No Damsels in Distress: The 2013 Amelia Bloomer Project
The Amelia Bloomer Project, part of the Feminist Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association, creates an annual booklist, including a Top Ten, of the best feminist books for young readers, ages birth through 18. Named for a “pioneering 19th century newspaper editor, feminist thinker, public speaker, and suffragist,” the list highlights both fiction and nonfiction books about girls and women “that spur the imagination while confronting traditional female stereotypes.”
Books on the 2013 Amelia Bloomer Project list tell the stories — in both fiction and nonfiction — of Olympic athletes, inventors, performers, laborers, pilots, chefs, scientists, firefighters, civil rights organizers, and the founder of the Girls Scouts, all of them female. Girls and women serve their countries, rocket into space, protect their families, fight for their rights, explore, rule, and study, all against the backdrop of achievements, struggles, setbacks, and progress that marks the current state of women worldwide and throughout history.
The books on this year’s ABP list of recommended feminist books portray stories of women and girls finding their individual and collective voices. Protagonists advocate for civil rights, equal pay for equal work, treatment of marginalized communities, ecofeminism and the rights to vote and obtain quality education. These books trace the journey from antiquity through the U.S suffrage movement to contemporary feminist manifestos. Our hope is that the stories’ messages will inspire readers to find their own voices and join the fight to empower all women.
Books for the final list are selected from nominations based on familiar criteria like excellence in writing, an appealing format, and age appropriateness for young readers, but also on whether they present significant feminist content. That last element is what sets the Amelia Bloomer list apart, but it’s also the most difficult to quantify, according to the project criteria.
Feminist books for young readers must move beyond merely “spunky” and “feisty” young women, beyond characters and people who fight to protect themselves without furthering rights for other women. Feminist books show women overcoming the obstacles of intersecting forces of race, gender, and class, actively shaping their destinies. They break bonds forced by society as they defy stereotypical expectations and show resilience in the face of societal strictures. In addition, feminist books show women solving problems, gaining personal power, and empowering others. They celebrate girls and women as a vibrant, vital force in the world.
In honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day (today, March 8th), I talked with librarian and Amelia Bloomer committee member Katie Dersnah Mitchell* about her experience selecting the 2013 list.
What drew you to the Amelia Bloomer project? Why did you want to be part of the committee?
I first heard about ABP when I was in library school. I was fascinated by the breadth of the list regarding the age range: 0-18. In contrast to the singular awards, this was an annual readymade guide that I found to be indispensable. Over the years I have consistently been impressed by the Project. I have always identified as a feminist and I love how the Project honors parity for all sexes, while it also promotes and calls attention to the ongoing need to fight for this equality.
What makes this list/award special?
The list is a comprehensive annual guide. Many of the awards or booklists are geared toward a reader’s age, whereas ABP looks at the whole field of feminist literature from the year.
Do you have favorites on the 2013 list? Or, if you can’t play favorites, could you booktalk/highlight a couple of titles?
It’s so hard to pick favorites! Here are a few of my standouts.
In the Bag! Margaret Knight Wraps it Up by Monica Kulling: By the time Margaret Knight was 12, she was working in a New Hampshire cotton mill. She bucked the narrow expectations for a young woman of that time by being an inventor and then fighting for her works in the court system when a man tried to steal her ideas. This book is so much fun. Despite the challenges she faced in social position and gender, Mattie never lost sight of her goals. The illustrations are also just great!
Annie Sullivan and The Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert details the well-known story of teacher and student, but also provides insight into Annie’s own challenging past. This book spoke to me about the strength and power of finding your voice, for these women, particularly in the face of severe disabilities which further undermined their position in society.
Of course Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein was a favorite. The intrigue and mystery are matched by the incredible bond between the two friends.
And I have to mention Grace and Grit by Lilly Ledbetter. I think it is important for people to remember that the fight for equal rights is far from over. Mrs. Ledbetter’s determination to receive parity has helped all American women.
Can you talk about the recommended list vs the Top 10 list? What elements and qualities does the committee look for when choosing Top 10 titles?
At the beginning of the conference committee meetings, we take a straw poll to see where all of the members are in terms of the nominations. Any book that receives a unanimous yes vote from the committee automatically becomes eligible for the Top 10. Usually this will be more than 10 books that receive a unanimous vote, so we then create our personal Top Ten from the choices, with weighted votes. These are compiled to determine the official Top Ten.
Have you read any books so far this year that you want to highlight?
I don’t know what might make the list this year, but from the ARCs [I've received] and what I have seen published in the last few months, it is going to be another strong list. Currently I am reading Philida by Andre Brink, which is breaking my heart, but reminding me of the indomitable spirit women have had through the centuries.
What else would you like to share about your experience and/or this award?
This was my first year serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project. ALA Midwinter was an incredible experience. It really brought me back to all of the things I love about librarianship. Working with that committee of fabulous, erudite women was truly great.
Why is the Amelia Bloomer project so important?
As we were crafting the introduction to this year’s list, the committee as a whole was taken aback by the amount of vitriolic rhetoric and violence against women in our current society and the world. Feminism is not an outdated ideal; rather it is one that needs to be embraced and supported to ensure equal rights for all members of society. Each year’s list strives to honor the wonderful literature out there that is supporting this goal.
Do you have any favorite books (any publication year or age group) that would have made good Bloomer titles?
When I read I’m Deborah Sampson by Patricia Clapp, it was the first time I had heard of a woman fighting in the Revolutionary War and I was stunned. I loved that book. It’s been a few years since I have re-read it, but I think it would have been perfect for Bloomer. The Witch of Blackbird Pond is my favorite stand-alone book and I always admired Kit’s love of learning and strength and the way her fight helps other women. Certainly The Handmaid’s Tale, as it is the first book I remember reading that detailed a misogynistic dystopian future that seemed plausible and terrifying.
What women do you personally look to for inspiration?
Hillary Clinton. Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt. All of the Seneca Falls Conventioneers and suffragettes (I’m particularly taken with Elizabeth Cady Stanton). Maya Angelou for finding her voice and using it to free so many people. Maud Hart Lovelace, Margaret Atwood, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
– Julie Bartel, currently reading Elizabeth Knox’s Mortal Fire as slowly as possible, hoping it will never end…
* Katie Dersnah Mitchell is a Teen Librarian in Saline Michigan. Her passions range from the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace to going to heavy metal concerts. A political science major with a minor in women’s studies helped her realize that her greatest desire was to be a librarian, albeit a rather loud one. She lives with her husband and three kids in Michigan.