The feminism shelf of my bookcase runneth over with some great works about women in political and social history- from the witch trials under James I to a look at the impact of girl bands on modern music- there are some wonderful, insightful and interesting books about women’s experiences available. To celebrate International Women’s Day 2020, here are my top 5:
- Mary Beard- Women & Power: A Manifesto. Running at a little over a 100 pages, this is a succinct journey through some fascinating and all-too familiar stories of women being silenced, dismissed and ridiculed throughout the ancient world through to the modern day. I’m not particularly au fait with ancient history so I was not aware of a lot of the examples given which meant there were lots of new things to learn and suggestions for further research. Despite not being familiar with the examples referenced, one thing I was familiar with was the recurring themes of women having their voices taken away so they cannot bear witness to their own experiences (in Greek mythology, Philomela has her tongue ripped out and is left for dead by her rapist so she cannot speak of what has happened to her) and being excluded from the true positions of power that would enable them to remedy this. The parallel with today is clear and the themes that characterise women’s experiences throughout history are so universally recognisable, our sisterhood and solidarity can stretch not just across international borders but eras and epochs.
- Naomi Wolf- The Beauty Myth. Originally published in 1991, it is depressing how this book, and the observations it makes on the insidious harm of the beauty industry, is more relevant now than it was at the time it was published. The proliferation of social media; the dilution of radical feminism and the incredible cultural hegemony of raunch culture has been the perfect broth to leave us stewing in, boiling off any residual revolutionary tendencies, instead weighing womanhood down with the weight of expectation and time consuming grooming habits. The Beauty Myth probably doesn’t contain information that all women don’t secretly know anyway but there is something sobering and bloody infuriating about seeing all of the ways in which women have been objectified and fetishized compiled into one volume. If, like me, you are sick of seeing the concept of ‘empowerment’ used to sell literally every product aimed at women, then this book holds a mirror up to capitalism and the misogyny contained within it but also challenges women to think about how we are supporting ideas and industries that are contributing to our own objectification.
- Elizabeth Wurtzel- Bitch. Not without its controversies, the author of Prozac Nation delivered a book of extended essays on aspects of women in popular culture that don’t often get the direct and mature discussion that they should. I found this book impossible to put down and it felt like a bit of a guilty pleasure at times as Wurtzel is unapologetic about her mixed feelings and opinions that in some circles would have her dismissed as a ‘bad feminist’. She wrote without fear- she wasn’t patronising or tying herself up in verbal knots to avoid anything crass or offensive and her writing was so much better and more relatable for it. Her observations on the modern perception of violence against women; of the way the media have treated ‘problematic’ women and can make or break a woman’s reputation as either a saint or a whore, are astute and poignant. If you have an interest in women in the cultural arena and not just the political then I would strongly recommend this book.
- Carol Dyhouse- Girl Trouble. This book is great fun in reminding you of some of the more playful and trail blazing ‘good time girl’ subcultures and movements of the 20th century such as the flapper girls; beat girls; punks and ladettes. The empowerment of the fashion, music and social activities of various points of history remind us of the importance of popular culture and that a certain haircut or choice of outfit can sometimes make the same political statement as carrying a placard around on a street march. However, there is a reminder running through each chapter that every group of women and girls who has ever dared not to conform and has rejected the prescribed pathway to societal acceptance has not had it easy. Harassment; incarceration; discrimination and violence are reoccurring punishments for rejecting our patriarchal destiny, so complacency is ill advised and mutual support a necessary survival tactic.
- Joan Smith- The Public Woman. An uncompromising book bringing together chapters on women who span different countries; class; ages and sectors to look at the unique challenges they face as well as the common experiences they share in a patriarchal society. From women in journalism to Amy Winehouse, from WAGs to Pussy Riot, Smith examines the ways in which women around the world have tried to find strategies to navigate through an unjust system stacked against them. From those who have tried to acquiesce to its demands to those who have railed against it, the author of the seminal feminist text Misogynies highlights that where there is a will, the patriarchy will still find a way to try and knock a square peg into a round hole. This book is full of examples that can be used as ripostes to anyone who asks why we still need feminism.