Too often, even in the twenty-first century, history's all about the men. That's just one reason why I love to read and write historical fiction: It provides the opportunity to explore or create or re-energize the roles of women across the ages. As I wrote Revolutionary, I kept wondering which women from history Deborah Sampson would have known. In 1782 Massachusetts, she probably read chapbooks that told the stories of Joan of Arc, or Mary Rowlandson (who survived being captured by Native Americans) or Hannah Snell (who disguised herself as a man and served in the British Navy). I have no doubt that these stories inspired Deborah to set off on her own adventures, disguising herself as a man, enlisting in the army, and fighting for a year and a half in the Revolutionary War.
How fortunate are we, then, to live in an era so abundant with texts that champion the role of women throughout history. Here are my 10 favorite works of historical fiction that feature women in the main roles. These women come from all sorts of time periods and class backgrounds, but every one of them has to fight and has to believe in herself, no matter what society tells her. Whatever the era, whatever the setting, these are the universal challenges that brave women face.
1. Orleanna Price in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: Each of the women in this novel -- Orleanna, Leah, Rachel, Adah, and Ruth Price -- are powerhouses. Whether you want to see how a fashion-conscious teen adapts to African village life, or how a disabled twin negotiates her relationship to self & sister, this novel showcases strong and vivid American women adjusting to life in the 1950s Congo.
2. Sethe in Beloved by Toni Morrison: The female protagonists of Morrison's novel, Sethe and her daughter Denver, must battle enemies both past and present as they search for a way not just to escape the history of slavery but to redefine themselves as women. What does it mean to be empowered as a mother or a daughter or a former slave? Morrison's haunting (and haunted) novel is written along a sharp edge.
3. Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne: The high school students I've taught might disagree, but I find Hester Prynne to be a wonderful exemplar of a woman who strives to overcome her situation, even when society deals her an impossible hand. While the men in this novel cower or conspire, Hester embraces the truth, transcending the shameful role the Puritans have bestowed on her.
4. Anna Frith in Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks: Like The Scarlet Letter, this novel tells the tale of a woman on the margins of society, yet whom society cannot deny. Young Anna must dodge both the plague and the conventions of 17th century English village life. Brooks considers the matters that still vex women today -- from gossip to social status to love -- while being true to the setting and time.
5. Orlando in Orlando by Virginia Woolf: Gender-bending and time-bending, the novel's protagonist, Orlando, begins the story as a young man and ends as a middle-aged woman. The novel's plot spans three centuries and as Orlando negotiates all the transformations entailed, s/he elucidates what it means to be a man, or a woman, or, perhaps, simply human.
6. Villanelle in The Passion by Jeanette Winterson: Webbed toes don't stop Winterson's protagonist, Villanelle. Set on being a gondolier, work which she believes is her destiny, but others view as a man's job, Villanelle works within the labyrinthine world of Napoleonic Venice. In addition to fighting for her position as a gondolier, Villanelle must negotiate passions that society refuses to accept.
7. Mary Sutter in My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira: Talk about a fearless woman: Mary Sutter is determined to be a doctor, even if it means leaving home and going to Washington, DC in the midst of the Civil War. Not only does she have to confront her family's reluctance to let her go, but she must also convince the medical professionals of the time that she is capable and qualified. With gripping scenes on the battlefield as well as the hospital, this novel is fast-paced and captivating.
8. Joan in Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross: All the way back in the 8th century, the heroine of this novel fought to be educated. Because nothing she did would earn the respect of her father, she runs away and pursues her education while disguised as a monk. This disguise, while allowing her some freedoms, prevents her from being open with those she loves. In a series of events that are remarkable yet believable, the young woman becomes the head of Catholic Church.
9. Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet, and Mawu in Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez: Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet, and Mawu are four slave-women who are brought by their masters each summer to a resort in Ohio. The novel negotiates the question of what it means to be a woman in relationship with a man who owns you and explores how these women interact with each other as opposed to the white men who control them. The setting brings these four women up against the possibility of freedom and at what price it might be gained.
10. Dinah in The Red Tent by Anita Diamant: Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob, narrates this novel, explaining how the women of her family had their own religious practices that ran counter to the beliefs the men upheld. Through Dinah's voice, this novel imagines the women's stories that the Bible doesn't tell. To call it provocative and rebellious is an understatement; it pushes against patriarchy and suggests an ancient and empowering role for women and women's sexuality.
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