10 best books by empowering women to read this International Women’s Day
From a trans woman's memoir to celebrating the lives of historic women here's our pick of the best reads to celebrate 8 March
Established in 1911, International Women’s Day aims to honour the achievements of women around the world, while recognising the progress that needs to be made to ensure all women have equal access to the opportunities and freedom that so many of us enjoy.
While every day is International Women’s Day in our mind, we can’t think of a better way to reflect on our past, present and future than by immersing ourselves in a good book.
In our roundup, we’ve included some classics from the feminist canon, some contemporary reads and a few left field selections that you may not have considered.
All have the power to move, challenge, inspire and teach us about the sheer diversity of women’s experiences and the struggles we face.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.
'Their Eyes Were Watching God' by Zora Neale Hurston, published by Virago: £8.99, Foyles
This powerhouse of American literature is also a classic African-American feminist text. Originally published in 1937, this poetic book tells the story of Janie Mae Crawford, a woman whose journey to self-realisation is all the more remarkable for being a black woman in the American South of the 1930s. Poignant, beautiful and inspirational, American novelist Alice Walker said about the book: “It speaks to me as no novel, past or present, has ever done.” High praise indeed.
'Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger' by Soraya Chemaly published by Simon & Schuster UK: £10.31, Amazon
“Our society is infinitely creative in finding ways to dismiss and pathologise women’s rage,” states Chemaly in this long overdue exploration of women’s anger. Chemaly’s timely analysis explores the multiple ways in which men are rewarded for expressing anger, while women are vilified, dismissed or mocked. Through a series of examples and research, Chemaly explains how the repression of this valid and justified emotion physically, emotionally and professionally harms us. Giving voice to the causes and potential of harnessed rage, Chemaly argues that this controversial emotion can be a motivating force and a catalyst for change. A must-read.
‘Gentleman Jack: A Biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist’ by Angela Steidele, published by Serpent's Tail: £16.99, Foyles
The story of Anne Lister – or “gentleman Jack” – is a remarkable one. This Yorkshire heiress defied all gender conventions of the day and became an intrepid traveller (she was the first woman to climb Vignemale in the Pyrenees mountain range) and lived as an unmarried woman who loved women. Famous for her extensive and explicit diaries of more than four million words, which she partly wrote in code to avoid detection, Lister was also honoured in a rainbow plaque unveiled in York last year. Read this before Sally Wainwright’s BBC’s dramatisation of Lister and her loves airs later this year.
'Everyday Sexism' by Laura Bates, published by Simon & Schuster UK: £10, Foyles
After experiencing a series of sexist incidents, activist and author Laura Bates established the Everyday Sexism project, a website and social media initiative that encouraged women to submit their experiences of everyday sexism. This project, alongside Bates’ campaigning work, led to the creation of this book, which is an excellent and comprehensive overview of the discrimination and harassment women face in all aspects of their lives, from education to politics. Guaranteed to spark a fire in your belly, this book provides a sobering insight into the reality of gender inequality in the UK.
'The Beauty Myth' by Naomi Wolf, published by Vintage: £8.58, Wordery
The notion that this book, which was originally published in 1990 – almost 30 years ago – still has such resonance today is a sobering thought indeed. Exploring women’s pursuit of bodily perfection and the impossible expectations placed upon us, Wolf examines how women’s competence is so often invariably linked to their ability to conform to narrow, rigid and often impossible definitions of “beauty”. The time and resources women are required to invest in achieving this impossible goal have simply increased since the publication of this book is also disheartening, to say the least. While The Beauty Myth isn’t without its problems – not least a failure to recognise the specific, additional challenges faced by BAME women – it’s still packed full of insights that are relevant today.
'Trans: A Memoir' by Juliet Jacques, published by Verso Books: £10.99, Waterstones
Against a backdrop of tabloid misinformation, lies and speculation about the reality of trans people’s lives and intentions, Juliet Jacques’ memoir detailing her experience of transitioning is a thoughtful and honest account of the realities of life as a trans woman. As a personal narrative, Jacques’ testimony is accessible and relatable, regardless of your gender identity, and her love for films, books and music and how she seeks solace and comfort in them is particularly relatable. Those seeking a more general introduction to trans issues would do well to refer to Kate Bornstein’s classic text Gender Outlaw or, for a specific look at the misogyny faced by trans women, Julie Serano’s Whipping Girl provides an excellent overview.
'Becoming Unbecoming' by Una published by Myriad Editions: £10.72, Wordery
In 2018, Sabrina by Nick Drnaso became the first ever graphic novel to be nominated for the Man Booker prize. Many graphic novels fans wondered why it had taken so long for such a diverse medium to be recognised in this way. Becoming Unbecoming by Una is an excellent example of the power of illustration and text to absorb a reader and provoke an emotional response. Set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper manhunt, this account of gender violence explores violence, shame and what it means to live in a culture when male violence goes unquestioned and unpunished. A devastating read.
'She: A Celebration of 100 Renegade Women' by Harriet Hall, published by Headline Home: £9.38, Amazon
If you’re searching for inspiration, The Independent's own Harriet Hall’s collection of bold, brave and brilliant women throughout history will provide it in spades. From Cleopatra to Beyoncé, Malala Yousafzai to Michelle Obama, this accessible compendium of concise essays about remarkable women you know – and those you’re yet to discover – is an absolute treat. Complimented with gorgeous illustrations by Alice Skinner, this book is perfect for dipping in and out of and learning more about our illustrious foremothers.
‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge, published by Bloomsbury: £6.29, Amazon
This best-selling and award-winning book came top in many of the best books of 2018 lists – and for good reason. Combining personal experience, case studies and historical testimonies, Eddo-Lodge provides an incisive examination of the nature of racism and the extent to which this continues to impact people’s lives. Nuanced, accessible and illuminating, the seven essays in this book are absolutely essential reading for anyone wanting to understand more about inequality in our world.
'Comfort Zones' by Sonder and Tell, published by Jigsaw: £9.99, Amazon
Yomi Adegoke, Zing Tsjeng and Emma Gannon are just a handful of the excellent writers contributing to this anthology of essays, letters and stories exploring the concept of leaving your comfort zone. In an unorthodox move, the women’s retailer Jigsaw is publishing this collection, which is being sold in aid of the charity Women for Women International: a charity working to support women survivors of war. Taking inspiration from the bravery of the women the organisation supports, the anthology aims to explore the idea of pushing boundaries, both big and small. Contributors have donated their time and skills to bring this project to life and all proceeds from the book will go towards the work of Women for Women International. Find inspiration, while supporting an excellent cause: it’s a win-win scenario.
Verdict: Books by empowering women
While there are plenty of books on this list to inspire and galvanise readers into action, Their Eyes Were Watching God is truly an exceptional work. Despite it's publication date, this beautifully lyrical work continues to both challenge and comfort the reader. Neale Hurston's book is incomparable – a timeless masterpiece. Non-fiction readers looking for an introduction to feminist activism would do well to start with Laura Bates' Everyday Sexism.
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