March is Women's History Month. City Lights Publishers is celebrating this with the release of their new book, "Rad American Women A to Z: Rebels, Trailblazers and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History ... And Our Future!" This week L.A. Letters highlights this important book and adds a few more names to the 26 movers and shakers featured in its pages.
Written by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl, "Rad American Women A to Z" coincides with the 60th anniversary of City Lights, who for the first time in their illustrious history are publishing a book for a children's audience. The intended readership for the book is age 8 and up, and especially geared for young women entering their teens and early adulthood. In many ways, the book is a roadmap for young minds interested in social justice by profiling some key figures directly involved in engaging that process.
The author explains the rationale behind creating the book in a press release from City Lights: "Studies repeatedly show that girls' self-esteem begins to plummet as they approach puberty, with problems manifesting as early as the age of seven. Boys, too, begin to learn to devalue the role of girls and women during this stage of development." This volume responds to this problem, "By offering a fresh and diverse array of female role models, we hope to inspire young readers -- both girls and boys -- to realize their own worth and to be true to its potential by being smart, strong, and brave."
Among the 26 women selected in the work there are several well-known figures like Angela Davis, Billie Jean King, Carol Burnett, Dolores Huerta, Florence Griffith-Joyner, the Grimke Sisters, Patti Smith, Rachel Carson, Sonia Sotomayor, Ursula LeGuin, and Zora Neale Hurston. Some of the women may be less known, but equally significant, like gender theorist Kate Bornstein, Chinese-American sculptor Maya Lin, and the groundbreaking journalist Nellie Bly, among many others.
"Every single one of these individuals changed America in some way," writes Schatz in the Introduction. "Each one worked hard and believed in herself, even when others expressed doubt or said no. These rad women have all said, 'Yes I can.'"
Schatz also explicates the use of the word "rad." She writes, "What does it mean to be 'rad'? Well, it means a few things. 'Rad' is short for 'radical,' which comes from the Latin word meaning 'from the root.' So a radical person can be someone like Ella Baker, who did grassroots organizing. A radical can be a person who wants to make big changes in society, like Angela Davis and the Grimke sisters, who fought to end discrimination of all kinds."
In the next several paragraphs I want to spotlight some of the women featured in the book, with a specific focus on women who were active in Los Angeles and California.
The first woman spotlighted in the book with the heading, "A is for Angela," is Angela Davis. Famed for her work in the Black Panther Party, Davis became very well-known from her early 20s because of her superb writing skills and powerful public peaking ability. Born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, in a neighborhood called "Dynamite Hill," because of the frequent Ku Klux Klan activity, Davis began her education in the segregated schools of the South. By her teen years, she received a scholarship to attend high school in New York City. She became politicized during this time in the Civil Rights Movement and was an awarded a scholarship to Brandeis University. Along the way she studied with the philosopher Herbert Marcuse and went on to get her Masters at UC San Diego and her doctorate from Humboldt University in East Berlin. Davis was such a rising star as a thinker and political activist, that she was a Professor at UCLA by 1969. Her influence was so strong that Ronald Reagan, the California Governor at the time encouraged the UC Regents to fire her for her political beliefs. Though Reagan proved to be successful in getting her fired in 1970, the public was outraged and Davis has gone on to have a very distinguished career, writing nine books and teaching at a number of other universities over the last 45 years.
Following Davis is "B is for Billie Jean King." Born in Long Beach, Billie Jean King is one of the greatest female tennis players of all time. King attended Polytechnic (Poly) High School in Long Beach, the legendary school known for producing the most NFL players, as well as Cameron Diaz and Snoop Dogg. After graduating from Poly, King attended Cal State L.A. By her late teen years she was winning international tournaments. Throughout her career she won all four Grand Slam events and won a record 20 career titles at Wimbledon -- six singles, ten women's doubles, and four mixed doubles. Beyond her prowess on the tennis court, King is also an advocate for sexual equality. In 1973, she defeated former tennis champ, Bobby Riggs, in front of 30,000 people at the Houston Astrodome in an event called "The Battle of the Sexes." Originally she refused Riggs' invitation, but he kept challenging her and publicly bullying her with sexist teasing. After beating Riggs she noted, "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match." For this reason and many more, she was the first female athlete to be selected Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated Magazine. King also went on to being one of the first professional athletes to publicly acknowledge that she is gay. In 2009 President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. There are tennis centers named after her in Long Beach and at Cal State L.A.
"C is for Carol Burnett," the groundbreaking comedian who grew up poor in Los Angeles. Burnett had originally been born in Texas and moved to her grandmother's one-room apartment in the poor part of Hollywood when she was 8 to get away from her combative, alcoholic parents. After graduating from Hollywood High in 1951, Burnett attended UCLA where she originally planned to pursue journalism. Along the way, she discovered she loved playwriting and theater, and she became active in several theatrical productions on campus. Burnett's talent attracted attention and she was invited to New York in her early 20s where she worked on Broadway, in television, and on stage as a comedian. She was one of the first women to headline at Carnegie Hall in an event she performed in with her friend Julie Andrews. She also was mentored by Lucille Ball during the early 1960s as her career began to take off. By 1967, Burnett had her own variety show. "Back then, variety shows were the most popular shows on TV, and only men hosted them," explains Schatz in the book. Her show went on to air for 11 years and won more than 25 awards. A funny local story about Burnett is that she briefly worked at the Warner Brothers Movie Palace on Hollywood Boulevard in her teen years and was fired. A number of years later when she was awarded a Hollywood Star on the Walk of Fame, she chose to have her star in front of the Warner Brothers Movie Palace. In more ways than one, Carol Burnett has had the last laugh.
"D is for Dolores Huerta," the pioneering labor activist born in Stockton, California. Huerta began her career as a school teacher and gradually got involved as a community organizer for farm workers' rights. As time went on, she met Cesar Chavez and together they created the United Farm Worker Association. Huerta not only made a difference in the labor laws, she fought sexism in her own community. The author recounts a story that explains more: "One day, at a meeting of other important leaders, she decided to write down every insulting comment about women that she heard. At the end, she told the men in the group, 'During the course of this meeting, you guys made 58 sexist remarks.' Many of the men were surprised -- they hadn't even realized the rude things they were saying! During the next meeting, Dolores counted 30 sexist comments. Slowly but surely, the men changed their ways, until there were zero offensive comments." Huerta has gone on to win many awards including the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights from President Bill Clinton and being selected by the Ladies Home Journal as one of the 100 Most Influential Women of the 20th Century.
"O is for Odetta Holmes," better known as the legendary musician Odetta. Odetta was dubbed by Dr. Martin Luther King, "Queen of American Folk Music." Similar to Angela Davis, Odetta was born in the segregated world of Birmingham, Alabama. Her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 7 years old. During her Los Angeles youth, Odetta attended Belmont High School and Los Angeles City College. She trained as a classical singer in these years and performed musical theater. Many thought she was on her way to becoming a famous opera singer. As fate would have it though, she went to San Francisco and fell in love with the folk music scene of the 1950s. She related to the stories told by the folk singers and soon began performing her own folk music in the clubs and coffeehouses. Odetta pioneered her own style of folk which combined the blues and gospel she had grown up with. She recorded several popular albums and began touring across America and the world. Her ascendance occurred at the same time as the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and she found herself frequently sharing stages with MLK, including events like the 1963 March on Washington. Odetta went on to perform in front of several presidents and was a favorite of Rosa Parks. Similar to Dolores Huerta, she was also awarded by President Bill Clinton. Artists like Harry Belafonte and Bob Dylan cite her as a major influence. Odetta had hoped to perform at Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009, but died in December 2008 just a month before. Nonetheless, Odetta will forever remain a towering individual in the American musical and cultural landscape.
"Y is for Yuri Kochiyama," the Japanese-American author and activist, originally born in San Pedro in 1921. After attending San Pedro High School and then Compton College, her life changed forever in December 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Shortly after the war began, her home was raided and her father was put in federal prison because they thought he might be a spy. He was already sick and while in prison he was denied medical care. By the time of his release in early 1942, he was too sick to speak and he died the day after he was set free. During this same period, Yuri Kochiyama and other members of her family were placed in internment camps. Yuri met her husband in the camp. After three long years, they were released in 1945 and decided to move to New York City. While living in New York, Yuri became politicized after working in a restaurant with almost all black employees. Their stories of the segregated South corroborated with her own experiences in the internment camp and the death of her father. As the Civil Rights Movement picked up steam, Yuri became an activist and held meetings in her family's apartment. She rallied for better schools in Harlem and became close friends with Malcolm X. She was there the day he was assassinated and held him in her arms as he lay dying. Yuri continued her activism over the years and became an important mentor to the Asian American movement. Her ability to build coalitions between different groups became a model emulated by the activists who followed her. Similar to the many other women listed earlier in this essay, she won many awards and was the subject of many books and documentary films. Though Yuri Kochiyama died in June 2014, she accomplished several lifetimes of work in her 93 years.
In the final pages of the book, the author acknowledges: "There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, and there are thousands of rad women stories to be shared." Schatz's answer to this, is a suggestion for her readers. "They can't all fit in this book -- but hey," she writes "maybe you can write one too!" I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment and have written a similar statement in previous articles I've authored. Before closing out this column, I would like to follow her lead and mention two Los Angeles women that belong in this conversation. They are Janice Lee and Monalisa Murray.
Janice Lee is a Los Angeles based writer, editor, professor and advocate of the Southern California literary community. Still in her early 30s, she has already authored four books, worked as a professor at Cal Arts, and mentored dozens of young writers in her classes and workshops. Lee is the Executive Editor of the popular poetry website, Entropy Magazine. Chiwan Choi from Writ Large Press says, "Sometimes, I'm so blown away by all the work Janice Lee does editing, publishing, archiving, and promoting literary works and community, that I forget she is also the author of many things, including one of my favorite books of all time, 'Damnation.' That book wrecked me in a way that I could feel something in the way I see and experience the world had shifted permanently." Lee publishes frequently, does many public readings and teaches several classes. She is well on her way towards radical woman status.
Monalisa Murray is an equally prolific woman that has had a major role in the Los Angeles music community. Not only is she one of the city's best DJs, she has played a major role in local venues like Project Blowed and has been present in the underground hip hop scene dating back to the Good Life Café in the early 1990s. Murray has mentored many young DJs and MCs for over two decades. Murray knows the history of music better than most and has also worked at Amoeba Records for a number of years. She is the only female member of the celebrated Los Angeles DJ crew, Umoja Hi-Fi. She joins DJ Destroyer, Jun, Cokni O Dire, Tomas, Culture D and DJ Daz. DJ Destroyer aka Aaron Paar says, "'not only is she well versed in the hip hop genre, she is also very well versed in funk, disco, rock, and dance music across the soul spectrum. She encompasses what is right about a DJ in what she selects at the right time and loves the music she plays." She carries on this legacy over several generations -- her grandfather grew up on Central Avenue in its legendary jazz scene. Murray is dedicated to the music and her city.
As the author of "Rad American Women A to Z," notes, there are thousands of progressive women to acknowledge and they can never receive enough coverage. I want to echo her sentiments and encourage readers out there to share their stories and write their own testimonials about those they feel are deserving.
This book also reaches me on a personal level because my 5 year old daughter recently asked me why there were so many men and not more female characters or personalities featured in all the different books we read before she goes to sleep. We have never set out to read books about men, but it just so happens that even the classic children's books feature a disproportionate amount of men. She has asked me the question several times over the last few weeks. For this reason and more, when I read this book last week, the meaning really struck a chord.
"Rad American Women A to Z" helps to remedy the need for more female representation in books and the world at large. Author Kate Schatz and the illustrator Miriam Klein Stahl are both longtime educators and committed to social justice. They have both also been involved with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag campaign. Their new book is a valuable contributor to this campaign on multiple levels. Salute to City Lights, all the women listed in the book, and the author and illustrator for being groundbreaking touchstones in the landscape of American and L.A. Letters.