When during my adolescence Madame Bovary, Virginia Woolf, The Handmaid’s Tale and even Matilda sparked my first inquiries about what it means to be a woman, I couldn’t imagine that a few years later I would be establishing Code it Like a Girl and I would be nominated as a Student Ambassador for the UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day. Because of my aforementioned roles, I had, but I also very much wanted, to research a lot about women in technology and women’s empowerment in general.
Going through a wide range of articles, videos and podcasts I came across women’s studies and feminism. It wasn’t that hard given that our virtual era has brought feminism into the spotlight, thus rendering it more approachable to millennials. Feminism can be a complex issue, about which many papers have been written. However, before immersing myself in those academic papers I decided to choose a smooth introduction into the field.
As a result, this summer I set myself an ambitious challenge: to read as many contemporary books on women and/or feminism as possible. It has definitely been a thought-provoking journey that made me reexamine many of my views and has helped me better understand womanhood. After searching for suggestions and reading a total of 10 books I present to you my final recommendations ranked in the order I read them and of course I am looking forward to your comments or feedback!
1. How to Be a Woman - Caitlin Moran
Who: Caitlin Moran is an awarded British author and journalist at The Times. She won her first writing contest at the age of 13 and hasn’t stopped receiving accolades ever since.
What: Is there really some sort of guidelines you need to follow in order to be considered a proper woman? Well, if you have even the slightest doubt that something like this exists or should exist, this book is going to prove you 100% wrong. Don’t expect it to be comfortable. Menstruation, masturbation, bras, abortions, sexism in the workplace and Lady Gaga are among the topics Caitlin Moran chooses to boldly examine in her book. In a diary-like style we follow her journey as she transitions from an awkward teenager to a woman and in the meantime we can’t help but feel related to her thoughts about femininity and its consequences. Her personal confessions are found out to be our shared experiences. Her commentary is fresh and funny, interesting but also real, without any intention to be pretentious and this is the main reason why I loved it. It takes courage to show this level of vulnerability and talk about intimate issues and as it seems courage is something Caitlin Moran doesn’t lack in. I confess that after How to Be a Woman I got a little bit addicted to her sense of humour so I’m trying to make time in order to read her Moranifesto and How to Build a Girl as well.
1. “So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your pants.
a) Do you have a vagina? and b) Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.”
2. “It’s difficult to see the glass ceiling because it’s made of glass. Virtually invisible. What we need is for more birds to fly above it and shit all over it, so we can see it properly.”
3. “Overeating is the addiction of choice of carers, and that’s why it’s come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions. It’s a way of fucking yourself up while still remaining fully functional, because you have to. Fat people aren’t indulging in the “luxury” of their addiction making them useless, chaotic, or a burden. Instead, they are slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn’t inconvenience anyone. And that’s why it’s so often a woman’s addiction of choice. All the quietly eating mums. All the KitKats in office drawers. All the unhappy moments, late at night, caught only in the fridge light.”
2. My Life on the Road - Gloria Steinem
Who: Gloria Steinem is the Holy Grail of feminism since the late 1960s. She is a social activist, organiser, writer, lecturer, co-founder of Ms. magazine, while she has also helped form the National Women’s Political Caucus. To make it short, go google her right now!
What: Not your ordinary kind of inspiring story. In her autobiography, Gloria Steinem introduces us to her nomadic way of life and activism. Her adventures as a movement leader and campaigner are impressive and since I didn’t know anything about her before, this book made it perfectly clear to me why she is such a well-known feminist icon. Her vignettes, all of them unfolding around her perpetual travels, range from interactions with taxi drivers, the 1977 National Women’s Conference and her speeches at universities to intersectional feminism, religion and grassroots activism. Gloria Steinem has met many significant people and now we vividly encounter them too. But this book doesn’t just offer insight on the personal memories of Gloria Steinem, it also gives a glimpse on the escalation of the entire movement for gender equality, thus serving as motivation for our future feminist demands. Sometimes I felt it was difficult to follow the narrative because I wasn’t familiar with the historical context, but don’t let this distract you from the moving and passionate reminiscences. In any case, don’t forget to read her significant dedication at the end of the book.
1. “One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak.”
2. “Perhaps our need to escape into media is a misplaced desire for the journey.”
3. “When humans are ranked instead of linked, everyone loses.”
3. Bad Feminist: Essays - Roxane Gay
Who: Roxane Gay writes actively about gender in different publications. She is the co-editor of PANK magazine and an associate professor of English at Purdue University.
What: This is a collection of passionate essays whose topics revolve around impostor syndrome, female friendship, likeability of women in life and fiction, pop culture, rape culture and sexual violence. Initially, I didn’t like the fact that Roxane Gay supports that she is a “bad feminist” and this is better than being no feminist at all but at the same time she harshly criticises many other women trying to do the same thing: be as good feminists as they can. Neither Caitlin Moran nor Lena Dunham claim to have found the one and only feminist dogma, so I don’t understand why they should be tested against an ideal sense of feminism.
Later on I came to see that all of these thoughts are trivial. When Roxane Gay describes her own incident of sexual abuse I am focused back on what really is important. TV shows, books or the feminist spectrum, none of these matter when we think of the loathsome abuses many more women than expected have faced and are still facing by men. To conclude, Roxane Gay unapologetically gives the answer herself “Like most people, I’m full of contradictions.” and I choose to face this book as a starting point for further contemplation, as food for thought rather than definite viewpoints. For an abbreviated introduction to her viewpoint, watch Roxane Gay’s 100% awesome TED talk “Confessions of a bad feminist”.
1. “Feminists are celebrating our victories and acknowledging our privilege when we have it. We’re simply refusing to settle. We’re refusing to forget how much work there is yet to be done. We’re refusing to relish the comforts we have at the expense of the women who are still seeking comfort.”
2. “There’s no difference between forcing women to wear hijab and forcing them to not wear. The ultimate decision must be that of the individual.” Western opinions on the hijab or burkas are rather irrelevant. We don’t get to decide for Muslim women what does or does not oppress them, no matter how highly we think of ourselves.”
3. “We need to stop playing Privilege or Oppression Olympics because we’ll never get anywhere until we find more effective ways of talking through difference. We should be able to say, “This is my truth,” and have that truth stand without a hundred clamoring voices shouting, giving the impression that multiple truths cannot coexist.”
4. Men Explain Things to Me - Rebecca Solnit
What: Have you ever heard of the term “mansplaining”? It is said (but also doubted) that we owe the term to Rebecca Solnit and her phrase “Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about.” This is a short but powerful collection of essays on topics such as male arrogance, gender based violence, female nonexistence and rape culture whereas the harmful side of female silencing remains as the central idea. Her arguments are reasonable and solid, her writing rational and based on facts. Rebecca Solnit pays attention to “details”, which even though the patriarchal culture would find trivial and unworthy of exploration, constitute major civil rights issues. This book is concise but its impact is long lasting. I was so profoundly upset by the statistics presented that I kept bearing them in mind for many days, therefore be prepared for doses of unpolished truth.
1. “But explaining men still assume I am, in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor, an empty vessel to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge.”
2. “Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined.”
3. “Billions of women must be out there on this seven-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever.”
5. Yes Please - Amy Poehler
Who: Amy Poehler is a successful comedian known mostly for her work on Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation. She is also an executive producer and the co-founder of the website Smart Girls (which has also featured Code it Like a Girl, remember?)
What: Amy Poehler gives us a charming scrapbook of her life lessons and anecdotes with the use of haikus, photos, guest chapters, notes and essays. The book is divided in three sections: “Say Whatever You Want”, “Do Whatever You Want”, “Be Whoever You Are”. Childhood, career, sex, drugs, parenthood, celebrities: everything is on the table. It sometimes seem disordered but this is exactly what makes it feel like a friendly chit-chat. Amy Poehler, apart from being funny as it was expected, is flawed, humble and not afraid to share awkward or embarrassing stories with the readers. This level of candidness and relatability, I think,is the key differentiator in the entire reading experience. Apart from the memoir part, the book is inclined towards self-help kind of advice, which would probably seem good to a younger me but the 23-year-old me preferred the storytelling and skipped the advisory sections. I think that from this new “genre” of female comedian memoirs I prefer the book Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham. Yes Please is undoubtedly pleasant and entertaining, so it is a safe choice even if you are not a big Amy Poehler fan.
1. “You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look.”
2. “That is the motto women should constantly repeat over and over again. Good for her! Not for me.”
3. “It’s very hard to have ideas. It’s very hard to put yourself out there, it’s very hard to be vulnerable, but those people who do that are the dreamers, the thinkers and the creators. They are the magic people of the world.”
Who: Naomi Wolf is an author, journalist and former political advisor to Al Gore and Bill Clinton. She is the cofounder of DailyClout and the Board of The Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership.
What: Do you ever catch yourself having thoughts like “Oh, what is the right size my thighs should have? Are they too big? What can I do to make them right? Do you think that men like them? Let’s spend 3 hours on the internet searching how am I going to fit in the right body proportions.” On a different level, many women dedicate an important amount of their time worrying about their looks and comparing themselves to the ideal standards of beauty. This dense book deals essentially with the way that different institutions force modern concepts of beauty in order to benefit themselves and restrict women. Some of Naomi Wolf’s main ideas are that a woman’s value is determined by her appearance, that as women tend to gain more and more rights they constitute a threat for male power and that women magazines are deteriorating the situation. Naomi Wolf expresses an aggressive, emotional rhetoric backed up by presented research and data. There are flaws both on the style and the content but the central argument is worth examining and for this reason, this once international bestseller still remains a classic reference for feminists. This book needs a lot of patience ( I like to call it the “feminist burpees”) because, despite the interesting ideas on the table, its writing is tiring and long, so if you want to focus somewhere, my favourite chapters are the ones on “Hunger” and “Sex”.
1. “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
2. “What editors are obliged to appear to say that men want from women is actually what their advertisers want from women.”
3. “Culture stereotypes women to fit the myth by flattening the feminine into beauty-without-intelligence or intelligence-without-beauty; women are allowed a mind or a body but not both.”
What: Jessica Valenti tries to make feminism approachable to more young women and highlight its significance in today’s world. From my experience, her efforts are more than successful. She is apparently sick and tired of the negative connotations that make women afraid of the anti-cool “feminist” label. Consequently, in simple and direct (often slang) language she breaks down the common stereotypes about feminists. She talks about serious issues such as sex education, the influence of pop culture in women, rape culture, women’s reproductive rights, sexism in the workplace, love affairs and shortly every aspect of life under a feminist lens. I particularly enjoyed her contribution in the discussion about how much sexism hurts not only women but men as well and in general this cohesive book grabbed my still attention till the end. It is very informative if you are now starting to become acquainted with basic feminist concerns.
1. “According to pop culture, women are either searching for a man, with a man, or getting over one.”
2. “It’s important to remember that all of these stereotypes and scare tactics serve a specific purpose. If you think feminism is all about big fat ugly dykes, or is dead or racist, then you’ll stay far the hell away from it. ‘Cause don’t forget-there are a lot of people benefiting from your feeling like shit about yourself. Think about it: If you don’t feel fat, you won’t buy firming lotions and dieting pills and the like. If you don’t feel stupid, you might speak out against all the screwy laws that adversely affect women. It pays-literally-to keep women half there. And god forbid you get involved in anything that would make you wonder why in the world women are having surgery to make their vaginas “prettier”.”
3. “Value yourself for what the media doesn’t - your intelligence, your street smarts, your ability to play a kick-ass game of pool, whatever. So long as it’s not just valuing yourself for your ability to look hot in a bikini and be available to men, it’s an improvement.”
What: Is it possible for a woman be a “chauvinist pig”? Ariel Levy examines how women hurt themselves and the feminist movement by perpetuating the “raunch” culture. When women objectify themselves and confuse explicit sexuality with empowerment, we have a far longer road to go when it comes to sexual equality and real female liberation. She highlights how mainstreamed stripping and pornography have influenced our pop culture and the way we think about female sexuality. Truth be told, I disliked the way she approached trans issues and the fact that despite the extensive analysis of the problematic situation there are no solutions offered. However, it should be recognised that the topic Ariel Levy has chosen is a poorly examined one and she exposes it in an accessible and entertaining way, so I think that her contribution to the feminist discussion is more than essential and that his book could prove useful for discussions with teens now entering a porn-overwhelmed culture.
1. “These are not stories about girls getting what they want sexually, they are stories about girls gaining acclaim socially, for which their sexuality is a tool.”
2. “There is a widespread assumption that simply because my generation of women has the good fortune to live in a world touched by the feminist movement, that means everything we do is magically imbued with its agenda.”
3. “Passion isn’t the point. The glossy, overheated thumping of sexuality in our culture is less about connection than consumption. Hotness has become our cultural currency, and a lot of people spend a lot of time and a lot of regular, green currency trying to acquire it. Hotness is not the same thing as beauty, which has been valued throughout history. Hot can mean popular. Hot can mean talked about. But when it pertains to women, hot means two things in particular: fuckable and salable. The literal job criteria for our role models? The stars of the sex industry.”
9. We Should All Be Feminists - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Who: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an awarded Nigerian novelist and recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
What: This essay is based on the writer’s same-titled TEDx talk. Short and sweet, personal and deep, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses her personal experiences in Nigeria and USA in order to support that women still face a lot of inequalities, although gender equity would be in the entire society’s best interest. Her feminism is inclusive and intersectional, her storytelling witty and empathetic. She looks closely and serenely at the meaning of feminism in the 21st century and its cultural and social correlations, eventually leaving the readers, regardless their sex, with a unifying message against female discriminations. This feminist manifesto is so convincing and accessible that everyone would benefit from giving it a try.
1. “The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations.”
2. “I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and my femininity. And I want to be respected in all of my femaleness because I deserve to be.”
3. “What struck me—with her and with many other female American friends I have—is how invested they are in being “liked.” How they have been raised to believe that their being likeable is very important and that this “likeable” trait is a specific thing. And that specific thing does not include showing anger or being aggressive or disagreeing too loudly. We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them. But the reverse is not the case. We don’t teach boys to care about being likeable. We spend too much time telling girls that they cannot be angry or aggressive or tough, which is bad enough, but then we turn around and either praise or excuse men for the same reasons. All over the world, there are so many magazine articles and books telling women what to do, how to be and not to be, in order to attract or please men. There are far fewer guides for men about pleasing women.”
Who: Lena Dunham is an awarded filmmaker and actress, creator and star of the HBO series Girls and co-creator of Lenny Letter. In 2013 she was named one of Time’s most influential people in the world.
What: I had already read some excerpts from this book but never before had I read it cover to cover, even though I can’t overstate how much I appreciate all of Lena Dunham’s works. Love her or hate her, Lena Dunham is characterised as the “voice” of her generation and her tell-all book is not an exception to that. This is a collection of personal essays divided in five sections: “Love & Sex,” “Body,” “Friendship,” “Work” and “Big Picture.” The quality of her acerbic writing, the countless funny moments, the intimacy of her stories and their cathartic effect create a sometimes inconvenient but always original reading experience. Lena Dunham is in a constant exploration of her ever-changing self and the world and doesn’t mince her words at all when revealing her reflections. Anxiety and sex are recurrent issues and of course if you like the Hannah Horvath character of Girls, there is no chance you will be disappointed by the book (plus it is a nicely designed one). If you want more of Lena Dunham’s advice, you can watch the YouTube channel she has launched for the book.
1. “There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman.”
2. “Ambition is a funny thing: it creeps in when you least expect it and keeps you moving, even when you think you want to stay put.”
3. “When someone shows you how little you mean to them and you keep coming back for more, before you know it you start to mean less to yourself. You are not made up of compartments! You are one whole person! What gets said to you gets said to all of you, ditto what gets done. Being treated like shit is not an amusing game or a transgressive intellectual experiment. It’s something you accept, condone, and learn to believe you deserve. This is so simple. But I tried so hard to make it complicated.”
There at least 10 more books I would like to read in order for this article to be complete, but since I didn’t manage to, there will be more reviews coming soon. Until then, your feedback is more than welcome. Additionally, if you would like me to review a specific book that you are curious about or you just want a second opinion, find me on social media and let me know!
See you soon,