Introducing The Little Book of Feminist Saints

The Little Book of Feminist Saints showcases the women through history who broke new ground, shattered glass ceilings, and broke the mould. We talk to its creators

Feature by Heather McDaid | 05 Mar 2018
  • The Little Book of Feminist Saints

“I grew up around a lot of strong women, who taught me to admire other strong women,” explains Julia Pierpont. “This book was a terrific excuse to celebrate some of them, and to introduce their achievements to others.”

The Little Book of Feminist Saints is a pocket-sized guide to women who have broken ground and ceilings for centuries, declaring each the Matron Saint of their respective world. Pierpont, bestselling author of Among the Ten Thousand Things, joined forces with UK-based illustrator Manjit Thapp to create the perfect pocket-sized celebration, just in time for International Women’s Day.

“I think it’s important for these women’s stories to be told,” notes Thapp. “I think through history, it’s often the stories of men that we hear about. The women’s stories, though they are out there, we’re not as familiar with them. It’s important for these to be told and for everyone to hear them.”

These stories are told in bitesize chunks, each fitting snugly onto a page and accompanied by a beautiful illustrated portrait. We see the Williams sisters (the Matron Saints of Athletes); Maya Angelou (Matron Saint of Storytellers); Sappho (Matron Saint of Lovers). Pierpont condenses a lifetime into a few lines, capturing their essence in a striking snapshot.

With the whole of human history to choose from, where do you start? “It was so tricky!” says Pierpont. Between everyone the list swelled to many hundreds more than the book could hold and, bit by bit, it was whittled down into a selection of familiar faces and some lesser-known. There were some that they knew from the start they wanted to include. For Thapp, she was drawn to artists.

“I definitely wanted to have a few female artists in there. We’ve got Louise Bourgeois [dubbed the Matron Saint of the Avant-Garde], Frida Kahlo [the Matron Saint of Colour] and Yayoi Kusama [the Matron Saint of Visionaries]. Frida Kahlo: I love how she puts herself in her work and the personality that she has in her work. Despite it sometimes being quite dark she was confident to put that onto the canvas. The three of them have that confidence to express themselves through their art.”

For Pierpont it was similar, drawn to the women of her creative artform. “I was excited to include some of the writers I admire — Virginia Woolf especially. I really wanted to do justice to her, because her novels mean so much to me.”

The sheer expanse of women covered is the strength of the book. Pages showcasing the familiar sparkle to life with facts or anecdotes that you were previously unaware of; those new to you envelop you briefly into their lives. “It would have been a disservice both to the book and its readers if we hadn’t included a range of women, both from all over the world and throughout history,” says Pierpont. “I don’t know, for example, if many of my fellow American women have heard of the poet Forough Farrokhzad, who is sometimes referred to as Iran’s Sylvia Plath, and we are the poorer for it. Ada Lovelace was born in 1815, but she is considered to have been the first computer programmer.”

Forugh, the Matron Saint of Free Voices, was “an Iranian woman and wrote about the repression that came with that.” She wrote thousands of lines on cheap paper she would never publish; she travelled to Europe, but she always came back home. It’s these small details that lift their lives from the page. You’re not reading a well-trodden biography.

Both Pierpont and Thapp, like readers, learned a lot from The Little Book of Feminist Saints. For Thapp, she was unfamiliar with a number of those included, but really enjoyed the process of discovering them across the project. Ruby Bridges, the Matron Saint of First Steps, was a stand out. “She was the first African American child to attend an all-white school and that was a story that I hadn’t heard of before and I was quite inspired by.” She was one of only six black children to pass a test that was designed for them to fail; she stayed strong despite protests from pupils, and lack of acceptance from teachers. She kept her head down and persevered where many sought her to fall. Small acts can cause huge waves.

“I was nervous about tackling the most famous women on the list – people like Oprah, or Helen Keller,” recalls Pierpont. “What could I possibly tell you about these women that you didn’t know already? And then I found things that surprised me. I didn’t know that Oprah had testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the early 1990s, pretty much singlehandedly pushing through the National Child Protection Act. I didn’t know that Helen Keller was one of the founders of the ACLU! It was a terrific education for me.”

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Each year, International Women’s Day shines a light on women; each year we are gifted with new books. The Little Book of Feminist Saints is a thoroughly brilliant and informative read. It’s not the first book of its kind, nor will it be the last, but in its pint-sized form, it’s a gift to give, and a gateway to discovering brilliant women – the scientists, creators, artists, protestors, inspirations, pioneers, the doers who broke the mould world over. And now it’s out there, what do they hope people take from it?

“I hope that readers learn something about each of these women,” says Thapp. “I think the way that Julia wrote the stories – she pinpoints specific moments, so it’s not like you’re just reading a Wikipedia entry. It’s emotive and moving – I hope that people are moved and inspired.”

“Books about great women are severely outnumbered by books about great men,” continues Julia. “These women deserve to be celebrated. How are we to advance as a culture if we don’t know what the people before us have accomplished?

“I hope the stories in this book find a home in the minds of its readers, that they are remembered and repeated and serve as inspiration.” From the radical Kanno Sugako to the punks of Pussy Riot, via Oprah, The Night Witches and Jin Xing, the Matron Saints are plentiful, and their stories are waiting to be heard.

Little Brown, 6 Mar, £12.99