Calling All Literary Women: I Need To Borrow Your Brains

by @thewritermama on July 11, 2011 · 61 comments

Okay, so here’s the deal. If you visit your average American high school, you might think, since this is 2011 and not 1911, that you would find that about half of the literature being assigned as mandatory reading would be by women. Right?

I mean there is plenty of great literature out there by women. And women constitute half of the population. So it stands to reason that half of the books getting assigned on the high school level would be by women.


And sadly this is just not what is happening. And I think I have figured out what the problem is. The problem is the moms are not speaking up. We are not insisting and demanding that women writers get read at the high school level. We are not voicing our clear opinion that literature by women is just as important as literature written by men. We are not making it clear to our daughter’s and son’s teachers and administrators that we don’t just want this level of equality in the classroom, we think that it is way overdue.

There is no definitive list of women authors who are age-appropriate at the high school level, at least not one that I am aware of. So, in conversation with my husband, a high-school English teacher who has had to listen to me complain year-after-year about the lack of women being studied in his and other teachers’ classrooms, we came up with this plan.

I would post my opinion on my blog: my opinion that women writers deserve to be read at the high school level just as much as men writers, in case you missed it.

And I would solicit input from all of my intelligent women friends as to which books she be added to “The List.”

I’m not sure just yet what exactly I plan to do with “The List.” But I think the first step is to create the list and to share it with other concerned women and then take it from there.

So…which books belong on “The List” of women writers worthy of high school assigned reading your opinion?

I have some ideas. I’ll add my ideas in the comments below along with everyone’s ideas.

Go team! Let’s co-create a new high school reading list, starting right here, right now. Thanks for your input!

[Added: Yes! Let’s includes the names and authors of important short stories as well as books.]

[Added later: Let’s also include plays, poems, and anything literary enough to endure time that made an impact on you as a young woman.]

[Ooo, another juicy idea is to include well-written biographies of women writers. And I think it’s great to include memoirs with these suggestions so long as they are well written.]

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  • Flannery O’Connor came to mind.

  • Anonymous

    I vote for, The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Sula by Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Alice Walker (selected stories, best of, why doesn’t this collection exist?). Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents Julia Alvarez. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston.

    There’s tons. Let’s list them all. We can winnow it down later.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Nancy. 🙂

  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett. While it’s mostly known for being a book about the Civil Rights Era, this book  touches on themes that teenagers can relate to: peer pressure, choosing to go against the crowd, and the gang mentality that takes over when people are afraid to stand up to a bully. 

  • Elizabeth

    I used to teach high school social studies and English and made sure to include women writers on my reading lists. I don’t have those files with me right now, but here are a few that pop into my tired brain:

    Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston)
    To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
    The Color Purple  (Alice Walker)

  • barefootwriter

    I was introduced to Toni Morrison through Song of Solomon in my Am Lit class.

    I read Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, either for pleasure or as a choice from a reading list and enjoyed it.

    Annie Dillard is non-fiction, but I loved her at that age and was just thinking about rereading her. We read her essay “Handed My Own Life” about her love of science, so she’s a great role model. I believe it’s part of her book An American Childhood.

  • The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood. And that’s just modern day women writers; I haven’t even touched on the classics.

  • Mary Drew

    Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees.  Esmeralda Santiago, When I Was Puerto Rican and two sequels. (these are memoirs) I love all the books on your list, Christina.  Eating Heaven and When She Flew by Jennie Shortridge.  The Outside Boy by Jeanine Cummings. Wild Life (I forget the author right now.)  These are from the top of my head. 

  • Fun Mama – Deanna

    The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. She’s my favorite author, but I think The Poisonwood Bible would turn a new reader off to her. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I’ll keep thinking. After reading that the current Nobel Prize for Fiction winner thinks that there are NO good female writers, I wanted to smack him and make my own list.

  • Anne Velosa

    Sorry for the duplicate post. Have deleted one of them.

  • Anne Velosa

    I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Herland”
    in high school, and I’ve never forgotten those two stories. Maybe
    because the social commentary by Ms. Gilman was startling to me, a “modern” fledgling woman. But over 20 years later, the picture she paints about women issues is almost as true today, in
    some circles, as it was when she wrote the stories. If  nothing else, it
    provides a historical snapshot of social attitudes regarding women.

  • April

    When I finished The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, I literally felt I had been transformed both as a writer and a reader though it’s got a sex scene at the end that might be too much for your average high school curriculum. I also vote for The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and I was going to suggest a number of Margaret Atwood books though I would single out The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake. It’s not fiction but there’s a really good book by a woman about death and the death-related industry but I can’t remember the name or the author, sorry. 

    This is a terrific discussion and I’m going to come back and see what else comes up as well as add some more of my own.  

  • barefootwriter

    I think it’s great to bring awareness about women’s issues through
    women’s literature, but fundamentally you need to focus on works that
    speak to human issues, or you run the risk of setting up lit written by
    women as a genre that can’t play with the big boys.

    Look for great literature that happens to be by women, and not women’s literature, please.

  • AL Fetherlin

    I sub-taught English classes in high schools and most of the mentioned books are taught.
    I don’t know about the ratio of men-to-women, but have we thought about the possibility that the female writers are simply more powerful than their male counterparts, therefore do not need as much representation? 
    I remember teaching “The Bluest Eye” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” and my students were mesmerized. 
    As for a book having a sex scene in the end… that’s why we teach some things in sections rather than as a whole. Get the children intrigued and allow their parents to decide if the child can read further (parent participation is not always there but that’s another subject). That is how my love of Tolkien was sparked; from a snippet of “The Hobbit.”

  • Eudora Welty! “One Writer’s Beginnings” is delightful, and a selection of stories adds to it. “The Optimist’s Daughter” makes a nice complement to “One Writer’s Beginnings,” but I didn’t appreciate it until a college class in Southern lit.

  • Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘County of the Pointed Firs’, Emily Dickenson’s poetry, Sappho’s poetry and also ‘I know why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou 

  • Ramsey_business

    A lot may not agree with me, but two of my favorites are L. M. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables) and Louisa May Alcott (Little Women and 30 others). These books give a great perspective to history.
    While I haven’t seen her listed I hope the schools still use Emily Bronte’s work (Wuthering Heights) also Elizabeth Barret Browning (they were used when I was in school but that was a few years ago).
    I agree 100 fold to add Maya Angelou. Another is Virginia Woolf.
    I realize these are not current literary writers, but to me it’s equally important to show how literature has changed.

  • My students love Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” and “Desiree’s Baby,” and perhaps, their favorite book all year was Ayn Rand’s “Anthem.” (“Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” were also well-received by the students who read it them on their own.)  Any Agatha Christie book is great as well.

  • Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and “Villette,” and any Jane Austen novel are still some of favorites that I read in High School and reread as an adult! 

  • Anonymous

    I disagree. At this time what is considered “human issues” is still focused primarily on the concerns of men. When the “big boys” are ignorant enough to say things like “women can’t write” — in this day and age — this is a sign to me of how far we have not come. When we start to see that women’s issue are the most fundamentally human issues, then we will have parity.

    We don’t have literary parity in educational and cultural places where it matters most like in our education system and in the global media. Our daughters are growing up without living breathing widely respected examples of their supposed equality. Until the external reality reflects true equality not to mention the truth — that women write just as well as men and that our work is just as valid and essential as that written by men — then we are all living in denial of what is fundamentally apparent: women are not being valued and respected in educational and literary realms.

    So what are we going to do about it? Denial is not the answer even when a few enlightened individuals and institutions do reflect sensitivity and parity on these issues. Striving to spread the word about the greatest women’s literature is one idea. Saying nothing or not enough seems to be keeping women writers — and there are a lot more of us now — as second class writers.

    I think the strong response and enthusiasm for this blog post indicates that I am saying something women know is true and are afraid to discuss for exactly the taboo that you have mentioned.

    And I say, the heck with those fears. No offense to you but the argument does not bear up under closer scrutiny in my book. Pun intended. You train people how to treat you, in the words of Oprah Winfrey and this is true. We have trained men to take us less seriously as writers by our unwillingness to stand up to them, the status quo, and to champion each other.

  • Lela

    I would say Margaret Atwood for sure. And I love Antonya Nelson, but not everything would be appropriate for high school students. Amy Tan, Susan Isaacs – I’m not very liteary, am I? Ha! I think I need to read more women. I’ll let you know how Ayn Rand turns out – slogging through Atlas Shrugged now.

  • Anonymous

    Looking down the comments I can see many excellent writers (but some who write more commercial fiction than great literature). I’d add Edith Wharton, Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Daphne du Maurier, Simone du Beauvoir (a bit of Canadian bias in there).

  • Alyssa Chirco

    I suggest African author Buchi Emecheta, either The Joys of Motherhood or The Slave Girl. I discovered African literature in college, and would love to see more of it taught in high schools, particularly the female authors, who have such a unique style and voice.

  • Andrea Beltran

    The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

  • Joeke3

    i would say add Margaret Laurence, author of many novels, of which I liked the Diviners a lot and also The Stone Angel.
    Are you interested in north American or stsrictly USA based authors?
    Johanna van Zanten

  • Michelemthornton

    Women writers do not speak solely to “women’s issues”. Perhaps you should expand your horizons and read more literature written by women. 

  • AnnetteGendler

    I agree with barefootwriter – insisting that half of the reading list should be by women is simplistic. I care that my kids read great literature, not whether the writer is a man or a woman, and great literature that has influenced the world we live in. When are we finally going to move on from that categorizing by gender, race, etc.? It’s so 1970s. I’m also not too concerned as my daughter’s freshmen reading list included both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and upcoming she’s reading Atwood’s Penelopeiad and Dickens’ Great Expectations.

  • Wildflower Jewelry

    Question… why are we as women worried about” playing with the big boys” when we are at least half the population? We have our own uniqueness to contribute to the world and the” big boys” should worry about playing with us. “Women’s issues” are the world’s issues… read Half the Sky to see why.

  • Michelemthornton

    Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse/A Room of One’s Own

    Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak/Chains/Fever

    Mitali Perkins, Secret Keeper

    Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

    Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

    Sharon Draper, Copper Sun

    Lois Lowery, The Giver

    Willa Cather, My Antonia

    Dorothy Parker

    Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

    Maxine Hong Kingston

    Rachel Carson

  • Anonymous

    I think we should include contemporary literary writers, as well as poets, playwrights, etc. I think sometimes it’s tough to tell if a book is “literary” in the present if it’s also commercial. So go ahead and vote for any book whether past, present, literary or commercial, so long as you can imagine high schoolers getting something from it.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for sharing. Is this high school reading? Private or public?

  • Anonymous

    Folks, you are certainly welcome to disagree with the premise of the call for this list. But nothing is going to stop me from doing it. I appreciate everyone’s comments pro or con. I especially want to keep the list growing and round it out as much as possible. Certainly not everyone will agree, but I invite those who think there might be something to the idea to please chime in. 🙂

  • “Women Who Run With The Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD

  • Memoirista

    A Tree Grows In Brooklyn!

  • CK (you and Calvin Klein),

    While I’m not one of your “intelligent women friends” (or even one of the unintelligent ones, lol), I would respectfully — and I do mean with respect for these authors’  incredible work — like to put forward these writers for your consideration on your list of good female authors and I’m suggesting which books I think could be especially good for high schoolers. Joan Didion — The Last Thing He WantedVictoria Redel — The Border of TruthJennifer Egan — The Keep (better than A Vist from the Goon Squad, by the way, despite the buzz-blitz of Goon Squad)Emily St. John Mandel — Last Night in MontrealBrooke Gladstone — The Influencing Machine (nonfiction, not fiction)Barbara Kingsolver — The LacunaWhoa, I’m not even a parent, let alone female. I’d better get out of here. Bye. :-)-p.

  • barefootwriter

    That is not what I said, but thank you for misinterpreting.

    What I am saying is choose women who write about a variety of topics. Choose great work that happens to be written by women. Don’t choose a body of work that solely focuses on women’s issues, how women are treated, etc.

    It would seem absolutely silly if we chose literature written by men based on how it explores men’s issues. We choose it based on craft and whether it still resonates with us, regardless of the era in which it is written.

    That is the higher standard and the standard I’m suggesting you use to choose these works. And while you know the private reasons for including more women authors, don’t make a big deal of the fact that they are women, the same as you wouldn’t make a big deal out of the fact that male writers are men.

    In other words, don’t make a big deal out of insisting we are equal. Treat us as if we already are.

  • barefootwriter

    Please see also my response to the comment below yours.

    As long as you treat women/Black/LGBT writers as if they are other, or separate, you marginalize them. Imagine how the dynamic around Walt Whitman would change if we began singling him out as a gay writer. He loses all his other dimensions by being labelled that way.

    I honestly had to sit here and think, “Wait, which of the writers I read in high school were women?” Nobody made a big deal of their gender. We just read good literature. Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Zora Neale Hurston, Annie Dillard, etc.

    Perhaps my teacher, who was female, was conducting a similar experiment because there were a lot of women writers. If she was, she didn’t say so, and I think it’s better that way.

  • Anonymous

    I see what you are saying. It was not my intention to focus the list on “women’s topics” but rather on writing by women. I think you bring up some good points here.

    I agree that once there is an more representative number of works by both men and women then the topic of which is which and who wrote what become moot.

  • My all-time fave: “Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott. It’s too cutesie for today’s girls but still a winner of a happy, loving-family-read.

    Also “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” by Betty Smith (although I prefer her “Joy in the Morning” — delightful story! — but not considered a “classic”).

    Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books are too young for high school but can be a great reference, maybe read just for some short clips.

    “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee, and “Diary of Ann Frank” are sometimes required reading, no? And teens could learn a lot on good storytelling techniques, and have fun doing so, by studying the “Harry Potter” books by good ol’ J.K. Rowling.

  • Anonymous

    I see what you are saying. I’m not really attempting to address topics as much as pure representation of women’s voices balanced with men’s voices. Naturally it will never likely get to and stay at 50/50, and as someone else said, that would be besides the point. But until we have more equal representation, I think there is room for improvement. Sounds like you had a great high school teacher. I also had great high school teachers, and unfortunately, we read almost 100% books written by men. I spent the next ten years after high school seeking balance in my reading by reading almost predominantly women. It would have been great to have more balance from the beginning.

  • Anonymous

    Also please see my reply above. Definitely not espousing quotas, per se. Just more balance and equity. I don’t think we need to dwell on labels or topics. If teachers felt like they had a wealth of women writers to draw works from, I think they would.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds interesting. Thanks. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I thought of this also. It would be perfect for a unit on myths or fairy tales if that is a topic covered in the curriculum.

  • Anonymous

    You are welcome to chime in with your intelligent opinion any time, P.A. (You and PA system. wink)

  • Books by Barbara Kingsolver

  • Any books by Barbara Kingsolver (I know of some high schools in which her books are taught). Women as nature writers are so powerful and help students at that age to form identities as a part of the larger natural world. Annie Dillard’s books are a little more advanced for the high school age, but her essays teach an awareness of place. Every single high school student should be required to read Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

  • Oh yes. I’ve read Country of the Pointed Firs 4 times already. It’s a lifer for me.

  • The Bluest Eye impacts many young women. Good choice!

  • I read one of Margaret Atwood’s books in college as well as A Room of One’s Own  (mentioned below).

  • Shelby Barwood

    I like this.

    Fortunately my education seems to have been very open to female writers.  We read Ethan Frome by Wharton and The Storm and The Awakening by Kate Chopin in high school.  We also got Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and of course Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a must, too, if they still haven’t gotten to it by that age.  Almost all of those remain in my top favorites.

    I would probably give an upper-level class Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.  I got it in college, but I think I would have handled it just fine earlier.  I read a lot of Dickinson on my own in high school, too.

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