History vs. Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don’t Want You To Know: A Review

“We’re finding it quite tiring that rather than being celebrated as heroes, leaders, and innovators, women are often depicted — and treated — as secondary characters in history.”

Anita Sarkeesian and Dr. Ebony Adams introduce their newest collaborative piece, History vs Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don’t Want You To Know, with the above statement. Articulate, captivating, and reflective of a sad but realistic truth, Sarkeesian and Adams immediately invite their readers to stop and think—where have we inserted women in the scope of our extensive and largely biased grasp of history? If you were to a take a moment and attempt a quick calculation, you would find that the scale of history, both oral and written, tends to lean heavily in favor of men’s contributions, while women are forced onto the sidelines, or discarded completely.

Anita Sarkeesian and Dr. Ebony Adams have thus embarked on the critical task of shedding light on so many important but forgotten histories in order to reframe the narrative that women are only capable of playing supporting roles.  From motorcycle enthusiasts to ruthless pirates to the world’s first prima ballerina, History vs Women presents a variety of lesser known or previously undiscovered stories that showcase women’s ability to defy traditional social, cultural, and gender roles in favor of pursuing personal goals. So put aside Newton’s apple and Galileo’s telescope. One can only recite so many times when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Here are 25 stories that will simply blow your mind because, morals aside, these women attempted, and succeeded, at feats that transcend the standards of time.

What do a third-century Vietnamese warrior and a twentieth-century Egyptian activist have in common? They are both reckless rebels!

History vs Women is divided into five riveting sections…

Reckless Rebels

Revelatory Scholars

Ruthless Villains

Restless Artists

Relentless Amazons

The book thus covers, and honors, a variety of different yet equally fascinating histories. Reckless Rebels showcases five women who through their outspoken defiance of social injustice and gender roles, challenged the status quo of their present societies and dared to dream a tomorrow of their own making. Fun fact: did you know Sikhism was saved from extinction by a woman?

Revelatory Scholars praises the intellectual contribution that women have made to society, and sadly but unsurprisingly remained uncredited for. You might be interested in learning that the world’s oldest continually operational university was founded by a woman.

Ruthless Villains brings us face to face with moral reprehensibility and the recognition that women, like their male counterparts, are human, and are thus capable of some rather dark actions. But Sarkeesian and Adams challenge us (rightly so) to remember these women not as heroes to be admired for their deeds but as people who took women off the moral pedestal and leveled them to the same ambitious playing field that men have been praised for dominating. And while I’m sure you’ve heard of Pablo Escobar, have you ever stumbled across Griselda Blanco?

Relentless Artists exposes readers to a distinct group of women whose creativity has been devalued by time and the endless cycle of bias and repression. Nevertheless, a good deal of “firsts” across various artistic fields were achieved by women. For instance, The Tale of Genji “often considered the first modern novel,” (Sarkeesian/Adams 83) was written by a woman.

Relentless Amazons invites us to celebrate women for a trait commandeered by males both historically and in present times: physicality and strength. If you’re ever feeling down, it might comfort you to know that in the thirteenth century, a Mongolian warrior princess outwrestled every man vying for her hand in marriage. Satisfying right?

Photo: Anita Sarkeesian

I’ve only given a brief glance into the many fascinating stories that sit waiting to be discovered in History vs Women. As indicated, Sarkeesian and Adams have compiled a historiography of women across hundreds of years and thousands of miles in a valiant effort to credit women of various ethnicities and cultural and social backgrounds. 

At the same time, Sarkeesian and Adams are cognizant of a misbalance between the number of women represented from the West versus the number of women from non-western societies. In particular, the authors’ note they wish to bring to life more stories of women from sub-Saharan Africa and the global south. One barrier that sits between these stories, the authors, and their audience, is the lack of translatability of sources needed to clarify important background details and events. Nevertheless, Sarkeesian and Adams have already delivered 25 memorable histories that run the risk of being forgotten. They’d be hard-pressed to stop unearthing more, regardless of geographical and linguistic barriers.

Diverging from content, the book itself has a lovely style that makes it catch your eye from whichever bookshelf you choose to display it on. With a variety of rich colors, bold text, and meticulously emphasized quotations, History vs Women possesses an aesthetic that serves to enliven the reading experience starting with the title page. Perhaps one of the most beautiful, artistic qualities of the book are its illustrations. Sarkeesian and Adams collaborated with T.S. Abe to bring all 25 of our female protagonists to life before our eyes. The result is a gorgeously sketched, vibrant portrait that allows you to picture each heroine (or villain) as you learn her individual story.

Overall, Sarkeesian and Adams have crafted a book that is not only enrapturing in its content and stunning in its display but is accessible to all readers. Ultimately, History vs Women encourages you to not only honor the secret legacies of these 25 women but recognize that there is a never-ending list of stories that remain hidden, waiting to be told. So while History vs Women is a celebration, it is also a call to action. We must depict women as the primary characters in history. For clearly they have (and will continue to) earned their spot as sculptors of our world.

Photo: Ebony Adams

Want to learn more about History vs Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don’t Want You To Know? Anita Sarkeesian and Dr. Ebony Adams will be in Boston on Thursday, October 4 at Brookline Booksmith for a reading and a discussion of their book! Details can be found here. Not in the Boston area? No worries! Sarkeesian and Adams will be making their way across the United States, visiting a total of ten cities. Details can be found here. This is an event that you definitely don’t want to miss!


Want to keep up with HCBU? Make sure to like us on Facebook, follow us on Instagram, check out our Pinterest board, and read our latest Tweets!