jewish woman and her impact on others.” According to Cott, “The opinions of those one is with intimately, or in friendship networks and social networks, are influential in terms of opinions that may be expressed professionally. They certainly were for these people. These things are relevant; they’re part of the historical data one should be consulting when writing about any individual. Bringing the two together is important.” A Kirkus review, which calls the book “a revelatory history of a time when journalism was respected and vital,” validates Cott’s approach. 

Quito Swan, Pauulu’s Diaspora: Black Internationalism and Environmental Justice (University Press of Florida, 2020)

The efforts of the 20th-century environmental activist Pauulu Kamarakafego offer a jumping-off point for Quito Swan’s in-depth look at Black internationalism across the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. In New Books Network, Amanda Joyce Hall calls the book “an enchanting, magisterial, broadly researched monograph that illuminates the social life of Black Power politics across the African diaspora from the 1950s through the 1980s.” Kamarakafego—born Roosevelt Brown in 1932, in Bermuda—earned a doctoral degree in ecological engineering from the California Institute of Technology and went on to work closely with the United Nations and other nongovernmental organizations on renewable resources and sustainability. In 1969, he also organized the First Regional International Black Power Conference, in Bermuda. “Scholars seeking to understand the enduring and far-reaching entailments of Black radical politics should study this path-breaking book on Black internationalism,” writes Hall.

Swan conducted research at the Schlesinger during his year at Radcliffe as a 2017–2018 ACLS Frederick Burkhardt Fellow. There, he referenced the papers of Ana Livia Cordero and of Shirley Graham DuBois (the two women separately became citizens of a newly independent Ghana in 1961). In addition to thanking his fellow fellows, Swan acknowledges the efforts of Library staff, especially Kenvi Phillips, the Schlesinger’s curator for race and ethnicity. He is now a professor of Africana studies and the director of the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black Culture at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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