Book Review: Modern Herstory by Blair Imani

The cover of Modern Herstory. Woman of various races and cultures cover the front.

Modern Herstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History by Blair Imani – a Review

Have you ever been sitting in a history class or scrolling through the news and you caught yourself wondering, “Where are all the women?

Throughout history and up to the present day, women – especially women of color – have had their stories silenced or largely forgotten. Women have always been a part of history and have brought about historic change that we still feel the effects of today, but their role in these changes is often ignored or the credit given to someone who fits the stereotypical image of what society expects in a successful person: male, white and cis.

Blair Imani grew up as the only black child in her elementary school. From a young age, she felt the absence of representation within her own life.

As she grew older and went off to college, Imani began her advocacy work by fighting against LGBTQ inequality. She also protested against police violence especially in regards to black citizens and used her social media to maximize her impact as an organizer. Imani founded Equality for HER in 2014, “an education resource platform for women and non-binary people”.

Her work wasn’t done however. Unable to find role models in mainstream channels, Imani compiled the information herself. As she put it, “It was not until I reached adulthood that I began uncovering the truth about the many leaders and activists with whom I could relate. Realizing how important it is to understand and accurately represent herstory, I decided to become a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about diverse individuals who had made a difference in the past, as well as those making a difference in the present,” Modern Herstory is the compilation of Imani’s knowledge into one easy-to-read overview of women from the 1900’s to the present who have made an impact upon our world in advocating for human rights in all its forms.

Blair Imani wears a rainbow hijab.

Author Blair Imani, Photo Credit: Lia Clay

Modern Herstory is divided into eight different sections to highlight different periods of history and areas of influence that these modern day role models operated in. The beginning of the book focuses on women from the mid 20th century such as Sylvia Rivera, Katherine Johnson and Patsy Takemoto Mink who laid the groundwork upon which contemporary female activists stand. From there the book moves forward to focus mainly on women born between the late 70’s to early 90’s who have left their mark upon the world whether that be within fashion, television, writing, social media or other platforms. The causes for which these women have fought range from disability representation in media to combating colorism in makeup to living their lives authentically according to their gender and orientation.

The book is written with accessibility in mind. Entries for each woman are usually only a page long and summarize their accomplishments and work in a way that will be easy to understand for people outside of that field of expertise. There are also multiple glossaries in the back of the book that cover the meanings of a variety of terms from historical events to people to organizations and even hashtags. This is a book that is designed to serve as a primer for anyone who wants to know more about the role of women within activism but isn’t sure where to begin.

As someone who desires to be knowledgeable about the historic events happening in my own life and how I can do my own part to help, I found the book to be extremely helpful in teaching me more about the amazing women behind movements which I admire. I marched this summer in BLM protests but never knew of Alicia Garza, the woman who first coined the term on social media when she said, “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter, Black Lives Matter.” I had edited articles and read stories for the historic Women’s March of 2017 and its subsequent iterations in later years, but I was unfamiliar with Tamika D. Mallory, Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez and the work they did to make the march as inclusive and successful as it is today.

Author Blair Imani and illustrator Monique Le each hold "Modern Herstory" with one hand and point at the camera with their free hands.

Photo credit: Monica Echols/Fourth Estate

A huge theme within Modern Herstory is how the concept of intersectionality has empowered and transformed activism today. Intersectionality is “a way of understanding the various forms of oppression in society and the ways they impact us according to overlapping identities”. For example, as a black queer Muslim woman, Imani experiences not only sexism but racism, homophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice, often all at the same time. Rather than addressing only one form of oppression at a time, all forms must be considered together to understand the whole.

The concept on intersectionality not only brings deeper understanding to how people often experience multiple forms of expression simultaneously; it also can unite people around common causes.

Within history, movements have often been separated according to one issue: suffrage, civil rights, LGBTQ rights. The focus of these movements was primarily on their one cause and though movements might band together to assist one another, activists within the movements sometimes turned against each other as was the case between suffragists and abolitionists in the late 19th century. Today, movements like the Women’s March have prioritized inclusion. This means that at the march there are not only white women who march against sexism, but women of color who march against racism and trans women who march against transphobia. This intersectional approach to activism gives the Women’s March the staying power it has today since it is not simply one group speaking up for their rights, but all groups joining together to make tangible change. And this march is only one example of hundreds that have embraced intersectionality and the synergy it brings to activism.

There’s plenty more I could say in praise of Modern Herstory, much more than I could fit into the span of one article. If what I’ve said thus far has piqued your interest, give the book a try. It’s the sort of book you can read at your own pace, taking in a page at a time or devouring the entire thing in one sitting. It’s a great way to educate yourself on a variety of topics and learn more about dozens of inspiring women making a difference in the world today. And I bet that as you pour over these pages of history, you’ll grow to see that you too can do your part to change the world.