The Books Briefing: Reimagining Womanhood

Writers who expanded the definitions of femininity: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Audre Lorde in front of a blackboard that reads: "Women are powerful and dangerous."
Robert Alexander / Archive Photos / Getty

“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 diminished by 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. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

An illustration of Adrienne Rich


The many lives of Adrienne Rich
“Rich’s mature writings, verse and prose, insisted on interdependence, attacking the systems that separate women from women, rich white people from all the rest.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder


A conversation with Alice Walker
“Until women can lift their voices, take their rightful place, I don’t think we’re going to shift very much. The wisdom that comes from African women, Arab women, Native women, Asian women, all of these women make up over half the planet … It takes five minutes to ask [those women] what do they think.”

Half of a woman's face, with her eye closed


Jenny Diski’s curious women
“The recent U.S. publication of Diski’s only book of short stories, The Vanishing Princess, offers a delicious opportunity to delve into some of the writer’s principal preoccupations: pleasure, the writing life, the difficulties of family life, and the rules governing femininity.”

The 2016 cast of 'Ghostbusters'


What we talk about when we talk about “unruly” women
“The book … is a collection of essays—10 in all, glossed at the outset with a brief introductory section—about women who are, variously yet unanimously, unruly … Each is worth celebrating, [Anne Helen] Petersen argues—and, more to the point, each is worth exploring and analyzing and arguing about—because she rejects some core cultural assumption, some foundational notion of how one should go about the job of being a woman.”

Wonder Woman's face


Imagining a Black Wonder Woman
“As I got older, I became better able to name my double displacement; I was frustrated with the racism I saw in feminist circles and with the misogyny I saw among racial-justice advocates. And Wonder Woman’s state of constant otherness only became more meaningful.”

📚 Wonder Woman, by DC Comics
🎥 Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Tori Latham. The book she can’t stop talking about is The Art of Showing Up, by Rachel Wilkerson Miller.

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