Meet Our Readers
As part of my work with UN Women I have started reading as many books and essays about equality as I can get my hands on.
Struck by the parallels between Emma’s twenty-first century feminist bookshelf and Georgiana’s Victorian one, we were thrilled when Emma agreed to act as one of our six guest curators. Emma’s nominated books are also featured on her ongoing Shared Shelf project, and you can find out more about it here.
The Argonauts (2015)
‘In reading The Argonauts, you are rewarded with an expansive way of considering identity, caretaking, and freedom – along with a liberation from what Maggie calls ‘the demand that anyone live a life that’s all one thing.’
It’s the story of her relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, who is fluidly gendered. It’s about their romance, the birth of their son, the death of Harry’s mother and their changing bodies, as Maggie becomes pregnant and Harry undergoes surgery. But it’s also about inclusion and the powers and shortfalls of language.’
My Life on the Road (2015)
‘Gloria emphasises in all of her work the need for solidarity and community; ” are linked,” she says, “not ranked”. Reading groups can be that link between people, and I’m very proud to have added this book to my shelf.’
Half the Sky (2008)
Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
‘Half the Sky depicts, in eye-opening detail, the various cultures and customs that suppress women, and gives a voice to those individuals who need to be heard the most. Traversing Africa and Asia, Kristof and WuDunn introduce us to some incredibly strong women and describe their stories of suffering and survival. Most importantly, the book shines a spotlight on how these women were able to stand up and transform their lives. Through their inspiring examples, we learn that the key to enabling change is in unleashing women’s potential. Kristof and WuDunn dare us, as readers, to join the cause and Half the Sky shows us how, by doing even a very small amount, we each have the power to change other women’s lives.’
The Vagina Monologues (1996)
‘Just say the title and, even now, the words feel radical. But has the world moved on in twenty years since Eve Ensler first performed her ground-breaking show – or are there still aspects of women’s sexuality we can’t talk about, through our own fears or because others try to stop us? Do we think art can change the world?’
Persepolis: The Story of Childhood (2000)
‘As Iran enters another important period of change, I think this is a particularly good time to pick up Persepolis. Satrapi’s deceptively simple, almost whimsical drawings belie the seriousness and rich complexity of her story – but it’s also very funny too.
Satrapi grew up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and its aftermath; the book is the story of her childhood. Through Marji’s youthful (though not-always-innocent) eyes and mind, we see a turbulent moment in history unfold, and we witness the tremendous impact that local and global events can have on even the most intimate moments of personal lives. From Persepolis, we get a very real sense of what it was like to be a woman in Iran during this intense time of cultural and political transition.’
Mom & Me & Mom (2013)
‘Maya Angelou’s final work was published when she was 85 years old. It was the first book to focus on her mother, Vivian Baxter, who abandoned Angelou when she was a child. The story is about their complicated relationship, but also the special connection between mother and child: both women found a way to move on and form a profound and enduring bond of love and support.
Baxter cuts a fiercely unapologetic figure – imperfect but admirable – and we discover not just how she had a hand in Angelou’s evolution as a black woman, but also in her feminist perspective, her independence and self-awareness. All this contributed to her unique way of looking at the world and the way she expressed herself on the page. As a result, this is perhaps the greatest window onto what shaped Angelou as a writer and poet, and a fitting end to a lifetime of amazing work.’
Women Who Run with Wolves (1992)
Clarissa Pinkola Estés
‘Wolves and women share many qualities: playfulness, strength, curiosity, bravery. They are adaptive, and each care deeply for their young. But both wolves and women have suffered a similar fate: they are hounded, harassed, exhausted, marginalized, and accused of being devious or of little value.
This book explores the Wild Woman archetype, and suggests that we, as women, have lost connection with our natural instincts. But how do we reconnect with our deepest, most true selves when today’s world demands us to conform to ridiculous expectations? Estes retells ancient myths and fairy tales from around the world, as well as her intensely personal story of growing up in northern Michigan where she could listen to the howling wolves. In doing so, she shines a light on a path which leads us back to our natural state – and helps us restore the power we carry within us.’
The Color Purple (1982)
‘Walker makes the invisible visible, and redeems people who seem irredeemable. And she makes every reader feel visible and redeemable, too.
I read this book in two sittings and have since told EVERYONE I know to watch the film.’
How to Be A Woman (2011)
‘I read this on a plane from London to New York: I laughed out loud and cried so much, I think the whole of my cabin (airline staff included) thought I was losing my mind.’
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
‘The Handmaid’s Tale – is a gripping read, but it won’t make you feel comfortable. It is set in a dystopian future where a society (which was once clearly the USA) is ruled by a fundamentalist religion that controls women’s bodies. Because fertility rates are low, certain women – who have proved they are fertile – are given to the Commanders of the ‘Republic of Gilead’ as ‘handmaids’ in order to bear children for them when their wives cannot. The novel purports to be the first-person account of a handmaid, Offred, who describes her life under this totalitarian regime. Flashbacks to her past, when she took it completely for granted that she could be a working mother and have an equal relationship with her husband, show how easy it was for women’s rights to be revoked once a period of social chaos arose. As tension builds, the reader desperately hopes that the underground resistance will come to Offred’s aid and rescue her.
Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale over thirty years ago now, but it is a book that has never stopped fascinating readers because it articulates so vividly what it feels like for a woman to lose power over her own body. Like George Orwell’s 1984 (a novel that Atwood was inspired by) its title alone summons up a whole set of ideas, even for those who haven’t read it. As Atwood has said in an interview: ‘It has become a sort of tag for those writing about shifts towards policies aimed at controlling women, and especially women’s bodies and reproductive functions: “Like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale.”‘
Atwood has called The Handmaid’s Tale ‘speculative fiction’, but also says that all the practises described in the novel are ‘drawn from the historical record’ – i.e. are things that have actually taken place in the past. Could any of Atwood’s speculations take place again, or are some of them taking place already? Are the women in the book powerless in their oppression or could they be doing more to fight it? Reading this book encourages us to read beyond the ‘tag’ – to think about how its dystopian vision relates to the world of 2017.’