With International Women’s Day just around the corner (March 8th), my mailbox has been rattling with the arrival of books celebrating women’s contribution to history, science, and culture. Starting with Anna Russell’s So Here I Am, the next few Word Wednesday posts will take a look at all the excellent books I’ve been sent.
What is So Here I Am?
“Discover the inspiring voices that have changed our world and started a new conversation.”
So Here I Am is a collection of speeches by women from around the world. The blurb on the back claims it’s the first and only book of its kind. I can’t corroborate whether this is true, but it’s certainly the first I’ve seen. The blurb continues, “So Here I Am is about women speaking up – within politics, science, human rights and media; discussing everything from free love, anti-war, scientific discoveries, race, gender and women’s rights.”
That pretty much encapsulates it all!
The nuts and bolts of the book are as follows:
So Here I Am is a medium format hardback with a matte cover. The blocky graphic of the cover sets the tone for the interior illustrations too. It’s presented in the same way as books such as Bedtimes Stories for Rebel Girls and Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different, with each entry having an illustration of the speech-maker, alongside a page of text. Many of the entries have 3 pages. In addition to the text and picture, there is often a large print quote of a powerful soundbite from the speech.
The book’s text includes biographical information about the speech-maker and then the text of the speech. Some of the speeches are edited to keep the volume of the book manageable and to allow the power of the words to shine through.
So Here I am is 176 pages and features 55 women, from Elizabeth I, on the Spanish Armada, to Maya Lin’s SVA commencement address. Other notable inclusions are Sojourner Truth, Marie Curie, Eva Peron, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Margaret Thatcher, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.K. Rowling, Hilary Clinton, Malala Yousafzai, and Michelle Obama.
The book opens with contents and Helen Russell’s introduction. The contents page is not just a list of women’s name. Each entry includes the title of the speech. At the back of the book, there’s an additional list of inspirational women, suggested further reading, credits for the text and resources to help the full speech text. So Here I Am does contain some adult themes and language, but with guidance, the book could be a source of inspiration for children aged 10 and upwards.
Why Read So Here I Am?
The introduction to So Here I Am? opens with “Can you think of speech by a woman?” This is terrifyingly hard to do. I could think of Margaret Thatcher’s “This lady’s not for turning speech,” (which probably tells you something about my age) and Emma Watson’s recent speech about HeforShe, which probably tells you something about my gender.
The difficulty of recalling great oratory from the female half of humanity tells us why a book like this is needed. So Here I Am provides inspiration from across time and geography, whilst informing readers about the prevalent social conditions of the time. Russell points out in her introduction the difficulty of obtaining accurate transcriptions of speeches much beyond the 1800s, and more recently than that, in many parts of the world.
This explains why there is only 1 speech from before 1829 (Elizabeth I, a woman ahead of time) and why many of the first entries are from the US and Great Britain. It is interesting to note that many of the initial speeches center around the abolition of slavery. It is also noteworthy, that many of the early speeches given in this book were given by the profoundly devout.
Like many of the books I’ve reviewed for Word Wednesday, So Here I Am is perfect for home and school libraries. It’s a great jumping off point for homework assignments that focus on social history events and movements. It’s also filled with excellent subjects beyond the usually well-trampled lanes of inspirational figures. I prefer So Here I Am to books like Dare to be Different because it feels less subjective. The biography sections are dispassionate, allowing the words of the women themselves to show us who they were.
It’s quite embarrassing how few of the women listed I’d heard of. Another reason why these types of books are so important: They allow easy access to information about a host of interesting people. The decision to include the speech titles on the contents page is inspired. I may not be prompted to find out who Nellie McClung is, but “Should Men Vote?” is far more inspiring, as is “Freedom or Death,” “Y’all Better Quiet Down,” and “A Left-Handed Commencement Address.” It’s hard not to want to read those!
So Here I Am is riding the crest of a wave that is seeing colorful, biography anthologies regularly hit bestseller lists. It thoroughly deserves to be up there with them. The book brings something genuinely different to the table that marks it out from the rest of the spread. By putting the life of the subject in the context of their words, it presents not only a fascinating snapshot of the person in question but also the prevailing social attitudes of the time. This is an excellent book that can inspire the next generation of speaker and thinkers, whether they be male or female.
If you enjoyed this book, do check out my other Word Wednesday posts. Last week’s Leaders Who Changed History, may well be of interest.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am convinced, just as we found the strength in the 20th Century to tear down a wall made of barbed wire and concrete, today we have the strength to overcome the walls of the 21st Century, walls in our minds, wall of short-sighted self interest, walls between present and the future.”
Angela Merkel in 2009 quoted from So Here I Am.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in order to write this review.