Over the past month I’ve enjoyed the recognition of women’s history. It’s great to have a month in which women are celebrated, as well as their achievements, and their leaders. As a student, and now a teacher, of history, I know how important this recognition is. This is incredibly important for a new generation of young women, who seem to not understand the importance of these women, their achievements, and the women’s movement overall. The fight for women’s rights continues.
This semester, I was sub-contracted to teach American History for a defense contractor. My students are a part of the “Apprentice School”, individuals who will become (ideally) engineers and shipbuilders. Most of them don’t see the need for taking my class, and a few have voiced their opinions. Not only is it incredibly difficult for me get these students interested in history, but it’s an even greater challenge to get them to understand the importance of women’s history. In February I faced the same challenges in covering black history topics. Whether it’s a lack of knowledge, a lack of interest, or just apathy, in this respect my job is incredibly hard.
I wanted to share some of my favorite books in women’s history, some of which I have used in the classroom. Without these women, authors of incredibly important books, where would women’s literature be today?
Beloved, written by Toni Morrison (who was also featured in our list of favorite black history books), focuses on the difficult relationship a slave mother had with her children. Slave women never really had control over their own children, and Sethe, the main character of the book, had tried to escape to with her children. When she is brought back to the plantation, she tries to kill her children, she had decided that nothing could be worse than a life of slavery. Later, she is haunted by the ghost of her dead daughter, who was named Beloved.
Little Women is a timeless classic. Written by Louisa May Alcott, one of the most prominent 19th century authors. Jo became her fictional alter-ego, both were able to defy the norms expected of women during the era. She was able to carve out a life for herself, as a teacher, a writer, and never relied on a man for happiness or security. Groundbreaking!
Anne Frank is one of the most notable holocaust victims. This isn’t my favorite book on the topic – but it’s still incredibly important. The Diary of Anne Frank has been read by millions of young women around the world. Facing an uncertain future, knowing their odds of survival were dauntingly slim, there’s still so much hope and love within these pages. It’s an inspirational message of courage, and even in the darkest of times Anne seemed happy and hopeful.
Anything written by Jane Austen is worthy of mention, but my favorite Austen novel is Emma. Another story of an independent courageous young women, also living in a time period in which her role as a woman and a wife seemed almost pre-determined. It’s funny at times, and lighthearted, even when the women in the book know their survival and future depends on the man they are able to marry.
Edith Wharton is another of my favorite female writers, and was living and writing during one of my favorite time periods. In the Age of Innocence, she covers topics similar to those that Austen wrote about. The time period is different, as is the location, but the women featured by both writers are facing similar issues. Here, May, who was played by a young Winona Ryder in the movie version, is supposed to be married to an older man who is clearly in love with someone else. Her choices are limited, yet she is weary of a life of heartbreak.
Putting this list was difficult – of course there are so many more books and writers to include. I enjoy sharing these with my students, whether or not they’re interested I definitely try to spark their curiosity. What are your favorites?