For a long time, women didn’t write books. Well, that’s almost certainly not true, but women didn’t write books that were widely published or preserved for the future until very recently, in the grand scheme of things. It wasn’t until a few hundred years ago that women started regularly publishing books that we still know of today, often under male pseudonyms. But recently, as in the last hundred years recently, women have published lots and lots of books – and many of them are amazing.
For International Women’s Day 2019, I wanted to write a list of books by women that discuss what it means to be a woman. Obviously this list is aggressively non-exhaustive. There are so many books by women about women that I want to read, and there will be even more that I’ve never heard of. Plus I have read too many great books to include on this list, so this is just a drop in the ocean of awesome books written by women.
Bad Feminist – Roxane Gay
Gay is a mainstay of modern feminist writing, and she is awesome. Bad Feminist is a collection of essays where Gay explores different aspects of feminism, especially her propensity for being a ‘bad’ feminist who likes many ‘un-feminist’ things, like Robin Thicke’s controversial song Blurred Lines and the colour pink. She also writes about race, being queer and lots of aspects of popular culture. The thing I love most about this book is how balanced Gay is. She’s able to discuss controversial social issues firmly but fairly, with a sense of empathy and rationality that’s often missing from these discussions.
Headscarves and Hymens – Mona Eltahawy
I mentioned this book in my best books of 2018 blog post. This book discusses the intersection of Islam, Middle Eastern politics and feminism at length, by a woman who has been both Muslim and a resident of the Middle East. Eltahawy brings an extremely nuanced and experienced voice to this discussion, as she has years of powerful feminist activism in Egypt behind her and a wealth of personal knowledge. If you want to learn about gender politics in the Middle East from someone who has actually lived, worked and protested in this region, this is a great book.
Come As You Are – Emily Nagoski and Vagina – Naomi Wolf
These are two books about sexual pleasure, psychology and everyone’s favourite and spectacularly misunderstood organ, the vagina. Sex for women with vaginas, especially in heterosexual relationships, can be complicated and unsatisfying. One of the best ways to improve your sexual experiences, whether with yourself or with a partner, is to learn a shitload about your body and how it works. Understanding not only your vagina but also your brain – which has a lot to do with how your vagina behaves – is a crucial part of feeling relaxed, confident and satisfied during sex. Knowledge is power and these books will arm you with a spectacular amount of knowledge.
Shrill – Lindy West
This memoir/collection of essays by journalist and writer Lindy West is fucking brilliant. She is an amazing writer and every single one of these essays is strong. The subtitle is “notes from a loud woman.” I love her. West writes about being a woman, being fat, being a writer, being in a relationship with a thin man as a fat woman, abortions, being online as a woman and rape jokes. She is sharp, incisive and hilarious. If you want a taste of her work, read her review of a day at the GOOP wellness festival from a few years ago. There are great lessons in here about growing up, standing up for what you believe in and learning to love yourself just as you are.
Eve Was Framed: Women and British Justice – Helena Kennedy
So much of what keeps women on the back foot around the world is the law (though that is just one part of the puzzle). Laws are not absolute truths or eternal rules – laws are amended, created and abolished all the time – and have often been created by men who were either actively trying to hold back women (and other marginalised groups) or simply unaware of the impact certain laws had on women. Even now, while many laws that legally mandated gender inequality have been dissolved, the law remains imperfect and women still get screwed over by the British justice system all the time, especially in matters of sexual assault, divorce, custody and workplace discrimination. Kennedy is a barrister (now a QC) and has worked in the British legal system for decades, particularly as champion for gender equality. She also discusses her career in depth. This is a serious book, full of examples and statistics, but it is worth it for the light it shines on how women are still marginalised by the British legal system in so many ways.
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
This is the original feminist dystopia. If you haven’t read it, you’ve probably heard of it (though I’m afraid you can’t see a picture of it, because I can’t find my copy). Lots of books about social issues are non-fiction, which is great for people who love non-fiction (like me!), but less good for people who prefer reading stories. The Handmaid’s Tale manages to offer a searing commentary on gender quality while telling a compelling story at the same time. It tells the tale of Offred, a woman whose job it is to act as a surrogate for a wealthy couple after some unknown force has impaired humanity’s ability to procreate. Through flashbacks, you also see how a civilisation that looked a lot like ours managed to go from a modern, feminist society to a brutal, sexist dictatorship in a matter of years. In the age of Trump, it’s a sobering read. Atwood recently announced that she’s bringing out a long-awaited sequel, The Testaments, almost thirty-five years after the Handmaid’s Tale’s original publication, making now a great time to pick up this book if you haven’t already.
Everywoman – Jess Philips
Jess Philips is a British MP and this is her memoir. She talks about her time working for a women’s charity before deciding she wanted to join politics and fight for gender equality on a bigger playing field. She has since become a fierce advocate in the Commons for women and other vulnerable groups. In this book, she discusses not only her career and the instances of gender inequality she’s witnessed in the government, but also offers valuable advice on figuring out what matters, standing up for your opinions and being outspoken. It is down to earth, accessible and deeply unpretentious, and it is great.
Why God is a Woman – Nin Andrews
This is a collection of poems/very short stories about an island in which men are seen as the inferior sex. With sexism turned on its head, Andrews explores a world in which woman are the ruling class from the point of view of an exiled man looking back at his upbringing as the second sex. It is an extremely clever, creative and unique take on gender dynamics, offered up in bite size chunks. Along with making sharp points about gender equality, Why God is a Woman also has dreamy prose and vivid imagery. If you’re looking for an unusual book about feminism, then look no further. You’re welcome.
The Gender Games – Juno Dawson
This book has one of my favourite subtitles of all time: “the problem with men and women, from someone who has been both.”
Juno is trans and uses this book to discuss our complicated relationship with gender from both a social and personal perspective. She talks about her own process of realising she was trans, coming out to her family and friends and transitioning, along with examining our wider issues and experience of gender roles. This is a funny, candid and insightful story of gender, society and being your true self. Juno is hilarious and open, which is so much of what makes this a wonderful read.
Bitch Doctrine – Laurie Penny
There are only so many times I can mention this book. Laurie Penny is one of my favourite authors. She is fiercely political, feminist and takes absolutely no prisoners in her examination of gender, culture and class. Her commentary on the intersection of feminism and capitalism is second to none and I also love her essays on anxiety, free speech and James Bond. This book is chock full of short, sharp, feminist essays that provide really good brain food.
Text Me When You Get Home – Kayleen Schaefer
TMWYGH is all about the evolution and importance of female friendship. Schaefer uses solid cultural analysis and experiences of women from her past and present to explore the role of female friendship in modern women’s lives. This is a very sweet book, though extremely well-written and researched, that reaffirms just how important our female friends are and should continue to be. This is the perfect book to be reading during the week of IWD as it makes you totally mushy and endlessly appreciative of all the women who make your life what it is.
The Color Purple – Alice Walker
This is a classic, but I read it for the first time in January this year and it made me feel many, many things. You follow Celie throughout her life, as she grapples with race, gender, sexuality, abuse, identity, work, family and relationships over decades. It’s an incredibly moving, thoughtful, emotive book about one woman learning to stand up for herself and overcome her turbulent past in order to finally live the life she’d always hoped for (within the context of the kind of hardships a poor, black woman faced in (probably, there are very few time markers) the 1800/1900s). Although it deals with a lot of painful themes, this is a truly uplifting story, which won Walker a Pulitzer in 1993. A masterpiece.
As I said, there are so many other books I could have included on this list and want to read in the future. Most of these books are contemporary, though they span numerous genres and subjects. All of them are written by wonderful, insightful, intelligent women who have certainly given me so much to think about over the years about gender, feminism and what it means to be a woman, in the many forms women take. I hope this list has given you something to think about and maybe inspired you to pick up a great, feminist read for International Women’s Day.
Do you have any feminist book recommendations? Leave them in the comments below!