I first stumbled upon Svetlana Alexievich’s work about ten years ago, when I visited the library and randomly picked up a copy of her brilliant Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of Nuclear Disaster. Of course, Alexievich has been around much longer than that; Voices from Chernobyl was published 20 years ago, and she’s been chronicling Soviet history for decades now. She garnered a lot of critical acclaim in 2013 with Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, and I finally made the connection between her and Voices from Chernobyl when she won the well-deserved 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for her unique way of blending a chorus of voices into her oral history storytelling.
Luckily, that Nobel Prize has created a push for her works to be republished and translated for broader audiences. Her first book, The Unwomanly face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, was first published in 1985. It was recently translated into English by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and published in hardcover in the United States about a month ago. The introduction includes journal excerpts from the years she spent collection the oral histories, but it also includes newer insights and a few clips that the censors had taken out of the original version.
A century ago, radium was one of the most exciting wonders of modern times. Not only could it make things glow in the dark, it also had healing properties that could be used for medicinal purposes. Then America went to war, and the demand for radium products skyrocketed. In 1917, many young women from Newark, New Jersey were presented with the opportunity to work for the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation. Painting radium on watch dials paid well, and the positions were highly sought. The women, most in their late teens and early twenties, were taught how to mix radium — a fine powder that floated everywhere — with water to create a paint. To get a fine enough point on their paintbrush, they were instructed to put the brush tips between their lips. Lip…dip…paint.
The Newark plant was rather strict about how much of their product was used, and the women were reprimanded if any was wasted. Demand for radium products increased, and a second plant in Ottawa, Illinois was opened. There, they weren’t so strict. Radium was fun — and healthy! — and the girls were allowed to take leftovers home to paint on their skin and clothing; their fashionable glow made them the envy at dances.
I’m giving away several books throughout March in honor of Women’s History Month.
Win a copy of this book, courtesy of yours truly! Read on for more information.
Marie Antoinette symbolizes many things to many people, but the things that usually stand out are “let them eat cake,” and the sky-high pouf hairstyles. Carefully cultivated from birth to adopt the mannerisms and grace of a future queen, the young Austrian Archduchess learned early on that appearances were everything. What she could not have been prepared for was the idea that her body and personal space would no longer be her own. As her entourage crossed the future Dauphine from Austria into France, the mortified fourteen-year-old was stripped naked before a mixed audience of men and women and changed into French attire. From that moment on, she would be forced to follow French royal protocol and have people ritually dress and undress her, and would be expected to adhere to the established fashions of the French nobility.
Very early on, encouraged by people she naively trusted, she rebelled by refusing to wear the painful corsets worn by members of the royal family. The backlash was instant: rumors spread that her posture was lopsided and deformed because of her refusal to wear the corsets. Though she quickly acquiesced and began wearing the dreaded corsets again, some of the rumors persisted even after her death. What she was quickly learning, however, was that the ways in which she adorned and presented her body were powerful. As she grew older, she would use her fashions and hairstyles to challenge the passive roles expected of her and assert herself politically. It worked to her advantage at first, when she was a young and beautiful girl who endeared herself to the nation. Ultimately, it would contribute to her downfall. Either way, it would make her an icon.
Caroline Weber’s Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution is not your typical biography. Though Marie Antoinette’s life is examined, the major focus is on her sartorial choices and their cultural implications (“let them eat cake,” for example, was a loaded — and fabricated — statement largely due to the all the flour that went into powdering the pouf hairstyles that Marie Antoinette had made all the rage).
Caroline Moorhead’s A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France tells the startling story of what would come to be known as the “31,000 Convoi,” a group of 230 non-Jewish French women from all over France who were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in January 1942 for their roles in the French resistance against the Nazis and the Vichy government. The women came from all walks of life and ranged in age from 16 to 67; most would perish in the ensuing two years as they struggled to survive at Birkenau, a brutal women’s camp at Auschwitz. By forging strong bonds of friendship and support, the women figured out ways to help each other survive; as horror upon horror was forced upon them, the women quickly learned that sticking together was their only means of survival.
Auschwitz — and by extension Birkenau — was an extermination camp whose sole purpose was to “process” over 4,000 people per day. The majority of people were taken straight from the trains to the gas chambers, while the people who were deemed the strongest were sent to be worked to death. Although all of the French women were sent to the camp to work, more than half had died within the first two and a half months. Those who weren’t beaten or worked to death, or mauled by the guards’ dogs, succumbed to the typhus and dysentery that swept the camps. Still more died from the harsh winters; roll calls started at four in the morning and lasted several hours, and women were made to stand in those freezing temperatures in their thin clothing and inadequate shoes. As their numbers dwindled, the remaining survivors clung to each other and took care of one another, especially when one of them fell ill.
It was hard to wrap my head around all of the cruelties that the women experienced. It was unfathomable for the women as well; when they were told they were going to Auschwitz, the name meant nothing to them, as the public knew almost nothing about what went on in those camps. They arrived when Auschwitz was just getting to it’s most “productive” period, but had no idea about the unsanitary conditions of the camp or the cruelties meted out by the guards. When they arrived and were forced to walk around a dead body, they were shocked.