To say I had a difficult time narrowing down this list to just 10 books would be putting it lightly. For Women’s History Month, I had to highlight some of the powerful female voices in the literary world. With so many amazing authors to choose from, I decided to make this list deeply personal. All of these books are by women who have not only left their mark on history but have left a lasting impression on me. Each of these have either impacted me as a young girl, helped me as a young woman, or are books I know I will return to time and time again throughout my life. With topics spanning family relationships, gender issues, becoming a young woman, feminist ideology, motherhood, love, and women’s education, there’s something here for everyone to read and love. These are books about strong women by strong women from a variety of backgrounds. Here are just a few of my rockstars in women’s literature; I hope you love them as much as I do.
- “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros
A coming of age story told in a series of vignettes, “The House on Mango Street” is about young Esperanza Cordero growing up in a Hispanic neighborhood of Chicago. Told over one year of her life, Esperanza deals with gender, class, race and sexuality issues as she matures and begins to navigate what it means to be a young woman. Esperanza eventually finds not only comfort in her writing but knows that someday, it may be a means to leave and seek a better future for herself. This story features a smart young girl and makes a great read for teens and adults alike.
- “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood
Atwood’s novel has become a staple in feminist literature, female empowerment and the American literary canon. Set in the near future, in the country of Gilead, former U.S. citizens struggle to survive in the new theocratic government. Life is especially difficult for women as the patriarchal society is taken to the extreme and they are subjected to confining and limited roles. With birth rates lower than ever, women are either barren wives of wealthy elite men, maids known as Marthas, or play the role of the handmaid: a fertile woman assigned to powerful families to produce children. Each role is subjugated in brutal ways with the novel following the story of one handmaid, Offred, and her resistance and struggle to gain independence. The novel has won numerous awards and has been adapted into the popular online streaming series through Hulu of the same name. This is a book everyone should read — believe me, you’ll love it!
- “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan
After fleeing from China to America in the 1940s, four women create a social group called the Joy Luck Club to help adjust and find camaraderie. Years later, when one member dies, her very Americanized daughter, Jing-mei “June” Woo takes her place. Through storytelling and tradition, “The Joy Luck Club” examines the mother-daughter relationship and the complexities and connections of multigenerational, immigrant families. Deeply touching, the novel tells wonderful stories of strong women and how they passed this along to all of their daughters. Read the book then watch the 1993 film!
- “Beloved” by Toni Morrison
Based on the life of Margaret Garner, Morrison’s novel is astounding, beautifully crafted and will make every reader experience a variety of intense emotions. The author poses the dilemma: what alternatives would you consider when your child faces the horrors and dehumanization of slavery? What lengths are you willing to go as a woman to protect yourself and your children? Are you willing to bear the weight of these decisions? The novel follows Sethe as she overcomes the trauma of slavery and how this affects her relationships with her children, mainly her daughters, Denver and Beloved. This powerful novel is a must-read!
- “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin
Thought of as one of the first American novels to seriously discuss women’s issues, Chopin examines the gravity of gender inequalities within the country, especially in the American South. As a wife and mother, Edna seeks independence and social freedom. When she falls in love with another man, both her lover and those close with her beg her to accept her role in society and be conscientious of “how a wife and mother should behave.” Her husband even believes her attitude has become a medical issue and consults with a doctor about Edna’s independent decision making. In the end, Enda is forced to choose whether or not the limits society has placed on her as a woman are something she can live with.
- “Bad Feminist” by Roxane Gay
Taking up serious topics with wisdom, wit and humor, Gay’s collection of relevant essays will resound with any modern woman. With brave truth, Gay tackles not only gender disparities but race, class and other social issues. Although she shines light on the depth and importance of these issues, she never claims to have all the answers. Instead she allows both herself and her readers to be human but challenges us to constantly ask questions to strive for greater equality. The title “Bad Feminist” is a play on just that: it asks readers to forget the notion that there is a perfect feminist because this defeats the purpose of the movement entirely. Read her essays about “The Help,” “The Hunger Games,” or even those about her personal life to learn more, dig a little deeper and find out how you can be a “bad feminist.”
- “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank
Most of us are familiar with Anne’s story and, although tragic, her grace and optimism always come through. Hiding for over two years in an annex with her family during the Nazi occupation, Anne writes of her family’s struggles but also their close relationships and her hope that the war will end and that life will once again resume normalcy. Throughout her time in the annex, Anne matures and begins to learn what it means to become a young woman with her expressing more profound thoughts throughout her diary, especially for one so young. Although Anne felt solidarity with her people, she still sought to be seen as an individual and not just as someone within a persecuted group. With her father as the only surviving member of the Frank family, he recovered the diary. Now translated in over 60 countries with both stage and film adaptations, Anne’s diary is recognized worldwide and is one of the most powerful texts coming out of the 20th century. Although Anne did not survive to see the end of the war, her words of hope continue to inspire readers today: “I keep my ideals because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
- “Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the 21st-century authorities on modern feminism and is a personal favorite of mine. If you’re familiar with her, you might be wondering why “We Should All be Feminists” isn’t on the list. “A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions” is a short, easy-to-read essay that not only gets to the heart of feminism in today’s world but also reminds us how to bring equality to the forefront in everyday life. When Chimamanda’s friend becomes a new mom to a baby girl, she writes Chimamanda to ask her how best to raise her daughter to be a feminist. Adichie’s response is heartwarming, insightful and powerful. With suggestions ranging from “be a full person,” “teach her to question language,” “teach her to reject likeability” and “make difference normal,” Adichie’s advice is relevant to all of us; you don’t need to be the parent of a daughter or a parent at all to read, love and live this book.
- “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf
Originally derived from lectures she presented, Woolf’s extended essay is known as one of the landmark feminist texts of the 20th century. Written in 1929, she claims that if a woman is to write fiction, she must have a wealth of money and a room of her own. After examining women’s education compared to men’s and the history of women’s everyday lives (much of which is written by men as she comes to find out), she decided to reimagine history and constructs Judith Shakespeare, William’s intelligent and equally capable sister. Woolf examines what would become of a woman living in Shakespeare’s time writing similar content. This thought-provoking essay is great for history lovers and anyone curious about some early feminist arguments.
- “I Am Malala” by Malala Yousafzai
As the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala’s memoir tells of her inspirational and harrowing journey fighting for educational rights in Pakistan. When the Taliban gained control of her city, closed schools and forced girls to stay home, Malala was one of few to speak out in favor of equal education. She recounts her childhood and tells of her father’s activism and passion for education. Following in his footsteps, Malala refused to give up her cause even after receiving death threats. In October of 2012, Malala was targeted when two men stopped her bus and shot her point-blank. With loving parents who put all their faith in their daughter even though their culture favored sons, Malala has become a symbol for peaceful protest and is an example of how one brave, young woman can make a difference in the world.
Visit the library to grab a monthly bookmark and check out these books and others! For more women’s literature recommendations, visit with our librarians in Information Services or chat with staff and place holds online on our website. Follow us on Instagram for more monthly book inspirations and hashtag: #splreads #humansofspl!