Women Are the World: Anita Kunz’s Fascinating Foray into History

George Bush wearing blinders as he rides a galloping horse. A toddler-sized Kim Jong-un playing with weapons of war in a sandbox. Comedian Jim Belushi wielding a sword disguised as a samurai. You know the art. But you may not know the artist. Anita Kunz is a Toronto-based illustrator whose work has graced countless magazine covers, from New Yorker for Time for rolling stone. The Order of Canada recipient was the first woman and the first Canadian to have a solo exhibition at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, among many other honors. Kunz has spent the pandemic painting a portrait a day of women who have made significant contributions to world history, including a number queer and trans. It’s no surprise that many of these women’s stories have been ignored or actively suppressed. Original Sisters: Portraits of Tenacity and Courage, published late last year by Pantheon, features more than 300 portraits of Kunz. (There is a accompanying exhibition of 40 portraits at the Iona Gallery in Toronto until March 12.) The following is an excerpted version of the foreword to the book written by Roxane Gay. Art and biographies are by Kunz.

Marsha P. Johnson (1945–1992), a black transgender woman, played a pivotal role in the gay liberation movement and was a pioneering transgender rights activist. She participated in the Stonewall Uprising, where some credit her with having laid the first brick. Johnson protested police harassment and co-founded one of the nation’s first safe spaces for transgender and homeless youth. A sex worker herself, she advocated for other sex workers. She has also organized on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS. Johnson suffered from mental illness and was often homeless. When his body was found in the Hudson River, police ruled Johnson’s death a suicide without presenting any evidence. Those who knew her well dispute this discovery, and the truth about her death remains unknown. Credit: Anita Kunz/Pantheon

By reading the biographies of the women of Original Sisters: Portraits of Tenacity and Courage, you will notice disturbing connective tissue. These women are all accomplished and fascinating, but many of their stories have been lost to history, or their greatness has not been appreciated until now, or men have tried and often taken credit for their work. bold and brilliant. Much of women’s history needs to be excavated or rediscovered because for too long women’s contributions have been overlooked, despised, undervalued.

Ruth Coker Burks (1959– ) served as a carer and confidante for people with AIDS during the early years of the crisis. In the 1980s and 1990s, she helped those who had been abandoned by their families and communities and who were neglected in hospitals. Burks tended to patients, holding their hands and sitting with them for hours until they died. When she could not find clergy to perform cemetery services due to AIDS-related stigma, Burks performed her own rites and buried the ashes of about 40 people in the cemetery plots. from his family. In total, she nursed over a thousand dying people and became known as the Graveyard Angel. Credit: Anita Kunz/Pantheon

Original sisters is a powerful act of feminist recovery. This is a necessary fix. From one entry to the next, I rejoiced in the contribution of women to the world we live in and the way we live in this world. I was surprised at how much I didn’t know, how much I was ignored and to what end? Word empowering is overused, and it’s often watered down to the point of meaninglessness when people suggest that a woman doing something reasonably sensible is empowering. And even. There’s something incredibly stimulating about reading Original sisters, about learning the extent of what women have made possible. This book, as a whole, offers the reader possibility and promise.

Lorena Borjas (1960-2020) was a Mexican American transgender woman and community activist in Queens, New York. A victim of human trafficking, Borjas spent the rest of her life saving other trans women from the horrors of this crime and has been called the mother of the Latinx transgender community. She patrolled the streets, provided food and condoms to people in need, and offered help with legal and immigration issues. Borjas set up needle exchanges to protect transgender people on hormone therapy and allowed transitioning people to stay with her. She died of complications from COVID-19. Credit: Anita Kunz/Pantheon

These quirky sisters cover the prehistoric era to the present day. Some of the names on these pages will be familiar to you, but you will be introduced to many of these women for the first time, as history is rarely nice to women until it is forced to be. You will learn about artists and activists, leaders and rebels. There is a portrait of Ching Shih, a Chinese pirate who commanded 70,000 men and a massive fleet of ships. Peggy Jo Tallas was a notorious bank robber who committed high acts of theft. We have Irna Phillips to thank for the soap operas and serial storytelling. Gladys West’s calculations were key to the development of GPS, which allows us to travel without fear of getting lost.

Stormé DeLarverie (1920–2014) was an American drag performer and civil rights activist. Some claim she threw the first punch that sparked the Stonewall uprising in New York. A biracial artist, she performed at venues in Europe and the United States and became a style icon for wearing her elegant dandy costumes. For years, she patrolled the streets of Greenwich Village as the self-proclaimed guardian of her fellow lesbians. DeLarverie also organized and performed benefits for battered wives and children. MC, bouncer, singer and volunteer, she is remembered as the Rosa Parks of the gay community. Credit: Anita Kunz/Pantheon

As interesting as the biographies are, the portraits are visually arresting, beautifully rendered. They demand our attention, and Anita Kunz reminds us that women’s history is the history of the world. She reminds us that much of the culture we take for granted exists because of the ingenuity of women. Original sisters allows us to do the ongoing work of delving into women’s history as much as possible. It is also a book that demands that we continue to question why women and their historical contributions are too often overlooked. Why are their contributions rejected? How do we ensure that the women making history from now on don’t suffer the same fate as too many women in these pages?

From the women who drew on the walls of prehistoric-era caves to those who shattered the tallest of glass ceilings, these quirky sisters are illuminating the path ahead for the rest of us.

Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989) was an American transgender woman and the first person to achieve fame in the United States for having sex reassignment surgery. After her military service during World War II, she began taking estrogen. Jorgensen then traveled to Copenhagen in the early 1950s to receive further hormone treatment and surgery. Jorgensen was greeted as a celebrity upon her return to the United States in 1953, as news of her transition had already been released. As an actress and nightclub host, Jorgensen won over audiences with her composure, beauty, humor and charm, and she used her fame as a platform to advocate for transgender people. Credit: Anita Kunz/Pantheon


Extract Original sisters by Anita Kunz. Copyright © 2021 by Anita Kunz. Excerpted with permission from Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.

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