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Girl Power: 5 Powerful Women in Literature

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Women in Literature have often faced adversity in the field. When world-known author J.K.Rowling first sought publishers for her Harry Potter series, she was rejected 12 times. When she finally scored a deal, her publisher recommended that she utilize a “gender-neutral” name to help her appeal to a broader audience. That’s when she decided to utilize her initials, J.K.,  instead of her birth name, Joanne Kathleen Rowling. Harry Potter took the world by storm and has sold over 500 million copies globally, in over 80 languages. Her true gender identity was revealed early on, but the success of the novel took precedence. 

Male or Gender-Neutral Pen Names

J.K Rowling was not the first, and she unfortunately will not be the last female author to utilize neutral or male pen names to help her get success. Author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, wrote under the pseudonym “A.M. Barnard.” She published various gothic pulp fiction works under this name, which would have been greatly frowned upon if written under her real name, due to their content. The Bronte Sisters all used male pseudonyms as well. They did so to have more freedom to explore their writing, as much of the content they were interested in was not perceived as lady-like. The sisters were also aware that their works would not be taken seriously if they were thought to have been written by women. 

Rediscovering Forgotten Women Writers

Of those women who have been fortunate enough to be published, many are still not highlighted in K-12 classrooms. In the post, Rediscovering Forgotten Women Writers, a Women’s literature college professor shares that most of her students, despite primarily being women themselves, have not been exposed to literary works by women, prior to arriving to her class. 

States are often restructuring curriculum to adjust to student needs. The state of Florida recently made headlines after announcing its plan to ditch Common Core. While reviewing Florida’s recommended reading list for middle and high school, which was released alongside the new Florida B.E.S.T.ELA standards earlier this year, only 21% of works are by female authors. Within that 21% of texts, 2 were works in which women wrote alongside a male co-author.

What Message are We Sending to Students? 

This is troubling information as the standards were created under the premise that they would increase the quality of the state’s curriculum. What message does that send to our students when the majority of the texts they may come across are written by men? Are we implying that women cannot succeed as writers? That women’s literature does not qualify as quality? 

As educators, we must make a commitment, for our students, to implement works from a variety of authors. We need to show our students what they are capable of, regardless of their gender. However, while Women’s History Month is a great way to start changing the dynamic in our classrooms, we shouldn’t stop once March is over. 

Here are 5 Women in Literature To Feature and Celebrate in Your Classroom:  

1. Helen Keller, Author, Human Rights Pioneer

Helen Keller was an American author, advocate, and human right pioneer. Being both deaf and blind since childhood, Keller did not allow these disabilities to hinder her. Instead Keller became an author and pioneer for those who were equipped with some of her own struggles and allowed them to be seen in a different light. She used her voice and her celebrity status to advocate for the causes she believed were important such as, social justice for people with disabilities, living in poverty, and women. 

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2. Louisa May Alcott, Author, Abolitionist and Women’s Suffrage Proponent

Born in 1832, Louisa May Alcott is best known as the author of Little Women, a story based on her own upbringing. Her true passion, however, was writing pulp fiction, which she did under a male pseudonym to prevent backlash. In addition to writing, Alcott was an abolitionist, served as a nurse for the union during the Civil War, and was an early proponent for women’s suffrage.

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3. Toni Morrison, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author

Toni Morrison was a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning author. Her best works include The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved, which all feature detailed African-American narratives. She held degrees from Howard University and Cornell University. She taught at Howard University and Texas Southern University and worked as an editor for a textbook company as well as for Random House. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 and passed away in 2019. 

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4. Margaret Atwood, Author and Booker Prize Recipient

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian author who is well known for her dystopian fiction novels and feminist beliefs. While her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, was first published in the 1980s and has been a staple in Women’s Literature courses, it gained popularity once more upon the release of the Hulu series based on the book. She’s authored many other novels, short stories and essays. Atwood has been the recipient of the Booker Prize, among dozens of other accolades, as well as honorary degrees from various institutions.

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5. Alice Walker, Author, Civil Rights Activist and Pulitzer Prize Winner

Alice Walker is an African American poet and novelist, best known for The Color Purple, which won her a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and was adapted as a film by Steven Spielberg. Walker was born in Georgia and grew up in a poor household, one of eight children. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, Walker worked as a social worker, teacher and was a Civil Rights movement activist, all while writing. In addition to The Color Purple, Walker has written various poems, short stories, essays and memoirs, and received various awards. In 2006, she was inducted into the California Hall of Fame.

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Paula A. Hill

Paula A. Hill Associate Director, Project Management, Content & Curriculum

After spending my first-year teaching in a low-income urban school in Washington, DC, I returned to Florida to finish my Graduate Degree and seek further professional development. It was during my teaching there, that I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by inspiring educators and leaders who motivated, coached, and encouraged my growth and the growth of my students. It was there that I found a deep love for curriculum and curriculum development. I am now back in Washington, DC. where I’ve assumed an out-of-the-classroom role with PBS Learning Media as an Educational Media Content Coordinator. As I continue to learn and grow from others, I look forward to "paying-it forward" by helping my fellow educators and their students achieve success.

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