Celebrating Women's Writing: Rewriting the Rules
In our fourth article exploring 100 books by women to mark 100 years of the first women’s right to vote in Britain, we offer five key lessons from ten influential works of non-fiction.
What does it mean to be a woman? It’s a question that crops up – overtly or obliquely - time and again in debates over everything from fashion, make-up and diet, to career choices, body image, food, parenting, fertility, and motherhood. In a powerful essay, Rebecca Solnit writes about the many daily inhibitors placed on being a woman in a world always clamouring for conformity and adherence to ever-changing ideals. ‘What would it feel like to have a success that does not in any way contain failure’, she writes. ‘How do you think big when you’re supposed to not get in the way, not overstep your welcome, not overshadow or intimidate?’
These are questions at the heart of some of the most prominent and influential non-fiction of recent times and in this article we reflect on how they are tackled in ten significant contemporary works. Forming part of a new roadmap for female identity, this is writing that is changing the debate; providing women with the tools to tell their own stories, exercise power and create a better world for generations to follow.
Tell Your Own Story
The last two decades have witnessed a surge in a new kind of female autobiography; stories which encapsulate the importance of authentic, personal histories as a way into wider cultural debates. Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s ‘graphic memoir’, chronicling her experiences of growing up in Iran during the 1979 revolution. Often darkly funny and intensely moving, it’s at its best when illuminating Satrapi’s struggle to retain her sense of herself as an independently minded, educated woman in an increasingly repressive, authoritarian regime. ‘I have lived in a dictatorship’, Satrapi comments, ‘was I less free in my mind? No... because no matter how much they looked at me, they could not get into my mind.’
No less influential, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild - an intense, deeply personal chronicle of her solo hike across the 1,770-km of the Pacific Crest Trail - has become a phenomenon so widespread it has its own name, ‘the Wild effect’. The book continues to strike a chord with women around the world who find inspiration in Strayed’s gritty, painful mission to win back her identity, away from a litany of voices trying to tell her who and what she should be. It’s a book that reflects the uncompromising reality of a woman’s true self. As one review in the New York Times puts it, ‘the woman who emerges from the wilderness is scarred and strong and ready for life, and her inspirational account of a transformative journey is truly wild: dirty, beautiful and serene.’
Stand Up and Be Counted
For women to be heard, they have to be part of the conversations that matter, they have to have power. The fact that women have, throughout history, been excluded from the systems and language of authority forms the basis of Mary Beard’s landmark manifesto, Women and Power. A pocket-sized, perfectly honed, hand-grenade of a book, it gets to the heart of the problem that even the syntax associated with women, with regards to power, - 'knocking on the door', 'storming the citadel', 'smashing the glass ceiling' - come from a place of exclusion. Most importantly, Beard challenges the starting point for thinking about the issues: ‘you cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male’, she says, ‘you have to change the structure’.
Exposing the problems of that structure yet further, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, is Reni Eddo-Lodge’s potent confrontation of the double-exclusion of women of colour from the cabal of the elite and powerful. ‘White privilege’, she writes, ‘is a manipulative, suffocating blanket of power that envelops everything we know, like a snowy day.’ Encompassing everything from whitewashed feminism to whitewashed poverty, it makes for essential – rightly uncomfortable – reading that illuminates a country both wilfully and unthinkingly blind to the experience of people of colour and women of colour in particular.
Much More than Meets the Eye
Much of the debate about female identity in recent years has confronted the thorny problem of identity and image. Both Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up and Edwina Dunn’s innovative photographic anthology, The Female Lead, tackle the importance of stoking the fire of women’s identity through asserting that their value is much more than skin-deep.
Bringing together a series of portraits alongside personal stories from sixty influential women – including politicians and artists, journalists and teachers, engineers and campaigners, fire fighters – The Female Lead makes for inspiring coffee-table fodder. A collection to dip into again and again, it’s the kind of book to keep around as a reminder that female role-models come in many different guises.
A celebration of the pleasure and cultural significance of eating, Eat Up is a both a nostalgic, comforting paean to the joy of food and a refutation of the pernicious damage of a society hung-up on dieting, clean-eating and body image. It’s a system that Tandoh recognises is particularly skewed to affect women’s self-image and she writes passionately about how women’s self-worth is wrapped up in food and that often, learning to value oneself is also about learning to eat, without fear and with genuine pleasure. ‘Our food is what becomes the fabric of our minds and bodies’, she writes, ‘we deserve to eat plenty, and eat well.’ As we near the end of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, with the number of sufferers on the rise, it’s a message that feels not only important, but essential.
Not One Voice, but Many
Contemplating the variety of contemporary women’s non-fiction, it’s refreshing to see the emphasis on a range of different female experiences. Held up as the manual for women in business, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In opened the door for a new way of writing about women and work, making the case for a more stridently insistent attitude towards succeeding in traditionally male-dominated industries. Her statements are not without controversy but they continue to feed an important debate about women in the workplace. ‘For decades’, she writes, ‘we have focused on giving women the choice to work inside or outside the home… But we have to ask ourselves if we have become so focused on supporting personal choices that we’re failing to encourage women to aspire to leadership.’
A very different kind of self-determination inhabits the pages of Caitlin Moran’s irreverently funny memoir, How to Be a Woman. Published in 2011, it remains a breath of fresh air, taking on everything from periods and pants to motherhood and abortion with the same unqualified candour. For many readers, it is the book’s inclusivity - particularly regarding feminism - which strikes home hardest. ‘The purpose of feminism’, Moran writes, ‘isn’t to make a particular type of woman. The idea that there are inherently wrong and inherently right “types” of women is what’s screwed feminism for so long… You know what? Feminism will have all of you.’
Pay it Forward
Most important of all, perhaps, are the books that look to the future and reaffirm the importance of not just realising the challenges for women today but making changes for future generations. A story which has had unprecedented influence around the world, I Am Malala recounts the extraordinary bravery of a girl determined to risk everything for the cause of women’s liberation and education. “It’s my simple dream”, she says in interview, “and very straightforward: I want to see every child get a quality education. In order to make sure that dream comes true, we have to work hard and we have to take action.” Her story continues to inspire young women everywhere to believe that anyone, from anywhere, can make a difference.
It would be impossible to talk about influential non-fiction without mentioning the galvanising impact of the Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls project. Begun as a crowd-funded enterprise, the book has become a global bestseller, heralding a wave of new publishing in its wake. Now extended to a second volume, it presents the stories of hundreds of real-life role models from around the world and throughout history. As the Guardian says, ‘this is a book to keep, treasure and read again… Essential reading for girls and indeed boys; children who read this at bedtime are guaranteed some big and inspirational dreams.’ It’s a salutary reminder of the power of reading to bequeath a lasting legacy for future generations.
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