Works by American women from a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds, such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Gloria Naylor, Sandra Cisneros, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Amy Tan, give students who share their backgrounds a way to find themselves in the stories and they give students who don't share their backgrounds an understanding of both cultural diversity and the underlying humanity we all share.

Beloved by Toni Morrison presents a poignant story of the pain of oppression and the strong bond of love between mother and child. It explores the horrors of slavery, and the moral dilemma that a woman faces when deciding whether to subject her daughter to a life of slavery. At the same time, it affirms love and life, crying out against all forms of brutality.

In the novel Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, a Native American explores what it means to experience balance in a world torn apart by the brutality of discrimination and war. When the novel's main character, Taro, returns home from military service in Vietnam to a country in which whites have marginalized native people, he tries to restore a sense of self and balance through the ancient wisdom of native ceremonies of his people.

In The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros tells short stories that celebrate the efforts of women to transform their surroundings and create better spaces for people to inhabit. Through stories of a child called Esperanza (Hope), Cisneros goes back and forth between the reality of living conditions in a poor urban neighborhood and the girl's quest for a place or home in which to grow and create, grounding herself in the neighborhood in which she grew up and building her dreams for a better world.

Another book that tells of both the horrors of domination and destruction and the human capacity for caring and hope is Against Forgetting, edited by Carolyn Forche. This book is a collection of poems by women and men from around the world who have experienced various forms of violence and repression, ranging from the Jewish Holocaust and World War II to the civil rights struggle in the United States and repression and revolution in Latin America. They write as witnesses, so that we do not forget and, most important, so that we may create a world in which partnership rather than domination will become the accepted norm.

These books offer multicultural perspectives. They also speak to us with the voices of women, whose ideas and feelings have at best been a small addition to conventional literature classes. In addition, they often focus on areas that have been left out of the traditional curriculum, such as the lives of women and children living in poverty, the struggle of workers for better working conditions and a living wage, and what life was like for the vast majority of people in the United States in the early days of “robber-baron” capitalism in the United States.

One such work, appropriate in excerpted form for high school students, is the autobiography of a remarkable woman I mentioned earlier: Emma Goldman. Goldman's extraordinary two volume Living My Life provides a powerful role model for girls of an independent yet caring woman. It also provides inspiration for boys to work for a better world. Another such work is Daughter of the Earth, an autobiographical novel by Agnes Smedley.

Utopias and distopias written by women may also be of interest. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland is an early utopia which envisions a society in which caring for children is the paramount social concern — a society governed and organized by women.

The study of literature is also an opportunity to help students develop greater empathy for members of traditionally marginalized groups. Books by or about physically challenged people, such as the remarkable autobiography of Helen Keller, who was born both blind and deaf, are a good resource.

Particularly useful is the article by Bill Bigelow and Linda Christensen called “Promoting Social Imagination Through Interior Monologues.” After watching a film, reading a novel, short story, or essay, the class brainstorms particular key moments, turning points, or critical passages characters confronted. They can then choose to write about what they have read from the perspective of one of the characters in the piece. When students share their writings with the class, they have an opportunity to discuss the social contexts that promote hurtful behaviors, as well as what kind of social contexts promote helpful and caring ones — still another way of learning to understand the difference between the partnership and dominator models as human possibilities.

Additional Resources

  • The National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY) offers a Guide to Children's Literature and Disability sorted by age.
  • The National Women's History Project has books and other teaching resources for all ages.
  • Books by and about gay men and lesbian women, such as Audre Lorde's works, are also good resources.
  • Another good resource is Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice.