Nancy Drew, Louisa Adams & other smart women

Do you ever have one of those times when disparate things start strangely fitting together in the larger scheme? I’m having a week like that, with amazing women stepping out of the shadows to challenge my thinking.

On the first Wednesday in May the Wheaton-Glen Ellyn, Illinois, branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) holds its annual used book sale. This is a fund-raising tradition more than 50 years old that supports national fellowships and local scholarships for women. It’s also a true labor of love for the women (and men) who have now spent decades collecting, sorting and storing used books every year in anticipation of the sale, then unpacking and arranging the books at the Glen Ellyn Civic Center for the sale itself.

So, this is the week.

Despite endless box-schlepping, aching backs, associated and inevitable dust, long hours, and often tedious sorting into various broad categories, many if not most of us are happy to dig in. It’s for a cause we deeply believe in, we get to catch up with friends we may not often see, and perhaps even make a few new ones. And, we haven’t found a better fundraiser! We know how to do this, and after 50 years we’re pretty good at it. Book lovers and bargain-hunters know to look for this sale.

Most important, we have met and talked with the women these proceeds help. This is real empowerment.

And then there is Nancy Drew.

Volume One of the beloved girl detective series, “The Secret of the Old Clock,” was published 87 years ago on April 28, 1930, using the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. The books, ghostwritten by Mildred Wirt Benson and later revised by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, were “the Depression-era Pokemon cards” says Theodore Johnson in a celebratory essay on the The Mary Sue. “They were collected, traded, bought and sold on both secondary and tertiary markets to the point where any kid, even those who couldn’t afford new books, would very likely get to read every adventure starring their favorite character within a reasonable interval.”

But more important was what the books showed readers that girls could do. As Johnson points out, “Nancy gets into fights, drives a car, packs a gun and relies on herself to get out of tough situations. She is mechanically inclined and at the same time doesn’t act like most people in the 1930s would have expected a teenage girl to act.” Nancy Drew’s heroics were just as important to my friends and I reading in the 50’s and 60’s as they were to the first readers in the 30’s. I’m sure I never realized what a great character/role model she was; I just liked the books.

I encourage you to read Johnson’s essay, here to appreciate his complete examination of the series — including its relationship to subsequent fiction. If you haven’t read Nancy Drew, what are you waiting for? And if you have, you can go back and reread one for fun. That’s what I’m doing.

But wait, there’s more.

I was connected with yet one more really interesting woman this week.

I love to cruise the Recommended, New Releases and New in Paperback shelves and tables in bookstores. I always find something interesting, sometimes a title I have been looking for or an author I especially enjoy. Louisa by Louisa Thomas looked interesting, but I had not heard about it before. Well, it was a great find!

Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams was the the daughter of an American businessman living in London and his English-born wife; Louisa became the wife of John Quincy Adams and daughter-in-law of John and Abigail Adams. After spending the Revolutionary years in France (her father was not especially welcome in British circles during that time), the family returned to London where she met John Quincy, who by then was on a diplomatic mission for the U.S. President.

Though their life, which initially took them to Berlin, Prussia and the court of St. Petersburg, sounds glamorous, it was also outright dangerous and remarkably lonely. She spent years separated from her young sons and her family. The newly established United States was trying to establish its foreign credentials. Louisa and John Quincy were not necessarily welcomed with open arms. If anything, Louisa’s British background and her years in France gave her easier entree into palaces than did John Quincy’s pedigree.

But that’s just the start of the story.

Louisa led a remarkable and challenging life, including a heart-stopping journey from St. Petersburg to Paris to meet her husband and, later, guiding his election as the 6th President of the United States in a “campaign” so remotely different from current politics you will be wondering if it was really in America.

So yes, I am a history geek. And yes, I love biography. But Louisa has the added perk of being a biography of a strong woman who witnessed and played a leading role in the formative years of our country. Win! Win! Win!

And this has been my week. Smart, resourceful women paving the way for more smart, resourceful women.

How’s your week going?

See you next time!

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