Zoie Denton is an English sophomore and the views expressed in this piece don’t necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.
Virginia Woolf, Silvia Plath, The Bronte Sisters and Emily Dickison — hopefully you’ve heard of them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t read any of their works. It’s saddening to see such beautiful storytelling pushed into the narrow label of “feminist novels” or “women writers” that are then only covered in niche English classes.
While the gender of an author and her main character undeniably influences a work of literature, this does not make the literature any less representative of the human experience. What is reading if not a deep dive into what it means to be human? What is the purpose of literature if not to expose what flaws we have, what emotions we can’t express and what makes us laugh and turn away bawling?
Feminist literature is, at it’s heart: literature. It deserves to be read and taken as seriously as all other classics written predominately by men. These books also deserve to be taught alongside, or in place of, the classic novels that have been taught in high schools and colleges for decades. Just because a book is a ‘classic’ does not mean that there is not an equally enthralling and pedagogical novel that can aid in diversifying the majority white male main-character and author dominated novels.
Now there have been some women that have been allowed into the classroom as great classics. Mary Shelley and Harper Lee are long time members of the club. However, is it because Shelley’s most famous novel is a gothic horror book and Lee’s work seemingly focuses little, if at all, on gender? While Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is, at its core, a twisted violation of maternity and Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” demonstrates the insistence on children to “act their gender,” these books allow the reader to focus on something else. They allow the reader to derive deep meaning from the text while ignoring the topic of womanhood.
“The Bell Jar,” only written a mere 10 years after “Catcher in the Rye,” has very similar themes to Salinger’s novel including the horrors of growing up and the reality of coping with loss. Yet, I doubt that you have read Plath’s novel in a school setting — and I can only think of one reason why.
Authors who are women of color are even less likely to enter into general education English classes. In addition, while I’ve at least heard of many classics written by white women, (even if their actual books never made it into the classroom) I’ve had to do my own research to find classics written by women of color, whose voices have been silenced for centuries. While I’m saddened by this fact, that does not mean meaningful stories and powerful writing by writers of every background do not exist.
Instead of accepting the dismal idea that it may take a long time for the American education system to realize that it is incredibly important for everyone to read books written by women, about women who are strong, weak, depressed, lost, determined, frustrated or the happiest they have ever been, you should take matters into your own hands and read the following:
- “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath: This aforementioned novel is raw and witty. It will pull you down in the main character, Ester’s, troubling mind while somehow providing comfort in the fact that everyone feels trapped at one point or another. If you liked Catcher in the Rye at all, read this book.
- “Mrs. Dolloway” by Virgina Woolf: Woolf’s storytelling and ability to transport you to wherever she is writing about is unmatched. Her power comes from her honesty and dry humor. I highly recommend this book along with “A Room of One’s Own.”
- “Jane Eyre” by Emily Bronte: Bronte appeals to one of the most fundamental human needs in this novel: to be loved. She questions the meaning of this need and dives deeper into human emotion.
- “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neal Hurston: Hurston was far beyond her time in the 1920s and she uses her experiences as a Black woman to reveal the unceasing white male gaze of society. She speaks to everyone who has ever felt trapped through this journey toward inner peace.
- “Middlemarch” by George Elliot: George Elliot is the pen name for the wildly talented Mary Ann Evans. She explores society in a way that is both freeing and stifling. While this novel is not for the inexperienced reader, it is well worth the effort.
- “A Vindication of the Rights of a Woman” by Mary Wollstonecraft: This radical writer will show you what it is like to truly have passion for something. Her fight for women’s equality infiltrated every aspect of her life and her writing flourished because of this.
- Bonus: The Poetry of Maya Angelou and Emily Dickinson: While not a novelist, Dickinson was a prolific writer whose poetry is mind-changing. Additionally, Angelou’s poems strike to the core of what it means to be written-off as a stereotype through her poems of perseverance.
Expand on not only who you read, but the type of literature you read as well.