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40 Women Who Shaped Cities

A new book pays homage to gutsy and groundbreaking women around the world.

(c) 2016 by Miriam Klein Stahl

At CityLab, we’ve spilled a lot of digital ink celebrating women whose work has shaped daily life in cities. We’ve penned odes to Jane Jacobs’s enduring legacy, considered Zaha Hadid’s starchitect turn, and unearthed the stories of women cartographers, who charted a course through a male-dominated terrain. Now, a new book for young readers looks at 40 other women—past and present—who have left an indelible mark on buildings, culture, and politics in cities across the globe.

Rad Women Worldwide (Ten Speed Press, $15.99) throws it way back to Hatshepsut, born in 1508 BCE. The ancient Egyptian ruler anointed herself Pharaoh and worked to broker peaceful relationships with neighboring countries. She took pains to mark her passage, peppering temples with statues of herself and leaving detailed chronicles in carvings. “Perhaps she worried that future generations wouldn’t believe a woman could rule as she had, or that someone might try to erase her legacy,” writes the book’s author, Kate Schatz.

Hatshepsut declared herself Pharaoh, and was worried her legacy would disappear. (Copyright 2016 by Miriam Klein Stahl)

That risk of erasure or omission was a catalyst for the book. “The field for the women we’ve heard of gets narrower and narrower the farther we go back,” Schatz says. “People can name 10 famous women from the 19th century, maybe four from previous century, and it’s even more limited in medieval times.” The book intervenes, coupling short biographies with bold paper-cut illustrations by Miriam Klein Stahl that are inspired by activist pamphlets and woodcut techniques.

Many women have been written out of mainstream historical accounts; their achievements may have been sustained by oral histories, or carried on gusts of legend. In researching the book, Schatz says she had to navigate the tension between verifiable histories and ones that were more mythologized. She turned to primary sources, and also to songs, documentaries, and artifacts. Schatz pored over Emma Goldman’s papers at UC Berkeley, but had a harder time pinning down specifics about Bastardilla, a pseudonymous graffiti artist whose recent work addresses violence and poverty on the streets of Bogotá, Colombia.

Dame Kāterina Te Heikōkō Mataira worked to preserve the Māori language and culture. (Copyright 2016 by Miriam Klein Stahl)

Themes emerged across timelines, Schatz says: Women have long agitated for education and been custodians of culture. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a self-taught scholar in 17th-century Mexico, campaigned for women’s education, much like Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist born in 1997. After learning, in the 1970s, that only 5 percent of New Zealand’s Māori population spoke the language, Dame Kāterina Te Heikōkō Mataira fought to safeguard and buoy it, keeping the culture’s “histories, lullabies, prayers, and jokes” from vanishing, Schatz writes.

Other women fought for jobs or human rights. Wangari Maathai spearheaded the Green Belt movement in Kenya, encouraging women to manage tree nurseries to replenish areas that were being dismantled to make way for cash crops, Schatz writes. By 2004, women’s groups across Kenya had planted some 30 million trees; Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize that same year. In Buenos Aires, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo camped out in front of the presidential palace, holding vigils that forced officials to confront the reality of los desaparecidos—legions of citizens that had disappeared after speaking out against the military dictatorship. Their legacy is painted on the ground of the plaza were they stood, encircled with white head scarves symbolizing children and peace.

Wangari Maathai advocated for women entrepreneurs in Kenya. (Copyright 2016 by Miriam Klein Stahl)

The book is marketed to kids and teens, but it’s likely to pack a historical wallop for most readers. Schatz says her seven-year-old is reading it, but she’s talked to college students and older folks who have picked it up, too. I thumbed through it on the train home from grad school, with some classmates looking over my shoulder. We all met women we hadn’t heard of before. That’s the whole point, Schatz says: getting “a bigger sense of the world,” and women’s hard-won role in shaping it.

Faith Bandler campaigned to amend the Australian constitution to include rights for indigenous citizens. (Copyright 2016 by Miriam Klein Stahl)
Aung San Suu Kyi won a parliamentary seat in Burma in 2015. She had been calling for democracy since 1988. (Copyright 2016 by Miriam Klein Stahl)
Qiu Jin started a feminist magazine in China in 1906, and was executed the following year. (Copyright 2016 by Miriam Klein Stahl)

Reprinted with permission from Rad Women Worldwide, written by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl, copyright (c) 2016. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.

Rad Women Worldwide, $15.99 at Indiebound.

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.