Celebrating Women's Writing: The Feminist Pen
In the second of our articles celebrating 100 books by women writers, we explore some of the most influential, thought-provoking and inspiring feminist writing from Mary Wollstonecraft to Virginia Woolf, Germaine Greer to Roxane Gay.
‘This virtuous equality will not rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one-half of mankind be chained to its bottom by fate.’
So wrote Mary Wollstonecraft in her seismic 1792 work, The Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Now presented in an edited edition as part of Vintage’s series of Feminism Short Editions, it provides perfect starting point for readers keen to learn more about the progress of Western feminism. It’s also a brilliant introduction to a fascinating, contradictory woman. Writing about the issues of the time through the filter of her own life (and it was an extraordinary one), Wollstonecraft paved the way for generations of later self-confessional writers from Sylvia Plath to Rupi Kaur. As her biographer, Janet Todd, says, ‘she tried - almost uniquely for the times - to be true to her sense of common female needs: for education and for legal and political significance, as well as for sex, affection and esteem’.
This sense of the basic prerequisites needed for women’s liberty is echoed powerfully in Virginia Woolf’s influential Modernist essay A Room of One’s Own. Imagining a world where Shakespeare had an equally talented sister and the average woman in history had a break from a conveyor belt of childbirth and household drudgery to pen a novel or two, it’s both highly readable and very funny. In its firm assertion that a woman requires not just psychological and intellectual space but ‘money and a room of her own’ to write, think and innovate, it still feels strikingly relevant today.
These two volumes are amongst several, digestible, essential feminist reads including abridged editions of Naomi Wolff’s landmark work on the persistent and oppressive cult of The Beauty Myth and Simone de Beauvoir’s controversial 1949 work, The Second Sex. De Beauvoir’s iconic image of the myth of the praying mantis (the archetypal feared and reviled powerful woman) and her assertion that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ still underpin modern feminist thinking.
Probably the most widely recognised figure in second-wave, twentieth-century feminism, Germaine Greer became a household name with her first book, The Female Eunuch. Written nearly half a century ago, it’s a book that still packs a punch. Drawing heavily on de Beauvoir, it’s a passionate, fiercely personal book that lays bare much of Greer’s own early, defiantly optimistic autobiography. ‘The Greer of The Female Eunuch’, writes Rachel Cusk, ‘is young, funny, angry, ardent, hopeful, and clever’, and that voice retains its powerful resonance.
Far less widely familiar, although no less significant, is the work of Audre Lorde. Born in New York in 1934, Lorde wrote against the backdrop of America’s civil rights movement. A self-identified “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” she was a passionate, vocal campaigner for civil liberty, racial equality and gay rights. The first volume by a British publisher to bring together her poetry, essays and speeches in one volume, Your Silence Will Not Protect You is indispensable reading. Inroduced by Reni Eddo-Lodge, it's a fascinating introduction to a woman who opened up the dialogue of black and queer feminism by insisting on the diversity of feminist experience. ‘I am not free while any woman is unfree’, she famously wrote, ‘even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of colour remains chained.’
Casting our eyes forward, there’s a new generation of feminist writing joining the ranks. A novelist, academic and leading American feminist, Roxane Gay challenges the way that mainstream feminism has marginalised or ignored the LGBTQ community. In many ways a progression from Lorde’s work, her bestselling book Bad Feminist lays bear some of contemporary society’s most uncomfortable truths, from the fetishising of on-screen violence towards women to asking why women feel the need to portray themselves as ‘likeable’. I definitely write to reach other people’, she comments, ‘but I write for myself first… this is me trying to make sense of my place, and how did I get here.’
Gay’s sense of the struggle of finding identity is echoed in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short, epistolary manifesto, We Should All Be Feminists, taken from her globally influential TED talk of the same name. ‘We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller,’ she writes. ‘We say to girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful’. As a powerful, personal essay of hope and ambition for a better, fairer world, it’s second to none. The kind of book to carry in your pocket for a particularly grey and rainy day; it should be required reading.
Lastly, three books which go to the heart of the debates fuelling contemporary feminism. Proving that feminism’s influence stretches beyond abstract philosophy, Cordelia Fine’s Royal Society Book Prize-winning book Testosterone Rex, turns the tables on the enduringly persistent myth of biologically gendered identity, arguing that sex doesn’t (as previously thought) determine male and female natures. As the Financial Times puts it, ‘If you’ve ever thought that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, or that men don’t listen and women can’t read maps… this book is for you.’
One of the most influential voices in contemporary feminism, Rebecca Solnit coined the now ubiquitous term ‘mansplaining’ in her thought-provoking book of essays, Men Explain Things to Me. Hopeful, contemplative and fearless, the collection confronts some of feminism’s most pressing concerns including rape culture, workplace harassment, hate speech and colonialism. It’s the presumption’, she says, ‘that makes it hard… that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment does, that this is not their world.’
From vocal opposition, to contemporary protest, Laura Bates’ writing combines both. The originator of the globally influential Everyday Sexism Project, Bates’s new book, Misogynation (a collection of her Guardian essays) responds directly to the revelations of sexual harassment and inequality from Weinstein to Westminster. ‘To be a feminist, I have learned’, writes Bates, ‘is to be accused of oversensitivity, hysteria and crying wolf’. But in her estimation in the aftermath of #metoo it seems that when it comes to systemic sexual discrimination, the wolf isn’t so much at the door as sitting in grandma’s clothes drinking tea and helping itself to the biscuits. An impassioned argument that goes to the heart of the most pressing debates in contemporary society, it’s hard to ignore.
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