Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less. ~ Myra Pollack Sadker, Author and Advocate for Promoting Equity in and Beyond Schools
The National Women’s History Project (“NWHP”) has designated March as Women’s History Month. Underlying its founding and continued progress over the last 35 years is the theme, “Writing Women Back into History.”
This year the organization’s theme for their month-long celebration is reminiscent of writing memoir: “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.”
From NWHP’s site, these words stood out:
There is a real power in hearing women’s stories, both personally and in a larger context. Remembering and recounting tales of our ancestors’ talents, sacrifices, and commitments inspires today’s generations and opens the way to the future.
The more I read the more I felt we should in some way honor women writers who have endeavored to tell their stories down through the years. At the same time, many ignited a flame that spread the interest in the memoir genre. Room doesn’t allow highlighting all of them. Here are the first five of my ten choices of women memoir writers (listed in no particular order):
Anaïs Nin (1903-1977) began keeping a journal at age 11 and continued to do so until shortly before her death. Many scholars opine Nin’s most important works are the journals. Nin wrote freely of her personal life and relationships. Some relationships were quite intimate with many prominent authors, artists, and a range of other creatives. Fifteen volumes of Nin’s diaries have been published with all but the last four in expurgated form. Nin’s writings highlight the importance of journalling.
We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect. ~ Anaïs Nin
Maya Angelou (1928-2014) joined her talents and gifts and became a poet, a memoirist, a public speaker, dancer, singer, and actor as well as a strong supporter of the American Civil Rights Movement. Her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), was the first nonfiction best-selling work written by an African-American woman. It has been called her magnum opus. Angelou no doubt opened the door for African-American women to step through and into the literary world of our culture.
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. ~Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Betty Rollin (1936- ) was a TV news anchor prior to writing her first book, First You Cry. Currently, Rollin is a contributor to PBS’s Religion and Ethics News Weekly. First You Cry tells Rollin’s personal story of two bouts with breast cancer, losing a breast in 1975 and again in 1984. Her book, the first of its kind because of the personal content, was published in 1976. Rollin hoped to raise public awareness and to encourage women facing similar circumstances. First You Cry was republished in 2000 in honor of Rollin’s 25th “cancer anniversary.”
Scratch most feminists and underneath there is a woman who longs to be a sex object, the difference is that is not all she longs to be. ~Betty Rollin
Anne Frank (1929-1945), like Anais Nin and many other memoirists, kept a diary or journal. Taken from the Dutch language in which her diary was written, the book, The Diary of a Young Girl (aka The Diary of Anne Frank), was published in 1947. Anne’s diary had been retrieved and given to her father, Oscar Frank, who upon reading it said, “For me, it was a revelation. There, was revealed a completely different Anne to the child that I had lost. I had no idea of the depths of her thoughts and feelings.” Anne succumbed to typhus in Bergen-Belsen in 1945 having told her truth as she knew it during the Nazi occupation.
It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. ~Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
Jeannette Walls (1960- ), author of The Glass Castle, opened up the doors to her nomadic family and shared stories of joy and heartbreak. Growing up in a dysfunction yet charismatic family was difficult for Walls and her siblings, and her readers understood the waffling created in a child’s heart. One minute you wanted to hate her parents, and the next you found yourself mesmerized by their charisma and creativity. Walls broke down some of the walls hindering other writers to tell the truth of their stories without hesitation.
I wanted to let the world know that no one had a perfect life, that even the people who seemed to have it all had their secrets. ~ Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle
Now it’s your turn: Who stands out in your mind as an important woman in the history of the memoir genre? What about her writing do you believe ignited the surge of women writers to find interest in memoir? I look forward to reading your comments.
NOTE: The second part of this post listing the other five women memoirists I have selected will be posted on Tuesday, March 10, 2015. I hope you’ll return to see who else I have chosen.
Karen Blixen (pen name Isaak Dinesen) wrote several books in poetic prose about living in Kenya in the early 1900s. I lived very near her coffee farm and her books, combined with living in her neighborhood, caused me to be part of who I am today. She must have captivated many thousands of others, too, through the popular movie, Out of Africa, so I consider her an important woman in the memoir genre.
Linda, thanks for calling our attention to Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen. Her works indeed are worthy of attention and her writing a good teacher for those writing memoir. I loved the movie, but have decided since reading your comment I need to read the book. Again, thank you and yes she is a very important woman in the memoir genre.
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