by Fran Withrow Graphic Illustration by Doug Dobey
At first glance, you might think “The Little Book of Feminist Saints” has a religious bent, but though its idea came from the Catholic saint-of-the-day book, the focus is secular. Author Julia Pierpont presents us with one hundred feminist powerhouses: leaders, innovators, inventors, and artists.
The women featured come from around the world, from ancient times to present day. They are poets, politicians, journalists, and scientists. They are athletes and nuns, teachers and actors. And they all stand out for their fearlessness and courage in striving to make the world a better place.
As a further play on the idea of Catholic saints, each woman is given a title: artist Frida Kahlo is the Matron Saint of Color, and Malala Yousafzai is the Matron Saint of Students. I loved this idea, especially for women with whom I was unfamiliar. It gave me a sense of what is key about their lives, what drove them forward. Some were quite familiar to me: Anne Frank is the Matron Saint of Diarists, while some were not: Margaret Hamilton is the Matron Saint of Engineers. I had never even heard of her.
Manjit Thapp illustrated each woman with exquisite care. I loved her renderings of these heroes: she uses gorgeous colors, and gives each subject’s eyes such piercing expressiveness. On the facing page of each illustration is a short vignette about that woman, not a biography so much as a glimpse into the essence of her and her work.
Though the book is short, it took me a while to get through it. I would read an entry, then feel compelled to head to the internet to learn more. Thus I discovered the artwork of Kara Walker (Matron Saint of Confronting History). Her black and white silhouettes are gorgeous, though they might challenge the sensibilities of some viewers. I also spent a long time reading about Anna Politkovaskaya (Matron Saint of the Brave, and boy, is that title apt). Politkovaskaya was a Russian journalist who reported on “the life around us for those who cannot see it for themselves.” Her willingness to do so ended up costing her life.
Stellar women abound: Phillis Wheatley was the first black American to publish a volume of poems. Benazir Bhutto is the Matron Saint of Democracy. Wilma Mankiller was the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. These exemplary women crusaded for a fairer, more equal world for everyone, often against tremendous odds and by bucking societal expectations.
You can dip in and out of this little gem: open the book to any page, read about a remarkable woman, then put it down and come back later to learn about someone else. Or you can stay up all night, like I did, reading and researching, closing the book at last with a sense of gratitude for these gifted women. It is a humbling experience to contemplate just how many of them have paved the way for us, how many have stood up for equality everywhere.
Feminist saints, we salute you. You are role models for us all.
The Little Book of Feminist Saints
By Julia Pierpont