A list of “Latvian” women you should read about

I have been occasionally thinking about this new genre of gorgeously illustrated based-on-a-true-story feminist “fairy tales”. Obviously, there is so much herstory to be unearthed and so much feminist encouragement needed that any action towards it is a good step.

However, the sociologist in me also is roused by these books: Who chooses the “heroines”? How much geographical and linguistic privilege is at play here? Which aspects of their lives are told and how? How much clean-up is reasonable if we want to present historical figures as role models for children? How many forgotten Fridas and Marie Curies are out there and you will never hear about them because they weren’t at the right place at the right time? Nobody has even written a Wikipedia page about them, let alone made novelty t-shirts. And what about those who never had even half a chance to even begin creating? If (the lack of a complete) herstory has taught as anything, it’s that people are easily lost in the cracks of history. Even when we make the effort to learn about the forgotten women, we can only touch the tip of the iceberg. Purely statistically speaking, the great majority of the stories were never written down and are lost forever. And they are being lost as we speak. See this Abstruse Goose comic for a clearer explanation.

I got back to these thoughts last year when learning that people had dared to edit a Latvian version of such a book: Remere, Santa & Elīna Brasliņa. 2020. Mūsējās: 50 pasakas par Latvijas sievietēm. Rīga: Zvaigzne ABC. First of all, great and thank you so much for doing this! It also tells you a bit about the political climate knowing that (a) this book was very successfully crowdfunded and at the same time (b) there was controversy of the stupid kind, i.e. “and when will there be a book about men?” Take any encyclopedia and you are all set, my dear.

I had read two books of this genre before Mūsējās. I hated the first one and loved the second one, so I was ready for whatever was coming in my direction.

I hated Favilli, Francesca & Elena Cavallo. 2016. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Yes, an instant classic and a shit book. It was underwhelming, the list of women was very incoherent and the stories were excessively cleaned up and uniform. I was bored and pissed. So much so that I made a spreadsheet (of course!) with details of all the women in the book to try and find the source of my dissatisfaction. But I also accepted that I’m not between 6 and 12, so I decided to let go of this new fairy tale genre…

Until I stumbled upon Tsjeng, Zing. 2018, Forgotten Women: The Scientists which showed me that exactly the same format can work much better even for fussy adults if the authors opt for delineating more clearly which women are we talking about and not treating the readers like complete idiots.

Going back to the Latvian project mentioned above, the regional delimitation helps, of course. Although, there is a major caveat as far as the methodology goes, a very important one if you know anything about the history of the region. Who are “the women of Latvia”? Before gaining the statehood in 1918 and then between 1939 and 1991, what did ‘of Latvia’ mean? People who identify as Latvian? People who have that as a ethnicity/nationality marker in their hearts or in the censuses? People dedicating their lives to reaching and maintaining that statehood? People born in what is now the territory of Latvia? People who have died there? People who have lived there for a long time? Those are many different  people.

The authors of Mūsējās have opted for ‘women of Latvia’. I guess because it gives the widest possible scope for other editorial choices.

So, in their list of 50 are:

  1. Anna Brigadere (1861-1933), a writer
  2. Aspazija (1865-1943), a poet and playwright
  3. Annie Londonderry (1870-1947), the first woman to bicycle around the world
  4. Anna Rūmane-Ķeniņa (1877-1950), writer and educator (LV)
  5. Lina Stern (1878-1968), a biochemist
  6. Emīlija Benjamiņa (1881-1941), a entrepreneur and socialite
  7. Vera Mukhina (1889-1953), a sculptor
  8. Milda Palēviča (1889-1972), a philosopher (LV)
  9. Marta Skulme (1890-1962), a sculptor
  10. Anna Bērzkalne (1891-1956), an educator and folklorist
  11. Asja Lācis (1891-1979), a theater director
  12. Aleksandra Beļcova (1892-1981), a painter
  13. Zenta Mauriņa (1897-1978), a writer
  14. Hilda Vīka (1897-1963), a painter (LV)
  15. Lūcija Garūta (1902-1977), a composer
  16. Marta Staņa (1913-1972), an architect and designer (LV)
  17. Margarita Stāraste (1914-2014), a children’s books writer and illustrator
  18. Lidija Freimane (1920-1992), an actress (LV)
  19. Valentīna Freimane (1922-2018), a theater and cinema scholar (LV)
  20. Džemma Skulme (1925-2019), a painter
  21. Skaidrīte Darius (1927), a computer scientist (EN, EN, LV)
  22. Regīna Ezera (1930-2002), a writer
  23. Vizma Belševica (1931-2005), a poet and translator
  24. Inese Jaunzeme (1932-2011), an athlete and physician
  25. Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga (1937), a scholar and politician
  26. Vija Celmins (1938), an artist
  27. Māra Brašmane (1944), a photographer (LV)
  28. Tatjana Ždanoka (1950), a mathematician and politican
  29. Sandra Kalniete (1950), an art historian and a politician
  30. Janīna Kursīte (1952), a literary scholar
  31. Uļjana Semjonova (1952), a basketball player
  32. Māra Zālīte (1952), a poet
  33. Vija Kilbloka (1954), en entrepreneur (LV)
  34. Daina Taimiņa (1954), a mathematician (I’m still itching to read her Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes)
  35. Ieva Akurātere (1958), a singer-songwriter (LV)
  36. Inese Zandere (1958), a poet and publisher (LV)
  37. Gundega Repše (1960), a novelist
  38. Laila Pakalniņa (1962), a film director
  39. Sandra Dzenīte-Cālīte (1963), foster care mother and activist (LV)
  40. Signe Baumane (1964), an animator
  41. Guna Zariņa (1972), an actress
  42. Inga Gaile (1976), a poet
  43. Elīna Garanča (1976), an opera singer
  44. Gundega Laiviņa (1976), a theater festival director (LV)
  45. Margita Zālīte (1980), stage director
  46. Dana Reizniece-Ozola (1981), a chess player and politician
  47. Lotte Tisenkopfa-Iltnere (1983), an entrepreneur (LV)
  48. Alise Zariņa (1987), film director (LV)
  49. Mētra Saberova (1991), artist (LV)
  50. Jeļena Ostapenko (1997), a tennis player

It’s a good list. I have discovered previously unknown biographies thanks to this book, so the mission of Remere & Brasliņa is well accomplished. And the illustrations are gorgeous! I have already hoisted this book onto four unsuspecting families and would like to distribute some more copies, beware.

Now, every listmaker has her bias. And every reader does too. My list would have overlapped with theirs, obviously. If the list was mine, though, I would have tried to balance it with more people outside of arts and humanities, but I also know that (a) those are oftentimes the most visible women and (b) Latvians in general overwhelmingly revere people working in arts and humanities (and my sociopolitical hypotheses regarding the reasons for this are a whole another story).

As for the methodology if you are thinking about writing one of these books, together with a geographical delimitation, I would also recommend introducing an age and cohort limit for the “heroines” chosen. They should be preferably dead or at least 65+ or so. Harsh? Maybe. But also a very practical. The most annoying entries for me in both Good Night Stories and Mūsējās were the ones about very young people. The audacity! Who knows what these people will still do? Will they actually end up having being of any importance when looking back from 2050 or 2100? The selection of those born since 1970s felt so much more haphazard and lacking any proper reasoning. These women are still out there doing their heroic deeds, let them complete them before doing an overview of their biography. They are not done yet.

As a little extra, here are a couple more “women of Latvia” I have thought about while pondering Mūsējās list about the topic (but keep in mind that I haven’t properly resided in Latvia since 2007, so I have really little clue about what is going on and am open to suggestions):

  1. Elza Stērste (1885-1976), a poet (LV)
  2. Kristīne Pāvuliņa (1891-1967), an artist and educator (LV)
  3. Milda Olupe (1893-1963), an agronomer and educator (LV)
  4. Austra Kārkliņa (1895-1986), a writer and educator (LV)
  5. Anna Bormane (1896-1990), a physician (LV)
  6. Marija Ozols (1899-1950), a physician (LV)
  7. Marta Vīgante (1900-1966), a physician (LV)
  8. Elfrīda Rapa (1901-1966), an educator (LV)
  9. Anna Dagda (1915-1996), a poet (LV)
  10. Rosa von Praunheim (1942), film director and LGBTQI activist
  11. Inese Galante (1954), an opera singer
  12. Sarmīte Ēlerte (1957), a journalist and politician
  13. Marija Golubeva (1973), a scholar and politician, the second openly LGBTQI member of the Saeima in Latvian history
  14. Nellija Ločmele (1973), a journalist and editor (LV)
  15. Tania Russof (1974), an adult film actress
  16. Ineta Radēviča (1981), an athlete
  17. Iveta Kažoka (1982), a political scientist (LV)
  18. Līga Dekmeijere (1983), a tennis player
  19. Anastasija Sevastova (1990), a tennis player
  20. Laura Ikauniece (1992), an athlete
  21. Laura Mančinska, a quantum information and computing scholar

How do you feel about this genre of books? Have you read them yourself? Have you ever guided a child through them? How was it? Do you have a favorite I should read? Let me know!

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