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Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu, translated by Montana Kane, 306 pp, RL 4

Happy Women's History Month! If you are a bibliophile, it's a great time to be a girl. Or a woman. Welcome to the shelves yet another amazing collection of mini-biographies: Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu. Think of Brazen as sort of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls for the slightly older set, mostly because Bagieu includes the instances of rape,  abortion, child abuse, war, murder and many other hardships and horrors that shaped and drove so many of the 33 women featured in this book to overcome the odds, the hardships, the discrimination and the segregation they did to achieve success and leave their indelible, positive, meaningful marks on this world. Brazen is amazing - a full meal and dessert - and I must confess to drawing out my reading of it, wanting it to last. However, I found myself returning to it over and over, unable to put it down, unable to stop reading the incredible stories of the women within. Bagieu's eye for finding remarkable women who accomplished incredible things is both sharp and loving and Brazen is guaranteed to make you laugh as often as you cry.
I would love to know how Bagieu chose her subjects and how she researched them. The range of accomplishments is stunning and deeply moving. Starting with Clémentine Delait, a bearded lady who was also a WWI pin-up, Bagieu is all over the map and history. Each woman gets about 10 pages of panels detailing her childhood and adulthood, with quotes when available, followed by a gorgeous two page illustration capturing a moment from her life, as seen below in the spread that follows the biography of Nzinga, Queen of Ndongo and Matamba
There are names I recognized and knew a little about, and names I recognized but knew almost nothing about.  In the table of contents, each woman is listed by name, followed by what she is known for in italics. Margaret Hamilton is followed by "Terrifying Actress," and after her introductory cameo portrait, Bagieu lets readers know that she is not to be confused with, "her equally cool namesake who designed the onboard system for the Apollo program," Margaret Hamilton, the scientist (and frequent subject of these kinds of books). You may wonder, as I did, what lands Margaret Hamilton, best known for her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in the movie of The Wizard of Oz, in the pages of a book about rebel ladies who rocked the world. Bagieu makes this clear immediately. Following her dream to be an actress, Hamilton loses out to conventionally beautiful women and is told to get a nose job. Instead, Hamilton changes tack, going for roles like the "ugly stepsister" and offering to work for less. She owns herself and she makes it work! I WISH I had known that when I was an eight-year-old kid growing up in Los Angeles and dreaming of being an actress yet knowing, even at that age, that I was not pretty enough and would never be thin enough to be successful. And, in the way that she has for including fascinating facts into her mini-biographies, Bagieu includes details of the burns Hamilton suffered during filming, how she returned to her role before healing completely and how it took months for the green make-up to wear off. I also learned that Hamilton reprised her role of the Wicked Witch on Sesame Street, but the episode was pulled by PBS when parents complained she was too scary.

Then there is Thérèse Clerc, Utopian Realist. Following her growing anti-capitalism and feminist beliefs, at the age of forty she leaves behind a quiet domestic life and becomes an activist. Moving with her four children to Montreuil, a new and unfamiliar city, she begins working and learns how to perform abortions after learning that it is the leading cause of mortality for French women at the time. Caring for her elderly mother, Clerc fantasizes about a place for senior women where, "after a lifetime of caring for spouses and kids they will be entitled to peace, autonomy, well being and dignity." She went on to create this very place, calling it, hilariously and awesomely, The Home for Baba Yagas. If you don't know, Baba Yaga is the witch from Russian fairy tales who lives in a house that wanders the world on chicken legs. And she has been known to eat a child here and there, using their bones to make the fence around her house. How have I lived this long without knowing about this woman? And look at that adorable graffiti in her honor!

I realize, with deep regret, that I have chosen images representing the white, western women from the book almost exclusively, though unintentionally. I pulled images available online, but know that Lozen, Apache warrior and shaman, Josephine Baker, Empress Wu Zetian, Sonita Alizadeh, a rapper from Afghanistan, Naziq al-Abid, activist and aristocrat from Syria, and Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, are also included in Brazen. As is Leymah Gbowee, a social worker from Liberia who overcame unbelievable odds. Not only did she listen to women, the first victims of the civil war that ravaged her country, she helped bring an end to the second Liberian Civil War in 2003 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Then there is Betty Davis, funk pioneer, fearless artist and the central image on the back cover of Brazen. I had never heard of Davis, a passionate musician who, after marrying Miles Davis, some 20 years her senior, triggers his musical revolution by introducing him to her music. She writes songs for the Commodores and turns down Eric Clapton when he offers to produce her first album. She records songs about her sexuality that, for 1974, are too much. Her label doesn't know what to do with her and her concerts are protested by religious groups. Even the NAACP withdraws their support of her. Betty, about 20 years ahead of her time, becomes a recluse. But, doing the whole thing by herself, from songwriting to production to performances, her image and all her musical collaborations, she let her, "spontaneity and her instinctual desires be her guide, not marketing and sales."
Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu is a book I will return to again and again, as well as a book I will give as a gift over and over. 

Source: Review Copy


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