Here at Bookish, we love stories about strong women. Ellen Feldman, author of Terrible Virtue, a novel about the life of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, shares our passion. Here, Feldman shares some of her favorite books featuring women who boldly take on challenging journeys. We think you’ll be inspired by these excellent picks.
For generations, books about women ended with a stroll down the aisle. Then Nora Helmer slammed the door behind her in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and suddenly a woman could find her destiny only by striking out on her own. But the situation, in reality as well as in literature, is more complicated. I realized just how complex a woman’s struggle for happiness or even survival can be while working on Terrible Virtue, a novel about Margaret Sanger. Sanger set out to change the world, and succeeded, but she paid a terrible price. Just as Sanger’s life was a seesaw of fulfillment and heartbreak, so the most compelling books about women’s lives, both fiction and nonfiction, are not the ones that end in unmitigated triumph but those that struggle toward some sort of self-realization or self-acceptance. Here is a brief, idiosyncratic, and very personal list of such titles.
This is a boldly imagined, beautifully rendered novel about a young woman, Jean, who works on the Better Farming Train, a government undertaking which travels rural Australia with a quirky cast of experts dispersing scientific advice. Jean falls for Robert, and together they set out to farm the unforgiving land, but when he goes off to World War II and everyone warns her she’ll never survive on her own, she resolves to stay and work the land she has come to love, though she knows her efforts may be doomed.
Carol, an unsentimental love story published in 1952, flouted the mores of its time. In midcentury America, women who fell in love with other women were not supposed to live happily ever after. (Nor were women who fell in love with other women’s husbands, but that’s another story.) For most of the novel, the formula seems to hold. Carol’s life unravels in a bitter divorce and custody battle. But fierce, if not fearless, she makes a greedy grasp at life that goes shockingly against the temper of the times, and that she just might pull off.
Written by Madeleine St. John, who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, The Woman in Black is a slyly witty gem about a group of women working at a legendary department store in Sydney, Australia. Each harbors different aspirations, though all laugh when Lisa, just out of school, confesses to wanting to be a poet. Lisa’s father swears he will never let her near that “cesspit” of a university, but in a more conventional and entirely delicious ending she manages to get there – scholarship in hand.
This biography requires three volumes not only to do justice to the life of this towering figure, once known as the first lady of the world, but to demonstrate how far she traveled to reach that position. Her youth was tragic. Her mother ridiculed her; her father broke her heart; her husband betrayed her. But many people have disastrous childhoods and disappointing marriages. How many of them manage to turn personal misery into monumental public good?
Stacy Schiff’s dazzling Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir) Nabokov stands the received wisdom of feminism on its head. Can—should—a woman forge self-realization through her husband? Véra’s story provides a stunning answer. She was his muse, his memory, his manager, his first reader. And what did she get in return? Perhaps playing midwife to a masterpiece trumps giving birth to a more ordinary life.
Gellhorn is the compelling biography of Martha Gellhorn, a woman who never stopped striving and struggling. A war correspondent, she battled and outwitted the male military brass that tried to sideline her, as they did all women correspondents. The third Mrs. Ernest Hemingway, she was the only one of his four wives to walk out on him. (Papa liked to be the one to leave.) Gellhorn kept writing and fighting till her death. Her story reads like a survival manual for girls and women everywhere.
This is an irreverent, gorgeously illustrated account of one of the great sex scandals of the twentieth century. Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke’s beauty had such an upper class sheen that Hollywood changed her name to the snooty-sounding Mary Astor. But when the diary she kept of her hectic extramarital sex life surfaced in an ugly custody battle, the tabloids went for blood. Astor, however, survived the scandal by pretending she was the irreproachable character she was playing in Dodsworth, the movie she was filming at the time. She triumphed and went on to an impressive career by imagination, impersonation, and sheer will.