It's Women's History Month, and I'm here to let you in on an easy, fun way to better understand how women lived in times past (you won't even feel like you're learning!): fiction reading. I know this works because history is not my strong suit (I was a science major in college) but these days I know more about past events than ever before—even my partner (who was a history major) says so. And it all happened without my really trying, which is the best part.
The following novels all cover important time periods in history, and each of them is rich with detail about the time they cover, from what was worn and eaten, to how they managed relationships with older and younger generations, to how everyday people understood current events (and how that was interpreted by different people, just like the news of today). Reading one of the novels below will pull you back into the past, but you'll be so busy following the story, you won't even realize how much you've learned about eighteenth-century boats, or the Blitz, until someone mentions one of those things, and you realize you have a complete picture in your mind of exactly what that time was like—and in these cases, what that time was like for women, whose stories don't get written about as much in the history books. Need another reason to read women authors and women's stories? It might just change your persepective; check out Lilit Marcus' essay about her year of reading only women writers in 2013.
IN Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson is not only a delicious (and emotionally cathartic) meditation on what it would be like if we could restart our lives every time we made a horrible mistake, but is also a portrait of England post WWI and through WW2; the main character grows up during the time between the wars and lives (and dies) through the Blitz in London, an attack by the neighbor boy and a bad marriage. No, that last statement isn't a spoiler—the protagonist dies many times in this book, in the many ways a woman can, but gets to start over again and again, cheating—and celebrating—history.
Someone, by Alice McDermott is the story of an "unremarkable woman's unforgettable life" and it's true; Marie is an ordinary woman, a child of Irish immigrants who grows up in pre-war Brooklyn, New York. She lives her married life in suburban Long Island, and ends up in a nursing home. The book is set up like snapshots from her past; all juxtaposed for meaning (as we all do as we look back and try to make sense of our lives)—it isn't a straight-through-time narrative. A wonderful portrait of the recent past in New York, with incredible detail of how it was to live then (clothes, cars and interiors are all given attention), the book also outlines the very defined limits of Marie's job and life choices as a woman, and why it was so difficult to break out of expectations.
Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries won the Man Booker prize in 2013 for its gentle satire of the 19th century novel; it takes us to New Zealand during the goldrush of 1866, and it is incredibly detailed, from the differences in dress between lower class and upper class, for its portrayal of a prostitute of the time (so many books mention this group of women, or use them as devices, but we never get to know them) and you get a smart mystery to boot.
The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert is the story of a fictional female botanist born in Denmark in 1800, who ends up in early Philadelphia. A fascinating account of a brilliant and independent woman, it is a genuinely fun way to learn about how the science world worked in the early 1800s, who the famous botanists of the time were, the lengths they went to procure samples from all over the globe, and the big business plants were at a time when South American quinine made the difference between those European explorers who survived, and those that didn't.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, by Anton Disclalfani takes us to the midst of the Great Depression in the 1930s American south, where we get lush, descriptive verbal images of Florida that are very different from what we know of the state today. Tremendous open spaces and country living define our heroine's life, until she makes a mistake (what that is, we don't learn about until the end of the novel) and gets sent away to an upper-class riding school in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Fortunes made and lost, the social ramifications of that, the politics of private schools, and the narrow social mores of the day are all detailed in this dreamy, beautiful novel.
If, after all these books about the past, you are wondering what it might be like for women in in the future, check out America Pacifica, Anna North's future dystopian novel set on an island where our heroine, Darcy, tries to save the day.