When I was a teen, I took over half the basement of our house and turned it into my bedroom. There were many benefits to this situation, but the crowning glory was a pair of ceiling-level bookshelves that ran the entire width of the room. I had them filled to the brim with books. Most of those books were fiction, and inside them lived some of the best role models I ever had.
I know it seems a bit odd that as we talk of National Women's History Month and writing women back into history, I am talking about fiction. I inhaled fiction as a kid. While I have added a healthy dose of non-fiction to my reading diet, fiction will always be my first love. The girls and women in those books taught me how to live. The women I read in fiction today still continue to do that.
Part of the reason that these books that lined my shelves were such a lifeline was because the books we read in school weren't exactly overflowing with women. Oh, sure, we read about Helen Keller and Anne Frank, both of whom are very worthy of their spot in the classroom. On the fiction front, we read Owls in the Family, Huckleberry Finn, Oedipus Rex, various plays by Shakespeare. I read Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist for extra credit.
Notice a pattern? They are all literary works written by men with male protagonists. OK, Shakespeare has some female leads -- but, as it was often pointed out to us while studying them, in Shakespeare's day, women were played by men. None of these works were bad or undeserving; they were just very male. It was only in my own bookshelves and at the library that I found women-authored books with female protagonists.
Anne Shirley taught me that I could go to college. Yes, I realize that probably sounds a little silly, but I mean it. There were similarities between us despite the fact that I was living about one hundred years after her time. The Anne of Green Gables series was set in small-town Prince Edward Island. I just happened to grow up in small-town Prince Edward Island. The Cuthbert household wasn't what you'd describe as particularly well off. They were working farmers of modest means. We didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up, either. But Anne showed me if you worked hard, you could do it, and I did.
Judy Blume ... well, there's a reason why there's a book called Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume. Judy Blume taught us about everything, from our periods to breasts to masturbation to sex. (You especially learned about the sex if your mother didn't know that Judy Blume also wrote for women and gave you one of her adult books. *ahem*) She taught us that first love isn't always last love. She was our Aunt Judy, and we wanted to be, or be best friends with, the girls in her books.
Ramona Quimby made me realize that I wasn't the only little girl to get into trouble. Nancy Drew made me want to be a detective. Because of the Baby-Sitters Club, I took the St. John's Ambulance baby-sitting course. The female-authored books I read when I was younger continue to shape the books I read today. Sometimes I read chick-lit. Sometimes they are literary award winners. Some of the books you will find in airports, while others must be special ordered. I don't know quite yet which books of these books I'm going to look back on and identify as life-shaping.
Myra Pollack Sadker is quoted as saying, "Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less." It's absolutely important to write women into history books. It's also important to write women and girls into fiction, and it's important for women to write those stories. Those books are going to end up on some girl's bookshelf, and she will see herself in them -- be it the girl that she is or the woman she wants to be.
More women reading women-authored fiction:
- On International Women's Day, Jodi Cleghorn asked people to share their inspirational women authors.
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