Women and Economics in Fiction

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By Isabel Anreus, Fatou Camara, Chris Riddiough, Peg Strobel

We asked members of the DSA feminist list to tell us about their favorite fiction that illustrates the impact of economic policies on women. Here are their choices:

Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise is a close examination of the department store phenomenon rising in mid-nineteenth-century Paris. Zola’s usual social critiques can be found in this novel, but with a stronger focus on women and the transformative role they play in Europe’s industrial shift. Readers follow heroine Denise Baudu and her attempts to make a life for herself, as she ends up working at the newly founded department store dubbed “The Ladies’ Paradise.” Zola’s detailed prose captures the birth of the consumer society and the story of the hard work behind it. —Isabel Anreus

In God’s Bits of Wood (1960), Senegalese novelist and film director Ousmane Sembene tells a story of a railroad strike in which railroad workers and their families oppose their French masters in order to fight for better living conditions. As the strike goes on, men’s ability to provide for their families becomes impossible. Women find themselves in the role of providers. Despite living in a society where women are not involved in any decision-making process, they become conscious of the need for their involvement in the strike and begin taking matters into their own hands. They form a solid women’s revolutionary group that rapidly gains strength. Women’s involvement influences their children to join the strike using their own tactics. The women organize a historic march from Thies to Dakar. Early in the march, they come face to face with the white policemen, with no fear. They keep going despite confrontations with the police that lead to the death of three of the marchers. The white masters begin feeling the decrease of their power and the need to reconsider the workers’ rights. What started as a male-dominated strike ends up being the women’s own fight, as their voices make a huge difference in the victory. —Fatou Camara

String Theory: The Parents Ashkenazi, by Dara Horn, starts out in 1980 and follows Jacqueline Luria from her physics doctoral program to her marriage to Roger Ashkenazi, a mathematician at the same university, to her abandonment by him ten years later. The short story describes the ordeals faced by a woman in a “man’s field”—she is ostracized and isolated by her follow students who are “openly arrogant young men.” When she drops out of her doctoral program, “no one objected. In fact her male colleagues seemed to exhale with relief.” When Roger leaves her to find himself, she is left to raise two daughters with few prospects for work that will provide an adequate income. The story, a prequel to A Guide for the Perplexed, effectively describes the limitations faced by women in science and hints at the problems that single mothers confront. —Chris Riddiough 

In Americanah (2013), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explores the experiences of Nigerian women and men in the United States, Britain, and Nigeria. In the course of trenchant observations about race in the United States, Adichie reveals the tensions of class as well, as in the interaction between immigrant hair stylists and the female protagonist, who has won a Princeton University fellowship after enduring poverty. Another immigrant survives as a mistress. Adichie is equally powerful in examining her characters’ strategies in Nigeria, as they operate under military dictatorship and gendered expectations. —Peg Strobel

This article originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

 

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