What does it mean to be a feminist? Does it simply mean a belief in equality or are we supposed to sign up to a whole lot of rules too?
Here are 10 books that have played a part in my own journey of working out what being a feminist, and a person, means to me. This isn’t a definitive or exhaustive list and on a different day, I’d pick a different combination, but these books have educated, inspired, reassured and challenged me and some of them have made me laugh or been of real practical help.
I don’t agree with every word in every book, but they have all made me think. I love Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist, which reminds us that trying to always be good, or thinking that must always agree with each other, is yet another trap we fall into. I’m happy to follow her lead and accept that being a bad feminist is better than being no feminist at all.
It’s a complicated business being alive in the modern world. It has never been easier to express and find opinion, but sometimes all that noise makes it difficult to remember the basics of what we believe and who we are. When I want to ground myself I head for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All be Feminists, which breathes compassion and humanity and suggests that a feminist is anyone who sees that there is a problem with the way we perceive gender and wants to get on with fixing it.
As Adichie says, we should all try to dream of and plan for a different, happier world.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I’ve been reading and rereading Jane Eyre since I was 10, the age Jane is when we first meet her. The tale of a cruelly treated orphan girl who grows into a self-possessed woman shifts its meaning every time I visit it. For another side of the story, do read The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
“I hadn’t so much forgot as I couldn’t bring myself to remember.” The first of seven volumes of autobiography takes us to Stamps, Arkansas, in the 1930s where Maya and her brother, Bailey, are being brought up by their grandmother. Maya has to navigate racism and rape, yet somehow remains full of hope. A masterpiece.
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
“There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I’d been treated by at least six of them. And married a seventh.” Isadora Wing is not against marriage – it’s good to have a friend in a hostile world – but after five years she’s full of other longings so sets off in pursuit of the ‘zipless fuck’. Exuberant writing about sex and desire.
Eve Was Framed by Helena Kennedy
An examination of the way women are served by British courts which is shocking, enlightening and, perhaps surprisingly, a thumping good read. Kennedy uncovers a web of prejudice and misconception that goes to the heart of how and why justice often misfires for women.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
“When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, ‘The Devil led us to the wrong crib.’” An astonishing memoir of adoption, mothering, madness and writing that gives another version of the story first told in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
A powerful essay which makes the link between the author’s experience of having her own topics of expertise mansplained to her, with the fact that women at risk of violence are vulnerable precisely because their voices are neither credible nor audible compared to those of the men who harm them.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A compassionate and witty look at the danger of raising boys to be afraid of their own fear and girls to cater to the fragile egos of men and to not understand the nature of desire. A feminist is anyone who says, yes, there is a problem with gender today and we must fix it.
Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay
Reading this joyous, wide-ranging collection of essays feels a bit like chatting to a brilliant, cleverer friend. As Gay says: “No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism. Like most people, I’m full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman.”
Asking For It by Louise O’Neill
“My body is not my own anymore. They have stamped their names all over it.” Beautiful, popular Emma O’Donovan can’t remember what happened on the Saturday night that changes her life, but there are plenty of pictures to tell the story. A brutal and brave novel about friendship, growing up and consent.
I Call Myself A Feminist, Various
Twenty-five women under 30, including Isabel Adomakoh Young, Laura Bates and Laura Pankhurst, explore what defining as a feminist means to them. The essays are punctuated with quotes from Virginia Woolf, Waris Dirie, Amy Schumer and many others, which adds a pleasing layer to a lively and engaging read.