Give me girl power-- but with nuance.
April 23, 2011 10:47 AM   Subscribe

I'd like recommendations for books, stories or non-fiction accounts of women wrestling with societal norms to achieve their goals and having trouble overcoming their own internalized ideas of gender.

A lot of books I've encountered dealing with this kind of topic tend to fall in the camp of girl-power fables where women instinctively grasp that they are equal and capable and go on a goal-achieving journey and damn the consequences. Several of these are fantasy novels where women become warriors in settings where generally only men can do so and go on to kick ass, take names and prove themselves.

I generally like stories dealing with gender barriers and women who fight society's norms to achieve their goals, but in a lot of these, especially fantasy, the characters' struggles seem very artificial, because the characters don't even seem to have been raised in the society the book is set in, or be affected at all by its norms. That's not really how people function; they internalize what they're taught. Sometimes those stories seem like the author just conceived of a character who is essentially a 21st century American woman plucked down into the book's setting. I want more complex characters and more compelling conflicts, stories in which strong female characters are capable and ambitious, but must deal with their own internalized insecurities and prejudices on top of those of their peers to achieve their goals. I would be interested particularly in any contemporary memoirs from women living in areas with extreme gender disparity, but the story can be a novel, short story, memoir, etc., and the gender-based barriers the women overcome can take any form.

Bonus points if this is something I can find in my local library, since I don't have a lot of disposable income at the moment.
posted by DeusExMegana to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
posted by moojoose at 10:55 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Virginia Woolf's "Orlando."
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:56 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Dud Avocado, but she's not exactly conquering kingdoms or galaxies.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:00 AM on April 23, 2011

Best answer: YA, but well written, with a lot of attention given to the protagonist's evolving ideas about her gender and class: True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi.
posted by apparently at 11:05 AM on April 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Jill Ker Conway's "The Road from Coorain" hits a lot of what you're looking for. From the publisher, via Powell's: "One women's [sic] journey from a childhood in Australia's outback to adulthood as a successful American career woman. The Road From Coorain is about Everywoman, for it is about childhood loneliness, anguished parent-child relationships, dawning sensibility, discovering a vocation, and finding one's own sense of self."

A novel that's close to my heart is Terry Pratchett's "A Hat Full of Sky: The Continuing Adventures of Tiffany Aching and the Wee Free Men," which is technically YA...but which speaks to learning to become one's own self. Or, in Tiffany Aching's case, her own witch, despite the pressures of mean girls, the testing by wise women, and the occasional evil supernatural creature.
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:08 AM on April 23, 2011

Nonfiction: Bossypants by Tina Fey! Also it's hilarious. Here's an excerpt.
posted by you're a kitty! at 11:10 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. The author was one of the first women to attend Oxford, and the book focuses on Harriet's struggle with balancing life and work and finding a place in a world that wasn't quite ready for her. It's technically a mystery but isn't really, and it's incredible. You don't need to have read the previous (many) Wimsey books to appreciate it.
posted by you're a kitty! at 11:15 AM on April 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

Ohmygosh when Tina Fey writes in Bossypants about meeting Amy Poehler and instantly recognizing a kindred feminist spirit with a happy heartfelt "My friend is here! My friend is here!" I cheered out loud and now carry that giddiness in me every time I think of my own best girl friends.

Julia Child's "My Life In France" is so, so good. How she talks about slowly discovering her own passion later in life, having an unconventional marriage, defining her sense of self in her own terms - she's fantastic. And the very definition of "a hoot."
posted by sestaaak at 11:26 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor

At a glance:

The Women of Brewster Place depicts seven courageous black women struggling to survive life's harsh realities. Since the book was first published in 1982, critics have praised Gloria Naylor's characters. They contend that her vivid portrayal of the women, their relationships, and their battles represents the same intense struggle all human beings face in their quest for long, happy lives. For example, in a review published in Freedomways, Loyle Hairston says that the characters "... throb with vitality amid the shattering of their hopes and dreams." Many commentators have noted the same deft touch with the novel's supporting characters; in fact, Hairston also notes, "Other characters are ... equally well-drawn."
posted by knilstad at 11:27 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Believe it or not, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

"Nothing her mother taught her was of any value whatsoever now and Scarlett's heart was sore and puzzled. It did not occur to her that Ellen could not have foreseen the collapse of the civilization in which she raised her daughters, could not have anticipated the disappearing of the places in society for which she had trained them so well. She had taught her to be gentle and gracious, kind and modest. Life treated women well when they had learned those lessons, Ellen said. Scarlett thought in despair, 'Nothing, no, nothing she taught me is of any help to me!"
posted by Nixy at 11:27 AM on April 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

And and and - Katharine Graham's Pulitzer-winning "Personal History" - an autobiography that tells of how she grew up wealthy and sheltered, married wealthy and sheltered, and everything falls apart when her husband commits suicide.

She takes over the reigns of the Washington Post and it becomes a major paper as it scoops the Watergate scandal... her journey and the self-deprecating way she describes going from being a subservient daughter and wife to a publishing power player is fantastic.
posted by sestaaak at 11:33 AM on April 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Ranks in my top-five-favourite books of all time.
posted by aunt_winnifred at 11:37 AM on April 23, 2011

National Velvet
posted by vespabelle at 11:38 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There are several YA novels that fit this bill. Off the top of my head:

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart is the story of a girl prankster who tries to break in to an all-male secret society. Also by E. Lockhart, Fly on the Wall a novella based on The Metamorphosis about a girl who literally becomes a fly on the wall of the boys' locker room. Lockhart generally deals with feminism in a sophisticated, intelligent way.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, which will be released May 24, is about a group of teen beauty pageant contestants who end up stranded on a desert island. It may sound goofy and oversimplified, but it's actually a wonderfully stirring and thought-provoking look at all sorts of things: gender identity, sexuality, and feminism, particularly whether you can value all things pretty and sparkly and still be a feminist. Definitely a book about young women affected by societal norms, struggling to figure out who they are both within and outside those constraints.

Rampant by Diana Peterfreund. This is an example of one of those fantastical novels in which girls become warriors, but their ability to fight the scourge of unicorns (!) is tied into their virginity. So sex is the main topic of this particular series, and it's interesting the way sex defines the women in the story. Peterfreund, after Lockhart and Bray, is one of the most skillful feminist YA writers out there.

Outside of YA there are tons of books you might not expect to be feminist masterpieces, like Peyton Place by Grace Metalious and Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. Metalious and Susann are generally left out of the pantheon of feminist writers, but the above books are about women trying to find/change their places in society. (And if you read them alongside The Bell Jar, you have a very interesting trifecta of mid-20th century working women in NYC.)

Don't skip the obvious, though: Charlotte Perkins Gilman (short stories in particular; the novella Herland is pretty much the definition of what you're not looking for), Kate Chopin, Margaret Atwood.

Happy reading!
posted by brina at 11:51 AM on April 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

After Claude--the heroine, Harriet Daimler, is an antihero, and the book is funny as hell.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:51 AM on April 23, 2011

Bonus points if this is something I can find in my local library

Ask them about inter-library loan, too. The tiny library I worked at didn't widely advertise this as a service, but they were happy to do it if people asked.
posted by BlooPen at 12:54 PM on April 23, 2011

Best answer: The extreme version of what you're looking for would be something like Carolyn Jessop's Escape, about a woman leaving the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints. Or In the Land of Invisible Women, about an American doctor's year in Saudi Arabia. Others:
Lipstick Jihad, Azadeh Moaveni
From Housewife to Heretic, Sonia Johnson
Brick Lane, Monica Ali
Looking for Trouble, Leslie Cockburn
Tamarind Mem, Anita Rau Badami
Moghul Buffet, Cheryl Benard
Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali
posted by Corvid at 1:30 PM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mission Child by Maureen McHugh
posted by bq at 3:04 PM on April 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Kind of an unconventional choice, but The Silence of the Lambs would seem to fit your criteria; Clarice Starling is constantly coming up against sexism from numerous people that she has to deal with--bureaucrats, law enforcement, and especially the psychologist at the sanitarium--and it's one of the ironies of the book that Hannibal Lecter is one of the few people who recognizes her exceptional qualities and challenges her to succeed despite her detractors, at the very same time that he's using her for his own ends. However, by no means continue on to read Hannibal, the sequel in which Thomas Harris completely ruins the goodwill that he built up with the first book.
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:37 PM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is not a book, but seeing as that 16-year-old girls don't often publish memoirs...

If you're looking for a girl who is "capable and ambitious, but must deal with their own internalized insecurities and prejudices" then I must direct you to the MTV show "16 and Pregnant" or its follow-up "Teen Mom", particularly the first episode (link to watch) of the first season which features a girl named Maci. It is the most realistic portrayal of a teenage girl I have ever seen or read.
posted by acidic at 7:22 PM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Anything by Jane Austen would do nicely.
The heroines in certain Margaret Atwood novels (The Handmaid's Tale, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, The Year of the Flood) also fit your description.
I realize these are not examples of authors influenced by "extreme gender disparity," but they have produced morally complex and interesting heroines.
posted by Paris Elk at 11:42 PM on April 23, 2011

Best answer: Betty MacDonald, Anybody Can Do Anything

You might recognize the author because of her most famous book: The Egg and I which is a NF account of her life as a chicken farmer's young bride. Anybody continues her life story as a single mother in Seattle trying to earn a living during the depression. She and her extended family are a bit eccentric and their struggles are usually comical-- but underneath is a story of a woman raised to be a wife and mother and being put into the position of being the bread winner during a time when jobs were hard to come by.

When I read your question, I thought you might have been led to ask because of having just seen Mildred Pierce on HBO. The HBO mini series, the Joan Crawford movie, and the original book by James Cain are all about a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, but underneath it all is the story of Mildred being forced into the position of single mom with no training becoming the breadwinner during the depression. Making this situation more difficult for Mildred is her daughter's idea of what is socially appropriate-- i.e. Mildred has to hide the fact that she is a waitress because her daughter would be horrified.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:45 AM on April 24, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, all! I have a lot of reading to do now. Corvid, Lipstick Jihad was actually a book I had in mind when framing this question, so I'm excited to check out your other recommendations. Secret Life of Gravy, I haven't seen Mildred Pierce, but it sounds interesting. I may try and track that down.
posted by DeusExMegana at 7:48 AM on April 24, 2011

Seconding Gaudy Night. What I really loved is that it many of the women would seem backwards to us now, but were incredibly progressive at the time. It's a great snapshot of 1930's England. (It helps that it was written in 1935.)

I've also liked Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea and Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi. They are not so much about challenging and changing society as finding where your power is in it.

You might also like My Mother Wears Combat Boots: A Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us by Jessica Mills.

Also, I'd recommend nearly any autobiography of a woman, starting with Emily Hahn (Times & Places and China to me in particular), Dorothy Day (The Long Loneliness), Beverly Cleary (My own two feet), L.M. Montgomery (Selected journals -- this is not for the faint-hearted or depression prone), Noel Streatfeild (Beyond the Vicarage, Away from the Vicarage AKA On Tour). I'm sure there's plenty more good stuff out there, but those are the ones I've read and enjoyed.
posted by Margalo Epps at 5:23 PM on April 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I came back in to recommend Hilary Mantel's elegant and painful memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. I'm reading it now and it's very hard to put down.
posted by Paris Elk at 4:06 AM on April 26, 2011

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