Your friend is about to lead her first board meeting, or walk out in front of 300 students to give her first lecture. You text her your best encouragement: “Everyone thinks you can’t do this. But you can!”
She Persisted, a new book by Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former US president Bill Clinton, does the same thing for young girls. Released May 30, with illustrations by Alexandra Boiger, it delivers an anxiety-laden lesson to its readers: The world wants to bring girls down.
The premise of She Persisted is simple enough: The book, aimed at kids ages four to eight, profiles 13 American women, including Helen Keller, Oprah, and Sonia Sotomayor. Throughout, it emphasizes the adversity that each women faced, with the dictum and feminist meme, “She persisted.”
Virginia Apgar, who developed a standardized way to evaluate newborns, persisted as an anesthesiologist, because she was told women couldn’t be surgeons. Maria Tallchief persisted as an American prima ballerina, despite being teased for being Native American.
A representative passage about 19th-century journalist Nellie Bly:
Nellie Bly became a reporter in part because a male writer had said that working women were “a monstrosity,” and she wanted to prove that women could do anything.
Though well-intentioned, the 20-page book tells its readers they’re in for a lifetime of injustice. Each historical figure is measured by the obstacles they overcame, and the word “no” repeats in both the first and closing passages of the book.
“Sometimes being a girl isn’t easy,” the book begins. “At some point, someone probably will tell you no, will tell you to be quiet and may even tell you your dreams are impossible.”
It ends on an only slightly more uplifting note: “So, if anyone ever tells you no, if anyone ever says your voice isn’t important or your dreams are too big, remember these women. They persisted.”
Of course, women do face systemic obstacles, institutional and social; there’s no need to pretend otherwise. But the negative language that pervades She Persisted risks doing more to undermine than empower.
She Persisted follows on the success of a similar collection that came out last year. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, 100 illustrated stories about women including Sylvia Earle, Jane Austen, and Serena and Venus Williams, raised $1.2 million in crowdfunds. Another iteration on the concept, Women who Dared, by Linda Skeers and illustrated by Livi Gosling, with 52 stories of relatively unknown circus performers, drag racers, and sailors in disguise, will come out this September. Both these books, the first aimed at readers four and up, the second at readers eight and up, are more positive, celebrating heroic women for their intelligence, curiosity, creativity, and athleticism.
If the aim is to raise a generation of American women who are constantly looking over their shoulders, try She Persisted. But for a book that shows women as more than the sum of their hardships, Rebel Girls or Women who Dared will serve you better.