Established in 1911, International Women’s Day aims to honour the achievements of women around the world, while identifying the work that must continue to ensure all women have equal access to the opportunities and freedom only enjoyed by some.
While feminism as a concept has become mainstream enough to be appropriated as a marketing tool, there are many excellent writers, thinkers, organisers and activists continuing to undertake essential work on behalf of society’s most marginalised, many of whom happen to be women.
And thank goodness. In an increasingly polarised world, it’s vital that we reclaim feminism as something that exists to support all women, not just a minority elite.
All of the books listed aim to raise awareness and inspire readers to think about how their individual actions can have a wider, systemic impact.
Literature has long offered sanctuary and reassurance to desolate souls and reading about the challenges, differences and similarities experienced by other women can be a galvanising force to inspire action and initiate change.
This International Women’s Day, it’s time for us to think creatively about how we can use our privilege to enact change for all.
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‘No Visible Bruises’ by Rachel Louise Snyder, published by Scribe Publications
A New York Times, Economist and Esquire Book of the Year, this utterly absorbing account of the severity and scale of domestic violence deserves every accolade. Snyder, an award-winning journalist, spent eight years investigating the epidemic that is domestic violence – a term she argues undermines its gravity – in the US, although much of her findings can be replicated throughout the world. Prior to her research, Snyder admits to thinking domestic violence was “an unfortunate fate for the unlucky few” – “as common as rain” – before realising the true cost of the problem on a personal and collective level.
Interviewing everyone from victims to perpetrators, police to domestic violence support workers, Snyder expertly blends personal narratives with accessible analysis without resorting to salaciousness, despite a captivating quality that often feels like fiction. When almost one in three women will experience domestic abuse during their lifetime, and two women a week are killed in England and Wales by a current or former partner, this chilling, vital and urgent book deserves to be read by everyone.
‘Hood Feminism: Notes From The White Women White Feminist Forgot” by Mikki Kendall, published by Bloomsbury
In this critical work, Kendall posits that mainstream feminism is too concerned with increasing privilege for the few, rather than addressing basic survival for the many. In a series of compelling and accessible essays, she argues that the challenges facing society’s most marginalised people, such as food security, safe housing, quality education and a living wage, are largely ignored within the mainstream feminist narrative – and she’s absolutely right. Through an intersectional lens, Kendall considers the impact of hunger, state violence, healthcare, colourism, reproductive justice and more on black, brown, indigenous, disabled and LGBTQ+ people – and the vital need for those who call themselves feminists to do more than wear slogan T-shirts to proclaim their activism.
Instead, she calls on them to actively use their privilege to incite systemic changes for the good of all women and wider society. Kendall is uncompromising about the ways in which white women not only look the other way when it comes to the experiences of society’s most marginalised, but are often active participants in maintaining supremacy at the expense of those most in need. Asserting that “no woman has to be respectable to be valuable”, Kendall speaks urgent truths that need to be heard. This is essential reading for all.
‘It’s not About the Burqa’ edited by Mariam Khan, published by Picador
Inspired by former prime minister David Cameron’s 2016 comment that Muslim women were “more submissive”, this superb collection of essays from a range of Muslim women aims to smash some of the enduring stereotypes that continue to persist in the UK about women from Muslim backgrounds. This stirring anthology expertly articulates both the pride and frustration many women feel about their religion and cultural backgrounds – from the challenges of meeting a partner, to clashes with family about “appropriate” or respectful conduct, queerness, religion, mental health and the tendency for mainstream feminism to “emphatically ‘other’” Muslim women in a movement meant to represent all women.
Noting that the “representation of Muslim women flip-flops between fitting a stereotype or breaking one, not the middle ground where most of us are”, these testimonies succeed in reminding us of how much we have in common, while also celebrating our differences. Identifiable, thought-provoking and often downright funny, these are insightful, intelligent and invaluable voices that need to be heard.
‘Lean Out’ by Dawn Foster, by Repeater
In this searing riposte to Sheryl Sandberg’s best selling Lean In, Foster criticises the rise of a “one per cent” feminism that exhibits extremely rich women, “not as symbols of our increasingly unequal society and distribution of wealth, but as saviours of womanhood”. Rather than celebrating individual achievements, Foster questions a movement that fails to recognise the influence and impact of capitalism and patriarchy on societal inequality and the manifest ways such policies and behaviours continue to affect society’s most vulnerable.
With journalistic rigour, Foster references research and policies to evidence this in relation to employment, the housing crisis, money, class and race, arguing that a woman CEO does not necessarily translate to real-life improvements for women’s rights and quality of life. She writes: “The problem with corporate feminism’s obsession with individual stories of success and ‘having it all’, is that many women don’t have much at all” – read this short, illuminating book to understand why success for the few does not equate to victory for the many.
‘Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights’ by Molly Smith and Juno Mac, published by Verso
A divisive and contentious issue, both in and out of feminist circles, Revolting Prostitutes is an overdue and essential addition to critical analyses on sex work. Written by actual sex workers – a group too often excluded from discussions on the issue – this exquisitely researched text offers a comprehensive and nuanced account of the impact of prostitution laws, borders, police and the prison system on sex workers around the world. In clear, accessible language, the authors put forward the argument for why sex work needs to be decriminalised from a harm reduction perspective.
Smith and Mac refuse to be drawn into binary positions on the “morality” of sex work, arguing instead for greater compassion and understanding of the fact that a “familiar and mundane” need to make money tends to drive most people to sell sex. An essential addition to the feminist canon and required reading for anyone who cares about equality and human rights.
‘Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People’ by Dr Frances Ryan, published by Verso
As one of the UK’s leading voices on disabled issues and rights, Dr Frances Ryan – herself a disabled woman – is well placed to speak with authority and insight into the challenges facing people with disabilities in the UK. Rigorous reporting into the experiences of those with disabilities in the UK, shattering case studies and a history of the hard-won rights secured by disabled people – and subsequently dismantled over the past decade – makes for sobering reading.
The cumulative impact of £28bn worth of cuts to disabled people’s income overseen by the 2010 coalition government has had a catastrophic impact on disabled people: one in five disabled people in the UK are living in food poverty, with one in six reporting having to wear a coat indoors, disabled and chronically ill people have been hit with a 580 per cent increase in sanctions between 2013-14 alone, coroners repeatedly cite “fit for work” tests as a contributory factor in a number of disabled people’s deaths… the list goes on. Women are more likely to be disabled with 6.4 million disabled women in the UK, compared with 5.5 million men, making this not only a human rights issue, but a feminist one. Read this, get angry and act: some of society’s most marginalised people are depending on it.
‘Burn it Down: Women Writing About Anger’ edited by Lily Dancyger, published by Seal Press
Women have plenty to be angry about. In this collection of essays, 22 writers portray, with verve and nuance, what it’s like living with anger in a society that dismisses and trivialises this emotion in women. From racism to physical pain, restrictive gender norms to sexual abuse, women’s anger often conceals pain, trauma and injustice. Monet Thomas Patrice writes of how “fear is the one the emotion black women are allowed to freely explore” as “an angry black woman is thought to have an attitude”, while Leslie Jamison assesses Tonya Harding’s anger in the context of poverty and violence, noting that “no woman’s anger is an island”.
Melissa Febos argues that her anger was “a reasonable reaction to the experience of growing up in a country that hated women and encouraged women to hate each other”, while Sheryl Ring takes a more positive stance, stating that “prolonged anger can distil into a fuel for creativity and resistance”. An overarching theme throughout the book is rage and grief about male anger and violence, proof if any were needed that this continues to be a significant barrier to women’s progress. As long as girls are socialised to repress, silence and pacify their emotions, books like this that analyse and explain women’s anger are necessary; read it to feel less alone.
‘All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation’ by Rebecca Traister, published by Simon Schuster
Once upon a time, women who did not marry were derided as outcasts, spinsters or “fallen”. Since then, several studies have revealed that unmarried and childless women are in fact happier and live longer than their married and child-rearing counterparts. Despite being married herself, Traister has written eloquently and enthusiastically about this growing demographic. Rather than being “selfish”, a woman’s choice to exist independently of a partner is revolutionary, argues Traister, adding that “any time women do anything with their lives that is not in service to others, they are readily perceived as acting perversely”.
Combining interviews and historical analysis, her emphasis is not just on an individual’s decision to marry or not, but their choice and autonomy in the matter. While the book is based on North American data, its message equally applies to the UK and to all readers, whether married or single and regardless of gender.
The verdict: Books to read for International Women’s Day
Trying to decide upon a single book in such an impressive collection is no mean feat, but the epidemic of violence against women makes Rachel Louise Snyder’sNo Visible Bruisesvital reading. Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall comes an extremely close second and should be essential reading for anyone interested in women’s welfare.
Elsewhere, Smith and Mac’s Revolting Prostitutesprovides an urgent and overdue insight into an industry that is too often talked about in sensationalist or moralising tones. Our advice? Buy them all and get inspired to act – it’s what our foremothers would have wanted.
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