Elizabeth Filippouli recommends some of the most influential feminist books
The prosaic daily routines of the past two years, a mix of house quarantine, lockdowns, and Covid-related chaos, have kept us away from friends, colleagues, and the opportunity to meet new people. Awful, to put it lightly. In this state of confusion and isolation many of us exhausted ourselves by overthinking and overanalysing things, simply out of need to decipher the foggy reality around us. I will join in with anyone who credits books and reading for keeping our minds stimulated and our lives balanced. In my case: reading has rescued me from lockdown-triggered anxiety bouts, while missing family and the physical presence of good friends.
Being game for stories and writings of exceptional women, I never say no to revisiting feminist books, especially as the pandemic hasn’t made this world a friendlier place for women. With domestic violence on the rise, working mothers losing their jobs while they juggle mounting domestic demands, women’s health and economic wellbeing have been badly affected. Probably this triggered my need to remind myself of the struggles and -very importantly- the victories of women over the centuries.
I always felt that the West pays more attention to Western authors. Fortunately, this is changing. Listening to the plurality of voices out there broadens our perspectives on diversity but also equips us with a necessary cultural understanding that fills our knowledge gaps. I find that reading women authors and activists from different cultures keeps me inspired, motivated. It also helps in discovering our similarities and a common vision to make this world a better place for everyone, regardless of gender, culture, or age.
Social equality and feminist victories will come at a price, but here are ten works that will motivate you, inspire you and enrich your thinking around women’s issues and feminism, taking your own ideas towards new routes.
1. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)
In her own liberal intellectual community Wollstonecraft was praised for this ground-breaking work. Well, it was a different story beyond that closed group: Mary’s ideas unsettled, if not infuriated, her wider social circle, and the conservative English society. A contemporary writer, the art historian, Horace Walpole called her a ‘hyena in petticoats’!
More of a fearless tiger, Mary’s ideas laid the foundation for the feminism movement in England and the West. Rest in Power, Mary!
2. The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)
The Awakening is one of the first feminist works in American literature. The novel is about a woman's transformation from traditional housewife and mother to an individual with an independent purpose that stretched beyond her family, as she was tracing her route to self-fulfillment. It evoked significant controversy and was censored because of the protagonist’s, overtly rebellious nature. Edna scandalised and annoyed the conformist society of the time. Well worth reading.
3. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)
Every woman requires her own space, a space where she can devote time to uninterrupted writing, this is what Woolf argued in A Room of One's Own a work that has been critical to the feminist movement and the study of women's literature. Women rarely had these privileges during Woolf's day and sadly, it hasn’t changed much today. Yet we can try to have our own virtual space, a personal headspace inside our minds, where we reconnect with our inner self, we take time to reflect and restore the dialogue with the deeper voice within.
4. Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarisa Pinkola Estés (1992)
What a fascinating book. Estés tells a story about the ancient Greek goddess Baubo, depicted as a headless torso with nipples for eyes and a vulva for a mouth. Isn’t the symbolism incredible! Baubo, the free and brave wild woman, is a vagina goddess that gives a good run for their money to all sexist, phallocratic, ‘pussy-grabbing’ idiots out there.
5. A Daughter of Isis by Nawal Al Saadawi (1999)
What a woman, what a life, what a legacy. Saadawi's autobiography takes us back to the 1940s, covering her youth and early adulthood in her birthplace, Egypt. Isis is a Goddess figure who Saadawi imaginatively inhabits, as her own role model. Nawal is the "freedom warrior" fighting against social injustice, restraint, and emotional control as means to perpetuate repression through religious fear, cultural clichés, and political interventions.
6. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (2007)
Hosseini’s book weaves together the lives of two Afghan women Mariam and Laila and their journeys through tragedy, survival, hope and faith. It portrays the stark contrast between the natural and cultural beauties of Afghanistan and the everyday ugliness that Afghan women are exposed to due to war, violence, and oppression. The novel also features a feminist male character in the form of Laila’s father. Shout out to all feminist fathers, we need more of you.
7. This Child Will be Great by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2010)
This is the extraordinary story of an African woman, who became a world leader and transformed her country. In November 2005 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected Liberia’s first democratically elected President and Africa's first woman president. Her country was a wreck after many horrific years of conflict and economic devastation. Sirleaf's election marked a watershed moment in Africa, where patriarchal rule has left African women on the side-lines to fetch water, carry logs, tend farms, or bear the children of their rapists.
8. Kim Jiyoung Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo (2016)
This best seller was the debut novel of Cho Nam-Joo, telling the story of a young stay-at-home mother driven to a psychotic breakdown due to the everyday horrors she suffered, the subtle and persistent horrors of systemic misogyny. Upon its publication in South Korea in 2016, the book sold more than a million copies and propelled a feminist wave.
9. The Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak (2017)
In this novel, Elif brings to us the story of a Muslim Turkish woman’s internal battles to come to grips with the thorns of Turkish bourgeoisie and politics. Peri explores her own identity as she tries to integrate into Western society and comes across the overlaps and differences with her closest girlfriends, whose spiritual beliefs and faith take them towards different directions. Elif explores how women’s dreams and life plans can be crashed not only under the weight of religious fundamentalism, but also in secularist societies.
10. Women vs. Capitalism by Vicky Pryce (2019)
In Women vs. Capitalism, British economist Vicky Pryce argues that our social and economic structures penalise women for having children, pushing them aside. Not surprising. When the system’s DNA is predominantly male, it will inevitably protect and perpetuate male supremacy. Vicky strikes a blow at our consciousness reminding us of our responsibility to do something about the 54,000 women who lose their jobs annually because of their choice to have a baby.
Elizabeth Filippouli is a journalist and the editor of From Women to the World: Letters for a New Century published by I.B. Tauris in July 2020. She is also the Founder of the Global Thinkers Forum, a platform supporting women and youth through mentoring programmes.