A History of Women in 101 Objects by Annabelle Hirsch

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I don’t remember where I saw a reference to this very new book; the only major newspaper review I have seen was done by The Guardian and only 29 people have written about it in Goodreads. I’m hoping it will receive the appreciation I believed it deserves. I was intrigued by the unique idea of 101 readers, many you’ve heard of, reading seven or eight minute descriptions of a wide range of objects that have a connection to the history of women. Readers included Gillian Anderson, Mariam Margolyes, Rebecca Solnit, Sandi Toksvig.

The first was perhaps the best and most memorable for me: ¬†when asked what the first sign of human civilization was, Margaret Mead answered that it was a healed human femur. In the natural world if an animal breaks a bone, it won’t survive. Bone finds indicate a human with a healed femur survived in circa 30,000 BC. Someone brought that person food and drink and looked after them. The author makes the case that in contrast to the stereotype of stone age life, both men and women knew that hunting and conquering were no more vital to the community than caring for others. Whether that’s the case or not, I like to think that both genders appropriately valued caretaking in the past and recognized its importance.

Before I read this book the only Lilith I knew about was the fictional character on Cheers and Frazier who was Frazier’s wife. I learned that in Hebrew and Mesopotamian mythology, Lilith was the first wife of Adam. She was created from the same dust as Adam and was equal to him, not subservient. They were not happy about the arrangement and squabbled over who would be on top during sex. She left and took on a role as a she-demon, a killer of babies who only spared the ones with a Lilith Amulet. And then there’s Eve, blamed for all the ills of the world because she couldn’t resist the temptation of the apple.

On a more positive note, it was fun to read about The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, an eleventh century novel said to be the first novel. Murasaki was a lady-in-waiting at the Heian court writing about the life of a courtier. I read an abridged version in the pre-blog days while a work-mate read the full 1174 pages during lunch each day. I have a vague recollection of enjoying reading it.

Another eye-opener for me was the use of Monsieur and Madame Curie’s discovery, radium. It was thought to be a healthful substance and was added to many things, including, oddly, chocolate. The advertising said the radium was added to the chocolate in such a way that the radium went directly to the blood stream which allows it to reach all the organs. Adding radium to lipstick, powder, toothpaste, and eyeglasses was a selling point at the beginning of the 20th century.

Annabelle Hirsch, A History of Women in 101 Objects, Crown, 2024, 432 pages (I listened to the audiobook).

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