As women tending to the constant demands of our families, our careers, or simply the nitty-gritty of everyday life, our inner feminists can get a little starved for inspiration. I know mine does. As a wife and mother, I recently went back to my alma mater to take a Feminism 101 class and reread the feminist classics that had influenced me as an undergrad.
While many of these books were provocative must-reads, I also found that all too often they presented a rather dispiriting either/or proposition: marriage and motherhood or suicide and madness. Not exactly useful or uplifting messages for the modern woman.
For those in need of a feminist heroine, and because March is Women's History Month, here are three books about strong women that break the mold and tell unexpected stories. Because isn't that in large part what being a feminist is all about?
By Jeanette Winterson, paperback 176 pages, Grove Press, list price: $14
Jeanette Winterson's first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, appeared on many feminist reading lists and tells the coming-out story of a young girl. But she later wrote this lush historical fable, which presents a wildly imaginative take on love and desire, sex and sexuality, violence and sacrifice. The novel follows the irrepressible Villanelle, the cross-dressing, gambling daughter of a Venetian boatman, and the sensitive Henri, a cook who escapes from the service of Napoleon. There is obsession, heartbreak, even murder, and by novel's end someone has gone mad – but not our heroine, which is just one of the many gender-bending twists in this tale.
Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl
By Harriet Jacobs, paperback 176 pages, Dover Publications, list price: $3.50
At a time when most women's stories ended with matrimony, Harriet Jacobs wrote a memoir with a different ending: freedom. In painful, almost claustrophobic detail, she describes the fear and degradation she felt as a slave, trapped by a sexual predator — her master. Risking her life, she runs away and spends seven years hiding out in a garret above a storeroom before finally making her way up north with the help of friends and strangers. Jacobs is truly an inspirational heroine, and this book is a rare treasure, a firsthand experience by a woman who overcame the incredible odds stacked against her.
By Nora Ephron, paperback 192 pages, Vintage, list price: $12.95
Finally, on a lighter note, I recommend Nora Ephron's effervescent Heartburn. It's the emotional chronicle of a woman who discovers, seven months pregnant with her second child no less, that her husband is having an affair. In a thinly disguised account of her own marital breakdown, Ephron takes what would be a pitiable, if not humiliating, position and turns it completely around. Writing with honesty and wit, she creates an unforgettable heroine who is anything but a victim of circumstance. Ultimately, her books serve as an entertaining reminder that, even when we find ourselves cast in the all-too familiar role of wronged woman, we can play that role in new and interesting ways. And this perhaps is our greatest feminist inspiration, the power to tell our own story.
Stephanie Staal is the author of Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life and The Love They Lost: Living with the Legacy of Our Parents' Divorce. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman, Lena Moses-Schmitt and Amelia Salutz.