15 Books That Changed Women Forever
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Must Reads1 of 16
By Jessica Grose for ELLE
When E. Jean Carroll interviewed Fear of Flying author Erica Jong for ELLE’s November issue, she mentioned a few books that "gave women ideas," classics of gender studies. While there are a lot of excellent lists of must-read literature for women, E. Jean's list got us thinking about other books that could be in the category of "giving women ideas." Which is to say, the following 15 books were culture bombs that sparked discussion and challenged mainstream beliefs at the time in which they were written.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman2 of 16
By Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)
In the 18th Century, the notion of educating a woman was considered radical. Wollstonecraft argued that women deserved to be in the public sphere—no small feat at the time.
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Pride & Prejudice3 of 16
By Jane Austen (1813)
England of the 19th Century was incredibly stratified. in Pride & Prejudice, Austen subtly satirized class-based snobbery, and though she doesn't subvert the system entirely, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Lizzie Bennet remain one of the most beloved couples in English literature.
A Room of One's Own4 of 16
By Virginia Woolf (1929)
The notion that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," is now so ingrained it's difficult to think back to when such a statement was revolutionary. But Woolf's argument set forth in A Room of One's Own would ultimately become a rallying cry for mid-century feminist intellectuals.
The Second Sex5 of 16
By Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
Considered the jump-off for the second wave of feminism, de Beauvoir pulled from multiple disciplines to explain the subordinate status of women throughout history. The Second Sex was so controversial it was placed on the Vatican's index of forbidden books.
The Golden Notebook6 of 16
By Doris Lessing (1962)
As Kate Winick put it in a post earlier this month on the occasion of Lessing's death, The Golden Notebook "deals with homosexuality, incest, rape, interracial love affairs, infidelity, and casual sex with a searing, honest sensuality," something that might be old hat today but was certainly radical in the early '60s.
Sex & the Single Girl7 of 16
By Helen Gurley Brown (1962)
Though a lot of HGB's advice seems dated now (cook for your man, don't eat and for god sake don't let your arms get too flabby?!), in Sex and the Single Girl she encouraged young women to play around and to truly enjoy sex, several years before the sexual revolution of the late '60s and early '70s.
The Feminine Mystique8 of 16
By Betty Friedan (1963)
In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan coined the phrase "the problem that has no name" to describe the housewife's lament. She taught middle class women that marriage, children and a neat suburban home were not always the path to fulfillment.
Ariel9 of 16
By Sylvia Plath (1965)
She might be best known for her roman à clef The Bell Jar, but Plath's final, posthumously published book of poetry, Ariel, was far more transgressive in its way. It gave women permission to be deeply, irrevocably angry.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings10 of 16
By Maya Angelou (1969)
The personal is political is a cliché of the second wave, but Maya Angelou's first autobiography, which covers her youth and teenage years, embodies the phrase. She wrote about rape, teen pregnancy, and racism in gorgeous prose that raised consciousness and inspired so many women writers.
Fear of Flying11 of 16
by Erica Jong (1973)
Forty years after Jong introduced the term "zipless fuck" into the American lexicon, her novel Fear of Flying still feels sexy, devious and true. She was exploring non-monogamy decades before it became even marginally acceptable.
The Woman Warrior12 of 16
By Maxine Hong Kingston (1975)
Kingston mixed Chinese folk stories with memoir and her family's stories to explore her experience as a Chinese-American woman in Woman Warrior. She grappled with assimilation and the expectations of her family, and bent genre in a way that's still fresh.
The White Album13 of 16
By Joan Didion (1979)
Arguably the best female essayist of the modern era, Didion stuns with this collection. She catalogues her nervous breakdown in the titular essay, but she also takes on the women's movement, Georgia O’Keefe, and Ronald Reagan. Her infamous packing list alone makes The White Album necessary reading.
Ain't I a Woman?14 of 16
By bell hooks (1981)
Ain't I a Woman is a foundational text of intersectional feminism, explaining how the feminist movement failed to speak to women of color and the working class. hooks continues to be instrumental in calling out mainstream feminism for its racism and classism.
Paula15 of 16
By Isabel Allende (1995)
Allende is best known for her novel The House of the Spirits, but her memoir, Paula, is truly heartrending. It is in the form of a letter to her daughter Paula, who had fallen into a coma because she suffered from a rare disorder called porphyria. It is far reaching and revealing, and Allende discusses religion, politics, old lovers and her mother. The book begins thusly: "Listen Paula. I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost."
The Conflict16 of 16
By Elisabeth Badinter (2012)
Elisabeth Badinter believes that the trend of naturalism in motherhood—years of breastfeeding, co-sleeping and baby wearing—is just a stylish way to keep women down. You might not agree with Badinter that the ladies who started the La Leche League were "ayatollahs of breast-feeding," but you have to respect her willingness to start a fire with The Conflict.