“Well-behaved women seldom make history,” a phrase coined by the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in 1976, has since become a feminist rallying cry. One of the spheres in which women have been “misbehaving”—and exploring the different facets and effects of their behavior—is literature. The eminent left-wing poet turned public figure Adrienne Rich showed women, who were diminishedby patriarchy and domestic isolation, how to claim their “submerged selves,” Stephanie Burt writes in her review of a sweeping new biography of Rich.
In 1974, Rich accepted the National Book Award for Poetry on “behalf of all women,” alongside her contemporaries Audre Lorde and Alice Walker. Lorde and Walker were writers and activists who focused on the intersection of feminism, race, and civil rights. Their works, such as Lorde’s Sister Outsider and Walker’s The Color Purple, brought depth to depictions of Black female life, and expanded American society’s understanding of femininity.
More recently, female writers have continued this expansion by reimagining narratives that paint women as one-dimensional or “too much.” In her book of short stories, The Vanishing Princess, the writer Jenny Diski turns away from a type of male-dominated art that erases women and allows her female characters to live full, whole lives, with all of their attendant pleasures. In Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, Anne Helen Petersen celebrates female celebrities, such as Serena Williams and Madonna, who are often demonized for defying repressive cultural expectations. And for the writer and political strategist Maya Rupert, looking at Wonder Woman—that avatar of female power—as a Black woman made the superhero feel relatable: Rupert saw herself in a character who struggled with and fought against ideas of strength versus femininity, peace versus righteous anger.
Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.
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