What to Read When You Want to Celebrate Women’s History
Today is the last day of Women’s History Month, and while we celebrate women year-round here at The Rumpus, we wanted to close out March with a list of books written exclusively by women and that shine a light on women’s experiences and lives. Without further ado, here are our editors’ picks for writing that speaks to women’s history—past, present, and future.
Long live the matriarchy!
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins
Based on the author’s own experiences, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the chilling tale of a woman driven to the brink of insanity by the “rest cure” prescribed after the birth of her child. Isolated in a crumbling colonial mansion, in a room with bars on the windows, the tortuous pattern of the yellow wallpaper winds its way into the recesses of her mind. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is regarded as an important early work of American feminist literature, illustrating attitudes in the 19th century toward women’s health, both physical and mental.
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
In this charged collection of fifteen essays and speeches, Lorde takes on sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class, and propounds social difference as a vehicle for action and change. Her prose is incisive, unflinching, and lyrical, reflecting struggle but ultimately offering messages of hope. This commemorative edition includes a new foreword by Lorde-scholar and poet Cheryl Clarke, who celebrates the ways in which Lorde’s philosophies resonate more than twenty years after they were first published.
America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins
America’s Women tells the story of more than four centuries of history. It features a stunning array of personalities, from the women peering worriedly over the side of the Mayflower to feminists having a grand old time protesting beauty pageants and bridal fairs. By culling the most fascinating characters—the average as well as the celebrated—Gail Collins charts a journey that shows how women lived, what they cared about, and how they felt about marriage, sex, and work. Spanning wars, the pioneering days, the fight for suffrage, the Depression, the era of Rosie the Riveter, the civil rights movement, and the feminist rebellion of the 1970s, America’s Women describes the way women’s lives were altered by dress fashions, medical advances, rules of hygiene, social theories about sex and courtship, and the ever-changing attitudes toward education, work, and politics.
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich
Alexievich chronicles the experiences of the Soviet women who fought on the front lines, on the home front, and in the occupied territories. These women—more than a million in total—were nurses and doctors, pilots, tank drivers, machine-gunners, and snipers. They battled alongside men, and yet, after the victory, their efforts and sacrifices were forgotten. Alexievich traveled thousands of miles and visited more than a hundred towns to record these women’s stories. Together, this symphony of voices reveals a different aspect of the war—the everyday details of life in combat left out of the official histories. Translated by the renowned Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, The Unwomanly Face of War is a powerful and poignant account of the central conflict of the twentieth century, a kaleidoscopic portrait of the human side of war.
Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit
Acclaimed author Rebecca Solnit draws on her life as a writer and activist, on the events of our moment, on our deepest past, to argue for hope. Solnit reminds us of how changed the world has been by the activism of the past five decades. Offering a dazzling account of some of the least expected of those changes, she proposes a vision of cause-and-effect relations that provides new grounds for political engagement in the present.
My Body Is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta
As Elissa Washuta makes the transition from college kid to independent adult, she finds herself overwhelmed by the calamities piling up in her brain. When her mood-stabilizing medications aren’t threatening her life, they’re shoving her from depression to mania and back in the space of an hour. Her crisis of American Indian identity bleeds into other areas of self-doubt; mental illness, sexual trauma, ethnic identity, and independence become intertwined. Sifting through the scraps of her past in seventeen formally inventive chapters, Washuta aligns the strictures of her Catholic school education with Cosmopolitan’s mandates for womanhood, views memories through the distorting lens of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and contrasts her bipolar highs and lows with those of Britney Spears and Kurt Cobain. Built on the bones of fundamental identity questions as contorted by a distressed brain, My Body Is a Book of Rules pulls no punches in its self-deprecating and ferocious look at human fallibility.
Literary Witches by Taisia Kitaiskaia and illustrated by Katy Horan
Literary Witches draws a connection between witches and visionary writers: both are figures of formidable creativity, empowerment, and general badassery. Through poetic portraits, Taisia Kitaiskaia and Katy Horan honor the witchy qualities of well-known and obscure authors alike, including Virginia Woolf, Mira Bai, Toni Morrison, Emily Dickinson, Octavia E. Butler, Sandra Cisneros, and many more. Perfect for both book lovers and coven members, Literary Witches is a treasure and a source of inspiration. Kitaiskaia and Horan bring fresh insights on your most beloved authors, suggest enchanting new writers, and invite you to rediscover the magic of literature.
Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey
The ranging scope of inquiry undertaken in Ordinary Beast—at times philosophical, emotional, and experiential—is evident in each thrilling twist of image by the poet. In brilliant, often ironic lines that move from meditation to matter of fact in a single beat, Sealey’s voice is always awake to the natural world, to the pain and punishment of existence, to the origins and demises of humanity. Exploring notions of race, sexuality, gender, myth, history, and embodiment with profound understanding, Sealey’s is a poetry that refuses to turn a blind eye or deny. It is a poetry of daunting knowledge.
This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins
Doubly disenfranchised by race and gender, often deprived of a place within the mostly white mainstream feminist movement, black women are objectified, silenced, and marginalized with devastating consequences, in ways both obvious and subtle, that are rarely acknowledged in our country’s larger discussion about inequality. In This Will Be My Undoing, Jerkins becomes both narrator and subject to expose the social, cultural, and historical story of black female oppression that influences the black community as well as the white, male-dominated world at large.
The Moon Is Always Female by Marge Piercy
This is Piercy’s seventh and most wide-ranging collection. In the first of two sections, the poems move from the amusingly elegiac to the erotic, the classical to the funny. The second section is a series of fifteen poems for a calendar based on lunar rather than solar divisions.
Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean (Grove Press, April 10, 2018)
Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm―these brilliant women are the central figures of Sharp. Their lives intertwine as they cut through the cultural and intellectual history of America in the twentieth century, arguing as fervently with each other as they did with the sexist attitudes of the men who often undervalued their work as critics and essayists. Mixing biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Sharp is an enthralling exploration of how a group of brilliant women became central figures in the world of letters despite the many obstacles facing them, a testament to how anyone not in a position of power can claim the mantle of writer and, perhaps, help change the world.
Rocket Fantastic by Gabrielle Calvocoressi
Like nothing before it, Rocket Fantastic reinvents the landscape and language of the body in interconnected poems that entwine a fabular past with an iridescent future by blurring, with disarming vulnerability, the real and the imaginary. Sorcerous, jazz-tinged, erotic, and wide-eyed, this is a pioneering work by a space-age balladeer.
Bloodlines: Odyssey of a Native Daughter by Janet Campbell Hale
These autobiographical essays by a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe interweave personal experiences with striking portraits of relatives, both living and dead, to form a rich tapestry of history, storytelling, and remembrance. Hale’s is a story of intense and resonant beauty. Breathtaking in its range and authority, Bloodlines is an important addition to the literature of women of color.
On Lies, Secrets, and Silence by Adrienne Rich
In this collection of prose writings, one of America’s foremost poets and feminist theorists reflects upon themes that have shaped her life and work. At issue are the politics of language; the uses of scholarship; and the topics of racism, history, and motherhood, among others, called forth by Rich as “part of the effort to define a female consciousness which is political, aesthetic, and erotic, and which refuses to be included or contained in the culture of passivity.”
Invocation to Daughters by Barbara Jane Reyes
Invocation to Daughters is a book of prayers, psalms, and odes for Filipina girls and women trying to survive and make sense of their own situations. Writing in an English inflected with Tagalog and Spanish, in meditations on the relationship between fathers and daughters and impassioned pleas on behalf of victims of brutality, Barbara Jane Reyes unleashes the colonized tongue in a lyrical feminist broadside written from a place of shared humanity.
Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan by June Jordan
Directed by Desire is the definitive overview of June Jordan’s poetry. Collecting the finest work from Jordan’s ten volumes, as well as dozens of “last poems” that were never published in Jordan’s lifetime, these more than six hundred pages overflow with intimate lyricism, elegance, fury, meditative solos, and dazzling vernacular riffs.
You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages by Carina Chocano
From the moment we’re born, we’re told stories about what girls are and they aren’t, what girls want and what they don’t, what girls can be and what they can’t. “The girl” looms over us like a toxic cloud, permeating everything and confusing our sense of reality. In You Play the Girl, Carina Chocano shows how we metabolize the subtle, fragmented messages embedded in our everyday experience and how our identity is shaped by them.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Ward’s memoir shines a light on the community she comes from, in the small town of DeLisle, Mississippi, a place of quiet beauty and fierce attachment. Here, in the space of four years, she lost five young men dear to her, including her beloved brother—lost to drugs, accidents, murder, and suicide. Their deaths were seemingly unconnected, yet their lives had been connected, by identity and place, and as Ward dealt with these losses, she came to a staggering truth: These young men died because of who they were and the place they were from, because certain disadvantages breed a certain kind of bad luck. Because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle. Men We Reaped opens up a parallel universe, yet it points to problems whose roots are woven into the soil under all our feet.
Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir by Deborah A. Miranda
This beautiful and devastating book—part tribal history, part lyric and intimate memoir—should be required reading for anyone seeking to learn about California Indian history, past and present. Deborah A. Miranda tells stories of her Ohlone Costanoan Esselen family as well as the experience of California Indians as a whole through oral histories, newspaper clippings, anthropological recordings, personal reflections, and poems. The result is a work of literary art that is wise, angry, and playful all at once, a compilation that will break your heart and teach you to see the world anew.
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.
Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot
Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of PTSD and Bipolar II; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father—an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist—who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.
Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green
A graphic memoir of eating disorders, abuse, and recovery. Like most kids, Katie was a picky eater. She’d sit at the table in silent protest, hide uneaten toast in her bedroom, listen to parental threats that she’d have to eat it for breakfast. But in any life a set of circumstance can collide, and normal behavior might soon shade into something sinister, something deadly. One day you can find yourself being told you have two weeks to live. Lighter Than My Shadow is a hand-drawn story of struggle and recovery, a trip into the black heart of a taboo illness, an exposure of those who are so weak as to prey on the weak, and an inspiration to anybody who believes in the human power to endure towards happiness.
Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing
Electric Arches is an imaginative exploration of black girlhood and womanhood through poetry, visual art, and narrative prose. Blending stark realism with the fantastical, Ewing takes us from the streets of Chicago to an alien arrival in an unspecified future, deftly navigating boundaries of space, time, and reality with delight and flexibility.
In Praise of Difficult Women: Life Lessons from 29 Heroines Who Dared to Break the Rules by Karen Karbo
Smart, sassy, and unapologetically feminine, this elegantly illustrated book is an ode to the bold and charismatic women of modern history. Bestselling author Karen Karbo spotlights the spirited rule breakers who charted their way with little regard for expectations. Their lives—imperfect, elegant, messy, glorious—provide inspiration and instruction for the new age of feminism we have entered. Karbo distills these lessons with wit and humor, examining the universal themes that connect us to each of these mesmerizing personalities today: success and style, love and authenticity, daring, and courage. Being “difficult,” Karbo reveals, might not make life easier. But it can make it more fulfilling—whatever that means for you.
Passing by Nella Larsen
Clare Kendry is living on the edge. Light-skinned, elegant, and ambitious, she is married to a racist white man unaware of her African American heritage, and has severed all ties to her past after deciding to “pass” as a white woman. Clare’s childhood friend, Irene Redfield, just as light-skinned, has chosen to remain within the African American community, and is simultaneously allured and repelled by Clare’s risky decision to engage in racial masquerade for personal and societal gain. After frequenting African American-centric gatherings together in Harlem, Clare’s interest in Irene turns into a homoerotic longing for Irene’s black identity that she abandoned and can never embrace again, and she is forced to grapple with her decision to pass for white in a way that is both tragic and telling.
Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America edited by Kate Harding and Samhita Mukhopadhyay
When fifty-three percent of white women voted for Donald Trump and ninety-four percent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton, how can women unite in Trump’s America? Nasty Women includes inspiring essays from a diverse group of talented women writers who seek to provide a broad look at how we got here and what we need to do to move forward. Featuring essays by Rebecca Solnit on Trump and his “misogyny army,” Cheryl Strayed on grappling with the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s loss, Sarah Hepola on resisting the urge to drink after the election, Nicole Chung on family and friends who support Trump, Katha Pollit on the state of reproductive rights and what we do next, Jill Filipovic on Trump’s policies and the life of a young woman in West Africa, Samantha Irby on racism and living as a queer black woman in rural America, Randa Jarrar on traveling across the country as a queer Muslim American, Sarah Hollenbeck on Trump’s cruelty toward the disabled, Meredith Talusan on feminism and the transgender community, and Sarah Jaffe on the labor movement and active and effective resistance, among others.
Bestiary by Donika Kelly
Across this remarkable debut collection are encounters with animals, legendary beasts, and mythological monsters—half human and half something else. Donika Kelly’s Bestiary is a catalog of creatures—from the whale and ostrich to the pegasus and chimera to the centaur and griffin. Among them, too, are poems of love, self-discovery, and travel from “Out West” to “Back East.” Lurking in the middle of this powerful and multifaceted collection is a wrenching sequence that wonders just who or what is the real monster inside this life of survival and reflection. Bestiary questions what it is that makes us human, that makes us whole.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker
Morgan Parker stands at the intersections of vulnerability and performance, of desire and disgust, of tragedy and excellence. Unrelentingly feminist, tender, ruthless, and sequined, these poems are an altar to the complexities of black American womanhood in an age of non-indictments and déjà vu, and a time of wars over bodies and power.
Ayiti by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay’s debut collection is a unique blend of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, all interwoven to represent the Haitian diaspora experience. Originally published in 2011 by Artistically Declined Press, Ayiti will be re-released in June 2018 by Grove Atlantic, making it widely available for the first time. The new edition will also contain several never-before-published stories.
The Little Book of Feminist Saints by Julia Pierpont
This inspiring, beautifully illustrated collection honors one hundred exceptional women throughout history and around the world. Writer Julia Pierpont and artist Manjit Thapp match short, vibrant, and surprising biographies with stunning full-color portraits of secular female “saints”: champions of strength and progress. These women broke ground, broke ceilings, and broke molds. Open to any page and find daily inspiration and lasting delight.
Together We Rise: Behind the Scenes at the Protest Heard Around the World by The Women’s March Organizers and Condé Nast
This gorgeously designed full-color book offers an unprecedented, front-row seat to one of the most galvanizing movements in American history. For the first time, Women’s March organizers tell their personal stories and reflect on their collective journey in an oral history written by Jamia Wilson (writer, activist, and director of The Feminist Press.) Featuring never-before-seen photographs and twenty-two thought-provoking essays by writers and artists including Roxane Gay, Jia Tolentino, Jill Soloway, and more. Women’s March will share proceeds from Together We Rise with three grassroots, women-led organizations: The Gathering for Justice, SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, and Indigenous Women Rise.