The movie A Wrinkle in Time, adapted from Madeline L’Engle’s Newbery Medal award-winning book, started playing in theaters in March 2018. Awarded annually, the Newbery Medal is presented to the author of what is considered to be that year’s most distinguished contribution to American literature written for children. L’Engle’s book features a strong female protagonist, Meg Murry, described recently by author Diane Duane in an article in Smithsonian magazine, “Finally, here was a girl character being treated as if her take on what was going on around her, her analysis and her emotional reactions to the things that were happening around her, were real and were worth paying attention to.” The article also provides examples of other books with strong female protagonists, many of whose authors are profiled in our book Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Let’s learn about some of those books and their authors.
Motivated by her family’s poverty to go to work at an early age to provide for her parents and her sisters, Louisa May Alcott found an escape in writing. Her writing appeared under her own name and under a pseudonym as well. Her most successful novel, Little Women, published in 1868, was loosely based on her family of four sisters. The life and characteristics of the protagonist Jo March had significant parallels to Alcott herself. Praised at the time as “the very best of books to reach the hearts of the young of any age from six to sixty,” Little Women has been made into several films and remains on the reading lists of students today. On May 13, 2018, PBS will show a new adaptation of Little Women. It is a three-part series of this famous coming-of-age story. Alcott was a feminist and it has been said that Little Women is “about the empowerment of women and girls around the world.” She has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and featured on a U.S. postage stamp.
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote what are today called the Little House on the Prairie series of books from 1932-1943 based on her experiences of growing up on the American Frontier. She, Laura Ingalls, is the main character of the books and the narrator and she grows up during the course of the book series. Locales include Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota. A successful television series, starring Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls, ran from 1974 to 1983 and was called Little House on the Prairie. Many aspects of homesteading and frontier life are described in the books including harvesting sap and making maple syrup, farm work and crop hazards, gardening, hunting, honey gathering, relations with Native Americans, blizzards, illnesses, school, train travel, and schooling. Five of the series of Little House books were runners-up for the Newbery Medal.
Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. Set in the Jim Crow South during the Depression Years of 1933-1935, the book is told through the voice of six-year old Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout. Her father, Atticus Finch, is an attorney appointed to defend a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman. Many significant issues of the day are addressed, and many strong character attributes are fully realized. A sampling of these issues and attributes include discussions and comments on racial injustice, class distinctions, gender roles, courage and compassion. To Kill a Mockingbird is considered a classic of literature and remains a bestseller. The movie, released in 1962, won three Oscars – Best Actor (Gregory Peck for his portrayal of Atticus Finch – Scout’s father), Best Writing (for the Screenplay), and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. Lee received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 for her contributions to literature. In 2015, a second book, Go Set a Watchman, was published, originally thought to be a sequel to but later discerned to be an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Regarded as a key figure in Chicana literature, Sandra Cisneros’ 1984 classic coming of age story, The House on Mango Street, is the story of Esperanza Cordero growing up in Chicago. She yearns for a different (perceived as better) life but eventually begins to understand that she will never leave Mango Street, or her family, completely behind. The book has sold over six million copies, has been translated into more than twenty languages, became a New York Times bestseller and was adapted into a stage play. It is also required reading in many primary schools across the United Stated. Cisneros, while born in Chicago herself, often writes of the Latina experience in the U.S. She has written poetry, short stories and a number of novels. Cisneros has received many awards for her work. These include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a grant as a MacArthur Foundation Fellow and, in 2016, the National Medal of Arts from President Obama. In 2017, Cisneros was awarded one of 25 new Ford Foundation Art of Change fellowships. She has established Los MacArturos, an organization of Latino MacArthur Fellows who are community activists. Cisneros is a dual citizen of the United States and Mexico.
Women contribute to our lives in so many ways including as book authors who write about strong female protagonists. The women profiled above and many other women, almost all of them women we have not heard about and not learned about in school across all fields of endeavor, are profiled in our book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Help us by continuing to tell women’s stories and write women back into history!
Jill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer. After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide. She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman). She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners. The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.
Charlotte S. Waisman, Ph.D. is a national champion and advocate for women as a professor and keynote speaker. A corporate leader, executive coach, and facilitator, she conducts leadership workshops nationally.