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Welcome to Yet Another Article About International Women’s Day! (To answer the inevitable question: International Men’s Day takes place on the 19th of November.) The theme for IWD 2019 is #BalanceForBetter, a call for gender balance (let’s remember this means balance across the board, reflecting the need for women to be able to access traditionally male roles and opportunities but also the need for men to able to access things typically associated with femaleness, such as fairer parental leave and more honesty around male mental health issues) while also celebrating female achievements.
I hope I’ve mentioned men enough in that first paragraph to now be able to solely focus on the ladies, and I say this only half-flippantly. As a writer and editor, I’m all too conscious that our default writer – certainly our default ‘serious’ writer – is male, along with a whole other raft of privileges (white, straight, educated, English-speaking, etc.). To note that women’s writing is often dismissed feels like an obvious thing to say, yet it’s amazing that it still happens in 2019.
The titles I’ve chosen here are books by women that reflect on what it means to live in this world as female, and are therefore often seen as only for that strange niche audience of ‘lady readers’. But really, these are books for everyone – titles both fiction and non-fiction that invite us to consider not just what it ‘means’ to be a woman but what it is to be human, as all good books do.
Judy Blume – Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
Queen of teen Judy Blume has been unveiling the mysteries of puberty to kids and teens since the late sixties. Margaret, about a new girl in town and a secret club she joins, is one of her best-known titles, and has been called everything from gloriously taboo-smashing to inappropriate and (amusingly) communist, a label Blume has never been quite sure relates to Margaret’s obsession with when she’ll get her first period or her complicated relationship with organised religion how it relates to the God she frequently addresses. For many readers it also posed the question: can you really make your breasts bigger by exercising and chanting ‘we must – we must – we must increase our bust’?
Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale
It’s slightly depressing how many dystopian novels remain relevant decades after they were first published. Atwood’s grim-but-plausible vision of a world in which women’s fertility is controlled by men has been brought to a whole new audience through the TV adaptation, as well as the many authors (most recently Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks) who have acknowledged their debt to Atwood in creating their own futuristic tales. The account of Handmaid Offred and her quest for love and freedom in a society determined to subjugate her is not only still-resonant but also gorgeously written.
Caitlin Moran – How To Be A Woman
From a philosophical and political perspective, there is nothing especially ground-breaking in Caitlin Moran’s part-memoir, part-manifesto about what it means to exist in the world as a woman today. What Moran does offer is humour, and lots of it – this is an accessible and entertaining feminist rant that articulates many of the frustrations and fears of girls and women. It’s a bit bleak that even today so many people, regardless of gender, buy into the idea of feminism as immediately equating with ‘uptight, humourless and repressed’ – almost like we’re still living in some kind of patriarchal society or something – but Moran has definitely done her bit for countering that preconception. Her highly-autobiographical fiction is also well worth a look (and has some great sexy bits – never before have I seen a hole in a pair of black tights presented as a possibly-sensual thing).
Enid Blyton – Malory Towers (series)
Many readers of Blyton may be familiar with the Famous Five and their seaside adventures defeating pirates and smugglers, in which the options for girls involve either making caves ‘cosy’ (cheers, Anne) or being fiercely determined to be a boy, which apparently means never crying (oh, George). It’s tempting to dismiss her as a bit useless on the whole ‘decent representation of women’ thing, but we must remember her school stories – in particular, Malory Towers. It’s one of Blyton’s best series and particularly notable for its consistent depiction of lead character Darrell Rivers (named for Blyton’s second husband), who has a fierce temper she struggles to control but also a good heart and a determination to do her very best at school. In Blyton-land this is not limited to grades – as headmistress Miss Grayling urges the new girls each year, it means going out into the world as trustworthy women rather than simply passing exams. We witness various characters attempt to conquer their flaws – Sally and her jealousy, Alicia and her tendency to be unsympathetic, Mary-Lou and her timidity – all within a supportive female community that treats friendships and rivalries as seriously as they deserve to be taken. The final book sees the girls bound for university or work, and a career plan as expected rather than unusual.
Rachel Simmons – The Curse of the Good Girl
Rachel Simmons has worked on projects that empower girls, particularly pre-teens, for the past twenty years. Her first book, Odd Girl Out, focused on the psychological strategies girls use to bully each other, in contrast to the more physical manifestations often seen in boys (obvious disclaimer here: to note general tendencies doesn’t mean that girls don’t also use violence or that boys don’t engage in more subtle forms of aggression like exclusion). Her second book builds on that work and explores the messages sent to girls – and often carried into adulthood – about being Nice and Good and Lovely and Sweet. Pop culture has brought some of these ideas into the mainstream – ‘I’m not bossy, I’m the boss’ – but the evidence-based work on how young people view certain personality traits as fiercely-gender-coded makes for fascinating reading.
Laurie Halse Anderson – Speak
This young adult novel celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year, and the author’s memoir-in-verse detailing the real-life experiences behind this book – and its incredible reader response – publishes later this month. Freshman Melinda (played in the movie adaptation by a pre-vampire-smitten Kristen Stewart) stays silent as often as she can. She’s learned from that thing that happened over the summer that no one really wants to hear what you have to say. She’s been punished for asking for help, ostracised by her peers. Despite this being a title that delves into one girl’s response to rape, it is also sharply funny in its depiction of high-school politics, and both humorous and heart-breaking in how it captures how friend groups so often splinter when moving to a new environment.
Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath is mostly known for being that depressed poet chick who stuck her head in an oven. She was also brilliant and bright and talented and stylish and had a summer placement at a glossy women’s magazine – the starting point for her semi-autobiographical novel about one young woman’s struggles with mental illness. (Fun Irish connection: her heroine’s experience of being rejected from a creative writing class she desperately wanted to take is based on Plath’s rejection by Cork-born Frank O’Connor. That bastard.) As with many novels and indeed memoirs that explore mental distress, though, there’s also a great deal of insight into the world and the pressures and worries that afflict so many of us, whether to the point of collapse or not.
Emer O’Toole – Girls Will Be Girls
Academic Emer O’Toole is well-versed in the language of theatre, and brings her critical understanding of performance to how gender roles are performed and played out in society. Infinitely more accessible and practical than Judith Butler, O’Toole relates personal stories of defying expected stereotypes and then offers up broader context for these issues. Like Caitlin Moran, she’s also very funny, making the reading of a Feminist Book With Something To Say a joy rather than a chore.
Charlotte Bronte – Villette
Jane Eyre, eat your heart out. Lucy Snowe is by far the more interesting and compelling protagonist in Bronte’s underappreciated psychological study of a ‘difficult woman’. Lucy is, as we might put it around these parts, ‘a bit of a wagon’; she is cold and judgemental and hides even those feelings she yearns to express for others. There is also, this being Bronte, a feel of the gothic to the town of ‘Villette’ in Belgium, where Lucy is employed as a schoolteacher and has a delightfully flirtatious relationship with the effervescent Ginevra, when she’s not mooning over her brooding male colleague who may or may not end up lost at sea. Victorian dramas, where would we be without you?
Ann M Martin – The Babysitters Club (series)
There is a reason why news of this pre-teen series being adapted to a new Netflix series has created such excitement. Originally running from 1986-2000, the book series featured 131 regular titles (plus a whole range of ‘specials’ and spin-offs) detailing the lives of several teen and pre-teen girls in small-town Connecticut. They’re all very different, but the thing that links them? Babysitting. (The books are sometimes subtle, but the series name sure isn’t.) I am aware it is a cliché to use this word in an IWD article, and so I’ve waited until the very last item on the list, but yes – this series is Empowering. Here are girls who Do Things, who are entrepreneurs by the age of twelve. In addition to setting up the club, they also solve mysteries, organise events of all kinds, and pursue their own particular passions – while still remaining imperfect human beings with problems of their own to sort out. Legends.