Evelyn Heis writes up a compelling and extensive feminist bookshelf in celebration of diverse and wonderful feminist authors for Women’s History Month.
The month of March commemorates many things: the arrival of Spring, International Women’s Day (8th) and Women’s History Month. This month showcases women’s achievements and contributions to historical events that have been overlooked in the past, as an opportunity to acknowledge, correct, and learn more about our history. It’s a time to educate and empower, while also encouraging the necessary discourse surrounding gender inequality.
Given that it is a time to learn, what better time than now to update your bookshelf and delve into more inclusive, empowering narratives to further your feminism?
Reading beyond white feminist authors and delving into books written by non-eurocentric, intersectional, POC writers, is the best way to better inform your feminism, given that the perspective that they provide is different and enlightening. Consuming books by POC authors, in particular, aids to combat racial disparity in publishing through supporting marginalised voices in the literature industry.
Straying away from surface-level and, at times, performative, narratives – that’s right, I’m talking about Women Don’t Owe You Pretty – these book recommendations strive to be all-encompassing, informative, and accessible reads that acknowledge the timeline of women’s history, while shedding light on intersectional perspectives.
A Room Of One’s Own (1929) – Virginia Woolf
When Virginia Woolf wrote A Room Of One’s Own, it had only been eleven years since women in the UK were given the right to vote. This privilege only benefited 40% of women: those who were over the age of thirty and in the upper to middle-class. In terms of intersectionality, those who were excluded from this demographic, then, faced two disadvantages, being both working class and women, not to mention that women of colour also faced racial discrimination. It wasn’t until 1928, a year before Woolf published A Room of One’s Own, that all women (over the age of 21) were given the right to vote, allowing 15 million women to finally partake in the democratic process in the UK.
Virginia Woolf wrote A Room Of One’s Own after giving two lectures in women’s colleges at the University of Cambridge. In her essay, Woolf explores and addresses the social injustices that hinder women’s freedom of expression, arguing that “A woman must have money and a room of one’s own if she is to write fiction”.
Told through the partly-fictionalised narrative of Mary Beton, an imaginary narrator that represents every woman, A Room Of One’s Own tackles the different issues for women within the literary world, in turn, reconstructing their existence and achievements. Taking the reader through a journey of women’s history, the narrator asserts that society is structured against women, but that women must write regardless, and create a legacy for their daughters.
Witty, imaginative, and empowering, Woolf’s short essay is the perfect text to start off your feminist literary journey.
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
The Feminine Mystique (1963) – Betty Friedan
What was intended to just be published as a magazine article is credited to have become a catalyst for the Second Wave Feminist movement in the 1960s. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is very much a product of its time, highlighting women’s dissatisfaction with their confinement within rigid societal expectations, in which it was believed that “fulfillment as a woman had only one definition for American women after 1949—the housewife-mother”.
Outlining the different factors that contribute to the unhappiness and oppression of women in the 1950-60s, such as men’s censorship of women’s magazines, the decrease in women’s attendance in higher education, imposed marriages and motherhood, Friedan coins the term “the feminine mystique” to refer to the expectation of women as housewives and mothers.
This landmark book examines the lives of suburban housewives, challenges psychological notions, and discusses the social structures that need to change for women’s lives to improve. Though somewhat dated, The Feminine Mystique is an extremely analytical, thoroughly researched, and rich in content non-fiction text that sheds insight into the history of the women’s rights movement.
“When she stopped conforming to the conventional picture of femininity, she finally began to enjoy being a woman.”
We Should All Be Feminists (2014) – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
One of the shortest books in this list, We Should All Be Feminists is a light-hearted, quick read that explores the definition of feminism, drawing on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s personal experiences as a woman growing up in Nigeria.
Adapted from Adichie’s TED talk of the same name, this fifty-page book had me nodding in agreement and highlighting almost every quote. She was putting things I’d felt, but never knew how to express, into words and it was extremely validating to see that certain sentiments and experiences are universally shared.
It’s informative, concise, and a definite must-read!
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man […] We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.”
Another one of my favourite TED talks by Chimamanda Adichie is “The Danger of A Single Story”, which I cannot recommend enough, for it has literally changed the way I view literature altogether.
It’s Not About The Burqa (2019) – Ed. by Mariam Khan
It’s Not About the Burqa brings together Muslim women’s voices through a collection of different essays that battle the oppressive and racist narratives surrounding Muslim women in the media: “If Muslim women are to progress in society and be treated with respect, its important that we challenge the narrative built around us. We should be the authors of our narrative and identity; we should be the ones speaking ‘about’ us.”
Each of the essays in this collection are poignant, thought-provoking, and encourage discourse surrounding intersectional feminism. As the book points out, Muslim women are vulnerable to the “trifecta of oppressions: misogyny (faced by all women), racism (faced by women of colour) and Islamophobia (faced by Muslims).” While it is near impossible to represent every Muslim woman, Mariam Khan compiles essays that present many of the issues faced by Muslim women of all backgrounds and traditions.
My personal favourite essays included “On Representation of Muslims” (which addresses the ever-present struggle for representation of minority groups), “Feminism Needs to Die” (which looks at intersectionality) and “There’s No Such Thing As a Depressed Muslim” (which discusses mental health in Muslim communities).
“When, as happened recently in France, an attempt is made to coerce women out of the burqa rather than creating a situation in which a woman can choose what she wishes to do, it’s not about liberating her, but about unclothing her. It becomes an act of humiliation and cultural imperialism. It’s not about the burqa. It’s about the coercion.”
TW: islamophobia, colorism, racism, homophobia, body shaming, abuse, r*pe is discussed, sexual harassment, mention of suicide.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969) – Maya Angelou
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the first of seven of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies. Despite having read it two years ago, it’s a book that has stayed with me. Written so beautifully that, at times, I forgot I was reading a piece of non-fiction, Angelou’s autobiography is a heart-wrenching and life-changing narrative.
Taking place from when Angelou, ‘Marguerite’, is three to seventeen, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a coming-of-age story that explores the hardships she faces in childhood, amidst her search to regain and establish her own identity.
Upon moving to her grandmother’s house in the South, she is met with racism from the white members of the community, adding to the sense of estrangement her and her brother feel after being abandoned by their parents. A few years later, she is sexually abused and loses her voice, solely finding comfort in literature. Spending years mute and recluse, Maya is able to regain her voice and soul with the help of the books she knows and loves.
Angelou’s life is one that is filled with great achievements, from becoming the first Black female cable car conductor to being an acclaimed writer whose works traverse the world of literature and activism. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings feels like a deeply personal conversation with Maya Angelou and to know her, is to love her.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
TW: racism, racial slurs, sexual assault, r*pe.
Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism (1981) – bell hooks
Titled after Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, given at the Ohio Women’s Rights convention in 1851, bell hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman exemplifies intersectionality at its best. It’s a book which provides a comprehensive historical analysis of American society and its social movements, arguing that the foundations of these systems were built on the backs of oppressed Black women and that the convergence of racism and sexism on Black women during slavery contributed greatly to the treatment of Black women today.
Ain’t I a Woman is divided into five sections, where each of these chapters highlight the lack of intersectionality in contemporary society, perpetuated by white feminism’s exclusion of women of colour in their feminism. Most strikingly, hooks argues that slavery allowed white society to stereotype white women as pure, virginal goddesses, in contrast to reducing Black women to seductive, ‘whore’, stereotypes, which are used to justify society’s devaluation of Black femininity and rape of Black women during slavery.
Within Ain’t I a Woman, hooks addresses the intersectional categories that make up “the feminist movement”, highlighting that most members are largely white, middle to upper-class and therefore, do not articulate the needs of poor and non-white women. But these oppressive systems can be dismantled through a truly transformative feminist movement.
hooks’ ideology is refreshing, informative and extremely well-argued, despite having passed away last year, her words still ring true.
“It is obvious that many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement; but rather than resigning myself to this appropriation I choose to re-appropriate the term “feminism,” to focus on the fact that to be “feminist” in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.”
If you’re looking for something to follow this, hooks’ ideas reach their apotheosis in her later work, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, which not only continues her debates, but also directly challenges Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique for not including the lives or experiences of non-white women in her work.
The Color Purple (1982) —Alice Walker
A year after publishing The Color Purple, Alice Walker became the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Despite evident critical acclaim, the novel was deemed ‘too controversial’ and it was banned in schools all over the US from 1984 until 2013.
Taking the epistolary form*, The Color Purple, follows the life of Celie, a poor, uneducated African-American teenager who writes letters to God because her father physically and sexually abuses her.
Celie’s story, at first, is one of great tragedy, as she’s unable to make a life for herself in a male-dominated society, relying instead on the twisted men around her to keep her ‘safe’. Through the character of Celie and her accounts of the women around her, Walker unifies the women who have had these experiences, addressing the unspoken sexual and emotional traumas Black women have endured.
With the help of her husband’s mistress, Shug Avery, Celie is able to eventually escape and pursue a singing career, leaving behind her terrible past to commence a new, independent life. Betrayed and abused by the majority of men she has encountered, Celie finds solace, love, and tenderness with Shug. Though their relationship is mostly sexual, it is with Shug that Celie consents to have sex for the first time.
The Color Purple is the only Pulitzer-winning novel to feature a lesbian protagonist and also be written by a woman. It is a heart-wrenching story that addresses many important issues, particularly, sexual violence, homosexuality, and abuse, which had not been spoken about in literature so openly.
*A novel written through a series of letters, diary entries, or newspaper clippings.
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
TW: racism, racial slurs, domestic violence, sexual assault, statutory r*pe, verbal and emotional abuse.
Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 (2016) —Cho Nam-joo
When Cho Nam-joo published her debut novel, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, she created a public commotion that was big enough to spark the #MeToo, “Escape the Corset” and 4B movements in South Korea.
Divided into six chapters, each one narrating a different stage in Kim Jiyoung’s life, the novel recounts the life of Kim Jiyoung, a stay-at-home mother and housewife who suffers from depression. The book focuses on the everyday sexism, discrimination, and social judgement infringed on contemporary Korean women, such as Kim Jiyoung, and calls for the voices of dead and alive women to speak out against such misogynistic treatment.
While shedding light on the misogyny in South Korea, Kim Jiyoung becomes a channel for women’s collective rage and unifies women’s experiences. What makes this book so revolutionary, aside from it presenting a narrative that is unusually heard of in Western culture, is the fact that Kim jiyoung’s character is not entirely fictional. While writing her novel, Cho collected statistical data and sources to create a character emblematic of the experiences and emotions common to Korean women.
Though the novel is short, it opens up an imperative conversation on gender inequality in Korea and expresses solidarity for women.
“While offenders were in fear of losing a small part of their privilege, the victims were running the risk of losing everything.”
CW: sexism, sexual harassment.
Circe (2018) —Madeline Miller
Homer’s Greek epic poem, The Odyssey, is a tale of valiant warfare, mythical creatures, and Odysseus’ ten-year struggle to return home after the Trojan war. It’s a tale as old as time, but it’s one where women are scarce. Of the 19 main characters mentioned in The Odyssey, only seven are female and one of them is a sea monster…
Retransforming this male-dominated narrative, then, Madeline Miller’s Circe is a feminist, mythological retelling of the Greek legend of Circe, the sorceress, goddess, and nymph. The book chronicles the life of a lesser God and character in Greek mythology, ultimately giving her a voice, dimension, and establishing her as a force to be reckoned with.
Despite being a mythological half-goddess-witch, Circe is a pretty relatable character. The novel details her origin story, in which she is estranged from her family due to her witchcraft and forced to live in isolation on a remote island as punishment. Living in exile, she takes the time to study and hone her witchcraft, experimenting with different draughts and tending gardens.
Over the centuries she spends on the island, she encounters other renowned mythological figures, such as Hermes, Jason, Medea, and Odysseus, and faces many hardships, heartbreak, and betrayal. Despite all Circe goes through, she stands strong, as an empowering and complex heroine. In fact, what is more empowering than watching her run an island by herself and transform male intruders into pigs?
Beautifully written and rich in detail, Miller creates a deeply moving and entertaining novel, which is also, at times, devastating, that makes you feel as if you’re living through the centuries with Circe herself. This is for Greek mythology fans, or those in dire search of novel with an independent, powerful female lead.
“It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.”
CW: violence, r*pe.
Women, Race and Class (1981) – Angela Y. Davis
In a similar vein to hooks’ work, Angela Davis’ Women, Race and Class is a book that charts the history of racial and gender oppression in America. Through a Marxist feminist analysis of gender, race and class, Davis outlines how misogyny, racism, and classism have shaped society to disadvantage and oppress Black women.
Compiled of 13 essays about the American women’s liberation movement and slavery in the US, Davis criticises the exclusion of Black women, other women of colour, and lower social classes in feminist movements that were run by and for white, upper-class women. Even despite the proof of their discrimination, Davis expresses sincere belief in the power of united social movements to enact change within oppressive societal structures.
In terms of intersectionality, Davis explains the concept (despite the term not having been coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw yet) exceptionally well. She explores the economic role of Black women slaves, arguing that under slavery, Black women had the same struggles as Black men in terms of manual labour; however, women were also expected to perform the household labour, showing that they were not treated equally even in oppression.
Women, Race and Class is a text with intrinsic educational value. Though concise, Davis documents these dense topics in an accessible, clear way, to avoid you getting lost in her work. It’s informative, historical, and outlines many issues that are still affecting us today. Intended as a ‘wake up’ call for performative, white feminists to become more intersectional, this book is a definite must-read to learn about these perspectives and US history.
“Black women were equal to their men in the oppression they suffered; they were their men’s social equals within the slave community; and they resisted slavery with a passion equal to their men’s. This was one of the greatest ironies of the slave system, for in subjecting women to the most ruthless exploitation conceivable, exploitation which knew no sex distinctions, the groundwork was created not only for Black women to assert their equality through social relations, but also to express it through their acts of resistance.”
CW: r*pe, slavery, racism, sexism.
Sister Outsider (1984) – Audre Lorde
Born in New York to immigrant parents, Audre Lorde was a Black lesbian socialist feminist whose aim within her work was to heighten the visibility of marginalised groups and multifaceted intersectional identities, much like her own. Sister Outsider does exactly that, drawing from her personal experiences of oppression, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism, to examine a broad range of topics, address the violence towards women and criticise the oppressive patriarchal structures that perpetuate these injustices.
Structured as a collection of 15 essays and speeches written between 1976 and 1984, Lorde highlights the necessity of intersectional feminism, while she reclaims female sexuality as a weapon against the patriarchy and for self-love. Her writing transcends the destructive emotions brought on by racism and prejudice, instead celebrating the liberating passion and joyful sensations of black lesbian womanhood.
With each essay just as good as the last, my favourite being “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, the essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” is one that I believe should be read by everyone. Arguing that we should not be silent in times of injustice, as it’s the only way we can overcome fear and create change, Lorde highlights the fact that it should not be up to black people to fix racism and overcome their oppression, and that, in fact, it is the oppressor’s role to ignite this change: “As Malcolm stressed, we are not responsible for our oppression, but we must be responsible for our own liberation…”
Lorde’s Sister Outsider is revolutionaryTo say it’s insightful, alone, would be an understatement. Sister Outsider is a powerful and thought-provoking collection, written in beautifully witty, incisive, and raw prose that captures the very essence of Audre Lorde on paper.
“Of all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts […] As we reclaim our literature, poetry has been the major voice of poor, working class, and Colored women. A room of one’s own may be a necessity for writing prose, but so are reams of paper, a typewriter, and plenty of time.”
Beloved (2004) —Toni Morrison
Dedicated to the “Sixty million and more” victims of the Atlantic slave trade, Beloved is a heart-wrenching novel that focuses on the psychological effects of slavery and complex familiar relationships, particularly, between mother and child.
Set after the American Civil War (1861-5), Beloved tells the story of a family of former slaves whose home is haunted by a vengeful spirit named Beloved. Through their paranormal arrival, Beloved becomes a catalyst for the family’s repressed trauma coming to light.
Said to have been inspired by a real-life event in which a couple who escaped their slave owners attempted to kill their own children to spare them from being returned to slavery, Toni Morrison’s Beloved captures the lives of many victims and families who were subject to or lost someone to slavery.
It was the first book I’ve ever read that spoke about the passing down of generational trauma and addressed the psychological after-effects of slavery. The repression and disassociation from the past, particularly something as traumatic as slavery, is not something that is usually spoken about in literature, and Toni Morrison does not hold back.
Beloved is a hard-hitting novel that unearths all sorts of pain for its characters, shedding light on the complexities of motherhood, broken families, child loss, fragmented identities, and the traumas of slavery. This pain is very much felt by everyone, reader included. But it is through witnessing this pain first hand and taking in this narrative, that one is able to learn, process, and empathise.
Alternating between the past and the present day, Beloved is a captivating and well-crafted narrative, deserving of its 1988 Pulitzer Prize, with a significant story to tell.
“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
TW: slavery, ableism, assault, child bereavement, racism, sexual assault (off-page).
Girl, Woman, Other (2019) – Bernadine Evaristo
Written in a mix of unpunctuated prose and broken poetry, Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is a novel which brings to life 11 fictional women and a non-binary character, amidst a vibrant depiction of contemporary Britain.
Evaristo seamlessly creates a broad and diverse spectrum of black women through each one of her characters, who all differ in age, background, roots, class, occupations, family, and sexuality. This is a narrative as inclusive and imaginative as it can get.
What surprised me the most, aside from the writing style, was how much I related to certain characters, despite not sharing any similarities on paper. Yet, through Evaristo’s craft, I identified with an array of different women. Girl, Woman Other reminded me that there is a universal sense of comfort in that we all share the same experiences. I think that putting you in somebody else’s shoes and forcing you to reflect is one of the novel’s best attributes.
Girl, Woman, Other is a novel that details the history of the Black British experience, addressing the issues that accompany it, such as racism and sexism, though presenting it within a celebratory and representative narrative. Girl, Woman, Other, is the perfect recommendation for your intersectional feminist needs.
“this is not about feeling something or about speaking words
this is about being
TW: racism, child abuse, domestic abuse, homophobia, r*pe, miscarriage, transphobia, sexual assault, violence.
Ranging from non-fiction essays to fictional novels with multiple narrators, different forms, and varied stories, there ought to be at least one text in this list that should appeal to you, and if not, why not try out something new to celebrate women’s voices in literature during Women’s History Month.