18 Books That Changed How We Felt About Ourselves As Women
May 1, 2014 3:23 PM   Subscribe

The Huffington Post does a surprisingly decent, nostalgic roundup of 18 books women readers say "shaped the way they thought about themselves as young women," from Jane Eyre to Tori Amos.
posted by DarlingBri (44 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
Here's an unfortunate story about that edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves: the cover was badly photoshopped (which you can see up close when you look at it) to include the woman furthest to the left and the woman second to the right. After the picture was taken, the editors decided that there were too many thin, white women, and so (badly) added the thicker white woman and the middle-aged asian woman to compensate.
posted by likeatoaster at 3:42 PM on May 1, 2014

Speaking of weird photoshop decisions, "our bodies our selves your tax dollars" is not the original. It seems somebody is very angry about taxes.
posted by idiopath at 3:53 PM on May 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

idiopath: "It seems somebody is very angry about taxes."

Or an editor isn't paying attention.
posted by chavenet at 3:55 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd be thrilled if more of my tax dollars went to promoting and distributing sex ed materials.
posted by nat at 4:02 PM on May 1, 2014 [16 favorites]

It IS HuffPo... Never assume malice, just incompetence enabling malice.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:03 PM on May 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

Here's an unfortunate story about that edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves

There have been weird issues with every edition, but I read it first as a very young woman -- maybe 9 or 10 -- and I re-read it for the next five or six years. It not only sated my curiosity about everything from childbirth to sex, it very strongly shaped my feminism. Conversely, The Bluest Eye just traumatised me with the hopelessness of the victimisation and entrapment. I'm not sure I'll ever get over that book, even 30 years later.

Of all of the books on that list, I probably have the most uncomplicated love for The Red Tent, which I read in a university course. It helped me to take my purely political feminist sensibilities and apply them to a religious and cultural past that hadn't seemed open to me before.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:05 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Amen, The Women's Room.
posted by limeonaire at 4:10 PM on May 1, 2014

Yes! Ella Enchanted and Dealing with Dragons were big favorites when I was a kid.

My parents did an excellent job at helping me find great books with interesting girl and women protagonists - everything from The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle to Caddie Woodlawn to Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry to Alanna. And so on. And nobody told me that Fili, Kili, Merry, or Pippin were supposed to be male until I read Tolkien myself.

My awesome little brother is 6 years younger than me. I was complaining to him about the Star Wars cast the other night, and he told me that after inheriting my book collection as a little kid, he thought you should really be a girl to have the really cool adventures. I'm sure that some of the conversation was about placating his grumpy big sister, but on the other hand, whenever we played pretend (Oregon Trail, Titanic, Knights, Irish Potato Famine), he was always more willing to be a pet goat of unspecified gender than a male human.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:45 PM on May 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

Sorry to not see Woman: An Intimate Geography on there. I got way more out of that than I did Jane Eyre.
posted by janey47 at 4:53 PM on May 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

ah, I should also point out a book that I adored as a tween, Enchantress From The Stars, which also taught me far more than Jane Eyre did about owning agency and taking care of one's own heart as well as those of others.
posted by janey47 at 4:55 PM on May 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

Lots of familiar books here... "A Wrinkle In Time" was one of the first books I read in English and I love it so much. It's funny being trans and realizing I haven't reflected enough on how gendered my childhood reading was. I was deeply, deeply attached to female protagonists from Dorothy to Jane Eyre to Elizabeth Bennett... I still am. I'm a little surprised "A Room of One's Own" isn't on there... I guess Woolf is for an older crowd...
posted by mandonlym at 5:10 PM on May 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Mine would have to be The Handmaid's Tale which blew my little 13 year old mind wide open the first time I read it and has been a part of me and how I see the world ever since. Unlike other much loved books, I've never outgrown it either - it has spoken to me and in new ways at every age. I just reread it for the first time as a mother and was just devastated by it for days afterwards. God I love this book.
posted by Wantok at 5:19 PM on May 1, 2014 [17 favorites]

What, no Sexing the Cherry?
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:22 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the book that did it for me. Never did I think I could have so much in common with a little fictional Irish American growing up in a tenement fifty at the beginning of the 20th century. It opened my eyes to the fact that women have more commonalities than differences.
posted by magstheaxe at 5:36 PM on May 1, 2014 [13 favorites]

I agree with many of the choices on the list (all hail Judy Blume!) but I'm really surprised that the Feminine Mystique isn't listed. It certainly changed my head something serious, and I'm the same generation as many of the people contributing.

My mother (who has NPD) sent me a copy of White Oleander sometime after she and my father (who had to get a restraining order against her) separated. And it starts out with a narcissistic mother who ignores and abandons her daughter, then poisons and kills the man who spurns her... It had never occurred to me that people might identify with the book in a positive way.

Where was the science fiction? I'm also surprised that Harriet the Spy and Pride and Prejudice were missing. I only read P&P for the first time at 24, but it certainly did make me think very differently about being a woman, and what past generations were up against.

I like hearing from other folks which books are missing. Enchantress from the Stars sounds really interesting.
posted by mitschlag at 5:47 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh. Oh! I just thought of one. Jacob Have I Loved. That book changed how I viewed other girls who seemed to "have it all", and my perspective of being a victim, unloved, etc. Big time. Great book to read if you're going through crap in your life.
posted by mitschlag at 5:49 PM on May 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

Well, as a kid, I would add the Diary of Anne Frank, the Anne books, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiller, His Dark Materials, and Julie of the Wolves. Also, the work of Tamora Pierce, Meredith Taylor, and Scott O'Dell (Island of the Blue Dolphins in particular). More grown up me would also add Mists of Avalon, Yes Means Yes, In the Shadow of Man, and all of Edith Wharton minus Ethan From.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:00 PM on May 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Harriet the Spy absolutely blew my eight-year-old mind.

Later, for my fifteenth birthday, one of my brothers gave me The Female Eunuch and that blew my mind as well.

In college it was Middlemarch.
posted by maggiemaggie at 6:06 PM on May 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

It appears the editing on the title was done by... some guy who seems to be very angry for some reason about the contraception mandate, but I'm still not sure how taxes figure into that. Not linking because I feel a little dirty having visited there myself. That one was kind of formative for me just because, well, my family is not big on forthrightness about anything, and I'm still a bit surprised that one of my aunts gave it to me as a young teenager. But that was more of a family issue. Book-wise? The Westing Game. Because Turtle.
posted by Sequence at 6:08 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Forever... by Judy Blume
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Nancy Drew

This is probably silly, but Dynamite Magazine #20 because Cher was so strong, smart, and outrageous. She didn't care what people thought of her, or her outfits, or her boyfriends. She really taught me to be true to myself.
posted by Room 641-A at 6:14 PM on May 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

I read The Stepford Wives one evening and finished the last pages at about 1 in the morning when I was under the covers in bed. I couldn't sleep I was so traumatised by that ending. I wouldn't say it shaped how I thought about myself so much as it entirely shook up the way I thought about the world.

It also had one of those - in hindsight creepy - 70s covers that had led me to believe it was going to be about friendship and romance. I guess it still was.
posted by liquorice at 6:36 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

For me, a big part of books that shaped me are two books that are notable because of how they portray women: Lord of the Rings and Piers Anthony's (utterly dreadful) Spell for Chameleon. I loved many of the books on the linked list, and several mentioned here, and read them over and over again. So why the two that I mention, then? Because I read them first when I was young--maybe eleven--and then revisited them in high school, and I had the sudden, dramatic realisation that there are almost no women in LotR, and that Anthony's book is literally about a woman who can be beautiful and dumb or smart but ugly, with no in between.

Once I'd realised that, I couldn't un-see how much of my childhood was littered with male heroes and female love interests, or boys who got to go do things and women who got to get married. (Even my beloved Meg Murray had to grow up, become beautiful, and let her work and academic efforts fall to the wayside as she helped her husband with his work.) And I hadn't ever noticed before--as a kid, I never questioned that of course the boys got to have adventures and the girls...well, sometimes they got to have adventures, but ultimately, for the most part, they got married and had babies. So Tolkien and Anthony taught me that given a chance, stories will ignore or marginalize people like me, and that fuck them, basically.

So, yeah, I wrote a ton of fanfic as a kid, and ended up working in publishing. Why do you ask?
posted by MeghanC at 6:41 PM on May 1, 2014 [19 favorites]

God I love Jane Eyre so much.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:46 PM on May 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt. Dicey the protagonist is a badass kid who treks across several states protecting her younger siblings when her mother loses her mind and wanders away. I wanted to be exactly like her, because she had no fucks to give for any nonsense and used her wits to survive.
posted by emjaybee at 6:49 PM on May 1, 2014 [11 favorites]

Weetzie Bat. Well, actually, Witch Baby, really, because that perfectly summed up my feelings of an outsider wierdo who needed to find her tribe.
posted by Ruki at 6:52 PM on May 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

It appears the editing on the title was done by... some guy who seems to be very angry for some reason about the contraception mandate, but I'm still not sure how taxes figure into that.

So, that is weird... but did HuffPo just pull the image for the book cover off some dude's blog? So irritating (and I don't mean for the dude's sake).
posted by torticat at 7:05 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've only read 4 of the 18. I loved me some Cherry Ames as a little girl - sure, nursing was one of the "approved" professions for women, but she traveled all over the world, served on the front lines in WWII, and dated all the nice young men she wanted without it getting in the way of kicking ass at her work.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:07 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

did HuffPo just pull the image for the book cover off some dude's blog?

I have no idea, but I just went to do a Google image search for covers of that book, and found this, which is the edition I was weaned on. My mom later bought me this one, but the edition that warms the cockles of my heart is the old green one. Which was a lot more hippy-dippy and a lot more unapologetically pissed off than later versions in a way that stood me in good stead as a general grounding on my body and the world it is required to wade through.

(Though, later editions did not have this, for which I am profoundly grateful, because the very thought makes my uterus cramp.)
posted by DarlingBri at 7:17 PM on May 1, 2014

I just remembered The Collected Short Stories of Grace Paley! I love her so much - she has so much heart - she is the woman I want to be.
posted by maggiemaggie at 7:27 PM on May 1, 2014

DarlingBri: Oh gosh, yeah. I also have great affection for the green edition.

I remember reading the parts about lesbianism over and over because it was the only comparatively mainstream representation of it I'd seen. (as opposed to SF/Fantasy.)
posted by rmd1023 at 7:33 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

MeghanC, I had a similar experience to yours, except that I didn't go into publishing. I still don't know how I feel about myself "as a woman"--I don't know what it means to be a woman in the first place. Over time, I have evolved a sense of solidarity towards others who live in this society as women because I think that we often share similar experiences and struggles, but that is a different question than womanhood.

I read some of the books on this list and others that people have mentioned, but I didn't find them revealing. What has impacted me most is questioning how women are portrayed (or not) in some of my favorite stories. An example is Dune, a book I loved as a teenager. In it, the Bene Gesserit are a powerful, empire-altering organization, but whose power is wielded primarily in secret, through the husbands, sons, etc of the members. I remember having a moment of thinking, this is really cool, and then another of, why did the author write it this way, there are so many more possibilities.

That question, "why did the author write it this way," was the start of being a feminist reader. And it's part of how I see myself as connected to other women--through how we are similarly marginalized in our culture's popular stories.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:40 PM on May 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

I'm surprised at how few of these books I've read. Definitely agree with A Wrinkle in Time and its quotation -- the nerdy girl as the protagonist, without any comeuppance or makeover, was a game-changer for me.
posted by jaguar at 7:54 PM on May 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I haven't read many of these books, either! (Except the classics like Jane Eyre.) Looks like I have some good titles to add to my reading list.

FWIW, in addition to reading the original novel of course, I recommend this comic book version of A Wrinkle in Time by Hope Larson; it's a blast and many of the drawings are quite emotive.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 8:06 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm brujita/ninyabruja for Witch Baby....though I wish that Block hadn't backpedalled the original theme of finding one's own family with Pink Smog.
posted by brujita at 12:31 AM on May 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

"A Wrinkle in Time" and other L'Engle books in the series were what turned me on to science fiction – and that it was okay to be a nerdy girl. "Anne of Green Gables" played that role for me when I was in elementary school, but L'Engle's work hit at just the right time – I'd reached the volumes where Anne gets married and all of a sudden, you just feel the vivacity and creativity disappear. I didn't want that to be my idea of married life. Then a school librarian introduced me to L'Engle and I was like, "omg yes, sciency nerdy girl hurray!" because I'd long loved computers and, well, literature isn't exactly bursting at the seams with nerdy preteen girls who have a head for that sort of thing.

I also loved "Julie of the Wolves" and "Island of the Blue Dolphins", about a girl stranded on an island who survives, on her own, figuring out everything. It's based on a true story – the last surviving member of a Native American tribe lived alone on an island for 18 years. It was foundational for me; due to that story, I've always believed I could make it on my own. "If a woman could figure out how to hunt and dress seals, make skirts from cormorant feathers and sunglasses from slitted driftwood, alone on an island, I can make it."
posted by fraula at 1:52 AM on May 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

Yeah, count me as another one who has been disappointed in the lives my favorite childhood protagonists ended up with as adult women. Anne of Green Gables is the one I remember most clearly being disappointed with as a young girl -- like fraula says, you can just feel the vivacity and creativity disappear as she settles down to becoming a doctor's wife. Even Jo, in Little Women, meets her Professor Bhaer, and suddenly becomes a supporting player in his great educational experiment. I never read the later books in the Wrinkle in Time series as a child, but a couple years ago I did, and I was severely disappointed. It seemed that Meg's parents had a much more progressive relationship than Meg and Calvin do. What happened to that early gift for mathematics? She suddenly seemed to have become more of a caretaker figure for the men in her life, than her own person with her own story.
posted by peacheater at 6:52 AM on May 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've read almost all of these. The only one that "changed how I felt about [my]sel[f] as a woman" was "A Wrinkle In Time." It's rare that a nerdy, impulsive, not-particularly attractive girl is a hero in a book (though she does grow up to be pretty, if you keep reading the Time quartet).

Surprised no one mentioned the Ramona Quimby books by Beverley Cleary. I think she's the most realistic little girl ever written. She influenced me to pull someone's boing boing curls when we played duck duck goose in kindergarten.
posted by millipede at 7:08 AM on May 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nancy Drew was really big for me when I was a little girl. Also the Betsy, Tacy and Tib series in regards to friendship and adventure. As a teenager, Wrinkle in Time, Mists of Avalon and Rubyfruit Jungle and later A Room of Her Own.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:13 AM on May 2, 2014

I'm shocked to see no Francesca Lia Block on the list. And the book for me was The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. I wanted to be Turtle SO BAD. She was so smart and did not kowtow to the boys (she usually just kicked them in the shins).
posted by bibliogrrl at 7:33 AM on May 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Golden Notebook blew me away when I was in my early twenties.
posted by mareli at 7:36 AM on May 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Surprised no one mentioned the Ramona Quimby books by Beverley Cleary.

Oh, that was a serious oversight on my part!

Yeah, count me as another one who has been disappointed in the lives my favorite childhood protagonists ended up with as adult women.

I'm realizing that in the books I listed (plus two or three FTFA) the characters all lived in a sort of arrested development/suspended animation. My books were about girls my age and they never age out of that. Verrrrry interesting.
posted by Room 641-A at 8:19 AM on May 2, 2014

They left off Trixie Belden.
posted by cass at 8:24 AM on May 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I haven't read most of those books. I also couldn't get through "Little Women" as a kid - my interest just petered out, and I don't remember why any more. But I remember intensely reading "Julie of the Wolves", and "Wrinkle in Time" rocked my world so hard.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:58 AM on May 2, 2014

In defense of my dear Anne Shirley, I always understood her to be an autobiographical expression of her author. Anne's loss of vivacity when she married Gilbert mirrored Lucy's depression at the same point in her own marriage.
posted by Ruki at 11:46 AM on May 3, 2014

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