We take a look at the books every woman should read by 10 amazing women
Words by Kat Lister
Writer, journalist and When Harry Met Sally screenwriter Nora Ephron once said: ‘Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter.’
As with most things, Nora was right. The power of reading is something worth celebrating. It’s also something worth fighting for: According to UNESCO, 496 million women still can’t read or write making up two-thirds of the total 781 million adults around the world.
In honour of the women who have written some of the most daring, provocative and inspiring works of fiction and non-fiction – often under a pseudonym – and the 496 million women yet to pick up a book and read for themselves, we’ve selected just ten books we think will empower you and make great gifts for book lovers who need a boost.
Ready? Let’s go…
1. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Originally published under the pseudonym Currer Bell in 1847, it is hard to believe that Charlotte was only 31 when she finished her feminist masterpiece. Transforming personal experience into spellbinding art, Jane Eyre soars from the first sentence to her last. As Brontë writes, the novel’s objective is clear: ‘Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.’ Her words have lost none of their bite: Jane Eyre is a passionate rejection of patriarchal repression. Jane Eyre sings and she’s still unforgettable.
2. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper
It may only be a 6,000 word novella, but in writing The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman set in motion a feminist theology that was way ahead of its time in 1892 when it was published in The New England Magazine. Unsurprisingly, it is still considered a key feminist work in 2015. Depicting the plight of an oppressed wife, confined to the attic as her physical and mental health declines, The Yellow Wallpaper is a haunting portrayal of women’s rights and the failure of professional medicine to address them. At the time of writing, women’s mental health was inaccurately and shamefully attributed to a lack of domestic servitude. Much to Gilman’s dismay, this included the act of writing itself…
3. Martha Gellhorn, Travels With Myself And Another
Pick any Martha Gellhorn book and you’ll never be disappointed. Considered one of the greatest war correspondents of her time, although often shamefully only referred to as ‘Ernest Hemingway’s ex-wife’, Travels With Myself And Another is a great starting point if you are new to her work. Published in 1978, these witty travel essays depict Martha in her natural habitat: on the road. In a few hundred pages we take in the sights of China, Russia and Africa. A few words of warning: it’ll make you want to book that one-way flight…
4. Nora Ephron, Heartburn
It was a tough pick (and we’d also highly recommend investing in a full collection of her work), but in terms of raw and searingly honest storytelling, we had to go with Heartburn. Walking that subversive line between fiction and autobiography, Heartburn is based on Nora’s second marriage and its subsequent break-up after his affair. Did we mention she was pregnant at the time? What a catch. ‘I think I was so entranced with being a couple that I didn’t even notice that the person I thought I was a couple with thought he was a couple with someone else,’ Nora writes. Packed full of one-liners, Heartburn does what it says on the cover: It burns but ultimately, ohh, it makes your heart soar.
5. Lena Dunham, Not That Kind Of Girl
New kid on the block Lena Dunham is not only the star of smash-hit series Girls, she’s now a bestselling author AND SHE’S ONLY 28. Twenty EIGHT. In this, her first book, Lena’s essays both provoke and provide laugh-out-loud moments we can all relate to (although maybe not running off to Chateau Marmont in LA with our boyfriend, more’s the pity). Owing much to her hero, Nora Ephron, Lena Dunham reveals herself unflinchingly in her writing. It’s why we love her. In fact, when a particular passage about a childhood encounter with her sister sparked sexual abuse claims last year, it only showed how difficult it can still be for a woman to write honestly and be successful at the same time.
6. Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti referred to it at the time as ‘a fiend of a book – an incredible monster’. He wasn’t the only one who thought so – the overriding response to Emily Brontë’s first-and-only novel was one of outrage. Even now, Emily’s portrayal of masochistic ‘first love’ on the wild and untamed moors still shocks and provokes. As ugly as it is beautiful, it is hard to believe this violent tale of sexual obsession was written in 1847. ‘I wish I were out of doors. I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free.’ Emily’s Cathy speaks and we are immediately by her side among the heather ‘on those hills’. When Emily writes we still feel her frustrations and they become ours too.
7. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
Sometimes it’s difficult to separate an author’s personal truth with the words they write – Virginia Woolf is one such writer, plagued by mental illness. Mrs Dalloway allows us to look through the keyhole into Virginia’s own inner-world like Alice in – some kind of desperate – Wonderland. Mrs Dalloway depicts just one day in the life of socialite Clarissa Dalloway preparing for a party. It’s disjointed stream-of-consciousness battles much more than this, however: sexuality, feminism, mental illness… Mrs Dalloway reads as fearlessly as it did in 1925.
8. Frida Kahlo, The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait
‘I don’t paint dreams or nightmares,’ Frida Kahlo once said, ‘I paint my own reality.’ Decades later, her reality still beguiles us. Now, as well as her paintings, we are able to read her intimate diary giving us a unique insight into a feminist icon. Published in its entirety, these illustrated entries show us the real Frida: passionate? Yes, yet also sharp, witty, politically-charged and always poetic.
9. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
The Golden Notebook isn’t just a novel, it’s a landmark in women’s liberation set in 1950s London and it’s not just one woman’s story either… it belongs to us all. As we follow Anna’s writer’s block, we delve into epic questions of identity and women’s continuing struggle with sex, men, work and politics. Doris Lessing once commented, ‘Things are not quite so simple always as black and white.’ She did something about it: she made them golden.
10. Maya Angelou, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
What’s left to say about Maya Angelou’s autobiographical masterpiece that hasn’t already been said? This 1969 classic addresses the realities of overcoming racial adversity and sexual abuse, and in doing so provides all women – regardless of personal experience – with the wisdom and strength to tackle inequality and discrimination with dignity and determination. Maya said herself, ‘You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.’ How right she was, and still is.