This past summer a dear friend gave me a copy of an amazing book called The Women Who Made New York. Inside, the author Julie Scelfo signed the book with a lovely personalized note. Little did we know that fate had played its hand… Julie and I had been communicating about her book weeks before and she didn’t know the signed copy was for me. Serendipity, kismet, whatever you want to call it, we knew we had to meet, and so we did.
Huddled over some coffee and tea, Julie shared with me how she came to put this beautiful tribute to some of the phenomenal women who helped to build New York City into a world capital together.
The former staff writer and current contributor to The New York Times was approached by Seal Press with the idea for the book. As a native New Yorker, and a woman passionate about women and women’s rights it seemed like a perfect fit. Julie took on the project approaching it methodically and knowing there was no way she could possibly include all of the women who have contributed to this great city. “The process of deciding who to include was the hardest part. While the book indeed focuses on New York City, I took great care in including women who made contributions that resonate nationwide (and worldwide),” Julie shared.
The collection of short biographies, which are paired with stunning illustrations by artist Hallie Heald, share the stories of revolutionaries and activists like Zora Neale Hurston and Audre Lorde; icons, such as Fran Lebowitz and performer Grace Jones; “the politicos” including Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug and Geraldine Ferraro. There are also women who led quieter private lives, but were just as influential, such as WYSK favorite Emily Warren Roebling, who completed the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge when her engineer husband became too ill to work.
“Read any history of New York City and you will read about men,” Julie explains about the inspiration for the book. “You will read about men who were political leaders and men who were activists and cultural tastemakers. These men have been lauded for generations for creating the most exciting and influential city in the world. But that’s not the whole story.”
The Women Who Made New York gives these women a much needed spotlight to shine and in our humble opinion, should be required reading, not just for New Yorker’s but for every American history class. The combination Hallie’s beautiful illustrations along with Julie’s wonderfully researched bios presents an unforgettable homage to these trailblazers who are paramount to New York’s rich history.
Lead image from left to right: (top row) Audre Lorde, Uma Mysorekar, La Lupe, (bottom row) Emily Roebling, Grace Jones, Dr. Sara Baker. All images courtesy of The Women Who Made New York and are republished here with express permission.
For those in New York, join us this Sunday, March 25 at the Museum of the City of New York for “A City Made by Women” – a conversation with leading writers (including Julie) and scholars “illuminating the essential but little-known stories of New York City’s feminist trailblazers and their struggles and triumphs over the last century.”
Cynthia Hornig is Co-Founder and Editorial Director of Women You Should Know.