I’m starting to form the basic outline for my selection criteria. While I started my reading with some sketchy criteria already in place (i.e. stories written by women, strong female lead characters, identifiable moments of leadership, etc…), I decided not to stifle the wide array of options before getting a feel for what was available. Unlike Badaracco who chose ‘serious’ literature based on two rough tests: The “test of time,” are they classics?, and the test of “careful reading,” that is, do they have depth and richness? I always knew I wanted my selection to extend beyond ‘classics.’ I’ve scoured lists like:
- 75 Books Every Women Should Read: The Complete List
- Are these the 50 most influential books by women?
- 21st Century Literature by Women
- 21 Books from the last 5 years that every woman should read
- The life-changing novels every woman should read
- Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction
- The Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature
- 100 Great Plays for Women
- Women's Fiction: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests
- Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel
But now, having read at least 20 pieces of women's literature (most of which would classify, however subtly, as 'feminist fiction') and poured over summaries for over 50, the process itself has naturally brought forth a set of additional (unifying) criteria. I will outline them briefly here:
- Well-reviewed, award-winning literature. Now, when I began this project, I wasn’t being very fussy about reviews or literary critiques…but, after reading a couple of popular fiction pieces which would never ever make it onto any classics list, I’ve refined my selection to books which have received some recognition from the ‘powers that be.’ Essentially, Badaracco’s ‘depth and richness’ test.
- Historical elements/historical figures. This isn’t a be all & end all prescription, but historical fiction, whether being simply set in the past (i.e. 1950’s America, 1914 on the Atlantic, or the 1960s in the Dominican Republic) or featuring ‘real’ historical women (i.e. Sarah Grimke, Minerva Mirabal, Dinah daughter of Jacob, etc…), tend to be more focused on what it means to step beyond boundaries, expectations and the traditional delineations of femininity.
- Grounded in reality and featuring a linear narrative. I really do love Le Guin’s feminist science fiction stories (which is why there are several of her books/short stories on the list!) and ‘slice of life’/alternative, indie pieces, however the stories with the clearest ‘moments’ of leadership and tension in terms of women’s experiences, are the ones following a conventional story line/plot and with rich narrative and dialogue.
- Written after 1980 (or maybe 1970 or 1960?). The pre-1980 pieces I’ve read seem to be either exclusively focused on women’s rights (second wave feminism) or are so well-known and loved (think Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice, Gone with the Wind, Middlemarch) that I feel there is little room to be creative/untraditional in exploring them; it’s almost like desecrating something holy.
Recent Reading Endeavours
1. The Invention of Wings (2014) by Sue Monk Kidd
Applicability Rating: 9/10
Relevant Themes: Authenticity, expectations & perceptions, overcoming obstacles
Key Thoughts: This is a truly beautiful story which traces the events of Sarah Grimke's life & how she 'invents her wings' as both an abolitionist speaker and a women's rights activist. It is a story of overcoming the expectations and roles society traps/enslaves you in. Narrated from both Sarah and Hetty's perspectives, The Invention of Wings is simplistic in its thematic concerns & yet powerful in the way it thoughtfully examines injustice, hypocrisy, and authenticity. No easy resolutions are proposed, and in fact, it ends rather abruptly, especially considering how long was spent on Sarah & Hetty’s childhood. However, for me at least, I enjoyed how it explored what it means to find one’s own ‘authentic self’ in the mess of societal expectations and when evil is masked by 'righteousness' and tradition. I particularly love that Sarah is not a heroine in the conventional, kicking-ass sense. She makes poor decisions and is, at times, hindered by almost debilitating fear and anxiety. For me, the most profound moment of the novel is when she observes (after so long searching for her purpose) that: "What I feared was the immensity of it all - a female abolition agent traveling the country...I wanted to say, Who am I to do this, a woman? But that voice was not mine. It was Father's voice. It was Thomas'. It belonged to Israel, to Catherine, and to Mother. It belonged to the church in Charleston and the Quakers. It would not, if I could help it, belong to me" (p. 320).
2. Welcome to Thebes (2010) by Moira Buffini
Applicability Rating: 8/10
Relevant Themes: Power & Status, women's leadership, crisis situations, peace & war
Key Thoughts: Set in the present day but inspired by ancient myth, Welcome to Thebes offers a passionate exploration of an encounter between the world's richest (Athens) and the world's poorest (Thebes) countries in the aftermath of a brutal war.
This play encompasses so much more than women's leadership in its stark & brutal portrayal of war torn 'Thebes' (an unnamed African nation). However, in choosing to make the elected democratic cabinet all female (with one ‘token’ man) and led by a new female president, Moira Buffini explores the double-bind that women face in positions of leadership and the ways their positions of power are challenged by men and women alike.
3. The Matter of Seggri (1994) by Ursula K. Le Guin
Applicability Rating: 7.5/10
Relevant Themes: Gender role reversal, matriarchal societies, female superiority, collaboration
Key Thoughts: In this thought-provoking science fiction story, Le Guin experiments with gender roles, imagining a matriarchal society where traditional signs of male superiority – strength, aggression, competitiveness, sexual dominance – signify social inferiority. By deconstructing the warrior identity and masculine traits commonly idealised by Western society and asking what would a society be like if the male sex were only used for pleasure and pro-creation, Le Guin works towards a reconciliation of the sexes.
Disturbing, satirical, and at times sexually explicit, Le Guin touches on both the negative and positive aspects of an all-female run society. Unfortunately, due to its sexual overtones and explicit language, it's not likely to be a story that everyone will enjoy. There is also a lack of character development as it switches abruptly between different perspectives and stories.
4. In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) by Julia Alvarez
Applicability Rating: 8.5/10
Relevant Themes: Relational leadership between women, courage & ambition, authentic leadership & followership
Key Thoughts: I thoroughly enjoyed this book! I had no prior knowledge of the Mirabal sisters and their tragic deaths, but Alvarez vividly portrays their lives and the events leading up to their assassination during Trujillo's dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in stunning detail. A few of the particularly pertinent discussion points include the development of solidarity between women and what it means to 'have courage' and what it takes to become courageous. What contextual factors contribute to the process of 'becoming' a leader, and particularly, a female leader?
In a postscript at the end of the novel titled 'Still Time for Butterflies', Alvarez writes:
Often when we read about brave women like the Mirabal sisters, we think that in order to advance the cause of freedom we have to do grand things. But in fact, if we look at the lives of these four sisters, we realise that all of them came to their courage in small, incremental steps, little moments and challenges we all face every day of our lives. In some ways, we become brave, almost by accident. Something happens and we respond to that challenge courageously and compassionately. But really, all along the way to that something big happening, we’ve been cultivating a compassionate heart, a listening and big-hearted imagination. And one of the ways to cultivate such an elastic and inclusive imagination is by reading books.
And this is what my reading list looks like now! Yay!!