In the battle of the sexes, there is no denying that women have traditionally come out on the losing side. And since history, as the saying goes, is written by the victors, it’s not surprising that men and their accomplishments dominate the written record. With her latest non-fiction title for teens, Sam Maggs attempts to fill in a few missing chapters by bringing the stories of 25 intrepid females to the forefront. From an actual rocket scientist to a cross-dressing Canadian soldier, the women featured represent various time periods, disciplines, sensibilities, cultures, sexualities, and life stages. Beyond their intelligence, boldness, and unwillingness to take anybody’s crap, a couple of themes recur among the diverse group: all the women are presented as having very modern, feminist views, and almost all of them are screwed over by men.
Maggs, an assistant writer at video-game developer BioWare, former editor at feminist geek site The Mary Sue, and frequent on-air personality (discussing gaming and women in geek culture), writes in a particularly breezy, social-media friendly style that worked well in her debut, The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy, but doesn’t hold up to the more weighty subject she attempts to tackle here. This is especially evident in the Women of Science and Women of Innovation sections, in which Maggs has a tendency to casually throw around scientific terminology without giving clear explanations as to what they mean. It’s also hard to take the book seriously when Maggs writes about incredibly gifted women, such as Lise Meitner, an Austrian physicist who discovered nuclear fission, like this: “After returning to the lab in 1917, Lise was ready to just get on with the stuff and do the science – and did she ever.” (Note: the italics aren’t mine.)
More successful are the sections dealing with female spies and adventurers, and in many cases Maggs’s admiration for her subjects comes through in her awed tone. The fact that the women broke racial, sexual, political, and social barriers to literally climb mountains, fly planes, and live with whomever they chose is celebrated. Many of the women were in same-sex relationships (a fact that elicits a “gals just being pals!” wink-wink, nudge-nudge comment from Maggs in each instance), or chose to remain unmarried, which – given that most of the women lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – is a valuable detail that may resonate with certain readers even more than the emphasis on women excelling in male-dominated STEM professions and physically demanding pursuits.
The “girls can do anything boys can do” stance is admirable, but at times there is a lack of balance. In the case of cycling pioneer and journalist Annie Londonderry, for instance, the fact that she left her three children under the age of five behind in order to ride a bike around the world is noted without a blink, justified by the fact that she was bored with her domestic life. There is also a hardness to Maggs’s tone when discussing the men who often took credit for her subjects’ achievements that teeters on the edge of casting the male populace in its entirety as jerks, or worse.
Wonder Women is far from perfect. Maggs’s highly parenthetical writing – while at times laugh-out-loud funny – will likely appeal to 14-year-old readers, but the tone and abundance of pop-culture references (most frequently to Game of Thrones and Supernatural), are unlikely to age well. Despite these issues, the book does have a good deal of merit. Maggs has obviously done her research, and the women she features are all worthy of recognition. If nothing else, readers may come away from the book feeling validated in their interests in all things STEM, geek, and feminist, and will hopefully seek out more weighty texts if they find their interests piqued by the fabulous women brought to their attention by Maggs.