Beyond Susan B. Anthony: The 'Rad Women' of American History

Writer Kate Schatz and illustrator Miriam Klein Stahl, creators of Rad American Women A-Z. (Courtesy of City Lights Books / Sister Spit)

You could easily fill volumes with sung -- and unsung -- female heroes of American history. Thus, it was a real challenge for Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl, author and illustrator, respectively, of Rad American Women A - Z, to winnow the list to 26.

"Narrowing down the women was really the most challenging part about the project," Schatz tells KQED. About the only thing already decided was that Z was going to be for Zora Neale Hurston, a no-brainer, she says.

"Beyond that, we wanted to have a real mix," Schatz adds. "I wanted to prioritize women of color and maybe people who weren't as familiar. So right off the bat, some of the more heavy hitters of women's history were off the list. No disrespect to Susan B. Anthony, but she's in all the books. We wanted to go beyond that."

Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History offers an exhilarating run through artists, musicians, scientists, activists and athletes who have influenced life in America today. The women represented comprise a vibrant list spanning race, class and sexuality, including Patti Smith, Odetta, Angela Davis, Kate Bornstein, Lucy Parsons, Ursula K. LeGuin, Hazel Scott, the Grimke Sisters, Billie Jean King, Sonia Sotomayor, Temple Grandin, Wilma Mankiller, Jovita Idar, Maya Lin, Dolores Huerta, Carol Burnett and Ella Baker.

Book cover. (Courtesy of City Lights Books / Sister Spit)
Book cover. (Courtesy of City Lights Books / Sister Spit)

"It's obviously just a jumping-off point, and it could have been a list of 26,000 women," says Schatz. (Yes, a sequel is in the works.)

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Each one-page bio is written in a charming, easy-to-understand way, but with an underlying political consciousness that'll appeal to parents who've grown tired of an endless parade of trite and fluffy kid's books.

Schatz lives in Alameda with her husband and two kids, a girl and a boy ages six and two. As the Chair of Literary Programs at Oakland School for the Arts, she's well-familiar with the type of writing that appeals to a younger crowd. At the same time, her previous work, such as Rid of Me for 33 1/3 books (about PJ Harvey's album), was aimed at adults.

The idea for an A-Z guide to feminist and rad women came to Schatz about four years ago, when her daughter was still a toddler. But with another child on the way and a full-time job, starting the project wasn't easy.  Finally, in 2014,  she reached out to Miriam Klein Stahl, a Bay Area artist and teacher at Berkeley High School. Stahl has a long history making zines, and public and political art; her distinctive stencil-like portraits make a colorful, striking addition to the book.

"We're both moms, and we're both activists and artists," says Schatz. "Once we started collaborating, it all happened really fast."

When the book was finished, Stahl and Schatz compiled a list of independent publishers -- including City Lights -- that might be interested in putting it into the world. The legendary San Francisco independent press had a long history of supporting progressive literature, but they'd yet to release a children's book.

"We knew Michelle Tea was doing an imprint with City Lights, and we knew that she was pregnant and probably had babies on the mind," Schatz says with a laugh. "Kind of on a lark, we sent it to her, not really thinking it would happen. She loved it, and she went to City Lights with it, and they just got it. Even though they'd never done children's books, the message was right in line with their commitment to progressive literature and to free speech."

The book was an immediate hit, and not just among punk-rock parents. Released this past March, Rad American Women sold out of its first and second-print runs. A third printing is set to be released in early May. And while she'd thought the book would be popular among feminist moms and activist communities, Schatz says she was surprised by how much it's been embraced by the mainstream, garnering  rave reviews in Teen Vogue, Parents and Yahoo Beauty.

"It's easy to make assumptions about who reads, and what they want to read," says Schatz. "This shows that people are really hungry for books that are bold, progressive and showcase interesting stories."

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