A fabulous new book by Janine Turner (of Northern Exposure, Strong Medicine, and Cliffhanger fame) tackles an issue close to many women: single motherhood. Turner, herself a single mother, bases her book, Holding Her Head High: 12 Single Mothers Who Championed Their Children and Changed History, on the stories of 12 extraordinary women in history who were single mothers at a time when it wasn’t so common to see a woman raising a child by herself. There were not support groups or government aid to help these women along the way. Turner’s extensive historical research reveals the struggles of women whose stories are buried in history textbooks.
Many single women will see elements of their own experience when they read about the lives of Queen Blanche of Castile, Christine de Pazan, Abigail Adams, Belva Ann Lockwood, Harriet Jacobs, and others. Turner draws lessons from each woman’s life, and intersperses their stories with personal observations from her own life as a single mother.
Before reading Holding Her Head High, I had limited understanding about the extent of influence that Queen Blanche had on her son, the renowned St. Louis IX and how both her warlike preparations and skilled diplomacy awed the nobles of her kingdom. I was unaware of Christine de Pizan’s bold criticism of misogynist male writers of the 14th and 15th centuries and the bravery of her revolutionary writing. I knew little more about Abigail Adams than that she was the wife of the second President of the United States; I didn’t appreciate her full impact as her husband’s counselor. Coined “Mrs. President” by many, she managed a household with five children and managed to raise a future president in second oldest son, John Quincy Adams. Turner also highlights Belva Ann Lockwood, who was one of the first female lawyers in the United States. Lockwood lobbied Congress for an anti-discrimination bill after being banned from practice in the U.S. Supreme Court. Of personal interest to me as an African-American was the story of Harriet Jacobs. She was born a slave and escaped the sexual brutality of her slave master to become a free woman and impressive author who wrote in vivid details of her longing to free the slave children she left behind.
Whether a woman is forced into single motherhood through the situation of a spouse’s death, a spouse’s overwhelming job, or the spouse’s decision to choose another partner, this book underscores situations every single mother can relate to and through which every person can become inspired. Janine Turner deserves praise for the work, research, and the heart that she displayed while encouraging women of all backgrounds to hold their heads high.
Princella Smith is a Visiting Fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum.