Acting Director of DOL's Women’s Bureau
I’ve spent my entire professional life advocating for women. So in considering a list of books that shaped work in America, I’m naturally drawn toward a few that shaped, informed and inspired working women.
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). When it first came out, this novel was poorly received. It was simply way ahead of its time, and today is considered one of the best and most important English-language novels of the past 100 years. It is about a black woman, the granddaughter of a slave, whose birth was the result of a rape. Despite this, she takes responsibility for herself and controls her own destiny. And work is the means for her to do that.
Shirley Chisholm, Unbought and Unbossed (1970). Too few people (women and men) know enough about Chisholm, the young woman from Brooklyn who became the first female African American elected to Congress and was a candidate for President of the United States. She “dared to be herself” and “was, and always will be a catalyst for change.” During the height of the women’s movement, she made American business and politics realize that tremendous amounts of talent was being lost to our society, “just because that talent wears a skirt.”
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962). I have always taken great pride in the fact that this book, which launched the environmental movement not only in the United States, but around the world, was written by a woman…it gives new meaning to the phase: “Earth Mother.” Half a century after its publication, it is not only still relevant, but also a useful guide for anyone interested in pursuing a “green” career.
Madeleine Albright, Madam Secretary (2005). For many women (and people of color), they’ve got to “see it to be it"—be shown real people who have achieved their dreams. Clearly, the best way to inspire success is to show that it’s actually possible. Albright does this in her remarkable autobiography by taking readers behind the scenes in the male-dominated world of foreign policy. But she also shares deeply personal stories about the breakup of her marriage and raising her three daughters. She once famously said that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” I think she’s earned a special place in heaven for how her story has inspired and instructed so many.
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). The author is Canadian, but I wanted to include science fiction on my list, and besides, the book is set in the United States. In the “near future” women are not allowed to read and have no rights or control over their bodies. The main character, however, remembers the days when she had a husband, a job, her own money and her own identity. For some, this novel is satire, for others, it is a cautionary tale. But no matter how you look at it, it’s a fascinating exploration of “what ifs” for woman and work.
Latifa Lyles is Acting Director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau.