Last year, on International Women’s Day, I talked about how my experience of sexual assault brought feminism crashing into my life. This year, I’m celebrating the books that have kept it going and offering recommendations for anyone who wants to find out more…
I’m not a feminist, I just want to know more about women in history
I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that feminism STILL has an image problem and many people who may believe in equality are still uncomfortable with some of the ideas, the political nature or just the word ‘feminist’. That’s cool, there’s no pressure here, but feminist or not, there is a crap load of excellent ladies that history has conveniently…forgotten. Just neglected to mention. All very innocent I’m sure, aaaanywaaay, try these on for size:
Now then. Now. Then. This one is a corker. The most funded book in crowdfunding history, it’s a showcase of 100 rebel women, illustrated by 60 female artists from all over the world. Think Serena Williams, Malala Yousafzai, Frida Kahlo, Jane Goodall, Ada Lovelace…some women you’ve heard of, some you haven’t, all stories beautifully told, illustrated and bound into one gorgeous package of kickass rebel goodness. Buy for your daughters, your sons, yourselves, just get in there.
Yep you read it correctly, those pesky Pankhursts are still hanging around, championing women. God damn them and their women championing. My favourite discovery – Gertrude Ederle. First woman to swim the English channel, swam it TWO HOURS FASTER than the men before her, and did it while rocking one of the first two-piece swimsuits (that she designed herself). This is a picture book for kids – you can read it in about ten minutes, so no reason not to give it a go!
Okay, MAYBE I might be interested in learning about The F-Word…but I don’t know where to start (please don’t scare me away).
I know it’s all waves – how many waves?! Three? Four? I’ve heard rumours of a fifth on it’s way from the Women’s Equality Party, it’s easy to drown in this stuff (see what I did there? Eh? Eh?), but fear not, I have a 96-page gem for you. 96! I’m really going easy on you here.
A quick and easy summary of the history of the feminist movement, its successes and shortcomings, and the key events/laws/figures/goals of each wave. It also provides a reading list at the back if you decide you want to find out more.
See also – Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters. I may not have read this one (yet), but it’s from the popular Very Short Introduction series so I feel that gives it some credibility. A quick scan of the contents talks about the religious and secular roots so I’m going to guess this is aimed at the slightly more intellectual reader, whereas Dyer is a little more accessible.
I dunno, I’m not totally convinced gender inequality is such a big problem these days…is it?
*Trigger warning – all of these contain references to sexual violence*
To be honest, I’m tired of hearing this. It can be an easy thing to think when we’re in the west and things might seem relatively advanced, but actually sexism is a daily reality for women everywhere. Its impact is profound, and reaches all people (including men). Luckily I don’t need to say any more as I have these far more articulate authors to do it for me:
The book born out of an online project collecting real-life examples of the seemingly trivial, everyday examples of sexism women face on a daily basis, all laddering up to a much larger problem.
An incredible collection of stories from one of the most prominent video-journalists of her time who is sadly no longer with us. This details the shocking abuse of women across the world.
Another I haven’t read yet, but I have had it recommended by three different friends, and it was also a pick of Emma Watson’s feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf, so suuurely it can’t be bad. This is another collection of stories of how women are oppressed across the world.
The essay that sparked the term ‘Mansplaining’, but don’t let the title fool you – the other essays are pretty heavy on violence against women. This is the shortest of the four, so a good one to try if you’re put off by longer books.
Jeez Martha, this is all getting FAR too serious. I just want a book to make me laugh ok?
Calm down, the two things are not mutually exclusive! Please refer to:
“21st century heterosexual porn:
Once upon a time, a girl with long nails and a really bad outfit sat on a sofa, trying to look sexy, but actually looking like she’d just remembered a vexing, unpaid parking fine. She might be slightly cross-eyed due to how tight her bra is. A man comes in – a man who walks rather oddly, as if he’s carrying an invisible garden chair in front of him. This is because he’s got a uselessly large penis, which is erect, and appears to be scanning the room for the most sexually disinterested thing in it.”
“I don’t think a man who is fifteen years younger than me should tell me he is proud of me unless he is my sober coach or my time-travel dad.”
“To say I’m an overrated troll, when you have never even seen me guard a bridge, is patently unfair.”
“Women were more concerned about their skirts getting caught up in the wheels, and sat astride wearing Bloomers which turned them into Lesbians.”
I have limited time / the attention span of a fly…something short please!
The transcript of Adichie’s wildly successful TEDx talk (extracts of which can be heard in Beyoncé’s Flawless) – 52 pages
A collection of leaflets, posters and transcripts demonstrating the kind of media that was around during the fight for women’s suffrage, both in support and opposition of the vote. Fascinating, and only 57 pages!
Another from Adichie – a letter to a friend who wrote to her a few years ago asking her how to raise her baby girl as a feminist. She never fails to disappoint in both wisdom and brevity – 80 pages!
Yes this is all delightful, but I’m really more of a book-with-pictures kind of reader…
Gotcha! In addition to the ones that have already popped up, you should definitely check out these:
A coming-of-age memoir in graphic novel form about Satrapi’s childhood in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; followed by her teenage years in Vienna. Another pick from the Our Shared Shelf 2016 list.
A book of photography from the 2017 marches following Donald Trump’s inauguration – an inspiring and comforting reminder of solidarity across the world.
Another coming-of-age graphic novel, this one is more about family and coming out as gay; but the author is the same Bechdel who brought us the Bechdel-Wallace test for female representation in film.
Martha, I’ve read all of this stuff, give me something a bit different…
A mish mash of essays, poetry, short stories, illustrations etc., around the idea of a Feminist Utopia. A great example of intersectionality as well, touching on race, class, gender identity, sexuality and disability.
A haunting collection of poetry split into four sections: the hurting, the loving, the breaking and the healing. Trigger warning for sexual violence.
An impulse find in the library, it’s a bit of an odd one in that it’s really a short, educational textbook. However, it freaking BLEW. MY. MIND. To the earlier point about gender inequality not being a big deal – it is so deeply ingrained in language it’s frightening, IT’S A BIG BLOODY DEAL. Whether it’s this book or not, I would encourage everyone to read more into the social biases of language (that extend beyond sexism), if only to awaken us to the hidden meanings of the words we use everyday. A good example I found on the Online Etymology Diary:
history (n.) late 14c., […] from Latin historia “narrative of past events, account, tale, story,” from Greek historia “a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one’s inquiries, history, record, narrative,” from historein “inquire,” from histor “wise man, judge,”….
Wondering how great women might have been written out of history…his…story…hmm…
I’m not really big on non-fiction, what about fiction?
This one is more tricky, as I feel like weaving feminism into a story is a lot more open to interpretation, so what I might deem to be feminist fiction, another may not and vice versa. However, here are a few books I would say have feminist themes:
The Pulitzer-prize winning novel about a young girl abused by her father and separated from her sister and children in 1930s rural Georgia. Trigger warning for sexual violence.
A book I happened upon by accident last year that completely possessed me and that I still haven’t quite shaken. I suspect it is not a novel that everyone will enjoy, but I found it to be like a frigging work of art. However I try to articulate what it’s about will be insufficient so I won’t try at all!
I first read this in sixth form as part of an essay on Jane Eyre, and it must have been one of my earliest encounters with alternative perspectives on classic literature. Having grown up with Jane Eyre as a story (a favourite of my mum’s), I never questioned the presentation of Bertha as the one-dimensional madwoman in the attic. Rhys’ novel turns that on its head, imagining how Bertha came to be there long before Jane discovered her.
How can I make my reading more intersectional?
This is the big one: this list is by no means comprehensively intersectional.
Intersectionality is the theory that one can be oppressed in multiple ways – racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia etc. – so feminism cannot truly represent the experience of “woman” without seeking to understand all of these intersections. There are non-white authors on this list, Caitlin Moran describes her feminism as Marxist (and as such reflects the intersection with class), and Alison Bechdel is a lesbian woman; however I have pretty far to go.
In January, I read Ain’t I A Woman by bell hooks. This is an incredible piece of work, and is the book that is often held up when people talk about intersectional feminism, so it’s a good place to start. hooks explores the history of slavery and how the separate struggles for equality by ‘women’ and ‘black people’ were actually about white women and black men, with black women being discriminated against by both groups. An important read for all.
I’m on the lookout for more intersectional feminist work, so if you have any recommendations (particularly by trans or disabled female authors) then please give me a shout!
I hope you find something on this list that speaks to you. As I indicated in this section, it’s by no means comprehensive. There is a wealth of writing by and about women out there and I’m certainly not an expert; so if your favourite is missing, let me know – I’d like to read it!