Feminism has been central to many of the biggest stories in the public eye this year. 2016 has seen the first ever female US presidential nominee in Hillary Clinton (though, it’s debatable whether voting Hillary is a vote for gender equality), as well as a second female Prime Minister in the UK (again, not necessarily a win for feminism), and an all-female cast in this summer’s Ghostbusters flick. On top of that, there’s been a big dollop of girl-powered pop culture nostalgia this summer with a gender equality advertising campaign fronted by – who else – but The Spice Girls! #WhatIReallyReallyWant has even been trending online, kick-starting discussions about quality education for all girls, equal pay for equal work, abortion rights and the abolition of child marriage.
All of the above makes it as important a time as ever to keep feminism at the forefront of our concerns. But instead of looking at parliamentary politics or pop culture, I’m going to point you towards the bookshelf (sorry if that sounds a bit too much like homework). Below are my seven essential feminist reads – both old and new – for you to get stuck into. Hopefully, besides furnishing your mind with some strong and memorable feminist narrative arcs, they’ll help you see out the rest of the year after a characteristically miserable Irish summer.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) –Thomas Hardy
‘Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong women the man, many years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order’
It both saddens and amazes me that the only male author I wanted to include on this reading list was writing in the nineteenth century. Hardy wrote complex and engaging women – Bathesba in Far From The Madding Crowd, Sue Bridehead in Jude The Obscure – but his strongest female protagonist has to be Tess Durbeyfield. Hardy progressively questioned the hyprocrisy of Victorian sexual morality, (which is still depressingly relevant today…take the Stanford Rape Case as an example), and provocatively deemed non-virgin Tess ‘a pure woman’ in the subtitle to this fantastic novel. You’ll find yourself passionately rooting for Tess, who is terrorised by the villainous Alec D’Urberville and hyprocritically rejected by her husband, Angel Clare. Hardy’s foreboding tone will make you fear for the fate of his most beloved heroine – Kleenexes at the ready!
The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
‘And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern – it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.’
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story will captivate and devastate you. The narrator, locked away by her physician husband due to a ‘nervous condition’, is punished for self-expression, her creativity and independence tragically suffocated. Gilman’s story is haunting and dark, a frighteningly realistic portrait of life for women in late-nineteenth-century American society (a period known retrospectively as The Gilded Age).
Testament of Youth (1933) – Vera Brittain
‘It feels sad to be a woman!’ ‘Men seem to have so much more choice as to what they are intended for.’
Former V.A.D. Nurse Vera Brittain wrote her autobiographical study, Testament of Youth, fifteen years after the Great War, in which she lost two men who were very dear to her – her brother Edward Brittain, and her fiancée, Roland Leighton. This powerful memoir reveals an inspiring feminist icon who determinedly fought for her education at Oxford, intellectually challenged the men around her, and refused to remain a passive female observer while men were dying every day, eventually deferring her studies and treating wounded soldiers at the front. After the war, she lectured for The League of Nations, before gradually converting to pacifism.
The Bloody Chamber (1979) – Angela Carter
‘Were there jewels enough in all his safes to recompense me for this predicament? Did all that castle hold enough riches to recompense me for the company of the libertine with whom I must share it? And what, precisely, was the nature of my desirous dread for this mysterious being who, to show his mastery over me, had abandoned me on my wedding night?’
You might want to save these stories for Halloween. Winner of the Cheltenham Festival Literary prize, The Bloody Chamber chronicles feminist twists on traditional fairytales and folk tales such as Beauty and The Beast, Puss in Boots and Little Red Riding Hood. The title story, the longest in the collection, is particularly powerful and suspenseful, resulting in a heroic mother saving her daughter from decapitation by the hands of a not-so-handsome prince. Elsewhere, Beauty transforms into a tiger, and a maiden murders the goblin Erl-King. Carter provides unconventional but incredibly satisfying happy and not-so-happy endings.
The Vagina Monologues (2001) – Eve Ensler
‘To love women, to love our vaginas, to know them and touch them and be familiar with who we are and what we need. To satisfy ourselves, to teach our lovers to satisfy us, to be present in our vaginas, to speak of them out loud, to speak of their hunger and pain and loneliness and humor, to make them visible so they cannot be ravaged in the dark without great consequence, so that our center, our point, our motor, our dream, is no longer detached, mutilated, numb, broken, invisible, or ashamed.’
First premiered in 1996 at the HERE Arts Center, The Vagina Monologues is the product of interviews conducted by Eve Ensler in which women honestly share sexual anecdotes and experiences. Ensler admits that at first, her subjects were reluctant, but eventually, ‘they get very excited, mainly because no one’s ever asked them before. The Vagina Monologues is a hilarious and much-needed exploration of female sexuality. It celebrates and shocks, hurts and heals, and is an entirely new reader experience, one in which women can enjoy identifying with things we often don’t but should talk about. Additionally, it sparked the V-Day movement to end violence against women. What’s not to like?
Wild (2012) – Cheryl Strayed
‘Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid. I was working too hard to be afraid’.
Heartbroken by the untimely loss of her mother, recently divorced and troubled by drug and sex addiction, far from seasoned hiker Cheryl Strayed trekked 1100 miles on The Pacific Crest Trail alone, in search of something like catharsis. Her memoir is honest and moving, and for being the only solo female on the expedition, Strayed becomes quite the celebrity amongst her male counterparts who she encounters along the way. Sharing Strayed’s journey and all that comes with it – her countless blisters, aching back (from her pack affectionately named Monster), lost boots and comically futile folding saw – is an empowering experience which will make you want to jump off the sofa and conquer the universe.
Multitudes (2016) – Lucy Caldwell
In her most recent effort, Multitudes, Belfast-born and -bred Caldwell delivers eleven gripping stories on what it means to be a woman in Northern Ireland, exploring the hardships instigated by the female body. She convincingly weaves her way into the skin of these compassionately crafted characters, who commonly share a heartbreaking desire to be someone or somewhere else. We traverse the familiar territory of East and South Belfast, and the more universal terrain of cringe-inducing teenage turmoil: puberty, love, loss and alienation. Caldwell’s stories will speak to both men and women, but are particularly poignant for a woman who has grown up in Belfast, like myself.
Thanks for reading! If anyone has any suggestions, particularly by male feminist authors, feel free to comment below.
Sarah McCreedy is a Phd student in American Literature at University College Cork.