Whether you’re an active supporter of Women’s Rights or are just up for a dabble in a new genre, feminist literature is something that everyone can enjoy. Defined as literature supporting ‘feminist goals of defining, establishing and defending equal civil, political, economic and social rights for women’, it often identifies women’s roles as unequal to those of men — particularly in regards to status, privilege and power — and generally portrays the consequences to women, men, families, communities and societies as undesirable and in requirement of change. Whether you give one or all of the following authors a read, rest assured you will not be disappointed in the literary roller-coaster that is feminist literature.
‘She was a worthy womman al hir lyve/Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve.’ – The Wife of Bath’s Prologue
Let’s start as we mean to go on: with controversial ideas! The jury is out on Chaucer’s legitimacy to be called in any shape or form a supporter of feminism (especially as he was accused of raping a young woman before he began writing his most famous piece The Canterbury Tales), but it’s almost as if he wrote to redeem himself. The character of The Wife in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale is certainly able to demonstrate Chaucer’s intentions of providing a voice for women in his society, which was patriarchal and terribly misogynist. In her account alone the reader is shown the dark side of medieval life; religious hypocrisy; sexism; domestic violence and stigma towards women who wish to have sexual freedom.
Whilst a little less feisty than The Wife, Chaucer also gave a female perspective through the character of The Prioress. More so than through The Wife, Chaucer challenges the Benedictine rule and heavy religious restrictions placed on the whole of society — yet as always mainly upon women. A woman of her position would have ordinarily held no money or status, yet she is described as prosperous (like The Wife) and upon telling her tale seeks the guidance of the Virgin Mary over God, saying, ‘wherefore in honor of thee, as best I can, / of thee and of what whitest lily-flowered / that bare thee, all without the touch of man’ — essentially that the Virgin Mary does nothing wrong, perhaps due to her freedom of the influence of men.
Enough to intrigue you? Chaucer was ahead of his time with his attitudes towards women and their portrayal in literature; anti-feminist literature was hugely popular during his era so his allowance of female characters — strong ones at that! — is revolutionary. There will always be those who disagree, so why not make up your own mind and read The Canterbury Tales? Or alternatively just read The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale and The Prioress’ Prologue and Tale to save yourself some time if it’s an issue.
‘But life is a battle: may we all be enabled to fight it well!’ – The Letters of Charlotte Brontë
The Brontë sisters in general were all eligible candidates for this list (therefore reading any of their work would be recommended if you get the chance!) but out of Anne, Emily and Charlotte, it is the latter that created the semi-autobiographical novel that is Jane Eyre. Full of quotes that question the subjugation of women and the power of religious extremism to keep women in their places, it is by no means an easy to book to disregard.
The character Jane Eyre proves to be a rebel from the very beginning in her childhood flashback, yet despite her inevitable ageing as the novel progresses, she manages to retain her fiery spirit in a manner that Brontë intended to inspire every woman that would go on to read her work. Notable quotes from the novel include, ‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will’, and ‘”I am not an angel,” I asserted; “and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself.”‘
Brontë was not only advocating basic women’s rights in Jane Eyre alone; the character of Bertha Mason (also named ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’ by feminist literary critics Gilbert & Gubar) was one of the earliest voices for black feminism. Whilst Bertha is given no dialogue, her plight into madness under the cruel indifference of her surrounding society is one of the first instances where a woman of colour could be sympathised with rather than hated. Whilst ultimately the character of Bertha Mason does act in ways which Brontë could have had Jane Eyre judge, she instead has her character question the male protagonist, Mr Rochester’s, decisions regarding Bertha.
Despite her death at just thirty eight years old, Charlotte Brontë’s work is highly praised and memorable to any who read it. Jane Eyre is her most famous novel, but Villette is also a great read. If you wish to gain a better insight into the character of Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is also a brilliant book to look into.
‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.’ – Margaret Atwood
Canadian writer Margaret Atwood is never one to shy away from addressing the gender inequalities that women face in society. Whilst she is hesitant to accept the label of ‘feminist writer’ for some of her work (her view is that she never worked within the conscious framework for some of her most famous pieces, especially The Edible Woman) there is an undeniable impact from her countless strong and honest female characters, and the social commentary she makes through them in their settings in her work.
Atwood is also very passionate about the environment and animals, views showcased alongside her feminist roots in her MadAddam trilogy. These novels are exhilarating reads, but loaded with Atwood’s warning in regards to political chaos. When asked in an interview for The Progressive how fragile she thought democracy was, she replied, ‘The fabric of democracy is always fragile everywhere because it depends on the will of citizens to protect it, and when they become scared, when it becomes dangerous for them to defend it, it can go very quickly’.
With this in mind, her exploration of a dystopia with the power to exert extreme control over women can be found in The Handmaid’s Tale. Arguably her best work, The Handmaid’s Tale provides a detailed depiction of the horrible capabilities of humankind — every punishment or situation of oppression being one taken straight from history books and very rarely exaggerated upon as it’s very rarely required. Amidst this comes social commentary on the value of the female body and society’s obsession with controlling it: ‘I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will…Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping’. This novel holds plenty of grounds to be one of her most famous, and is a poignant outcry against social expectations of women — dystopian or otherwise.
Tempted by Atwood? There’s plenty to choose from: The Edible Woman, Surfacing, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin, Life Before Man or the Oryx and Crake trilogy to name just a few titles to look into.
‘One of the qualities of liberty is that, as long as it is being striven after, it goes on expanding.’ – Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen’s plays cannot all be regarded as feminist literature for simply including strong female characters, yet it certainly places them in good stead for consideration. A central theme in many of his plays is the portrayal of female suffering; and it is from this controversial empathy that he is included in this short list of suggested reading.
His work was regarded as scandalous during his era, as European theatre commonly modelled strict morals in line with social expectation and the promotion of idyllic family life and prosperity. Instead of echoing this expectation in his work, Ibsen chose to examine the harsher realities that came with family life and everyday existence in general.
Perhaps his most famous play is A Doll’s House. With its severe questioning of 19th Century marriage norms and strong female protagonist who concludes the play in a ‘shocking’ manner; A Doll’s House was never intended to show Ibsen as working for the women’s rights movement. Instead, it is in his words “the description of humanity”. Yet despite different intentions for the play, it cannot distract from the overtly feminist message that women are people themselves before they are wives or mothers.
As well as A Doll’s House, you may wish to read Hedda Gabler, Rosmersholm or Ghosts.
‘Mother goddesses are just as silly a notion as father gods. If a revival of the myths gives women emotional satisfaction, it does so at the price of obscuring the real conditions of life. This is why they were invented in the first place.’ – The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography
Angela Carter was by no means a feminist her whole life; it wasn’t until her divorce from her first husband and spending two years living alone in Tokyo that she discovered what is was to be her own woman. It was during this period that she became increasingly interested in feminism, and then around ten years later she wrote The Bloody Chamber.
The Bloody Chamber is essentially a collection of fairytales with a dark, feminist twist, as well as Carter’s most famous work. Additionally to her fiction, she also wrote for The Guardian and The Independent. More often than not her articles would involve feminist direction, but of course that is to be expected.
Sadly she died in 1992 at the age of 51 as a result of lung cancer, but The Bloody Chamber continues to be well-received even today. Prior to her death she was working on a sequel to Charlotte Brontë’s previously mentioned Jane Eyre from the point of view of Jane’s stepdaughter Adèle Varens. This wouldn’t have been her first novel, but it certainly would have been an interesting read if it were ever completed.
Despite not finishing her final project, Carter has written many other novels including Heroes and Villains, Wise Children, Love and The Passion of New Eve, but if you ever read one thing by Angela Carter try The Bloody Chamber.
‘What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy and smug they might be. Are you a feminist? Hahaha. Of course you are.’ – How to Be a Woman
Much like Carter, Moran is also known to be an influential columnist as well as a brilliant writer. If you’re looking for something with a splash of comedy alongside some sensible feminist views look no further than Caitlin Moran.
Since 2010 she’s been winning awards like there’s no tomorrow for her writing, and her latest book How To Build A Girl has not been out long but has caused plenty of stirrings within the feminist bubble.
If you’re looking for something very small to read, perhaps try following Moran on Twitter (@caitlinmoran) for a constant flurry of updates, wit and feminist commentary.
For something less fuelled by social media trends, Moran has three books out that would be relevant reads: How To Be A Woman, Moranthology and the previously mentioned How To Build A Girl.
Caitlin Moran is perfect if you’re not sure if you’re a feminist or not, if you fancy a laugh whilst thinking over some serious questions regarding the Patriarchy, or if you love a good, solid read — something all of her books can certainly provide.
Katie Smith is a 19 year old writer of all sorts who studies at the University of York. She enjoys: reading, writing, sad movies, tea & candles. Doesn’t enjoy: misogyny, deadlines, stress or missing socks. See what she’s up to on her Facebook page.