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Celebrating Women's Writing: The Feminist Pen

Posted on 6th March 2018 by Martha Greengrass

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. 

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The term feminism did not yet exist when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote this book, but it nevertheless remains the first great piece of feminist writing in English. Championing women's rights to education and liberty, her work made the first ripples of what would become the tidal wave of the women's rights movement. Rationalist but revolutionary, Wollstonecraft's changed the world for women to come.
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A Room of One's Own, based on a lecture given at Girton College, Cambridge, is one of the great feminist polemics, ranging in its themes from Jane Austen and Carlotte Bronte to the silent fate of Shakespeare's gifted (imaginary) sister and the effects of poverty and sexual constraint on female creativity.Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is regarded as a ...
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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. 

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When this book was first published in 1949 it was to outrage and scandal. Never before had the case for female liberty been so forcefully and successfully argued. De Beauvoir's belief that `One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman' switched on light bulbs in the heads of a generation of women. These pages represent great strides of a fight for greater equality and economic independence.
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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.’

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A pioneering force for change in both racial prejudice and issues of gender and sexuality, Audre Lord was a maverick literary talent who ranged over poetry, prose and polemic with equal assuredness. Your Silence Will Not Protect You brings together some of her very finest pieces across all genres and includes a superb new preface from Reni Eddo-Lodge.
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A worldwide bestseller, translated into over twelve languages, The Female Eunuch is a landmark in the history of the women's movement. Drawing liberally from history, literature and popular culture, past and present, Germaine Greer's searing examination of women's oppression is at once an important social commentary and a passionately argued masterpiece.
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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 Feministstaken 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.

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In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman of colour while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years and commenting on the state of feminism today. A sharp, funny and sincere look at the ways in which the culture we consume becomes who we are, and an inspiring call-to-arms.
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In this personal, eloquently argued essay Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century. Drawing extensively on her own experiences and her deep understanding of the often masked realities of sexual politics, here is one remarkable author's exploration of what it means to be a woman now - a rallying cry for why we should all be feminists.
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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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Rebecca Solnit's essay 'Men Explain Things to Me' has become a touchstone of the feminist movement. It inspired the term 'mansplaining', and established Solnit as one of the leading feminist thinkers of our time. With grace and energy, and in the most exquisite and inviting of prose, Rebecca Solnit proves herself a vital leading figure of the feminist movement and a radical, humane thinker.
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The winner of The Royal Society Science Book Prize 2017 and longlisted for The Orwell Prize 2018: Testosterone Rex brings together evolutionary science, psychology, neuroscience and social history to move beyond old `nature versus nurture' debates, and to explain why it's time to unmake the tyrannical myth of Testosterone Rex.
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A collection of essays from the founder of The Everyday Sexism Project that uncovers the sexism that exists in our relationships, our workplaces, our media, in our homes and on our streets, but which is also firmly rooted in the actions and attitudes we explain away, defend and accept. A bold, witty and incisive analysis that encourages readers to open their eyes and see the bigger picture.
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