Classic feminist literature your GE class won’t cover

Zoe Denton is an English sophomore and the opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.

Virginia Woolf, Silvia Plath, The Bronte Sisters and Emily Dickison – I hope you’ve heard of them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t read any of their works. It is sad to see such great stories relegated to the narrow label of “feminist novels” or “women writers” which are then only covered in niche English courses.

While the gender of an author and their main character undeniably influences a work of literature, that does not make literature any less representative of the human experience. What is reading if not a deep dive into what it means to be human? What good is literature if not to expose what faults we have, what emotions we cannot express, and what makes us laugh and distract us from bawling?

Feminist literature is, at its heart: literature. It deserves to be read and taken as seriously as any other classic written primarily by men. These books also deserve to be taught alongside or instead of the classic novels that have been taught in high schools and colleges for decades. Just because a book is a “classic” doesn’t mean there isn’t an equally thrilling and educational novel that can help diversify novels dominated by main characters and predominantly white authors.

Now, some women have been allowed to enter the classroom as great classics. Mary Shelley and Harper Lee are longtime members of the club. However, is it because Shelley’s most famous novel is a gothic horror book and Lee’s work apparently has little, if any, focus on the genre? While Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is, at its core, a twisted violation of motherhood and Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” demonstrates the insistence on children to “act their gender”, these books allow the reader to focus on something else. They allow the reader to draw deeper meaning from the text while ignoring the subject of femininity.

“The Bell Jar,” written just 10 years after “Catcher in the Rye,” has themes very similar to Salinger’s novel, including the horrors of growing up and the reality of coping with loss. Still, I doubt you’ve read Plath’s novel in a school setting – and I can think of only one reason.

Authors who are women of color are even less likely to enter general education English classes. Also, while I’ve at least heard of many classics written by white women (even though their books never made it to the classroom), I had to do my own research to find classics written by women from color, whose voices have been silent for centuries. While I’m saddened by that fact, that doesn’t mean there aren’t meaningful stories and powerful writing by writers from all walks of life.

Instead of accepting the sad idea that it may take the American education system a long time to realize that it’s incredibly important for everyone to read books written by women, about strong women, weak, depressed, lost, determined, frustrated or the happiest they have ever been, you should take matters into your own hands and read the following:

  1. “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath: This aforementioned novel is raw and witty. It will pull you down into the unsettling mind of the main character, Ester, while comforting you that everyone feels trapped at one time or another. If you liked Catcher in the Rye, read this book.
  2. “Mrs. Dolloway” by Virgina Woolf: Woolf’s storytelling and her ability to transport you to where she writes are unmatched. Her power comes from her honesty and dry humor. I highly recommend this book as well as “A Room of One’s Own”.
  3. “Jane Eyre” by Emily Brontë: Brontë appeals to one of the most basic human needs in this novel: to be loved. She questions the meaning of this need and delves deeper into human emotion.
  4. “Their Eyes Were Looking at God” by Zora Neal Hurston: Hurston was far beyond her time in the 1920s, and she uses her experiences as a black woman to reveal society’s relentless white male gaze. She speaks to anyone who has ever felt trapped on this journey to inner peace.
  5. “Middlemarch” by George Elliot: George Elliot is the pseudonym of the very talented Mary Ann Evans. She explores society in a way that is both liberating and suffocating. Although this novel is not intended for the inexperienced reader, it is worth it.
  6. “A Vindication of the Rights of a Woman” by Mary Wollstonecraft: This radical writer will show you what it’s like to have a real passion for something. Her fight for women’s equality permeated every aspect of her life and her writing flourished because of it.
  7. Bonus: The Poetry of Maya Angelou and Emily Dickinson: Although not a novelist, Dickinson was a prolific writer whose poetry changed minds. Moreover, Angelou’s poems strike at the heart of what it means to be written off as a stereotype through his poems of perseverance.

Expand not just who you read, but also what kind of literature you read.

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