Virago publishers share the books that made them feminist

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Harriet Hall
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In 1973, fed up with the lack of women’s books on the market, publicist Carmen Callil rocked the publishing world by setting up her own house, Virago. Virago aimed to give women a voice by reclaiming literature. Here, Virago publisher Lennie Goodings, deputy publisher Sarah Savitt and editorial director Donna Coonan, tell of the books that made them feminist.

Lennie Goodings, Publisher, Virago

Many readers believe that truth lies only in nonfiction. But I disagree. Imaginative fiction tells us the real truth of the human experience: it gets under the skin like no other writing and can change the way we view the world. As George Eliot famously said: "art is the nearest thing to life." I feel very strongly that there are novels that changed me and these four made me open my eyes to the possibility - and necessity - of being an exciting, independent woman.

Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

Anne – ruefully freckled and red-headed – makes her way, as an orphan, into a home which doesn't want a girl. She wins them over with her intelligence and charm, her unquenchable spirit and appetite for living and loving wholeheartedly. I adored everything about her and wanted to be just like Anne: a girl who loves life and big words.

The Diviners by Margaret Laurence

Some women claim The Woman's Room by Marilyn French told them the truth about men and women but this was the novel that did it for me. I read it in a lonely bedsit, waiting and hoping for a boyfriend to change my life. This novel is, among other things, about a young woman who is torn between the love of two men. (It’s also extremely open on female sexual desire – at one point taking place on the kitchen floor: very liberating, I thought). One man is intellectual and brilliant and the other one is instinctive and emotional; she's deciding which of these men will define her.  Then she realises she doesn't need either and goes off to London to be her own person.

The Colour Purple by Alice Walker

This novel, set in the American south in the 1930s, asks profound and unsettling questions about freedom - from violence and from racism.  Alice Walker’s answer: sisterhood.  The central character, Celie is saved by her real sister, Nettie but also by the other women in her life, particularly a jazz singer named Shug Avery who becomes her friend and her lover.  I was hugely moved by this passionate novel about the transforming power of female friendship and love.       

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

I read this brilliant, hilarious novel on a plane and embarrassed myself by laughing out loud at this story based on the real life betrayal by the author’s husband.  Ephron took her mother’s advice and made it copy for a fabulous, comic novel about food and deeply-satisfying revenge.  She is a heroine of mine. I hold dear her advice to women:  "I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there."

Sarah Savitt, Deputy Publisher, Virago

Feminism and books have always been intertwined for me, as they are for many women: both have been and continue to be a source of empowerment, inspiration, education, joy and friendship. Here I pick the three books that changed my life and strengthened my feminist beliefs.

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Forget Superman or Spiderman or even Wonder Woman: a bookworm who rights wrongs with her favourite teacher and a dose of magic was the kind of superhero I wanted to be as a kid. The Quentin Blake illustration on the copy of Matilda that I had as a child - a blonde girl reading one book while surrounded by stacks of others – is pretty much a portrait of my childhood, and the book made me feel great about being a geeky girl. 

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Jane Eyre was a book I read over and over as a teenager – as much for the romance, I confess, as for Jane’s feminist leanings. In my final year of high school, my English teacher had us read Jane Eyre alongside Wide Sargasso Sea. Then his wife (a Jamaican English literature graduate) came in as a guest speaker to talk about colonialism, feminism and race. For teenagers in 1990s Vermont (one of the whitest states in America) this felt pretty cutting edge. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, I believe this experience encouraged me to start questioning whatever I read from a feminist perspective: asking who has the power and why, whose story is not being told, and/or whose story are we hearing only through someone else’s point of view. 

The Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

"There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come." These words, spoken to teenage Del Jordan by her mother, point to some of the complexities of female lives which this incredible novel explores. Munro is wonderful on mother/daughter relationships, female desire, and violence. It's funny, transcendent, powerful and awkward: Munro’s honest depiction of female teenage sexuality felt quietly revolutionary to me.  

Ailah Ahmed, Senior Commissioning Editor, Virago

My feminist education is never ending and I am always reading new things that are adding to it. But these three books really struck a chord and helped me to understand what it means to be a feminist.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I remember reading about Esther Greenwood and her sense of discomfort in what seemed like a dazzling world. But the pressures that Esther encounters – questions and feelings about her place in the world, her own identity and relationships – all filled me with a sense of foreboding. There is so much in this novel that took me years to understand, and much of the imagery has stayed with me: the fig tree, the diamond pin lost in the mud, and Esther throwing her expensive new clothes off the roof of her hotel. This book is a rite of passage.

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi

This novella opened my eyes to the ideas of power structures. Firdaus is a woman who falls through the cracks of society in Egypt; she is forced into prostitution, and is now on death row for murder – the story unfolds as a conversation between her and her psychiatrist. “Let me speak. Do not interrupt me. I have no time to listen to you,” begins Firdaus, and from that point I was hooked. Nawal El Saadawi has dedicated her life to campaigning for women’s rights, including against FGM, and is always completely and utterly inspiring. 

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

As mentioned, a feminist education keeps evolving in different ways. A couple of years ago I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed and discovered an amazing memoir and piece of nature writing. Strayed walked 1,100 miles in order to heal herself from a deep fracture in her life. Wild is about lacing up your boots and being both strong and vulnerable, as well as forming a relationship with the natural world. But it’s really about being fearless – which is the thing that drew me to feminism in the first place.

Donna Coonan, Editorial Director, Virago Modern Classics

I'm proud to work on a list that was created to celebrate women's writing and demonstrate a female tradition in literature. These are three books that shaped me as a reader and as a feminist; when I first read them, they made me stop in my tracks and question how I saw the world and my place in it.


The Diary of Anne Frank

"I know that I am a woman with inner strength and a great deal of courage." Everyone, and especially every girl, should read this book. When I first read The Diary of Anne Frank it floored me that someone who had lived so many years before could feel so exactly as I felt: worrying about her appearance and whether anybody would truly understood her; forever feeling in her older sister’s shadow; arguing with her mother and repenting afterwards of the hurt her words had caused. Just like I did. She writes of her first period, her first kiss, as any teenager would. Though heartbreaking because you know her fate, Anne’s resilience and wry humour gave me courage. Today I read her words in lieu of the books she never had the chance to write.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Perhaps no book (other than the Bible itself) could have seared the necessity of feminism onto a sixteen-year-old Catholic girl’s psyche as effectively as The Handmaid’s Tale. I’d read 1984, I’d read Brave New World, but no dystopia seemed quite as personally suited to me as Gilead. I was both compelled and terrified by it, especially when I realised how many historical precedents and contemporary parallels Atwood had drawn upon: revoking women’s assets, restricting their dress and movement, limiting their education, enforcing reproduction. When my teacher said I’d be smearing pats of butter on my face and escaping to Jezebel’s in a heartbeat, it was meant, and taken, as a compliment. 

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

‘If woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her as a person of the utmost importance ... some of the most inspired words and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, scarcely spell and was the property of her husband’

Who could fail to be a feminist after reading Woolf’s cri de coeur, imagining the fate of Shakespeare’s sister (lived in disrepute, took her own life and was buried opposite the Elephant and Castle)? I once attempted to make notes from A Room of One’s Own, but stopped when I realised I was transcribing the entire book, word for word. This penetrating, enjoyable and accessible essay provides answers for anybody who questions why there is no female Galileo, Beethoven, Chaucer or, indeed, Shakespeare. 

Virago: Changing the World One Page at a Time airs Monday 31 October at 22.00 on BBC Four and will be available on iPlayer thereafter.