By Women, About Women: Books for Women's History Month
In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to put together a list of some fantastic books by women, about women. I was inspired by a dear friend of mine, pregnant with her second child, who posted on Instagram for International Women’s Day:
“To be honest, I didn’t really want a girl before I found out I was having one. I didn’t want to have a daughter who could face the same struggles I did; severe self-esteem issues, sexual harassment, abusive relationships, a lack of respect in the workplace... basically all the things all the women I know have dealt with. I was fearful that however I felt about myself would rub off on her and the cycle would continue. But, I’m more determined than ever to raise a strong, confident woman who truly believes she’s capable of anything. A woman who’s more concerned with the brains in her head and love in her heart than the image in the mirror. And in the process, I know it’ll make me the best version of myself. The future is most definitely female and I can’t wait to watch my daughter be a part of it.”
A bit of a gut punch, right? It got me thinking about women empowering women, the female experience and what the next generation of feminists will look like. So here are 10 standout books I’ve read, by women from across the world, who are all different sizes, shapes, colors, and identities. I think in one way or another, all of these books have messages for strong, confident women who are capable of anything.
We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A rallying cry on feminism in the 21st century, and an appropriate start to this list. Chimamanda’s short, powerful essay simply and eloquently outlines what feminism is and what it is important and relevant. She does not shy away from the controversial, negative baggage attached to the word “feminist,” but shows how instead of being afraid of the word, we need to understand and embrace it. The book intersperses examples in her own life within her arguments, and manages to address a huge issue in an approachable, everyday way. Most of all, it is a call to action, a way to restructure how we raise boys and girls in order to lay a foundation for a more equal future. Take an hour, read this book.
“My own definition of a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there is a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better.”
Hunger, Roxane Gay
A difficult and complicated memoir by Roxane Gay, that deals with her gang rape, her overeating, her relationship with her own body and the struggle between private and public identities. I was nervous to read this book, as I’d been dealing with the aftermath of my own eating disorder and trying to understand how to appreciate my own body. I didn’t know how I would be triggered. It’s a brave book. There is so much that is hard to read, but Roxane Gay is an expert at being brutally honest and unflinchingly raw. It’s not just a book about a hunger for food. It’s about a hunger to be seen, a hunger to be safe, a hunger to have a body that is capable of love and can be love, a hunger to not be defined by the worst thing that happens to you.
Becoming, Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama’s book is honest, open, and intelligent. She shaped the book with stories from her childhood, about her parents and siblings, experiences being a black women at Ivy League colleges, motherhood and marriage, and being thrust into a world she didn’t necessarily want to be in. She talks about IVF, her relationship with her mother, her relationship with her daughters, balancing the success of your career with the success of your spouses, losing her father, feeling “othered.” I don’t read many autobiographies, but I want to recommend this book to every single woman in my life, regardless of your political leanings. It’s not about politics. It’s about how a woman owns her story and finds her own authentic voice.
In the Time of Butterflies, Julia Alvarez
A fictionalized glimpse into a true part of Dominican Republic history and the courageous Maribel sisters who rebel against a dictators regime. So often, in fiction and in life, women’s roles are overlooked in times of rebellion, fighting, tyranny, war. I loved how Alvarez gives each women a distinct point of view. A traditional mother who decides to fight for the safety of her children, a woman who falls in love with a fellow freedom fighter, another always an activist at heart - but ultimately all decide to fight the oppression and die for the cause (not a spoiler, by the way). They are political rebels, but also, they are women, mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives.
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
When an Asian baby given up by her mother is adopted by a white family, it causes a spiral of events that lead to a scene of a house on fire and a family driven away. Ng has a way of writing that gets the reader so deeply invested in the lives of the characters, and every single character in this book is flawed. You may not like them, but you will understand them. And that, I think, is the quiet strength of this novel. If you are struggling in the beginning of this book, I urge you to keep reading. By the end, I think you will be surprised at how much it has snuck up on you. The connections burrow in almost without the reader knowing.
Her writing is simple, but evocative. This book touches on so many different themes: race and identity, adolescence and coming of age, ethical dilemmas, class tensions - but I thought the most powerful was the theme of motherhood. Relationships between mother and daughter, what it means to be a mother, when you become a mother, and if being a mother can be taken away.
M Train, Patti Smith
Patti’s Smith’s mind is fascinating. This book is lyrically beautiful, but It’s not really linear, and there isn’t much of a plot to speak of. She says that it’s a book about nothing. But I read it as the musings and meanderings of an artist through memories, cafes, countries, dreams, apartments, loneliness. She takes you on a journey through her mind, but it’s not necessarily stream of consciousness. It’s a book on life, art, love, and I think each reader will take what they will from it. If anything, by the end, you’ll have a new appreciation for the simple beauty of strong black coffee.
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
A beautifully dark and twisted collection of short stories. This book confronts issues affecting women in a way I’ve never experienced in a book before - especially the different types of violence imposed on the female body. Physical violence, emotional violence, the violence we as women inflict on ourselves. There’s a story about women, instead of dying, simply fading away until they vanish, a story about a woman who is haunted by part of her surgically removed stomach, a retold campfire classic about a woman with a mysterious green ribbon around her neck. I like some of the stories more than others, but all told, the writing continued to haunt my mind well after I finished the book.
Educated, Tara Westover
Ok, I haven’t technically finished this one yet. But I’m ¾ of the way through, and probably won’t finish by the time I post this story but I wanted to include it anyway! Tara is raised by her survivalist Mormon parents in the mountains of Idaho and didn’t set foot in a classroom until she was 17. She doesn’t have a birth certificate, her parent's don’t believe in modern medicine, and they are consistently stockpiling supplies for the end times. The physical and emotional abuse, the gaslighting, the resolve to educate herself, the great writing that made you feel like you were right there with her on the mountain - what a story. I was particularly struck by her ability to not only overcome her physical circumstances, but from her mental self-coercions as well. I promise to update this post with a real review once I finish!
“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde
Sister Outsider is a collection of essays and speeches from a woman who writes from all the particulars of her identity and as such, offers great perspective: Black woman, lesbian, poet, activist, cancer survivor, mother, and feminist writer. They are all written between 1976 and 1984, and reading her essays from forty years ago remind us that while we have made great strides, there so much more that hasn’t really changed at all. It’s another call to action, less direct, but another rallying cry nonetheless. Essentially reading not just someone looking to fight the patriarchy, but maybe try to heal the world in the process.
Bossypants, Tina Fey
I read heavy books. That’s what I gravitate toward and what I like -books that have the power to rip you apart and rock you to your core, books that are emotionally challenging and make you think deeply about how the world works. But, I’m not a heavy person in real life (I swear!). And I was realizing this list was getting a little intense. So to lighten things up, I bring you Tina’s Fey’s fabulous memoir, Bossypants. It’s legitimately laugh-out-loud hilarious, legitimately insightful, and also, fittingly, legitimately feminist. Not all books have to be heart-breakers to make a point (a reminder for myself!). I read it, but the audiobook is narrated by Fey and I heard from others that it “makes everything better!.” Which is true, Tina does make everything better.
Bonus: Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
**This novel doesn’t necessarily have a single female protagonist, but is a fantastic piece of work by a beautiful author nonetheless. I had to include it. **
This is one of those books that I think every single person should read. And if not everyone, then at least everyone in America (along with Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates). My friends all know, whenever someone asks me for a book recommendation, without a doubt this is the first title I will give. It begins with two half sisters - Effia and Esi - who never know each other and whose lives take dramatically different paths. One is sold into the Atlantic slave trade, and the other is married to a British general overseeing the trade in Ghana.
The story of the sisters and their offspring is told through 14 vignettes, generation after generation, and is an gritty and horrific look at history, colonialism, slavery and racism across 250 years. It’s the best fiction book I’ve ever read on the long-standing effects and legacy of the slave trade, and how the future is built on the injustices of the past.
When I was thinking of of titles to include, I realized I was struggling a bit with the parameters of “by women, about women.” I’ve read a lot of books by women, but they aren’t usually about women. And of course, plenty of books by male authors about women. Initially, I was disheartened by my unexpectedly short list of favorites, but that has renewed my challenge to read more female writers, especially women of color.
I’ve always believed that books are one of our strongest and most important tools to generate knowledge and change. Hopefully, reading one (or all!) of these authors will strengthen the collective voices of women, and serve to educate us all. Happy, happy reading!
And for more recommendations, check out my recent What I’ve Read: Winter 2019 post.