Teaching Women's History, Books That Grow Style

    As February starts to draw to a close, and we pay our respects to the passing of Black History Month, the Books That Grow team has been looking ahead to the month of March, also Women’s History Month, for support. To commemorate the month, we’ve highlighted a number of books from our library written by or about women, and women’s issues. Some of these books underscore some of the innumerable contributions—artistically, politically and sociallywomen have made to society, while others bring gender issues to the forefront for a closer look. We hope you and your students enjoy!


    When biography began to come into its own as a genre in the late 18th century, there were a few fundamental assumptions made about it. First and foremost, biography had to be morally justified as a rising literary trend. The famed poet, essayist and literary critic, Samuel Johnson, asserted that a biography must aim to depict a subject—and his/her words and deedsworthy of emulation. A biography that failed to do so, Johnson claimed, was not only morally dubious, but also dangerous. Although our view of biographies have evolved since Johnson’s time, I think he would look upon Susan B. Anthony: Women’s Rights, Helen Keller: My Soul’s Birthday, and Harriet Tubman: The Line to Freedom, with a smile and a wink. The real-life protagonists of these biographies share a few things in common: unwavering determination in the face of adversity, and an unfailing commitment to social justice, irrespective of the law.

      Helen Keller's story, complete with setbacks followed by a triumph over the odds, resonates with the American faith in rugged individualism. That fact aside, it’s worth noting that Helen’s successes were not entirely her own; they also belonged to Anne Sullivan:her teacher and mentor. Through education, or in her own words, the “light of her soul,” Helen not only began to make sense of a previously unintelligible world, but she also began to think about her rightful place in it. Helen came to the realization that education saved her from a life of perpetual loneliness and ignorance. After graduating from college, she became dedicated to making the opportunities she had, available to all. To this end, Helen became an active suffragist, labor union activist, socialist, and a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU).

      Susan B. Anthony, who lived over 50 years before Helen Keller, never got to see the fruits of her labor, or the ratification of the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Growing up in a liberal Quaker household, Anthony’s father saw to her education personally, thinking that the schools for women at the time were inadequate. After Anthony’s family lost nearly all their belongings during an economic collapse in 1837, Anthony sought out work as a teacher to help ameliorate her family’s financial losses. After realizing that she was paid only a quarter of what was paid to her male colleagues, for the same work, Anthony began to learn as much about women’s issues as possible. Her research led her to one conclusion: that the U.S. government had failed to meet its responsibility to provide for its constituents. As a result, Anthony began a life-long crusade to champion women’s rights. Anthony’s activism didn’t stop there, however. She saw women’s suffrage as intimately associated with abolitionism. In Anthony’s mind, the unequal treatment of women and African Americans had similar causes and required similar remedies.

     Although she lived contemporaneously with Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, and her accomplishments, take on an extra dimension of significance when we consider that she was not only a woman, but an enslaved African American woman. After escaping slavery in Maryland via the underground railroad, Tubman made her way to Philadelphia as a newly freed woman. Shortly after, however, Tubman felt it was her moral duty to help other slaves win their freedom. To that end, she became a conductor on the underground railroad, and in her day, helped lead thousands of slaves to freedom. In addition to providing a window into Harriet Tubman’s life, this biographical piece is also valuable for the snapshot it provides into the life of a slave in nineteenth-century United States—particularly, the life of a slave in the mid-Atlantic state of Maryland.

 Classic Fiction

      Good literature takes life as we know it, and mirrors it back at us. But beyond that, literature has the potential to wipe away the ordinariness from what has come to seem a matter of fact, and in its place, coats it with a fresh paint of enchantment. Often, what we think of as ordinary, we also think of as natural. Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, force us to question the naturalness of traditional gender roles ascribed to men and women. Gilman is interested in the psychology of male/female relationships, and her work reads like the private journal of both a patient and a clinician. The story is told through the journal entries of an unnamed female protagonist who is suffering from a vague nervous disturbance. As a remedy, her physician husband, John, prescribes her a steady regimen of regular bedrest at the ancestral home the family has rented for the summer. Despite her protests, and her expressed desire for air and exercise, her husband continues to keep her cloistered away in a solitary room adorned with yellow wallpaper. As the protagonist’s mind begins to unravel, Gilman challenges the reader to think of mental illness, in this case, not as an irrational response, but as a rational response to an inherently oppressive male culture.

     In contrast to the Yellow Wallpaper, which explores the mental processes of a woman in an unhappy marriage, Chopin’s The Story of an Hour explores the mental processes of a newly widowed woman right after receiving news of her husband’s death. After an initial bout of grief, the woman, Mrs. Mallard, begins to contemplate her situation in solitude and finds herself feeling something unexpectedunbridled joy! Despite loving her husband, Ms. Mallard is elated by the prospect of a future where she can live for herself, and only for herself, without being hindered by a “ powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose... upon a fellow-creature.” Because of how well these pieces complement each other, the Books That Grow team recommends teaching them in conjunction, and using them as a platform to discuss gender relations. Because of the sophisticated level of social analysis this would require, however, we recommend reserving these pieces for older high school students(ages 16-18).

      Less critical of the status quo, but still critical, is famed novelist and short story writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his short story, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, Fitzgerald traces a shift in feminine values by comparing two young socialites, Marjorie, the “modern” woman, and Bernice, her old fashioned cousin. Bernice, although wealthy and attractive, is unpopular with young men because of her inability to stay up to date with social trends. Marjorie is also wealthy and beautiful, but in contrast to Bernice, she has fully embraced the controversial value system, and subtle rules and regulations, governing feminine behavior in the 1920’s. In attempting to be more like Marjoriesexually aggressive, cold, calculating and aloofBernice sacrifices the very qualities that make her a breath of fresh air in a vapid world of debutantes and Harvard educated polo players.

      Last but not least is Virginia Woolf’s modernist masterpiece The Mark on the Wall. Virginia Woolf, by wide acclaim, is a household name in English literature, and quite possibly one of the most famous female authors ever. Her short story, The Mark on the Wall, relies on the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique to meditate on a seemingly innocuous smudge on a wall. Less important than Woolf’s subject, though, is her perception of the subject. Through this work, Woolf muses on the inherently subjective nature of individual reality. This piece, because of its unconventional, and oftentimes confusing, narrative structure, is best suited for older high school students(ages 17-18).

Myths and Folktales

     Although we don’t typically conceptualize fairytales and myths as being true accounts of women’s history, they do provide insight into attitudes towards women during different time periods, and in a way, are a form of symbolic history. Before the creation myth of Adam and Eve, there was the Greek creation myth of Pandora’s Box. The story of Pandora’s Box not only serves as a creation myth about the origins of human suffering, but it also helps account for the origins of man’s other half: woman. And according to this story, the two are intimately linked!

      In a different way, Hans Christian Andersen’s classic, The Mermaid and the Prince, also known as The Little Mermaid, is profound in its feminist implications. On the surface, The Mermaid and the Prince is a love story that lauds sacrifice as a virtue. There is enough evidence, however, to perform a much darker reading of this story. Significantly, in order to join the human world, the little mermaid has to change her fundamental nature, and sacrifice her voice. Instead of being content with her identity, the mermaid elevates her love for the princeand all that he representsover the love of her family. As part of her bargain with the witch, the mermaid willingly subjects herself to a life of incessant physical pain in order to maintain her human form, which she describes as feeling like “walking on knives.” In addition, she must also give up her voice to the witch, leaving her as a literal and metaphorical empty vessel. Although these stories are age appropriate for children as young as eight, reading them through this critical lens is best suited for high school students (ages 15-18).


         Anyone who has ever read an original fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, and then seen the Disney film version, is bound to notice some glaring inconsistencies. Many of these inconsistencies are particularly salient for women. To use just one example, in the Disney version of Briar Rose, or Sleeping Beauty, the title character is awoken from her enchanted sleep by True Love’s kiss. In the original version of Briar Rose, however, not only is the dashing prince of lore absent, but Briar Rose is awoken by one of her newborn twins. In this version, Briar Rose is raped by a king, who takes advantage of her incapacitated state. It’s worth mentioning that the original Grimm’s tales were associated with the German peasantry, and were designed to expose children to some of the harsh realities of life. The Books That Grow original piece, the Disneyfication of Fairytales, explores the causes and consequences of Disneyfication. The Books That Grow team recommends using this piece as a framework from which to approach other fairy tales in our library, particularly The Mermaid and the Prince. Once again, this piece is most appropriate for high school students (ages 15-18)

 Social Studies

       These Books That Grow original pieces provide a cultural analysis of the role women play in contemporary books and films. The piece, What if Harry Potter Had Been Named Harriet? forces the reader to think about gendered expectations in novels by describing the different narratives that male and female characters often conform to, and the stigma attached to defying these narrative conventions. In this piece, Greg Kirmser uses the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games series to illustrate his point.

      The other piece, Forget About Sex Or Violence: Movies Now Rate For Gender Bias places special emphasis on a test designed to gauge the degree to which a film is gender biased. The test was popularized by the American writer and cartoonist, Alison Bechdel. Bechdel’s test, originally intended as a joke, is as follows: a movie must contain at least once scene where two female characters talk to each other about something other than men. The test became so popular that it was adopted by film critics in Scandinavia, who made it a standard part of their review process. Other critics were less enthusiastic about the test, pointing out that many movies with strong female protagonists often failed the test. These same critics maintain that the test is an imprecise measure of gender bias, and that the Hollywood film industry needs to be reformed a whole, not just individual films. These pieces are best suited for middle school, and high school students (ages 12- 18).

 Primary Source Documents

      When you’re teaching women’s history, especially in the United States, few events are as monumental as the passage of the 19th amendment—which secured women the right to vote. As a result, few figures command as much respect as two of the amendment’s chief proponents, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In her Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, Elizabeth Cady Stanton intentionally mimics the language and structure of the Declaration of Independence. By doing so, she lends additional credibility to her arguments championing women’s suffrage. Stanton logically asserts, quite convincingly, that the U.S. government’s authority is null and void for subjecting women to laws, which they have no power in shaping. She goes on to argue that “That the laws which conflict with the true and substantial happiness of woman are contrary to the great laws of nature and have no validity.”

       In a similar vein, in her speech Are Women Persons? Susan B. Anthony draws heavily on the nuances of the language in the Constitution to further her own ends, and to justify her decision to cast a ballot in the presidential election of 1872. By recognizing that the  U.S. preamble explicitly states “We the people,” Anthony not only removes herself from culpability for “breaking a law,” but argues that she was simply exercising her Constitutional rights. Even more amazingly, with one swift rhetorical move, Anthony shifts culpability to the United States government for directly defying “the supreme law of the land.” In Anthony’s eyes, and in the eyes of thinking people everywhere, the U.S. government had failed to “secure the blessings of liberty” to over one half of the country’s population.  These pieces are ideal for lessons on the history of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States, and gender relations in the United States. Additionally, because of their compelling arguments, and unique rhetorical styles, these piece works well as part of a lesson on english composition, rhetoric, public speaking, and speech writing.