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Top 10: Girls and Glass Ceilings

10.06.10 | Comment?

suffragetteA while ago we had an enquiry about fiction that explores sexual discrimination. We scratched our heads for a long time. Perhaps people aren’t writing about it any more? we thought. After a bit of digging around, here’s a list of some pretty respectable (mostly historical) stories in which female characters find themselves faced with glass ceilings, have to make difficult choices that go against the social norm, or shake things up a bit. (See also the list of strong female characters here.)

  1. A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray. The Gemma Doyle books are all about girl power (although they might end up hitting you over the head with it a little bit). Gemma, like others listed below, must choose between exercising her not inconsiderable magical (and other) power, or marriage in high society late Victorian England. Magic and feminism have a close relationship here, an interesting topic to explore (possibly for an NCEA reading list, if your teacher agrees the books are up to scratch?).
  2. A Northern Light, Jennifer Donnelly. In A Northern Light (note: also called A Gathering Light) there are really two female characters faced with difficult choices: one is Mattie, a sixteen year old farm girl who has a heart of words; the other is Grace Brown, found drowned in the lake (true story) whose letters (that Mattie has) reveal the nature of her difficult decision and how it has led to her death. Mattie, meanwhile, struggles between a desire to write, a desire to be a good daughter and sister, and a desire for Royal Loomis, who has a heart for corn seed.
  3. A Voice of Her Own, Barbara Dana. The story of a youthful Emily Dickinson, admired by Mattie in A Northern Light (Mattie suspects she slid down the banisters and hung from the chandeliers when no one was looking). “When something is most important to me and I do not want to lose it, I gather it into a poem. It is said that women must employ the needle and not the pen. But I will be a Poet! That’s who I am!” (from the book description)
  4. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. Jo is a determined tomboy with a passion for writing. The March sisters are brought up to have strong social consciences thanks to Marmee, the girls’ mother, who has sole charge of the household while her husband is away fighting in the civil war. Jo, like others here, must consider very carefully a rather appealing proposal of marriage.
  5. The Bride’s Farewell, Meg Rosoff. Pell makes a decision very similar to the one Mattie faces, but quite early on in the piece (like, on the first page), when, on her wedding day, she hits the road with her horse, Jack, and her brother, Bean, who doesn’t talk. Set in mid-19th century England, this story is muddy, cold, frosty and bleak, but quite beautiful.
  6. Flygirl, Sherri L Smith. Ida Mae Jones has two strikes against her: she is African American and she’s a she. It is 1941 and America has just joined the Second World War, and Ida Mae is determined to crack the male-dominated world of flying.
  7. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, E Lockhart. Frankie’s ire is stirred when the boys of The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds won’t let her join them (rather, she should be merely a pretty girlfriend). What better revenge, then, than controlling said Bassets, and masterminding their most memorable pranks, such as the Night of a Thousand Dogs, and the abduction of the Guppy? Life’s complicated though, and revenge isn’t always sweet.
  8. Dairy Queen, Catherine Gilbert Murdock. Sport. Should a girl be able to play on the school (American) football team? And if she shouldn’t, is that because she might get hurt? (And if she might get hurt, the boys might too, right?) If it’s not because she might get hurt, then is it because she might make the boys look bad because she’s as good as them?
  9. Princess Ben, Catherine Gilbert Murdock again. Ben (short for Benevolence) learns a lot on her trip to becoming suitable queen material, not the least being that marrying the man of your dreams isn’t the be all and end all: “… the girl who reads such fiction dreaming her troubles will end ere she departs the altar is well advised to seek at once a rational woman to set her straight,” she writes on page 338. Yes, okay, so she does marry the dreamy man (this isn’t really a spoiler), but it’s all about choice.
  10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte. Jane Eyre was originally published under the pseudonym “Currer Bell” in 1847, and is considered a notable feminist piece, with its depiction of Jane’s struggles in a patriarchal society. In popular entertainment it’s more noted for Mr Rochester. I remember it mostly for Mrs Rochester, mad and in the attic.

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