A crop of new nonfiction books, all out this coming week, explore the lives and legacies of trailblazing women around the world, from artists and activists to novelists and scientists.

Fierce Ambition: The Life and Legend of War Correspondent Maggie Higgins

Jennet Conant. Norton, $32.50 (576p) ISBN 978-0-393-88212-4
Historian Conant (The Great Secret) delivers an engrossing portrait of “nervy and relentless” war correspondent Marguerite Higgins (1920–1966). An only child of “Irish-French-Hong Kong heritage,” Higgins launched her career at UC Berkeley’s Daily Cal, garnered one of only 11 seats reserved for women at Columbia’s School of Journalism, and, as the second female reporter brought on staff at the New York Herald Tribune, traveled to Europe in 1944. Upon witnessing the dire results of Nazi “sadism and mass murder,” including at the liberation of Dachau in 1945, Higgins swore to report on injustice everywhere. As Berlin bureau chief, she covered the Nuremberg trials in 1947. During the Korean War, she went on assignment as “the only woman at the... front,” carrying only “a towel, toothbrush and lipstick”; her reporting there earned her recognition as outstanding woman reporter of the year at the New York Newspaperwomen club’s 1950 “Front Page” dinner, among other accolades. Her career also included 10 trips to Vietnam at the height of that conflict. Much of the book is devoted to Higgins’s private life, including her 1952 marriage to Gen. Bill Hall, which brought her to Washington, D.C., where she became part of John F. Kennedy’s inner circle. Propulsive and high-spirited, this is a riveting depiction of a larger-than-life trailblazer. Photos. (Oct.)

Mischievous Creatures: The Forgotten Sisters Who Transformed Early American Science

Catherine McNeur. Basic, $32.50 (432p) ISBN 978-1-541-67417-2
Historian McNeur (Taming Manhattan) paints a vibrant portrait of botanist Elizabeth Carrington Morris and her younger sister, entomologist Margaretta Hare Morris, restoring the women to their rightful place in the history of science. Born in the 1790s to a well-to-do family, the sisters grew up in Philadelphia, where they conducted scientific observations and wrote up the findings from their family home. Margaretta made a name for herself by publishing her research into how the Hessian fly destroyed wheat crops, then went on to study, among other subjects, the cicada’s 17-year cycle and the possible role of beetles in causing potato blight. Elizabeth named and categorized plants, drew illustrations of local flora for plant journals, and assisted Harvard botanist Asa Gray. The sisters regularly contributed to popular scientific publications, and Margaretta gained membership to several scientific associations. Yet the Morris sisters and other women scientists of the era were increasingly marginalized by men in the field who viewed them as subordinate helpers and cast doubt on their findings—as Charles Darwin did with Margaretta’s water beetle study. Age and ill-health slowed the sisters’ output; Elizabeth died in 1865 and Margaretta in 1867. With deep insight into the gendered power dynamics that shaped the first half of the 19th century, McNeur serves up an incisive study of institutional bias. It’s a vital account. Illus. (Oct.)

In the Shadow of Quetzalcoatl: Zelia Nuttall & the Search for Mexico’s Ancient Civilizations

Merilee Grindle. Belknap, $32.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-674-27833-2
Grindle (Bureaucrats, Politicians, and Peasants in Mexico), a professor of international development at Harvard, delivers an insightful and accessible biography of Zelia Nuttall (1857–1933), a pioneer in scholarly research on the ancient civilizations of Mexico. A protégé of renowned Harvard anthropologist Frederic Putnam, Nuttall worked as an anthropologist when very few women were employed in the field. An astute and intrepid researcher, she was the first person to accurately decipher the Aztec calendar stone; wrote a seminal study of the terra-cotta heads of Teotihuacán; and decoded the Codex Nuttall, a rare pre-Columbian manuscript that revealed much about early Mesoamerican art, literature, and history. Nuttall and her contemporaries created exhibits for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and were instrumental in the development of modern museums in Pennsylvania and California, ushering in a new era of cultural studies and appreciation. Despite her extensive travels, Nuttall’s lifelong love for Mexico never waned, and she eventually settled there and developed an expertise in the native plants of ancient Mexico. Grindle combines a rousing tale of archaeological discovery with an incisive description of how institutional marginalization occurs, tracing how Nuttall’s legacy was ignored by subsequent generations of anthropologists. This enjoyable account restores to prominence an influential figure in her field. (Nov.)

A Rome of One’s Own: The Forgotten Women of the Roman Empire

Emma Southon. Abrams, $27 (416p) ISBN 978-1-419-76018-1
Historian Southon (A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) surveys 1,100 years of Roman history in this expert and wittily conversational narrative. By profiling 21 relatively unknown women, Southon presents a “whole new history” that is “closer to the version the Romans told themselves.” Skillfully parsing sometimes limited and biased sources, Southon depicts her subjects as complex human beings. Hersilia, a Sabine woman kidnapped by the Romans (c. 750 BCE) who became Romulus’s wife, is the first woman to appear by name in a Roman text. She may have prevented a full-scale war between the Romans and Sabines when she spoke publicly about how she and the other kidnapped Sabine women had adjusted to their new lives, which bound the two groups into a familial relationship. Julia Felix, who probably died in the 79 CE Vesuvius eruption in Pompeii, made money as a property owner, demonstrating the possibilities of independence for adult, single, middle-class women of the Roman empire. Claudia Severa’s affectionate letters to Sulpicia Lepidina in 100 CE show life in a Roman military outpost in northern England as more social and familial than depicted in male-centered histories and provide a window into female friendships. Southon’s crisp characterizations, snappy assessments of existing histories, and breezy narrative style will enchant fans of ancient history and women’s history. It’s a delight. Illus. (Nov.)

Woman Life Freedom: Voices and Art from the Women’s Protests in Iran

Edited by Malu Halasa. Saqi, $19.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-0-86356-972-2
Halasa (Mother of All Pigs), literary editor of the Markaz Review, assembles searing essays, interviews, photos, and art inspired by the protests for women’s rights that spread through Iran starting in 2022. In September of that year, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was beaten to death by Iran’s Morality Police for allegedly violating a law that requires women to cover their hair, sparking protests across the country and engendering the rallying cry—”Woman, Life, Freedom”—for a protest movement. The collection begins with an anonymous letter that details Vida Movahed’s 2017 arrest after she climbed a utility box in Tehran and removed her hijab, which the author sees as one leg of a “sprint relay” toward greater equality. Later, journalist Niloofar Rasooli pays tribute in stark and unsparing prose to protestor Ghazaleh Chalabi, who was shot and killed while filming protests in northern Iran in September 2022. Rasooli adds that Chalabi, who chanted “do not be afraid” moments before her death, “is killed to be erased, to be stopped.... Her video, however, achieves the opposite.” Pulling together diverse voices from Iran and abroad, Halasa paints an affecting and sometimes painfully visceral picture of Iranian women’s fight for freedom. This leaves a mark. (Nov.)

Marina Abramović: A Visual Biography

Marina Abramović and Katya Tylevich. Laurence King, $100 (496p) ISBN 978-0-85782-946-7
Tylevich (Gus Van Sant) delivers an idiosyncratic, revealing, and image-rich biography of conceptual performance artist Abramović. Drawing from photos and interviews, Tylevich notes that Abramović was raised by an art preservationist mother and a war-fixated father in 1940s and ’50s communist Yugoslavia, and “always felt” that she was an artist (“I was jealous Mozart started at seven. I wouldn’t get my chance until I was older”). In the 1970s, after graduating from art school, she began teaching at an art academy in a provincial town outside Belgrade—her main advice to her class was to “get the hell out of here”—and later traveled across Europe with her first performance pieces. Her romantic and creative partnership with German-born artist Ulay receives careful attention, as do the personal and political influences that fed her work, and her demanding art workshops, which entail “five days, no food, no talking... after that, you can do your art.” Juxtaposing images with evocative quotes, many of which are nearly full stories in their own right (next to a photo of Abramović’s father: “I saw him kissing a woman in the street and he pretended not to know me. We didn’t talk to each other for years. It was horrible. I loved my father”), Tylevich provides readers with an up-close look at both the life of the artist and the expressive, enigmatic mind behind the art. This captivates. Photos. (Nov.)

Deep Care: The Radical Activists Who Provided Abortions, Defied the Law, and Fought to Keep Clinics Open

Angela Hume. AK, $24 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-849-35526-1
Historian Hume (Interventions for Women) offers a vibrant account of the largely underground history of women’s abortion clinics in the San Francisco Bay Area. She focuses on Women’s Choice, an independent abortion clinic that spearheaded the feminist “self-help” movement from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Beginning when abortion was still illegal, the “self-help” movement comprised radical feminists who taught ordinary women how to perform gynecological services (including menstrual extraction, which can be classified as a type of abortion) at home. Hume follows the clinic as the original five founders developed the Del-Em menstrual extraction kit, taught women how to perform cervix exams, established a network of clinics after the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision to legalize abortion, started the first sperm bank in the country to serve single women and lesbians, and developed a defense network against anti-abortion crusaders. The operation’s decline began in the mid-1980s as the clinics faced property damage and new laws regulating abortion providers. Hume’s “snowball research” method—interviewing activists who introduced her to more activists—gives her narrative a lively and conversational feel as she coaxes this secretive network, which for decades defied laws restricting abortion and the practice of medicine, to divulge its history. The result is a revelatory new perspective on the fight for women’s bodily autonomy. (Nov.)

The Sisterhood: How a Network of Black Women Writers Changed American Culture

Courtney Thorsson. Columbia Univ, $28.95 (296p) ISBN 978-0-231-20472-9
Thorsson (Women’s Work), an English professor at the University of Oregon, presents a vivid group portrait of “The Sisterhood,” a short-lived yet influential collective of Black women academics, journalists, novelists, and editors who in the 1970s worked to “secure publication, publicity, and recognition” for Black women. The group—which counted poet Audre Lorde, critic Margo Jefferson, and playwright Ntozake Shange among its members—was founded by novelist Alice Walker and poet June Jordan in 1977 New York City as a network for supporting and promoting each other’s work. Early member Toni Morrison, then the “first and only Black woman editor at Random House,” convinced Essence’s editor-in-chief to publish “serious, sometimes politically radical Black feminist writing” by Jordan and scholar Judith Wilson, who was also in the group. The Sisterhood stopped meeting in 1979, hobbled by the members’ busy schedules and dissent over whether to expand into such political and community initiatives as establishing a center for Black women survivors of domestic violence. Thorsson’s research, which draws on correspondence and meeting minutes, illuminates a formative period for some of the most enduring writers of the 1980s while offering a “model for collective action to change cultural institutions.” It’s a scintillating snapshot of a significant moment in American literature. Photos. (Nov.)