By Greeshma Somashekar
I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on…Barnes and Nobles was a childhood constant and my parents always joked that I should just go live in a library. I love books and I love these books, in particular, for the simple fact that they shed light on different spheres of feminism and the strength of women everywhere. Each of the ten books listed brings something fresh and unique to the idea of female empowerment, and the authors brilliantly weave together narrative, critique, and in some cases, even science. I highly encourage you to give a few of these a chance, if not all of them. Perhaps over Thanksgiving or winter break! Happy reading, everyone!
Women in Science
If you’ve ever worked in a cell-based research lab, you’ve probably come across the HeLa cell line. It is the oldest and most commonly used immortal cell line in modern research, mainly due to its stability. What most people don’t know is that HeLa stands for Henrietta Lacks, the poor black tobacco farmer whose cervical cancer cells were taken in 1951 without her knowledge. #1-The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot) brings readers to a hard hitting collision between race, ethics, and medicine. What do you think? Should we have full control of the stuff we’re made of?
In #2-Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie (Barbara Goldsmith), Goldsmith uncovers the Marie Curie behind the myth. This complex analysis of the first female recipient of the Nobel Prize is exceptionally personal in its inclusion of diary entries and letter excerpts. I was most intrigued by how Curie handled balancing a spectacular scientific career, a demanding family, and the prejudices of society at the time. This is a beautiful portrait of a difficult subject, and a must read for any lover of biographies or science.
#3-The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath) is a book you will not have the heart to put down once you begin. Plath’s narrative parallels her own struggle with mental illness and clinical depression, as conveyed by the metaphorical bell in which her protagonist feels stifled. Themes of confusion about identify, behavior, and morality resonate throughout the novel, and Plath leads you on a haunting yet riveting personal journey.
**Trigger warning: Depictions of depression and suicidal thoughts and behaviors**
#4-A Room of One’s Own (Virginia Woolf) is an essay-based argument for a literal space for female writers within a literary tradition dominated by patriarchy. Woolf explores the need for poetic license and the personal liberty to create art. This quick read is a must for aspiring artists of any kind.
A brilliant dystopian novel that speculates an era of declining births due to pollution-induced sterility and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, #5-The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) might actually top my list of personal favorites. Atwood paints a vivid narrative of a totalitarian Christian theocracy that overthrows the government; the protagonist – Offred – is a member of a class of women kept as concubines for the sole purpose of reproduction. It has become a staple in many English literature classes, and if you have not read it already, you must!
**Trigger warning: Depictions of sexual assault**
READ THIS, READ THIS, READ THIS: #6-Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Nicholas and Sheryl WuDunn) will leave you wishing you had known about it earlier. Anyone with the slightest interest in international women’s rights will find this a fascinating account of real stories from women around the globe. Subjects like sex slavery, genital mutilation, devastating childbirth-related injuries, and domestic violence are handled with care and due respect. Nicholas and Sheryl argue that the key to economic progress lies in unleashing the potential of women everywhere. I can’t agree more. For a more detailed description of women’s rights issues, read From Outrage to Courage: Women Taking Action for Health and Justice, by Stanford’s own Prof. Anne Firth Murray.
**Trigger warning: Dialogue about violence against women**
Coming of Age
#7-The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy) takes your typical family saga and turns it upside down with piercing politics and a forbidden love story that calls into question who we should love, and how, and how much. We meet two fraternal twins whose lives are destroyed by so called ‘love laws’. Set in the southernmost Indian state of Kerala, Roy’s novel studies communism, the caste system, and religious turmoil. This book teaches readers about a very different kind of ‘love’, still practiced in many places around the world.
I first read #8-Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World (Yang Erche Namu) because it was the required summer reading at my high school, and I am so glad I did. Yang Erche Namu is a well-recognized writer and singer today, but this novel introduces us to her childhood in the Moso country of the Himalayas. This unique matrilineal society has a fascinating culture in which women enjoy full economic and sexual freedom, but girls still face familial tension and are discouraged to leave Moso. I felt so connected to Namu as she searched desperately for ways to spread her wings and take off.
#9-I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou) is the 1969 autobiography of the highly esteemed poet and writer Maya Angelou. I was most struck by her struggles with identity, racism, rape, literacy, and sexuality as a girl. This inspirational coming of age story is an American classic for a reason, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
**Trigger warning: Depictions of rape.**
#10-The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison) is set in the American Midwest during the aftermath of the Great Depression. The story is told from the point of view of young Pecola, who wants so badly to have blue eyes and blond hair so she can finally fit in with her neighbors in small town Ohio. Morrison takes us on a careful study of this inferiority complex and various horrors like incest and child molestation. The storytelling is rough, yet delicate. And I could not stop reading. I think I read this one in a single night, with the help of many, many tissues.
**Trigger warning: Depictions of incest and rape.**