Tag Archives: Marilyn French

Books by women that changed my life

Guess which book written by a woman was voted the most influential! Following the announcement of the winner of the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize this year (Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing) the organisers launched a campaign to find novels ‘that have impacted, shaped or changed readers lives’. The top 20 were reported in the Guardian in July.

136 Mockingbird coverTop of the list was To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. I suspect that some of its influence is due to the 1962 film of the book, starring Gregory Peck. It’s also a book that is often on the school curriculum, despite Michael Gove’s attempts to promote British fiction over all others. (For readers outside the UK, Gove was the Conservative Secretary of State for Education until recently.)

The top 10 most influential books in the Baileys’s poll:

  1. To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  4. Harry Potter by JK Rowling
  5. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  6. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  9. I Captured the Castle by Dodie Smith

136 Pride & PrejI loved To Kill a Mocking Bird when I read it. But it is not my first choice for the ten most influential books. Indeed my choices are very different from the full list of 20.

My list of 10 most influential books by women:

Some of these I have mentioned before in a post called Ten books that made me think. That list included books by men, but this list is confined to women. It is #Readwomen2014 after all.

These are in chronological order, rather than reflecting any hierarchy of influence.

  • What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge: a manual for growing up a good girl, now rejected!
  • The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff: perhaps the source of my enduring love of history and the reason it was the focus of my first degree.
  • Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden: adolescence anticipated.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: nothing to be said except it is #6 on the Baileys’s list.
  • Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: a world where gender was not predominant fed into my growing feminism.
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot: another classic and #16 on the list.
  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing: more feminism.
  • The Women’s Room by Marilyn French: yet more feminism.
  • Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G Heilbrun: see my post about this one, here.

49 Golden nbook

What I like about this topic is that it bypasses any notion of favourite. What would be on your list of influential books by women?

 

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Writing the Women’s Revolution

A birthday being a good moment to reflect, I noticed that I am not mellowing with age. I am as fierce (aka strident) a feminist in my 60s as I was in my 20s and 30s. Pursuing feminism in the midlands in the late ‘60s and ‘70s I was conscious that my study and my reading was shaped by my beliefs. I researched and wrote about Mary Wollstonecraft for my history degree, for example. Her published works were hard to find at that time. I have an American edition of The Vindication of the Rights of Women, picked up during my visit in 1967-8. (BTW, as they tweet, my sister emailed me this image from Desktop Retreat blog. ‘I love this picture of you writing your blog?!’ Had she spotted that the picture on the wall is a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft?) Mary Wollstonecraft – an early example of writing the revolution.

49 blog writing

I think I was one of many women, reading like mad! The second wave of feminism, as it has been called, was fuelled in part by sharing women’s writings. I was well placed to enjoy them as I was emerging from the canon of English Literature as taught in school. (I was already alert to new fiction, requesting On the Road by Jack Kerouac for the school library. Request refused.)

We found that it was in our collective action that we learned, explored, argued, sought support for our private troubles and laughed and laughed and laughed. How did feminists ever get a reputation for dourness? One of the activities of the Rugby Women’s Group was discussing books, and these are eight books I remember being especially influential at the time. Most of them seem to have come from abroad, especially from the US.

The Feminine Mystique (1963) Betty Friedan, asking why American women were not happy in the suburbs and suggesting some reasons. She called it ‘the problem that has no name’.

The Female Eunuch (1970) Germaine Greer, the Australian who made her name in the UK, challenged the prevailing views, especially about sexuality it seems to my memory. She also made us understand that we had learned to judge ourselves though men’s eyes.

The Second Sex (1949) Simone De Beauvoir, the French consort of Jean-Paul Sartre (how impressive was that!) wrote magisterially about women’s status over the centuries.

Our Bodies Ourselves (1971) Published by the Boston Women’s Health Collective, an innovative health guidebook for women. It’s hard to remember now but when it was first published medical records were closed to patients, and women had to have their husband’s permission for prescriptions for contraception.

49 Angela Davies

If they come in the Morning (1971) by Angela Davies. This book and her Autobiography (1974) were shocking because they revealed the treatment of African-Americans, and the hounding of a black woman communist. She was imprisoned, for goodness sake.

49 Fear of F

Fear of Flying (1973) Erica Jong was explicit about women’s sexual desires and invented the phrase ‘the zipless fuck’.

The Women’s Room (1977) Marilyn French’s American novel is about a women who finds herself when she rejects her cosy life in the suburbs (see Betty Friedan, above).

The Children of Violence Sequence (1952 – 69) Doris Lessing’s five novels, beginning in Rhodesia but continued in London as the protagonist, Martha Quest, became politicised. The Golden Notebook was also written during this period in 1962.

 

In the UK there were important and interesting new developments in publishing. In 1973 Virago was established, the dark green covers showing up quickly on the shelves of like-minded women. (She’s celebrating her 40th birthday this year!) The Women’s Press was also set up at this time, and its subscription ensured that those of us who didn’t live in metropolitan areas still got to read the zebra striped publications.

49 Sp Rib

And of course there was Spare Rib: a monthly magazine, with pre-digital layout, bringing us news to which we had no other access.

This was the time when women were reviled for bra-burning, for rejecting the marriage-status defining title of Miss or Mrs. (We pioneered using Ms, and it saddens me that today it is often mistakenly believed to to indicate lesbianism, I hear, or divorce.) Spare Rib and to some extent the Guardian’s Women’s page published on Tuesdays, gave a different voice, a serious consideration of the matters that concerned us.

Some of us were campaigning for abortion rights (Abortion Act 1967), better contraception including for unmarried women, maternity rights, and later supported the miners’ wives and were active against the US base at Greenham Common. Others were involved in trade unionism, parliamentary politics, education, mental health, housing, consumer rights …

In whichever strand of feminism one was active there were women writing to support the revolution.

 

Do you have memories of significant writing from the second wave of feminism? Who will be remembered as the feminist writers of today?

 

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