As Women’s Equality Day looms, these are the feminist volumes everyone must read.

Women’s Equality Day on Thursday 26th August may commemorate American (rather than British) women being granted the constitutional right to vote in 1920, but we’ll take any reason to cast a light on the trailblazing women who have fought for female rights. Here we round up the revolutionary feminist works of literature that have historically challenged gender inequality and those that continue to raise the bar and call for an end to systemic and endemic sexism.

Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte

If, for any reason, Jane Eyre has gathered cobwebs amidst a pile of ought-to-read-one-distant-day volumes, we urge you to dust her down with immediate effect. Even now, 174 years after it was first published (by necessity, alas, under the androgynous pseudonym, Currer Bell), it is arresting, strange and compelling. From the outset, the orphaned Jane is defiant in the face of unearned authority and revolted by the hypocrisy meted out to her and other vulnerable children. After standing up to her entitled, snobbish aunt and cousins, she is uncowed by the cruelty of the evangelical, hellfire-espousing, hypocritical school master before going on to fall for a deeply flawed gothic anti-hero; their star-crossed path does not, as one might expect, run smooth. Simply, Jane chooses her own destiny according to her principles at a time when such agency was considered unseemly in a woman. It is, of course, of its time, but we say that Jane is a prototype feminist hero for the ages. Buy it here.

The Bloody Chamber

Angela Carter

The year was 1979. The country had just elected its first female prime minister. And for Angela Carter, then 39 and publishing her seventh book, the time was right to create new gothic stories from old fairy tales, this time from the perspective of the women who had hitherto been marginalised or objectified within their pages. Writing in The Guardian, Helen Simpson describes The Bloody Chamber as ‘like a multifaceted glittering diamond reflecting and refracting a variety of portraits of desire and sexuality – heterosexual female sexuality – which, unusually for the time, 1979, are told from a heterosexual female viewpoint.’ Vivid, imaginative, rich, intense and dark, Angela Carter’s gothic masterpiece – which includes an erotic take on Bluebeard’s Castle, a vampiric Sleeping Beauty and a murderous Little Red Riding Hood – is one to read and re-read. Buy it here.

Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger

Edited by Lily Dancyger

The anger of women has historically been dismissed, frequently viewed as contemptuously as ‘hysteria’. Here Lily Dancyger brings together a diverse group of women writers to reclaim female fury, from the personal to the systemic. As they say, ‘All rage isn't created equal. Who gets to be angry? (If there's now space for cis white women's anger, what about black women? Trans women?) How do women express their anger? And what will they do with it-individually and collectively?’ A fascinating read. Buy it here.

A Vindication of The Rights Of Woman

Mary Wollstonecraft

Known as the mother of feminist theory, Mary Wollstonecraft (who was the literal mother of Mary Shelley) published this manifesto in 1792. Almost a hundred years before the first utterance of the word ‘feminist’ entered our lexicon, she posited and argued for the idea that intellectual ability was unrelated to gender. A seminal work that trailblazed the notion of women as more than objects to please men, she expressed the then-revolutionary idea of equality in education, politics and work. What a woman. Buy it here.

Bad Feminist

Roxane Gay

We love this book. In a world where Twitter storms regularly take people down for perceived and often marginal ‘transgressions’, Roxane Gay’s collected essays argue for proper inclusivity, allowing feminists to also be fallible human beings. As she writes. ‘Pink is my favourite colour. I used to say my favourite colour was black to be cool, but it is pink – all shades of pink. If I have an accessory, it is probably pink. I read Vogue, and I'm not doing it ironically, though it might seem that way. I once live-tweeted the September issue.’ A funny and insightful reminder feminism and feminists come in many different forms. Buy it here.

The Female Eunuch

Germaine Greer

First published in 1970, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch remains as divisive now as it was just over half a century ago, not least because she has become a symbol of a more socially representative of the movement from another generation. However, for those interested in the history of feminism, it is a must-read. And its assertion that the construct of the traditional family as a contrivance to oppress women will, alas, still resonate in some quarters. Buy it here.

A Thousand Ships

Natalie Haynes

We can’t get enough of classic stories re-imagined from the female perspective. This one takes the most traditionally male epic narrative of them all – that of the Trojan War, a tale of arms, male pride and ‘ownership’ of women – and turns it on its head. The tagline goes, ‘This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of them all . . .’ Indeed, it dives beautifully into the world not just of Helen of Troy, but of the Trojan women on the losing side whose fates hang in the balance; of the feuding goddesses who sparked the conflict; and of Penelope, awaiting the return of Odysseus for some twenty years while beset with unwanted, boorish and vulture-like suitors. And, if you devour it and want more stories from the perspective of classical women, why not try Madeleine Miller’s exquisite Circe, too? Buy it here.

A Room Of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf

A Room Of One’s Own (1929) is an extended essay, based on two lectures Virginia Woolf gave the previous year at Girton and Newnham Colleges, Cambridge. Its central idea is the constriction of women’s freedom of creative expression on account of the social expectation to bear children and facilitate the lives of men. It challenged the idea of as women inherently lesser writers, instead shining a light on the systemic – which is to say economic, educational cultural and societal – reasons that set women up to fail. Buy it here.

We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent manifesto-style book is just fifty pages. Within them, however, she manages to convey concisely and powerfully why we still need feminism. Based on her TED Talk, which has been viewed creeping up to five million times, she discusses the sexism she encountered growing up in Nigeria, and rallies readers to envision a more equal world for our children. A great, easily digestible and eloquent introduction to feminism. Buy it here.

She is Fierce: Brave, Bold And Beautiful Poems by Women

Ana Sampson

If you want to dip into the beautiful minds of a collection of brilliant women, She Is Fierce is exactly the tome you need. Within its gorgeous orange cover, you will find 150 poems to lift the spirit and to reaffirm the need for women’s voices to be heard, ‘from suffragettes to school girls, from spoken word superstars to civil rights activists, from aristocratic ladies to kitchen maids.’ Expect work from a diverse array of women, from Maya Angelou to Dorothy Parker; Imtiaz Dharker to Emily Bronte. Buy it here.

By Nancy Alsop
August 2021

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Nancy Alsop


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