Books by Women (for International Women’s Day)

It’s International Women’s Day, and to celebrate it Rick O’Shea started a little experiment in his book club* this morning – asking us to pick one book by a woman, past or present, that you absolutely, positively, definitely think should be read by someone wanting to read more by women authors, and share it on social media. I failed spectacularly at picking just one, so it’s gonna have to be a blog post!

International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. Yet progress has slowed in many places across the world, so global action is needed to accelerate gender parity. In the European Union in 2016, the number of extra days a woman must work to match the amount of money earned by men in the previous year was 67. Ireland, my country, has a constitution that enshrines a woman’s place as being in the home; has an abysmally low conviction rate for rape and sexual assault, and some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in the EU. Contraception was illegal in Ireland until 1980, when it was legalised only with strong restrictions – all firmly pro-birth, not pro-life, as the catalogue of horrors inflicted on women and children in laundries and Mother and Baby ‘Homes’ proves. Last week’s sickening discovery that 796 babies were dumped in a septic tank in one of these ‘Homes’ in Tuam, is horrifying not only for the barbarity of the act itself but because this happened in our time, our parents time. This is a recent darkness – the last Magdalene laundry only closed in 1996. This International Women’s Day we should all remember Gloria Steinem’s words “The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day; a movement is only people moving.” We all need to use our voices to stand up for women, to speak the truth even if our voices shake.

For-most-of-history-Anonymous-was-a-woman

I love Rick’s experiment for this very reason – women’s words are important. Women’s work is important. Women’s health is important. Women are important. Here are some books by women that I think everyone should read. Happy International Women’s Day.

FICTION:

handmaids taleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A searing speculative fiction about totalitarianism, this is one of the few books I can definitively state changed the way I see the world. Vivid and terrifying – and uncomfortably plausible. “That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on”

paradiseParadise by Toni Morrison

A brilliant portrayal of race and gender spanning the 1960s and 70s, Paradise begins with the brutal attack on a group of young women in a convent near an all-black town, and unpicks the events leading up to it through the interior lives of the citizens of the town. “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are 17 miles from a town which has 90 miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.”

needleworkNeedlework by Deirdre Sullivan

Irish writing is having a bit of a moment, and Deirdre Sullivan is an unmistakably authentic voice who deserves more recognition.  Needlework is beautiful, painful and full of things we need to be aware of. I can’t talk about this book without raving about it, so here’s a more thoughtful review I made earlier.

wideWide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

A must read for fans of Jane Eyre, this book gives a voice to Bronte’s ‘madwoman in the attic’. Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole heiress, marries Mr. Rochester… and is slowly driven mad, a madness arising from her voice being silenced, and others speaking for her. Moody, introspective, and sad – “There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.”

buddha atticThe Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

So beautifully written it hurts, this book, spanning the years between WWI and WWII tells the story of a group of Japanese ‘picture brides’, who travel to America speaking no English clutching pictures of husbands-to-be they knew nothing about. The use of collective voice makes their stories all the more heartbreaking: “We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting.”

NON-FICTION:

beauyThe Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

Smart and righteously angry, this book examines the beauty industry and the rise of a social control based on appearance that is just as oppressive and damaging as traditional roles trapped within the home, showing that the beauty myth is always prescribing behaviour, not appearance. “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

sexual politicsThe Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J Adams

The idea of meat as a macho food is overt, and this book looks at the interplay between contemporary society’s ingrained cultural misogyny and its obsession with meat and masculinity. This is a truly seminal work for me – while I don’t agree with all of Adams’ ideas, this is an important and provocative book that has inspired and enraged across the political spectrum for more than 25 years. “Feminist-vegetarian activity declares that an alternative worldview exists, one which celebrates life rather than consuming death; one which does not rely on resurrected animals but empowered people.”

wild swansWild Swans by Jung Chang

This book has it all – if it were fiction it would be an impossibly perfect story, this is utterly unforgettable and one of the few books I would call a masterpiece. Through three generations of Chinese women – a grandmother who was given to a warlord as a concubine, her communist mother, and the daughter herself – we encounter bravery, love, hope, nightmarish cruelty, the will to survive, and an understanding of the epic sweep of China’s twentieth century. “As a child, my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless ‘Little Match Girl’ in the Hans Christian Andersen story. When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say: ‘Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!”

* The Rick O’Shea Book Club is the nicest corner of the internet, and Ireland’s largest online book club with almost 6000 members. Each month, Rick (the Book Warrior!) recommends two books for us to read (see our previous choices here), but the conversation ranges far beyond those selections and the meet-ups, author interviews and blind book swaps are always brilliant. Want to join the club? Just head over to Facebook, and be prepared for your TBR pile to just grow and grow!

 

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I know why the caged bird sings – A Doll’s House

In the period before writing A Doll’s House Henrik Ibsen expressed his concern over “these women of the modern age, mistreated as daughters, as sisters, as wives, not educated in accordance with their talents, debarred from following their real mission, deprived of their inheritance, embittered in mind – these are the ones who supply the mothers for the next generation. What will result from this?” The introduction to my version of the play (Oxford World’s Classics) also says that he believed that men and women were different creatures, with completely different consciences, and “he pointed to the inevitable confusion over matters of right and wrong that inescapably follows when a woman is judged by man’s law, and when in consequence her natural instincts are brought into conflict with the notions of authority she has grown up with”. The play which emerged from his musings on the subject provoked heated sociological debates and ascribed didactic qualities to Ibsen as a playwright. A Doll’s House follows Nora and Torvald Helmer as they prepare for Christmas, with the reappearance of an old acquaintance (Mrs Linde) and Nora’s secret debt to Mr. Krogstad due to an illicit loan starting a quick chain of events that see Nora walking out on her family in the final scene. Thoughts about Nora’s departure from her doll’s house became the pivot around which 1890’s conversation revolved – so much so that dinner invitations often requested that the play was not mentioned. Leaving aside that the ‘shocking’ ending of the play is simply not so shocking to the modern audience, reading the play I was struck by how many clues to this ‘shock’ ending were lying around the stage even in Act 1. Granted, Ibsen did use melodramatic form and present what appears to be a perfect couple in Act 1, both of which work to subvert the naturalistic element of his drama; however the road to what is to come is signposted clearly in the marked dichotomy evolved between the couples words and their actions. I first read A Doll’s House as a teenager, and to be honest it made little impression on me, although I remember being shocked at how shocking the play was deemed to be on first performance. What a difference a decade makes – after rereading as part of A Year of Feminist Classics I can see the performative nature of gender roles and a dichotomy between words in actions shining through from the very beginning of the action.

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