When I was in college, the only way to study women authors was to sign up for an elective course. I remember taking the collection of short stories to the library reading room, a wonderful, half-lit place with deep, cushioned chairs. Everyone around me was sleeping. I opened my collection and found a story called "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen. For the first time in my life I read about one woman’s joys and frustrations and passion and pride in raising her daughter. Even though I didn’t have my own daughter for another ten years, I felt as if someone had written about my life. Someone had taken parts of me that I had thought ordinary and turned them into art.
All my life I had wanted to write; for the first time in my life I believed I could. Here was someone writing about things I noticed and loved — not about great white whales or fighting in wars. Because of Tillie Olsen’s story, and all the stories I found afterwards, I went to graduate school and I became a writer.
I believe there are two miracles that can happen when we read and teach literature. Literature can make us reach beyond our own lives — to understand the monomaniacal Ahab or a bullfighter or an introspective Thoreau, perhaps even see part of them in ourselves. That connection and sense of understanding is a gift literature gives us. It is an ability society needs, particularly these days, and we help society when we teach books that encourage that skill.
But there is a second miracle, one I see as equally important. Literature can take our lives, parts of ourselves, things we believe in, and make them beautiful. We read a story and realize we are not alone, that someone, somewhere, thought our lives were important enough to turn into art.
Nikki Giovanni talked this morning about the importance of love, how it shapes us and makes life possible and whole. When we open a story and see our experiences and the things we care about made into art, it is as if someone has loved us, taken our lives and deemed them worthy. And long after our students have forgotten the characters’ names or the titles of the books, they will carry that feeling with them.
When I found "I Stand Here Ironing" and all the books that I discovered after, it was as if I had found a family, a history I hadn’t known existed. It made me exhilarated, proud, and very angry.
In graduate school the women authors taught in my classes were few, particularly for a student specializing in nineteenth century American literature. The only way we could really study women authors was by what we used to call guerilla research — by finding a lenient, understanding, or apathetic teacher who would allow us to substitute an unknown book for the subject of a paper — one we would hope to present to the class.
For my dissertation, I set out to find those nineteenth century American women writers, and what I found was wonderful. Swashbuckling heroines who dressed as men, unmarried mothers who — unlike Hester Prynne — were integrated, even welcomed back into society. A wedding ceremony with vows that promised equality. A blazing denunciation of conditions in the iron mills. I was proud of these authors and grateful to find them, but I was angry that they had been excluded from my education. I wanted these books in the curriculum, and I spent a lot of time ranting and raving, trying to get teachers to change their syllabi.
At the same time, however, I was teaching, and as I learned to teach, and as I realized how I wanted to give my students every bit of my energy and enthusiasm, I came to realize two things about teaching: 1) we teach what we know and 2) there is precious little time to research what we don’t know. I calmed down and became less angry, as I realized how many teachers wanted to make their curriculum more inclusive but simply didn’t have the time. What was needed was a resource that could accomplish in ten minutes what otherwise might take two weeks of research time.
Holly Smith, Jesse Larsen and I created 500 Great Books By Women: A Reader’s Guide to fill that need. We wanted a book written by readers for readers, one we could pick up at ten at night and read without falling asleep, one with plenty of indexes to make finding books easy.
500 Great Books by Women was created in an unusual way and by untraditional means. I had the most conventional academic background of the three author/editors. Holly Smith had managed an independent bookstore for ten years and knew bookselling and book buyers inside and out. Jesse Larsen had worked at wage labor all her life, a single mom who chose to go back to college at the age of 48. She finished her masters while we were writing 500 Great Books by Women .
The three of us wanted a book that was inclusive and diverse. Our restrictions were that each book had to be by a woman, in print, and written or translated into English. Our aesthetic criterion were unabashedly subjective, because we believe reading is a personal process after all. We included books we thought were thought-provoking, beautiful, and satisfying. To help in the process, we recruited thirty-two contributors from all walks of life — engineers, ministers, photographers, writers, stay-at-home-mothers — passionate readers who wrote well about their favorite books.
We found a publisher in Penguin that allowed us to include our choice in books, from any publisher, no matter how small. As a result we have 500 distinctly different voices, half from the United States, half from over seventy other countries, with books that go back over 700 years.
By the time we finished 500 Great Books by Women , my daughter had reached the age of seven. From the moment she was conceived, my daughter has been one of the most willful and energetic persons I have ever met. Yet as her body grew bigger, as she watched television and saw billboards and read magazines, I watched her sense of self become gradually smaller. I began reading books like Failing at Fairness , Reviving Ophelia , How Schools Shortchange Girls , and the prospects for girls broke my heart.
So Holly Smith and I began working on a new book, Let’s Hear It For the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14 (published in March, 1997). This time we included male as well as female writers; our main requirement was that the book portray a strong female protagonist, either fictional or real. As before, we chose only books in print, and we searched hard and found books from all over the world and from as many cultures within the United States as possible.
I had thought this guide was for my daughter; but, as I worked on it, a funny thing happened. With each heroine, I found myself changing just a bit. All those parts of me that had been chipped away when I was younger — all those times when I was told I couldn’t do something because I was a girl, the day I learned I’d better stop beating the boys when we raced — those parts of me began to be shored up and strengthened. I thought I was doing this project for my daughter. I ended up doing it for me.
But there’s one more interesting thing that happened. Every day when I brought my children home from school, there would be a big box of books on the doorstep, sent by publishers. My kids loved those boxes. My daughter, by that point an independent reader, would go through the boxes, grab a couple books, and disappear. My four-year-old son, however, was not yet reading by himself. So it was he who sat in my lap while I read aloud the picture books and the early chapter books. Once, he looked up and said somewhat plaintively, "Mom, when does the boy get to talk?" But soon he seemed to forget gender and instead recognize qualities — bravery, intelligence, strength.
Over the months, as we read, I noticed another change. Nowadays, if you mention a rescuing character and don’t give it a gender, he is just as likely to call it she, as he. Perhaps in the beginning, I thought Let’s Hear It For the Girls would be for girls, but I understand now how much these books can change boys’ lives as well.
I know from my experience that books change lives. I believe they can change societies. But if we are going to do that, we must bring these authors, these characters into our classrooms, not just in elective courses, but as an integral part of the curriculum. We need to give all our children both the miracle of understanding the unfamiliar and the gift of seeing their lives turned into art.
Erica Bauermeister is co-author of 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader’s Guide and Let’s Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14 . She delivered this talk at the 1996 ALAN Workshop in Chicago.
Copyright 1998. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Bauermeister, Erica (1998) Honoring all our stories The ALAN Review , Volume 25, Number 2, 2-4.