Despite the fact that Women’s History Month is regulated to the month of March, it is important to remember that shelves are flush year-round with inspirational books that showcase brave, erudite, adventurous and savvy heroines who deliver the I-Am-Woman-Hear-Me-Roar anthem with an unflinching prowess. While some books are fictional tales, others are biographical or psychological studies on the evolution of the relationship between females and societal expectations. All are compelling and prismatic insights of both the complexity and bliss of what it means to be a woman. Each year, the National Women’s History Project adopts a theme, and the theme for 2015 has been “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives”
Perhaps that is the perfect incentive to pick up a book and find inspiration from the tigresses, (real and imaginary), that didn’t play by the rules, but thrived nonetheless.
Without Lying Down: Francis Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood by Cari Beauchamp
Once upon a time, Hollywood was considered the scandalous harlot of the entertainment industry. Legitimacy as an actor, writer or director was reserved for live theater. According to theater ‘connoisseurs’, live actors reigned supreme because “Stage folks keep their actions hidden behind closed doors, while those ‘flicker people’ with their painted faces perform shamelessly right out in the open.”
One of those influential ‘flicker people’ was Francis Marion, coworker and kindred spirit of actress Mary Pickford – the expressive doyenne of silent film – and Anita Loos, writer of the tongue-in-cheek Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which most modern-day audiences remember thanks to the yin-and-yang dynamic duo of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Through Marion’s biography, readers can navigate their way through Hollywood’s precarious, early years and see that women played important roles both on and off screen as roughly half of the films that were copyrighted from 1911 to 1925 were written by women.
Marion herself would go down in history as the author of 325 scripts and was the vice president and only sole woman to sit on the first board of directors of the Screen Writer’s Guild.
Perhaps her most famous quote is that she always professed to have spent her life “searching for a man to look up to without lying down.”
They Went Whistling: Women Wayfarers, Warriors, Runaways, and Renegades by Barbara Holland
Spurned by curiosity, chaffed by societal mores and rules, there are women throughout history that could never be tamed simply because they bristled at the mere suggestion of mental or physical confinement. For them, rules were claustrophobic and chastisements were unwelcome, uninvited and unnecessary.
Such women are featured in Barbara Holland’s They Went Whistling. The book takes readers into antiquity with Queen Boudicca, (or Boadicea, as is the Latin spelling), who led the Iceni and Trinovantes into rebellion against the conquering British. The book also highlights the emancipation women feel when donning male attire, a cosmetic device Shakespeare used with aplomb in several plays. In The Merchant of Venice, the character Portia arrives at court disguised as a doctor so that, as a man, she can converse with men on equal grounds even as her alter-ego stands on the precipice of marriage. The book also doesn’t shy away from modern activists or entrepreneurs. The likes of Amelia Earhart, Estee Lauder and Dorothy Day are also featured.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
Female courage also blazes its way off the pages of fiction. In The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, the year is 1832 and the heroine is 13-year-old Charlotte Doyle, a demure girl whose life is turned upside down the moment she steps on the deck of the Seahawk. She is the sole passenger on a ship rife with tension thanks to a past voyage where a brutal captain exploited his power and has taken on the same crew determined to extract vengeance against the sailors who defied him. After proving herself on the high seas, Charlotte eventually becomes part of the crew, only to have a series of circumstances make her stand trial for murder.
Gidget by Frederick Kohner
Surf culture gained a feminine icon thanks to the part-fiction, part-factual story of Kathy Kohner, who was launched into pop culture as Gidget. It was a nickname courtesy of her fellow male surfers who thought that it was apropos for a girl that they deemed too small and dainty to tackle the roiling waves of the Pacific. She became a legitimate surfer girl on the beaches of Malibu around the age of fifteen, making friends with Moondoggie, Angel, Stinky, Cass and Kahoona, among others. It’s a coming-of-age story where an adolescent girl comes into her own while waxing her surfboard, learning how to belly slide over her first waves and navigate her way out of the ‘boneyard’ – aka, the No-Man’s-Land when a surfer is caught between ‘breakers’, or breaking waves.
The Body Project by Joan Jacobs Brumberg
It’s no secret that both modern day adolescent girls and adult women are beleaguered individuals facing a daily avalanche of advertisements and sly media suggestions that their bodies are less than perfect. Self-doubt and sardonic self-deprecation hardly help regarding attacks that, at first, seem benign but that slowly erode self-confidence. In The Body Project by Joan Jacobs Brumberg, readers are reminded that this is not a new phenomenon or a cultural hiccup. Whether strapped in a corset or trying to slim down to a boyish figure to give that flapper gown a linear aesthetic, the female body has been under constant scrutiny since the day the hospital swaddled it in a pink blanket.
The Body Project is an in-depth, historical and psychological study about the enigmatic relationship between how women view themselves and how they think society views their bodies. Brumberg writes about the tightly-laced Gibson Girl as well as Queen Victoria, who worried not about her waist, but about the fact that she felt that her hands were too large. She showcases a 1956 beauty queen, whose long legs and ample cleavage won her the tiara, while also writing about how shopping for jeans can be an arduous experience for every women who sees imperfection in every department store mirror.
In the end, the book is a testimony to self-empowerment, as it is a stern reminder that the female physique has often been judged and misunderstood by outside forces, and that it is inner fortitude, which is sublimely and uniquely all woman, that must take control.