11 Essential Reads for Women’s History Month
We are all familiar with Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Doris Lessing, Simone de Beauvoir, and the contributions they made to feminist literature. But great literature concerning feminist themes is not confined to these classics. Many of our most exciting contemporary literary writers are expanding and complicating our understanding of what it means to be a woman today. Encompassing the thrill, rage, devastation, and range of the female experience, these essential voices should not be ignored.
1The Blazing World
Intellectually ambitious, electric in its prose, and emotionally satisfying, The Blazing World confronts the joy and fury of Harriet Burden, an artist whose work has long been dismissed and ignored by the male-dominated art world. Longlisted for 2014’s prestigious Man Booker Prize and described by NPR as “complex, astonishing, harrowing, and utterly, completely engrossing,” it is a polyphonic tour de force from one of America’s most fearless writers.
2A Short History of Women
Walbert’s novel opens in 1914 Britain at the deathbed of Dorothy Townsend, a suffragette who starves herself for the cause, and whose choice is echoed in the stories of her descendants. Told in a kaleidoscope of voices and with a richness of imagery, emotion, and wit, A Short History of Women illuminates the ways in which the lives of our great-grandmothers are carried throughout generations.
Sally Ride made history as the first American woman in space, breaking through a quarter century of white male fighter jocks when NASA chose her for the seventh shuttle mission. Written by the ABC reporter who covered NASA during its transformation from a test-pilot boys’ club to a more inclusive elite, Sally Ride is the definitive biography of the bold and talented woman who cracked the celestial ceiling and inspired several generations of women.
This powerful story of race and gender is centered on Ifemelu, a brilliant and self-assured young woman who departs military-ruled Nigeria for an American university where, for the first time, she is forced to grapple with her identity as a black woman. Ifemelu faces difficult choices and challenges, suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, and eventually achieves success as the writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. Fearless and gripping, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world.
Imbued with the characteristic wit and intelligence that Meg Wolitzer brought to The Interestings, The Wife raises big questions about voice, marriage, power, and gender in literature. Slim but smart, this provocative story can be read in a day, but it will remain on your mind for much longer. A film adaptation starring Glenn Close and Frances McDormand is in the works and we would watch those two titans of acting in just about anything.
6My Brilliant Friend
The first book of the Neopolitan Novels and a modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed writers, this is a rich and intense story about two friends, Elena and Lila. A meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship, Ferrante’s series achieves new heights with each installment.
7The Invention of Wings
Writing at the height of her narrative and imaginative gifts, Sue Monk Kidd has crafted a masterpiece of hope, daring, and the quest for freedom. Set in the years just before the Civil War, this exquisitely written novel is an unswerving look at a devastating wound in American history through the eyes of two sisters whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved.
In these sharp, funny, and insightful essays from one of the most-watched young cultural observers of her generation, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman of color and comments on the state of feminism today. The portrait that emerges is not only of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but an inspiring call to arms of all the ways we still need to do better.
9Brown Girl Dreaming
Raised in South Carolina and New York, Jacqueline Woodson always felt half at home in each place. In mesmerizing verse, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. The winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, each poem in Brown Girl Dreaming is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a young girl’s soul as she searches for her place in the world.
10The Woman Upstairs
The Woman Upstairs is a masterly portrait of Nora Eldridge, a thirty-seven-year-old elementary school teacher on the verge of disappearing. Having abandoned her desire to be an artist, she has become the “woman upstairs,” a reliable friend and tidy neighbor always on the fringe of others’ achievements. Written with intimacy and piercing emotion, The Woman Upstairs is an urgently dispatched story of obsession and artistic fulfillment that explores the thrill—and the devastating cost—of being a woman in America today.
11Reading Lolita in Tehran
Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; some had spent time in jail. Giving us a rare glimpse of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran, this luminous masterpiece is a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny, and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.