Books with compelling female protagonists to explore for International Women's Day

Monday, March 5, 2018
by Kate Stericker

the covers of the four books described in the post

International Women’s Day will be celebrated this week on Thursday, March 8th. The theme for this year’s campaign is #PressforProgress, with the official site encouraging people to answer the “strong call to motivate and unite friends, colleagues and whole communities to think, act and be gender inclusive.” Even once Women’s Day 2018 is behind us, this goal is one that we should continue to pursue all year long. One tool with incredible power to open people’s minds and develop their understanding of others is reading. Multiple studies have demonstrated that people who read widely demonstrate increased empathy in their day-to-day lives, and it’s easy to imagine why this phenomenon is observed; books can offer a level of nuanced insight into a character’s life experience that is unequalled by almost any other medium. Sometimes the best way to understand the problems facing people in different social groups (particularly women with intersectional identities) is to fully engage with a story that puts their thoughts and feelings front and centre. Following up on Ariel's blog post last week, here are four of my favourite books by female authors that star a diverse range of compelling female protagonists, each with her own obstacles to overcome.

Flygirl (Sherri L. Smith)

Flygirl is a novel by Sherri L. Smith that centres on Ida Mae Jones, an amateur pilot living on a farm in 1942. When the army announces the formation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP)--a group of female pilots tasked with freeing male airmen for combat by taking over less dangerous missions such as transporting planes and delivering cargo--Ida is determined to join. However, aware that African-Americans are not permitted to apply for the program, she decides that she must take advantage of her light skin tone to pass as a white woman. This decision forces Ida to confront both sexism and racism in an environment already fraught with danger.

I love Flygirl because it brings a fascinating aspect of WWII to life while simultaneously offering a complex take on the themes of prejudice and belonging. Ida is a compelling protagonist who navigates her complex relationship with racial identity and risks her life for people who would likely reject her if her secrets were revealed. Furthermore, her story provides important exposure to the real-life WASPs of WWII, particularly the women of colour who endured danger and discrimination to serve their country.

I’m Glad I Did (Cynthia Weil)

Though her name may not be instantly recognizable, Cynthia Weil is one of the most iconic songwriters of the past hundred years. Her body of work, written in partnership with her husband, Barry Mann, includes classic hits such as “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and “Somewhere Out There.” I’m Glad I Did is based on Weil’s experiences working as a songwriter in the Brill Building during the 1960s. Her protagonist, JJ Green, is a young Jewish woman with dreams of hearing her own songs played on the radio. JJ’s lawyer parents have different ideas about her future, so they strike a deal: JJ will take a summer internship at the Brill Building, but one of her songs must be professionally recorded if she wants to continue pursuing her goals. JJ rises to this challenge, not realizing that her time at the Brill Building will tangle her up in the ongoing racial tensions of the 1960s, the investigation of a suspicious death, and unexpected feelings for a composer with a complicated past.

I’m Glad I Did shines a light on an exciting period of music history, without shying away from the sexism and racism that marred the experiences of many artists during this time. JJ is a smart, witty character and a capable detective who’s impossible not to root for.

If I Was Your Girl (Meredith Russo)

If I Was Your Girl is a novel by trans author Meredith Russo which won the Stonewall Book Award for Young Adult Literature in 2017. The story follows Amanda Hardy as she starts at a new high school after experiencing transphobic violence in the town where she used to live. Although Amanda tries to keep a low profile at first, she finds herself forging close friendships with a few classmates and striking up a romance with Grant, a sweet but mysterious boy in her grade. The progression of these relationships opens Amanda up to a series of high school adventures, but also makes her vulnerable in ways she didn’t anticipate.

This book does an amazing job of shining a light on the effects of the stigma trans people face while still establishing that trans teens can find love, support, and happiness. Russo has explained her motivation for the project by saying, “Even the stories that are friendly to trans people are still really toxic in a lot of ways … I just wanted a book where good things happen to a trans person.” If I Was Your Girl isn’t just an entertaining story with a likeable protagonist at its centre; it’s also a hopeful and important book that should be read widely.

You’re Welcome, Universe (Whitney Gardner)

You’re Welcome, Universe stars Julia, a Deaf Indian teenager who’s forced to adjust to a mainstream high school after she gets expelled from the local Deaf school for covering up a spray-painted slur about her friend with a graffiti mural. She channels her frustration into the street art she leaves around town, but pursuing her passion means evading the police, keeping secrets from her moms, and getting dragged into a graffiti war with the mysterious artist who keeps embellishing her work.

Although the author of You’re Welcome, Universe is hearing, this book has been praised as a fairly authentic representation of the Deaf experience due to Gardner’s familiarity with American Sign Language and connections with members of the Deaf community. It also stands apart from many other YA novels by putting friendship, rather than romance, in the foreground of the story. Gardner has stated that she wanted to address the fact that romantic breakups are discussed in fiction far more frequently than ‘friendship breakups,’ despite the fact that the latter can be just as painful to experience. You’re Welcome, Universe explores universal themes like friendship and acceptance through the eyes of members of marginalized communities (and, as a bonus, has gorgeous graffiti art peppered throughout).

Whether you seek out some of these books or get your recommendations from other sources, make sure to celebrate International Women’s Day by exercising empathy and honouring the experiences of women who face struggles related to gender, race, sexuality, disability, or any other facet of their identities.