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The most empowering feminist books: 35 women pick their favourite reads

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There’s no underestimating the power of a good book.

An absorbing read can provide belly laughs in moments of despair, or a stiff upper lip in times of self-doubt. There’s a comfort in knowing you are never alone when reading a book, and a thrill to be found in losing yourself in the lives of other characters – whether fictional or otherwise.

And to celebrate our enduring love of reading, as well as the 20th anniversary of World Book Day, Stylist.co.uk has asked 35 females to name their definitive choice of the most empowering books about being a woman (because when it comes to this topic, we can never have enough recommendations...)

Featuring top picks from librarians, booksellers, journalists and CEOs, as well as bestselling authors including Maggie O’Farrell, JoJo Moyes and Sophie Kinsella, think of this list as your go-to collection of celebratory reads about being a woman.

Including everything from classic fiction to autobiographies, there is something below for everyone – simply scroll down to get started.


emma

Cathy Newman, Presenter for Channel 4 News, recommends: Emma by Jane Austen

“There would be loads of contemporary books I'd pick but if I had to go for one classic it would be Jane Austen's Emma, because it's about staying true to yourself as a strong, opinionated woman, but being flexible enough to learn from your mistakes.

And it's in praise of falling in love with your best friend – someone who knows you warts and all but loves you just the same.”

Caroline Brazier, Chief Librarian of the British Library, recommends Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood

“This was the first book by Margaret Atwood I ever read and made me a lifetime fan. I was in my early 20's, just finished education, starting out with what felt like complex choices about career and relationships. In Bodily Harm the lead female character struggles for control and survival both on personal terms (breast cancer) and in society (caught up in civil disturbance/revolution).

The novel made me think a lot about our need to feel in control but also recognise that won't always be possible. Life won't always go to plan but you can get through tough times. So get on with it and enjoy!”

letter

Maggie O’Farrell, Bestselling Author, recommends: Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark by Mary Wollstonecraft

“This has always fascinated me, with its inimitable merging of travelogue and deeply personal memoir. Wollstonecraft takes off north, accompanied by her (illegitimate) infant daughter, to sort out the business affairs of her estranged lover, Gilbert Imlay, in the hope that it may rekindle their relationship. It doesn’t. The chill of heartbreak and disillusionment hang over her visceral descriptions of Scandinavian landscapes. An arresting, moving read.”

Kate Gielgud, Health Information Co-ordinator at Paddington Library, recommends: Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

“Jean Rhys writes so directly and elegantly about drifting and ‘jerking’ through loss, uncertainty and disappointment, reading this book gave me access to and acceptance of my own shadow side and made me think more deeply about creativity and mental wellbeing.”

Sarah Winman, Bestselling Author of When God Was a Rabbit, whose new novel, Tin Man, is published later this year, recommends: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

“Empowering because Janie Crawford is the most unforgettable protagonist. Her story is one of self-discovery through love. It is exquisite and life-enhancing. A great American novel.”

book

Anna James, Freelance Literary Journalist and Event Chair, recommends: I Am An Emotional Creature by Eve Ensler

“If I could press one book into the hands of all teenage girls and young women, it would be this. From the author of The Vagina Monologues, this is a collection of fictional monologues from the perspective of girls across the world. It's a fierce but lovely rallying cry to find and be your true self, to stand up and speak out.

It's raw and beautiful and triumphant, and feels as timely now as it did when it was first published five years ago. It covers sexual violence, short skirts, female friendship and everything in between. My favourite is the monologue called Refuser: ‘We are not afraid of what is pulsing through us. It makes us alive.’”

Francesca Main, Publishing Director at Picador and 2015 British Book Awards Editor of the Year, recommends: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

“Maya Angelou's searing, soaring memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the story of her childhood in the American south of the 1930s and the indomitable spirit with which she overcame unthinkable trauma. I read it when I was 17 and still trying to figure out who I was or could be – it opened my eyes, broke my heart and showed me that a woman is master of her own fate.”

book

Tessa Hadley, Bestselling Author, recommends: The Millstone by Margaret Drabble

"So many great books about women, written by women and empowering because of the force and reach of the writer's art, have nonetheless told sad stories about women's lives. But The Millstone is exuberantly liberating, because Rosamund brings up her baby all by herself, nurses her through sickness, adores her, goes on writing her PhD, isn't longing for a man – and it's all funny as well as difficult and real. It feels as though Margaret Drabble tore up the rule-book in 1965 and invented a woman's life all over again for a new world, and with such lightness." 

Laura Bates, Author of Girl Up and Founder of Everyday Sexism, recommends: How to be Both by Ali Smith

“How to be Both, by Ali Smith - This might not seem like the most obvious choice, not being a non-fiction treatise or feminist textbook. But Smith's visceral, multi-layered novel is thick in observations and questions about sex and gender, sexualisation and pornography, mother-daughter relationships and what it means to navigate life as a young woman today or to succeed as a woman in a man's world.”

Rossella Fiusco, Librarian at Chiswick Library, recommends: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

"An important book that gracefully describes the feelings and insecurities of women. Despite the gloomy atmosphere, what stays with the reader is the liberating power of a woman who takes full responsibility of her own life without having to have a man beside her at all costs.”

beloved

Lola Young OBE, Chair of Judges Man Booker Prize 2017, recommends: Beloved by Toni Morrison

“When I read Beloved I couldn't believe that a woman's experience of the trans-Atlantic slave trade could be shaped by Toni Morrison into a story of survival and resilience with some surprisingly uplifting moments.

'Going crazy in order not to lose your mind' – what a horribly apt observation that seems in so many contexts now, but especially for those women who've endured one form of abuse or another.”

Jojo Moyes, Bestselling Author of Me Before You, After You, and the newly published Paris for One, recommends: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

“I think Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels are the first time I have really seen the complexities of a long, close female friendship represented in print. Its strange flat delivery takes a little getting used to and then suddenly you are locked into the world of these two women and a friendship from childhood through adulthood, which manages to combine love, admiration, envy and hatred, often all at the same time.”

Jo Glanville, Director of English PEN, recommends: Bliss and Other Stories by Katharine Mansfield

“Katharine Mansfield inspired me from when I was a teenager – her insight into the emotional highs and lows of being a young woman, her evocation of the joy of being alive, and the example of her own remarkable independence of spirit. She left New Zealand for England at 19, had love affairs with men and women, was a pioneering literary modernist, and all before her premature death at 34.”

wild

Ellie Hughes, Senior Publicity Manager at Michael Joseph, Penguin Random House, recommends: Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed

“The longest I have ever traveled alone in a far off distant land is four nights, before meeting up with friends. That trip was definitely a holiday rather than a soul-searching test of endurance, but I still felt like a total warrior afterwards. I can only begin to imagine how Cheryl Strayed felt, embarking on her solo 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, with absolutely no idea of what it would involve. The writing here is heart-breaking and life-affirming at the same time. Her account of the hike itself, combined with the flashbacks of how Cheryl’s life had unraveled following the devastating death of her mum, builds such a vivid picture of female strength and determination.”

Sarah Dunnigan, Senior Lecturer in English and Scottish Literature at the University of Edinburgh, recommends: The Country Girls by Edna O’ Brien

"Aged 13 I read and re-read Edna O’ Brien’s The Country Girls (1960); though poignant and heartbreaking in places, it tenderly depicted the imagination, sensuality, and courage of a young Irish woman, Caithleen, in a repressive world, and O’ Brien’s poetic storytelling inspired a lifelong love of words and language."

Cathy Rentzenbrink, Author and Contributing Editor at The Bookseller, recommends: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

“A triumph of hope and resilience. I often turn to Maya Angelou when feeling sick of soul and she strengthens me.”

Gemma Dunnell, Bookseller at Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights, recommends: The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

“Cherry’s husband Jerome challenges Manfred to a competition: if he can seduce Cherry in a hundred nights he can have both Jerome’s castle and Cherry. Unfortunately for Manfred, Cherry’s maid and secret lover Hero is one of the League of Secret Storytellers, and has the tales of all Early Earth’s unheard women to distract Manfred until daybreak.

Think The Arabian Nights depicted through ink and block shades in this gorgeously stylised graphic novel. Despite being fiction, its power lies in its honest and witty narration which so perfectly reflects the lives of women in our own world.”

book

Katherine Blythe, Librarian at Durning Library, recommends: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

“The limitations and double standards affecting women of the upper classes in of late 1800s New York are finely observed as the protagonist vacillates between two women: the socially correct ingénue to whom she is engaged and an unconventional, worldly, compassionate woman newly returned from Europe, an unhappy marriage and a scandalous affair.

This novel also won Wharton the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction awarded to a woman.”

Bryony Gordon, Author of Mad Girl and The Wrong Knickers, recommends: Scary Old Sex by Arlene Hayman

“I've just finished this book of short stories about sex in your later years. Heymen is a 74-year-old psychiatrist and an amazing, truthful writer who also has the power to raise a smile. I love this because it features all these incredible, sexy women in their fifties, sixties and seventies who don't stop being powerful and sexual just because they are older. It's inspiring, insightful and fun. Even better, it gives me hope that with each passing year, our sex lives don't have to get more dull and boring. Quite the opposite actually.”

Rhyannon Styles, Author of The New Girl, recommends: Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine

“Full respect to Viv, who as with her music, captivated my mind with this powerful account of her life. This book encouraged me to be bolder, stronger and visible as a transgender woman.”

books

Daisy Buchanan, Journalist and Author, recommends: Scribble Scribble by Nora Ephon 

“Nora is the reigning queen of the personal essay (and my heart) but this sharp and underrated collection of her journalism (Including pieces for Esquire and New York magazine) explores the feminist movement, the Watergate scandal, education, envy and the publishing industry with the wit, warmth and intelligence that she's famous for. It's like hearing gossip from your funniest and cleverest friend, but her words are rarely bitchy and always nourishing.”

Megan Brown, National Events Coordinator at Foyles, recommends: The Ballroom by Anna Hope

“This is a love story void of cliché. It’s simply about two people who crave affection as much as the freedom outside of their hospital walls, and find solace in each other despite the barriers. It's about taking control and choosing your own destiny no matter what limitations are thrust upon you.”

colour

Dreda Say Mitchell, author of Blood Mother and founder of creative writing programme, Write-On, which she runs in YOIs and prisons, recommends: The Colour Purple by Alice Walker

“Celie's epic journey in America's Deep South is one of feminist triumph. I cried, I laughed, I wanted to scream because it touched on so many barriers that I faced as a young black woman growing up in Britain.

It helped me to deal with racism and be bold and ambitious in the choices I wanted to make. Without Celie's bravery I wouldn't be the woman I am today.”

Rose Meredith, Development Librarian for Redbridge Libraries, recommends: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

“This is a magical piece of writing from a young Australian author. Kent was moved to write this book when she traveled to Iceland. Upon hearing the true story of the last public female execution, which took place in 1829, Kent imagined her novel around an extraordinary moment in this characters fateful destiny.

The strength of the woman protagonist is breath taking. The other characters who weave in and around the main character, together with the gorgeous, brutal and evocative settings, creates a memorable book that leaves its trace everywhere in your life after you have finished it.”

nora

Sophie Kinsella, Bestselling Author of the Shopaholic series, recommends: I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being a Woman by Nora Ephron

“I love this book because not only is it about being a woman, it’s about being an ageing woman in today’s society. 

Nora Ephron’s essays are funny, dry and insightful, sprinkled with nuggets of wisdom that you’ll always remember.”

Dr. Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, Lecturer in English (Gender and Women's Writing of the 20th and 21st centuries) at Bristol University, recommends: Savage Coast by Muriel Rukeyser

Savage Coast is an autobiographical novel about a young woman's political, poetic and sexual awakening during the first days of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). It not only demonstrates women's vital participation in anti-fascist resistence movements, but depicts that engagement through a nuanced, funny, adventurous young woman. It is a text that transgresses the gender and literary norms of the 1930s and gives the contemporary reader a better understanding of how personal liberation can be found – is perhaps only found – when advocating for the freedom of others.”

Catherine Burton, Librarian at Croydon libraries, recommends: Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

“Anne of Green Gables – an early heroine for me and many young girls, because she succeeds on her own terms. And she can spell chrysanthemum!”

war on women

Iona Dudley, Bookseller at Daunt Books, recommends: The War on Women by Sue Lloyd Roberts

“Sue Lloyd Robert's The War on Women is a damning account of the daily atrocities committed against women across the world, written by an award-winning journalist who dedicated her life to highlighting and documenting woman's stories that would often otherwise be completely ignored in the West.

The War on Women isn't an easy read but it is an essential one. You'll see, often through tears, how far we still have to go for women's rights across the globe, but I think that if everyone read this incredible book, the outrage alone would spark some real change.”

Jane Bradley, Founder and Director of For Books' Sake, recommends: Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

“Described by the author as 'biomythography', this memoir from the iconic self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’, chronicles her Harlem upbringing, her high school gang of rebellious poets, The Branded, her escape from McCarthyism into Mexico and her subsequent return to New York City. It is beautifully written and relatable but with a big, much-needed dose of daring and defiance.”

lie tree

Diana Gerald, CEO of BookTrust, recommends: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

“This is an utterly brilliant book. Set in the late 1800s, it explores themes of feminism, religion, science and issues surrounding bereavement unapologetically. Faith, the 14-year-old protagonist, is told girls are not as worthy or intelligent as boys. Yet Faith realises: ‘Women find themselves on battlefields just as men do. We are given no weapons, and cannot be seen to fight. But fight we must, or perish.’

The novel, given out as part of BookTrust’s Bookbuzz schools reading programme last year, also won the Costa Book of the Year prize in 2015, beating out competition from adult literature. The Lie Tree is inspiring, thoughtful, mysterious, full of adventure and gasp moments, but above all, it is empowering by encouraging girls to break the mould and be more than society tells them to.”

Sue Wilkinson MBE, CEO of The Reading Agency, recommends: The Longings of Women by Marge Piercy

The Longings of Women by Marge Piercy, poet, novelist and social activist, had a huge impact on me. Leila, Becky and Mary are three very different women who all share the same longings (to be loved, to be safe, to be valued, to have a home of their own); they discover just how hard it is to have and keep these things.

The book shaped my determination to get a degree; to have, and hold on to, a career of my own and to do everything in my power to be financially independent. It taught me just how precarious life can be; showed me that you have to do your best to take control of your own life and reminded me that when all the chips are down, it is your friendships which will save you.”

Fiona Phillips, Library Supervisor at Croydon Libraries, recommends: The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler

“This made it OK for women to talk about, and celebrate, their sexuality. I've read the book and seen the stage play and both have been powerful and timeless.”

reindeer

Rosie Evans, Bookseller at Booka Bookshop & Cafe, recommends: The Eye of the Reindeer by Eva Weaver

The Eye of the Reindeer is a powerful celebration of the female spirit. In an odyssey spanning a lifetime, protagonist Ritva overcomes inconceivable obstacles to become the person she truly is.

Her ultimate liberation is beautiful and deeply moving.”

Emma Langley, Relationship Manager for Literature at Arts Council England, recommends: Travels with Myself and Another: A Memoir by Martha Gellhorn

“Martha Gellhorn was a brilliant and fearless novelist, journalist, human rights advocate and one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century. Gellhorn published more novellas than non-fiction but I’m choosing Travels with Myself and Another, Gellhorn’s memoir of her many adventures, discoveries and narrow escapes in the name of reporting the horrors, truths and human cost of war. This is the brave, witty, intelligent voice of a woman who’d be deemed extraordinary in any era. I could not put it down.”

Annie Dowdle, Library Supervisor at New Addington Library, recommends:  How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

“Not many books make you nod along,  laugh out loud and face-palm all while reassuring you that we’re in this together.”

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