What has changed in 450 years of performing, reading, writing Shakespeare? The history of women interacting with Shakespeare’s plays is also the history of women’s rights, suffrage, and of the feminist movement. It is a history of women being silenced and of finding ways to speak out anyway. Shakespeare has been, and is, an uneasy ally in this history. He complicates but also enriches our idea of what a woman is. Too often we are still Katherinas, forced to compromise our dignity in order to retain our voice, or else our insistence on speaking is blamed for our tragedies, like Juliet. But the reason why we still read Shakespeare’s women, is that they are women. Goneril, Juliet, and Katherina are finally not ciphers. Whatever else they may be, they are true women, and they have true voices.
In a Simpsons episode from the late nineties, Lisa Simpson, concerned that her mental skills may be deteriorating, manages to finagle her way onto a local TV news broadcast, where she urges the residents of Springfield to read two books: To Kill a Mockingbird and Harriet the Spy. At first glance, the two novels might not seem to have that much in common, but as Anna Holmes argues in a blog post for The New Yorker, the books share “ideas about the complexity, sophistication, and occasional wickedness of young girls’ imaginations.” (You could also read our own Garth Risk Hallberg on Malcolm Gladwell and To Kill a Mockingbird.)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is almost as famous for being sampled on Beyoncé’s latest album as she is for her novel Americanah. With that in mind, she discussed her writing process, hair blogs, and what feminism means to her in Elle. “It means that I am present in the world, and that I realize that there is a problem with the way we’ve constructed gender,” she said. For more Adichie, read her 2013 Year in Reading post.
Koa Beck’s father gave her a copy of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying when she was 15 years old. Depending on your persuasion, this was either a brilliant idea or an awful parental blunder. Regardless, Beck says the book (aided by The Bell Jar and Diary of a Mad Housewife) helped her understand that “the game was rigged, that everyone was lying, [and] that there was so much more to being a woman than what society said there was.”
To the debate over whether or not male writers have trouble creating realistic female characters, we can add the opinion of Ester Bloom, who argues at The Hairpin that most male writers mold their female characters according to four archetypes: the virgin, the whore, the mother and the bitch.
"Strong female characters now reign aplenty in literature without their necessary ingénue escorts, slowly eroding the role of that stock accompanying character. It’s not that these strong female characters newly exist, or that they suddenly gained mass appeal, but rather that they are surviving on their own." On the death of the ingénue.
Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon founded India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali For Women, in 1984. In 2003, they parted ways to start their own projects: Menon began Women Unlimited; Butalia founded Zubaan Books. Now, in a compressed and edited interview for Mint, Butalia discusses some of the challenges she faces in India’s publishing ecosystem, and also notes, “in my 40 years in publishing, things have never felt as exciting as they are now. It truly seems there are infinite possibilities.”
But Rukeyser wrote enough to leave her artistic legacy mixed. While there is certainly no native opposition between poetry and politics, Rukeyser’s passion for radical social causes left a good part of her poetry feeling stilted and forced. Especially as the Cold War unfolded, Rukeyser’s worker-centered social protest cast a shadow over her career. She was monitored by the federal government until the 1970s. But her ecstatic love for the fundamental good in human beings, and her faith in the making of a better world, breathes through her work. Her humor gives it buoyancy. “O for God’s sake,” she wrote in a poem called “Islands,” “they are connected underneath…”