Stories of Strong Women

In an age of short attention spans and 140-character Twitter updates, does anyone read books anymore? Of course they do. Seventy-six percent of Americans report reading at least one book in a year, according to a 2014 Pew survey.

There are compelling reasons for reading books. Reading narrative literature, according to one study, helps us be more empathetic and more accurate in predicting what others are experiencing.

A study showed that readers of narrative literature had improved social abilities, suggesting that the stereotype of the awkward “bookworm” wasn’t true, while another study suggested that reading, among other intellectual pursuits in mid-life, can help prevent Alzheimer’s later in life.

For Meredith alumnae, reading is significant for another reason. Women read more than men do: six books per year on average compared to men’s average of four, according to the Pew study. Some people also suggest that there is a gender bias present when it comes to reading and praising literature by women. Author Meg Wolitzer wrote in an essay for The New York Times that “women writers are still fighting to have their work taken seriously and accorded as much coverage as men’s.”

Kelly Morris Roberts, ’91, associate professor of English, said that she particularly enjoys books with “unlikely heroines.”

Female characters don’t have to be “superwomen,” Roberts said. “A lot of them are in everyday situations, not trying to look for the spotlight but trying to do the best by their families so their families can survive or thrive.”

Convinced of reading’s importance? Ready to give female writers and female protagonists your attention? Meredith English and education department faculty members recommend these classic and contemporary books for your beach trip, your bedtime ritual, or anytime.


Middlemarch (1871-2), George Eliot Photo of book cover, Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Recommended by Robin Colby, ’81, professor of English

Dorothea, the main character of Middlemarch, wants “more and aspires for more than a woman is supposed to have,” Colby said. Dorothea “wants to leave a mark on the world, has this sort of aspiration” for something greater. She meets a scholar, Casaubon, and “her notion is that her life will be larger if she is able to help him. She wants to marry him. She sees him as doing important work. As it turns out, the guy is a loser, and he is working on a never-to-be-finished product.” Despite that, Dorothea “does not become bitter, and there’s a kind of depth that comes from that suffering.”

Colby believes Meredith alumnae will be drawn to Dorothea and “her intelligence, her curiosity, her wish to contribute,” and the way she “takes charge of her own life.”

The Street (1946), Ann Petry Photo of book cover, the Street, by Ann Petry
Recommended by Alisa Johnson, associate professor of English and Mary Lynch Johnson Chair

The Street is “a very compelling novel about a single mother who is attempting to support her son. She starts off believing in the American Dream and, slowly but surely, all of that faith is washed away. Once she becomes the object of desire, once the male gaze falls on her, it becomes a question of whether she can avoid the clutches of men who want to use her sexually. Some of these men have power, and they are able to manipulate her so that her choices become fewer and fewer.

“Though she begins in a naïve place, she has a lot of tenacity,” Johnson said. “She is very focused. She is devoted to her son. She’s a really good mother. She’s smart, and she’s talented.”

Pride and Prejudice (1813), Jane Austen Photo of book cover, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Recommended by Laura Fine, chair, English Department

“I can’t think of a stronger or more likeable character than Elizabeth Bennet,” said Fine. She is intelligent and witty, demonstrates “courage of her convictions, isn’t afraid to step out of traditional gender roles,” and “isn’t afraid to analyze herself. She handles herself well in all kinds of environments.”

Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960), Scott O’Dell Photo of book cover, island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
Recommended by Jennifer Olson, associate professor of education

“Island of the Blue Dolphins is a survival story,” Olson said. “Karana is a strong young woman who learns to survive on her own stranded on an island. What I think is the most interesting aspect of this story is that even being on her own, with no humans anywhere around for miles and even for years, she is plagued by the idea of what is ‘right’ for a woman to do.”

The Garden Party & Other Stories (1922), Katherine Mansfield Photo of book cover, The Garden Party and Other Stories, by Katherine Mansfield
Recommended by Rebecca Duncan, professor of English

Duncan recommends this collection of Mansfield’s short stories, and the title story in particular, for its lively and readable nature. Duncan points out that the main character in the title story, Laura, demonstrates an “emerging awareness of her strength.”

“That’s why I think it’s so valuable for readers,” Duncan said. “She doesn’t save the world, but she gains a lot of awareness about some important issues.”

Little Women (1868-9), Louisa May Alcott Photo of book cover, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Recommended by Kelly Morris Roberts, ’91, associate professor of English

Roberts’ young adult literature course this spring read Little Women, and Roberts incorporated StrongPoints®, the program that Meredith students use to discover their strengths.

“We talked about Little Women in terms of what Alcott’s definition of ‘strengths’ seemed to be and in terms of our 21st-century definition of ‘strengths,’” Roberts said. “Each character had very different strengths, and because of those, they had very different goals.

“Because of the strengths [Alcott’s characters] possessed, they were all able to fulfill those goals,” Roberts said. Her class discussed that “not every woman has to have the same type of strength and develop it in the same way. That opened up space to talk about how today we can work on different strengths. That is not something afforded to Alcott’s characters.”

Antony and Cleopatra (1607), William Shakespeare Photo of book cover, Antony & Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare
Recommended by Garry Walton, professor of English and Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities

“Enobarbus delivers the most famous line about Cleopatra: ‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.’ There’s no other female character in Shakespeare who has the infinite variety that Cleopatra does,” Walton said. “She can be infuriating, she can be manipulative, she can be totally persuasive, but she seems to have a hypnotic effect on virtually everyone in the play, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. I don’t think many women would want to emulate Cleopatra, but there’s much to admire in her.”

The Scarlet Letter (1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne Photo of book cover, The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Recommended by Tisha Duncan, assistant professor of education

“This book has been one of my favorites since reading it during my adolescent years. The main character, Hester Prynne, displays such strength and independence as she raises her child alone,” said Duncan. “She goes to great lengths to both honor her word and keep her feelings and secrets in confidence. I have re-read the book several times, and each time, I’m left reflecting on her actions and whether or not I would have done the same in her situation.”



Lila (2014) and Gilead (2006), Marilynne RobinsonPhoto of book cover, Lila and Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
Recommended by Louise Taylor, professor emeritus of English

The main character in these two novels is, Taylor said, “someone who grew up on the frightening fringes of society during the Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression, traveling with a little troop of migrant workers, folks who sleep where they can, work when they can, and eat whatever they can. It’s a side of life with which I’ve had no experience and no detailed picture. But the novelist Robinson caused me to see it, to think about it, and to wonder at the strength of those put to such a test.”

“Robinson writes beautiful, evocative prose. She has created characters that you come to care about deeply. She has done the historical research to take you back to the first half of the 20th century and give you a sense of what life was like then for people in different social classes. And as a bonus, she tells a story that keeps you reading late to find out how it ends.”

Americanah (2013), Chimamanda Ngozi AdichiePhoto of book cover, Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Recommended by Laura Fine

“This is an interesting book about race and about how race relations [in the United States] look to a black person who isn’t African-American,” Fine said. “The central character is from Nigeria, as is the author herself. She looks at race through a black African perspective. The central character is intelligent, analytical, and has the courage of her convictions.” For instance, Fine said, “In one scene, it becomes clear that other transplanted Africans in America want to lose their accents. The central character for a while wants to lose her accent but then decides she doesn’t want to.” The other characters “look down on her. Meanwhile, she’s trying to discover herself and follow her heart.”

“The book makes political commentary but doesn’t read like a political tract,” Fine said.

Viola in Reel Life (2009), Adriana TrigianiPhoto of book cover, Viola in Reel Life by Adriana Trigiani
Recommended by Tisha Duncan

“Viola is an only child of filmmakers who resides in New York City. However, her parents have decided to send her to The Prefect Academy for Young Women, a boarding school in Indiana,” said Duncan. “This book is written from Viola’s perspective as she herself explores filmmaking and both examines and critiques the world from behind the camera lens. The author paints such vivid pictures through her work and really allows the reader to experience the mind of an adolescent girl wading through relationships, moral decisions, and knowing when to stand up for what is right.”

Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), Jacqueline WoodsonPhoto of book cover, Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
Recommended by Kelly Roberts

Roberts recommends this book for kids and adults. “For alumnae it’s a short read” but a good one. The book is a “memoir of Woodson’s time in the 1960s and 70s during and after the Civil Rights Movement,” and it provides a powerful reminder – or first-time lesson – of what life was like for African-Americans during that time.

Dessa Rose (1986), Sherley Anne WilliamsPhoto of book cover, Dessa Rose, by Sherley Anne Williams
Recommended by Alisa Johnson

Set during the Civil War, the novel’s main characters are a “black woman, Dessa Rose, who is an escaped slave, and Mrs. Rufel, who is the mistress of a failed slave plantation,” Johnson said. “It’s an amazing novel about the relationship between these two women who endure a lot and come to love each other as friends.”

Dessa “really pushes against stereotypes and creates an awful lot of fear. From the reader’s point of view, we can see that she is a woman who is suffering but who has made the decision to stand up for herself.” As for Mrs. Rufel something happens to enable her to find in herself “qualities she never thought she possessed.”

My Life in Middlemarch (2014), Rebecca MeadPhoto of book cover, My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead
Recommended by Robin Colby

Mead “blends memoir and literary criticism just beautifully throughout to convey what happens when you return to a book that you have loved for a long time,” Colby said. “She clearly identified with Dorothea, the main character of Middlemarch, but as she goes through her experiences, she begins to relate to other characters, too.”

“She’s passionate and I think she’s ambitious in the best sense,” Colby said of Mead. “She’s curious, she believes that literature has an important relevance for us, and she very sensitively tracks it in her life and invites us to track it in our own lives.”

My Father Had a Daughter (2004) and The Turquoise Ring (2005), Grace Tiffany  Photo of book cover, My Father Had a Daughter, by Grace Tiffany
Recommended by Garry Walton

“I’ve really gotten excited about reading historical fiction based on characters or plays that I teach,” Walton said. “My Father Had a Daughter is a story about Judith Shakespeare, one of Shakespeare’s twins. The novel describes what it was like to be a woman in the early 17th century, what opportunities were available or not, even for the female child of someone as literate and famous as Shakespeare. The Turquoise Ring is based on The Merchant of Venice, on Shylock’s daughter, Jessica.”

“I think part of what’s fascinating to me is taking someone who only shows up for a few moments in history and in fiction and creating a life for that character,” Walton said. Tiffany “has remained true to what we know of the historical record of Judith and certainly for what we know of Jessica and has developed a compelling life and story for those two young women.”

And We Stay (2014), Jenny HubbardPhoto of book cover, And We Stay, by Jenny Hubbard
Recommended by Kelly Roberts

This book by Meredith alumna Jenny Hubbard, ’87, was recognized earlier this year as a Printz Honor Book. The Printz awards are given by the American Library Association to recognize the best in young adult literature. Emily Beam, the protagonist of the story, is a girl with a secret who begins boarding school in New England. She discovers that Emily Dickinson lived in the Massachusetts town where Emily Beam attends school, and she begins reading Dickinson’s poetry, an allusion that Roberts said alumnae will enjoy. Through her fascination with Dickinson, Emily Beam begins to find strength in herself, her voice, and her words by writing poetry.

Out of My Mind (2010), Sharon DraperPhoto of book cover, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Recommended by Jennifer Olson

“Out of My Mind is a story you may never hear any other way,” Olson said. “Through a first-person narrative, the reader begins to understand what life it is like for an intelligent, wheelchair bound, non-verbal young girl. It may even help the reader know what to do the next time she sees someone in a wheelchair.”

More Recommended Books

Here are some other books recommended by Meredith faculty. Many of these are books for children and young adults, but they’d be great for readers of all ages.

A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879), Isabella Bird

Jane Eyre (1847), Charlotte Brontë

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Lewis Carroll

The Diary of a Young Girl (1947), Anne Frank

The Secret Garden (1910-11), Frances Hodgson

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Harper Lee

A Wrinkle in Time (1962), Madeline L’Engle

Pippi Longstocking (1945), Astrid Lindgren

Speak (1999), Laurie Halse Anderson

The One and Only Ivan (2012), K.A. Applegate

The Hunger Games (2008), Suzanne Collins

Walk Two Moons (1994), Sharon Creech

Elizabeth I (2011), Margaret George

The Fault in Our Stars (2012), John Green

No One Belongs Here More than You: Stories (2008), Miranda July

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (2000), Janisse Ray

Becoming Naomi Leon (2004), Pam Munoz Ryan

When You Reach Me (2010), Rebecca Stead

Moon Over Manifest (2010), Claire Vanderpool

The Life of Elizabeth I (1999) and The Lady Elizabeth (2008), Allison Weir

Uglies (2005), Scott Westerfield

The Book Thief (2005), Markus Zuzak

Melyssa Allen

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