Art, Feminism, and the 1950s: A Mona Lisa Smile-Inspired Reading List

Mona Lisa Smile

Hello chums! Yesterday evening I finished watching Mona Lisa Smile (2003), which is a film I had never heard of before I stumbled across it on Netflix. Set in the 1950s, Mona Lisa Smile follows Katherine Ann Watson (Julia Roberts), who is considered a rather bohemian and modern woman, as she accepts a position teaching art history at Wellesley College, an ultra-conservative, all-girls institution in Massachusetts. Most of the girls at Wellesley are just there to bide their time until they are married, an idea which Katherine Watson disagrees with completely. The plot of the movie focuses around how Katherine Watson teaches her students to not only to expand their horizons when it comes to thinking about art, but she also teaches them that they can aspire to be more than just wives and mothers.

I thought this movie was completely wonderful – the 1950s New England setting was gorgeous, the cast was incredible (including not only Julia Roberts but other well-known names such as Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Ginnifer Goodwin), the writing was clever, and the feminist undertones were, in my opinion, very well-done. This move encompassed so many of my own interests – art history, feminism, academia, and America during the 1950s – that I thought it might be fun to put together a reading list inspired by the film. You can still enjoy all of these books even if you haven’t seen the film, but I hope that if you have this list might serve as a place where you can continue to explore some of the themes of the movie. Without further ado, let’s get into the list. 🙂her brilliant career 1.png

Katherine Ann Watson is considered quite extraordinary by the Wellesley community for her commitment to herself and her career, above and beyond any desires to settle down and have a family. Rachel Cook’s Her Brilliant Career: The Extraordinary Women of the Fifties is a nonfiction book following the lives of ten incredible women during the 1950s who, like Katherine Ann Watson, dared to imagine more for themselves than a life of domesticity. According to the description, these women (whose careers range from film directors to architects, from race car drivers to archaeologists) “loved passionately, challenged men’s control, made their own mistakes, and took life on their own terms.”

Find Her Brilliant Career at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound.

college girls 1

For those interested in learning a little bit more about what life was really like for the students in Mona Lisa Smile, perhaps try College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Co-Eds, Then and Now by Lynn Peril. Described as as a combination of “women’s history and popular culture,” College Girls looks at the history of women in higher education from roughly the 1900s to the 1970s,  as well as the various stereotypes that prevailed in the media about the types of girls who went to college.

Find College Girls at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound.

perfect wives

Virginia Nicholson’s Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes tells the real stories of women in the 1950s, women very much like Wellesley girls and their mothers portrayed in the film. Unlike Her Brilliant Career, which I mentioned above, Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes focuses on what life was like for the average woman in 1950s America, “a world peopled by women with radiant smiles, clean pinafores, and gleaming coiffures.” For those who have seen Mona Lisa Smile, I think this book will help you relate to Betty Warren’s (played by Kirsten Dunst) traditional beliefs as to a woman’s proper role in society.

Find Perfect Wives at Amazon.

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One of my favorite parts of Mona Lisa Smile was the way the friendships between all of the Wellesley students were portrayed, and a similar sort of female camaraderie takes place in Mary McCarthy’s The Group. Originally published in 1963, this novel follows eight graduates from Vassar College, at the time an all-women’s school like Wellesley, who meet a week after graduation to watch one of their group get married. From there the story follows these women as they embark on their adult lives, from travelling to Europe to working in publishing. If Mona Lisa Smile had a sequel that followed the lives of Katherine Ann Watson’s students, I think it would be a lot like The Group.

Find The Group at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound.

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Another novel along the same line as The Group is Rona Jaffe’s The Best of EverythingA bestseller when it was released in 1958, The Best of Everything follows a group of young women, very much like the Wellesley students from the film, who work at the same New York publishing company. The personal and professional struggles these women face are very similar to those discussed in Mona Lisa Smile, and it’s just a really excellent book about friendship and what it was like to be a woman, particularly a working woman, in the 1950s. Highly recommend this one.

Find The Best of Everything at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound.

the groves of acadame

This is the second Mary McCarthy novel on this list, so maybe check out her complete bibliography if you liked Mona Lisa Smile. First published in 1952,  The Groves of Academe tells the story of Henry Mulcahy, a literature professor at Jocelyn College who is informed that his position will not be continued for another year. Mulcahy is convinced that this is because the President specifically dislikes him, and he formulates a plan to fight for justice against what he believes is a wrongful termination. The academic politics in this novel are similar to the battles Katherine Watson faces against Wellesly administration in Mona Lisa Smile.

Find The Groves of Academe at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound

the feminine mystique 1

I don’t think I could write a reading list about American feminism in the mid-20th century without mentioning The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. This one is pretty self-explanatory, so I won’t talk about it for long, but I could imagine Katherine Watson being all for this.

Find The Feminine Mystique at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound.

A strange stirring 1

Tying in with the last title, Stephanie Coontz’s A Strange Stirring is a nonfiction book about the impact Betty Friedan’s work had on women all over America during the 1960s. It’s true that this is a decade later than Mona Lisa Smile, which is set during the 1950s, but the feminist undertones in that film really foreshadow the women’s movement that will explode in the next decade. In line with Katherine Watson’s views in the film, this book is described  as showing  “how a generation of women came to realize that their dissatisfaction with domestic life didn’t reflect their personal weakness but rather a social and political injustice.”

Find A Strange Stirring at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound.

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Many of the Wellsely students in the film are shocked by the fact that Katherine Watson isn’t married, nor does she have any particular wish to be married. Sixty years later, many women today are still being questioned for choosing not to marry, and this is exactly what Kate Bolick discusses in her book Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own. Part memoir, part cultural history, Bolick draws from her own experiences and the lives of pioneering women such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edith Wharton to examine why so many American women simply aren’t interested in getting married.

Find Spinster at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound.

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Similar to Spinster, Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies also looks at why so many American women choose to stay single. “Covering class, race, sexual orientation, and filled with vivid anecdotes from fascinating contemporary and historical figures,” Traister’s book is a historical account showing just how great an impact unmarried women and women who marry late in life have upon our nation.

Find All the Single Ladies at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound.

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In Mona Lisa Smile Katherine Watson alters the syllabus of her class to include some art that is quite modern for the time period, causing her students to declare that some of the pieces shouldn’t be considered art at all. For those who have had the similar experience of walking into an art museum and wondering how some of the pieces hanging on the wall came to be considered art, check out Will Gompertz’s What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an EyeI think the Goodreads description for this book sums it up best: “Will Gompertz made it his mission to bring modern art’s exciting history alive for everyone, explaining why an unmade bed or a pickled shark can be art – and why a five-year-old couldn’t really do it.”

Find What Are You Looking At? at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

what art is 1

The final book on this list is inspired by the many discussions in Katherine Watson’s class as to what exactly art is – what makes something a work of art, and who gets to decide what’s good art and what’s not? Arthur C. Danto’s What Art Is strives to answer many of these same questions in an accessible, easy-to-understand manner. The description says that he begins with Plato’s description of art in The Republic and progresses through time all the way through to Andy Warhol’s famous shipping cartons, including the contributions of many renowned philosophers along the way

Find What Art Is at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound.

And that’s it for my Mona Lisa Smile reading list! I apologize for its being so lengthy, but there were so many books I found when researching this post that I struggled to reduce it down even to twelve. If you’ve seen the film or read any of these books, let me know down in the comments. Also, I quite like putting together these film-inspired reading lists, so this may be a bit of a series that I continue on with in the future. 🙂



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