Female Empowerment on the Shelf: Why We Need Feminist Books for Young Girls — And Boys

by Kate Schatz

Photo credit: Christopher Futcher, E+/Getty Images

I remember it like this: The two-year-old was finally down for her nap and I crept, ninja-mom-style, to the kitchen table, where I sat and stared out the window. The walls in that house were yellow, and the afternoon sun streamed in. Maybe I was thinking about the books we’d been reading before her nap; maybe I was mentally reviewing my to-do list; maybe my mind was blissfully blank. That part is unclear, but I definitely remember what happened next: An idea popped into my head. I should write an A-Z book about cool women from American history.

In retrospect, this idea had surely been developing in my subconscious. As a feminist, I was thinking a lot about how to raise a daughter. How would I help her be strong and confident? How could I help her navigate a world that is so often cruel to girls? As a writer, I was challenged by motherhood. I’d published my first book of fiction two years before I got pregnant … and I hadn’t written much since having her. I was championing the literary output of my creative writing students, but I wasn’t producing anything myself. And I was feeling challenged as an activist: This was 2011, I was in Oakland, and the Occupy movement was in full force. I wanted to be out there in the streets — but instead I was home, watching Live Stream videos of raucous protests while I breastfed on the couch. Motherhood had cracked open my world in so many beautiful ways, but it was not easy to reorganize myself. Or rather, my selves. It all felt subsumed by being Mom.

But in that golden moment in my tiny kitchen, I wasn’t thinking about integrating these shifting identities — it was just an idea and, for the first time in several years, I felt that familiar creative rush. The adrenaline of a good idea, the tingle of a story starting to build. I grabbed my laptop, and let my fingers fly. I thought about the children’s books on our shelves, and what I felt was missing. What I could add. How I might create something educational, empowering, inspiring — but also cool and fun. By the time my daughter woke up, I’d jotted down a ton of notes and sent an email to fellow mama friends. I have this idea, I wrote. What do you think? The response was fast and furious: YES! They wrote. You have to do this!

So I did — right away!

Ha. Just kidding. The reality is that it took me several years to get started. The idea was always with me, but I had a hard time prioritizing it over all the other things that demanded my time and attention: my daughter, my full-time teaching job, my marriage, the backyard landscaping project, the unfinished novel … somehow, the feminist children’s book that I wanted to create so badly for my daughter always seemed to drop to the bottom of the to-do list. For his part, my husband was a fantastic cheerleader; every so often he’d say, “Hey, have you worked on the Rad Women book lately? It’s a really good idea…”

And then I became pregnant again, this time with a son. If my daughter inspired the idea for the book, it was the birth of my son that motivated me to make it happen. I realized that I want my daughter to be inspired and empowered, but if boys aren’t raised to see and respect women, then this empowerment only goes so far. Though I was tired and overwhelmed by these two young beings, I also felt inspired by them. And I felt ready.

Two and a half years after having that initial idea in my kitchen, I made a New Year’s resolution to write Rad American Women A-Z. It’s the only resolution I’ve ever kept. Two months later, I’d teamed up with an illustrator, Miriam Klein Stahl; two months after that we had a book deal; and by the end of 2014 our book was off to the printer. It was on the New York Times bestseller list by April. We traveled all over the country, visiting schools, bookstores, and libraries, sharing the stories of rad women from history with thousands of people. And by the end of that year, my now-kindergartner daughter stood next to me at a book event, eagerly showing off her newly-acquired literacy skills by reading a page from the book. Yes, I cried.

And now Miriam and I have created a sequel: Rad Women Worldwide tells 40 stories of women from 30 countries, opening readers’ eyes to the big, beautiful world that we’re all part of. The Rad Women series is a way for me to show my own children — and all readers — that they’re part of a number of powerful lineages and histories that don’t always show up in history classes. It shows them the potential of all humans to be courageous, to be loving, and to work for justice.

And as I watch my daughter, now seven, read aloud to her brother, now three, about Emma Goldman and Funmilayo Ransome Kuti and Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, I know that they’ve taught me a great deal about my own potential as well.