Strong Women Favorites
Gloria Steinem has spent her life helping women learn to play to their strengths. Her life has spanned years of enormous change for women, and she’s played a huge part in it.
Of course, we always think the time we live in is the most tumultuous. There have been strong women trying to make their way, down through the ages; they have faced as many obstacles as Gloria has, and then some. Here are some of my favorite books featuring strong women – some of them are heroes. Some of them are definitely not. But all of them are fascinating.
First up is a biography of two women who were both pioneers in a time when women were encouraged to defer to men in everything.
And they were mother and daughter. The mother died ten days after the daughter was born, but her influence guided her daughter her whole life long.
Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon is the extraordinary story of Mary Wollstonecraft, an English pioneer for women’s rights, and her daughter Mary Shelley, who ran away with the married poet Percy Shelley, was shunned by English society and then wrote one of the greatest novels of all time.
Today, Mary Wollstonecraft is considered one of the pioneers of the women’s movement. But in her day – late 18th century England – she was vilified for her insistence that women deserved to be in charge of their fate.
Born in relative poverty to a mother who was routinely beaten by her father, education was her salvation – she led a bold and unconventional life, moving to France and writing about the French revolution in the dangerous days when being English in France could cost you your head. Then She wrote “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” a ringing call for women’s equality and the social harm caused by patriarchy. English society scorned her message. She soldiered on.
Ten days after giving birth to her daughter Mary, Mary Wollstonecraft died. Mary grew up to be Mary Shelley, who scandalized English society by running away with the poet Percy Bysse Shelley, eventually marrying him after he divorced his first wife. Then she surprised people even more by writing “Frankenstein,” a novel that became one of the best-known literary works of all time.
Mary Shelley had a tragic life; she endured the drowning death of Shelley, as well as the deaths of three of her four children. But she persevered, and never flagged in her determination to honor the memory of her mother. This book is a great dual biography, a masterpiece of writing that draws you in equally to the stories of both women.
Speaking of 19th century England – it was a time of tumultuous social change. Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance by Daisy Hay tells the story of the great English politician Benjamin Disraeli, and of his wife Mary Ann Lewis Disraeli, who in this book finally gets credit for forging the political career of her husband.
This beautifully written book expands Disraeli’s story to include that of his wife, Mary Anne, a widow of means who saved his political bacon. Mary Anne was his financier, his most ardent campaign manager and the object of his enduring affection — though Disraeli fell in love again after she died, he wrote his letters on funereal black-bordered paper for the rest of his life, and was buried beside Mary Anne at the parish church of Hughenden in Buckinghamshire.
Mary Anne, 12 years Disraeli’s senior, was a widow when they married. The Disraelis wrote love letters to one another that undermine the convention that all Victorians were strait-laced about sex — both under the spell of the Romantic writers Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, the couple’s passion was grand and explicit. They were both outsiders – Disraeli, though a converted Anglican, was Jewish by birth, and Mary Ann was the daughter of a seaman. She stood by him and with him, even mortgaging the estate left to her by her first husband to pay his political debts.
Moving from the 19th century to the 20th, I have to include at least one book about the suffragette movement in England, especially since the high profile movie Suffragette has recently come out. Here’s the only work of fiction on this list – Tracy Chevalier’s 2001 novel Falling Angels.
Best known for Girl with a Pearl Earring, Chevalier’s specialty is taking women from history and bringing them to life. Falling Angels tells the story of two friends, both destined to be affected by great changes, including the movement to give women the vote.
Falling Angels excels at showing what a tumultuous era the early 20th century was for women; the English began the 1900s steeped in Victorian propriety, but then the death of Queen Victoria, World War I and the suffragette movement meant that life for the English, both women and men, was destined for great transformation.
The story told in Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan reinforces the cliché that the truth is stranger than any fiction.
If you are of a certain age, you will remember the huge dust-up created by Svetlana’s defection to the West in 1967. It was considered a great propaganda victory for America at the height of the Cold War. Sullivan tells the back story, documenting a life so fraught with tragedy, melodrama and poisonous politics, the defining miracle of Svetlana’s existence is that she survived at all.
As a child, Svetlana lived in an apartment at the Kremlin, cheek by jowl with some of the most terrifying figures of the reigning autocracy. At the top of that monstrous pecking order was Stalin, her father. She endured her mother’s suicide and the systematic extermination, on her father’s orders, of many members of her extended family. Relatives and treasured family members were either executed or sent to labor camps.
Svetlana would spend much of her life trying to reconcile her father’s crimes with the fact that he did, occasionally, try to be a father to her. But it’s clear that the looming presence of her remote, sociopathic and all-powerful father created a giant hole in Svetlana’s life that she spent the rest of her life trying to fill.
I want to end with another amazing dual biography. Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives by Karin Wieland.
This book interweaves the stories of two German women who became famous – or notorious. Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl were both born around the beginning of the 20th century, both came of age in Germany in the tumultuous years after World War I and both made their names in the film business.
And that is where their stories diverge. Marlene Dietrich became one of the great screen stars of the age; she eventually moved to America. What a fascinating woman! She was married but had dozens of lovers; she was a movie star, but loved nothing better than cooking up dumplings and sauerkraut for her friends. When World War II came along, and Dietrich campaigned tirelessly for America, traveling Europe in the depths of the war to entertain American troops. She lived in the same dreadful conditions they did; in one unforgettable passage, she describes waking up to the touch of rats running across her face as she camped out in some bombed out hotel.
And then there was Leni Riefenstahl, a young woman burning with ambition. She became a movie star as well, but then moved on to directing films. She rose to the top by aligning herself with Hitler, and so she did, living in luxury and making propaganda films for the Germans that are still studied today for their technique.
These are two women who came of age in a very tough place and time, and responded differently to the challenges of becoming a capable, respected woman. You probably know who I admire – Marlene Dietrich, a gorgeous vamp with a heart like a lion. But Riefenstahl is a case study in what some people will do to make it to the top – regardless of their sex.