March is Women’s History Month, and while speculative fiction often addresses the future, it’s equally good at plumbing the past to help us understand the present. These three novels all have historical settings and female characters who have to confront the limits their time period puts on women—and then find ways to overcome them.
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Kindred tells the story of a modern Black woman, Dana, who is pulled back in time to the South by one of her ancestors. There, Dana has to confront the reality of slavery. Dana serves as a sort of translator-avatar for the reader—neither she nor any of us have ever experienced slavery first hand. She quickly realizes that if she behaves as a Black woman from the 1970s normally behaves, she’ll get herself killed. Her only real safety net in this strange world is her ancestor, Rufus, the son of a slaveholder and the reason she keeps traveling through time.
Dana goes into the past thinking she could never be a slave, only to learn that she will do what it takes to survive, even if that means swallowing her pride and sacrificing some of her dignity. As she gets to know the slaves, she sees how strong they are. She realizes that they, too, are a product of their time, though their time doesn’t define who they are as individuals. Through Dana’s eyes, the reader is able to see the complex social dynamics and entrenched patriarchal and racist values and structure involved in slavery. As Dana experiences what it’s like to be a slave, so too does the reader—and therein is Kindred’s real power.
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
Yangsze Choo’s coming-of-age adventure set in 1890s Malaya explores the effects of colonialism, sexism, and class on its characters. Li Lan is a young woman with few marriage prospects because of her father’s failing business. She’s smart and capable, but to her potential suitors, money is what matters, and her family doesn’t have any.
The Lim family offers to make her a ghost bride to their recently deceased son, which would mean Li Lan would have a home and live in comfort for the rest of her life. But it would also mean she’d be alone, and have to abandon her ailing father. As she wrestled with the decision to become a ghost bride, Li Lan is slowly pulled into the afterlife, where she becomes embroiled in solving the mystery of her would-be groom’s death.
Throughout the novel, Li Lan must reckon with the ways her own desires conflict with her familial and societal duty, and make difficult choices between them. Choo renders colonial Malaya vividly and beautifully, and her afterlife is lush and feels like a complete world unto itself.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Set in the early 1940s, Mexican Gothic follows the story of two cousins: Noemi and Catalina. Noemi is a young debutant who dreams of becoming an anthropologist. The only problem is, her father wants her to find a husband at college, not get a degree.
When they receive a disturbing letter from Catalina, recently married to an Englishman named Virgil, who lives in a run-down mansion called High Place, Noemi’s father makes a deal with her. If she goes to check on Catalina and help her recover, he’ll allow her to get a master’s degree. Noemi agrees, and sets off for High Place with high hopes.
As with any gothic novel, the house has secrets. Catalina’s mysterious illness unerves Noemi, and she clashes with her cousin’s husband and his eugenicist father, Howard. Her only friend at High Place is Francis, Virgil’s quiet cousin who seems to be keeping a secret or two of his own, but clearly likes Noemi.
Mexican Gothic addresses colonialism, racism, and sexism in a more direct way than The Ghost Bride, but has plenty of surprises up its sleeve, too. The horror of colonization is made visceral in the house’s secret, as Virgil and Howard try to force Noemi and Catalina to bend to their wills.
More Speculative Novels for Women’s History Month
Of course, there are so many more great speculative novels by women, about women. Novels that retell myths formerly dominated by men (Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad), novels that examine a matriarchal future (Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home), and novels that examine what the world might be like if the power balance favored the most powerless (Naomi Alderman’s The Power).
I’ve gathered all these—and more!—in this handy list of Speculative Novels for Women’s History Month in my Bookshop.org shop. Any purchases you make using these affiliate links helps support my work and the work of independent bookstores all over the world!