10 best new non-fiction feminist books
Take a look through the new feminist texts breaking through mainstream publishing culture
The #MeToo and the #TimesUp movements have given the male-dominated world a kick in the nuts. From the US to China, France and South Korea, women all over the planet have been marching, protesting and demanding bodily autonomy, freedom and equality. From the many allegations spanning American media to Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and Westminster, dangerous and predatory behaviour is now being exposed and has prompted conversations about sexual assault, male privilege and entitlement.
Many feminists, from Rebecca Solnit to Laurie Penny, have been writing eloquently and angrily about these issues for years, if not decades. But the current atmosphere and the increasing influence of fifth wave feminism has brought books about the so-called F-word into mainstream publishing culture. Here are some of the best non-fiction feminist books that have been published in the past few months and will be coming out in the year ahead.
Brave by Rose McGowan: £20, Harper Collins
Many people, if they have been following the #MeToo movement, will have heard of actress Rose McGowan. She was one of the first women to talk publicly about the infamous Hollywood producer – she only calls him The Monster – who she accuses of sexually assaulting her. Her testimony led to a watershed moment in women’s rights. Her memoir, Brave, is a horrifying and enlightening look into her life: how she escaped from a cult in Italy and entered the cult of Hollywood, suffering abusive relationships and systemic misogyny throughout her career.
The Mother of all Questions by Rebecca Solnit: £12.99, Granta
This collection of American writer Rebecca Solnit’s essays covers a wide range of subjects, from how pornography represents the punishment and defeat of women to the victimisation of Lolita. Readers can sense Solnit’s joy in the face of progress, and determined resolve in the face of adversity. It’s an intellectual, lyrical and well-argued thesis for why women did not just sit in the caves thousands of years ago, and why pointing to an extreme minority of false rape allegations is the wrong focus in a wider discussion of rape culture. The essays date from 2014, and in the fast-evolving world of #MeToo and #TimesUp, praise of progressive comedians and male “allies” like Louis C K and Aziz Ansari are jarringly outdated. But look past those details; it’s well worth it.
A Good Time To Be A Girl by Helena Morrissey: £14.99 Harper Collins
Don’t call me a superwoman, Helena Morrisey tells us, but it is tempting nonetheless. Morrissey is the former CEO of Newton Investment Management, a diversity campaigner and a mother of nine, and her first foray into feminist non-fiction is a page turner that sets out the business case for gender equality. Reviewers have said the book is not a “rallying cry” and they are right, it has a softer tone, encouraging voluntary action in corporations to improve diversity by calling for men and women to work together. But the numbers and statistics, as well as her decades of experience in the financial world, pack a hard punch.
Bitch Doctrine by Laurie Penny: £12.99, Bloomsbury
Laurie Penny, a British writer and activist, might be the polar opposite in her writing style to Morrissey, but as Penny herself says in her book: “There’s no point being nice in a burning world”. Her essays range from US politics and the populist, misogynist forces that brought Donald Trump to the White House, to essays on Barbie dolls, pop culture and LGBT+ issues. Her writing is relentless and unforgiving. She calls for male allies, but she does not hide her disappointment when they fail to stand up. And her answer to the common repost that not all men deserve such scathing commentary? “Of course, of course, not all men. But enough of them.”
How we Get Free by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: £12.99, Haymarket Books
Although African American women were credited with mostly voting for Hillary Clinton in the last election, Princeton scholar and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor points out that black women voter turnout was lower in 2016 than it was for Barack Obama in 2012. This, she argues, was partly due to voter suppression and a loss of hope that politics could make their lives better. Structural inequality, racism and sexism still exist, and black women in the US are hit the hardest.
The publication of How We Get Free marks the 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective statement, which is often said to be the foundational document of intersectional feminism. As white feminism has gained an increasing amount of coverage, there are still questions as to how black and brown women’s needs are being addressed. This book, through a collection of interviews with prominent black feminists, provides some answers.
Women and Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard: £7.99, Profile Books
A slim volume of big ideas, this is historian Mary Beard’s manifesto for women whose relationship with the structures of power remains problematic. She mines her extensive knowledge of the classical world to show how women have been silenced throughout history, and how cultural prejudices against powerful women continue to limit the scope of all women’s ambition and achievement. Beard’s own experience of misogyny and sexist trolling is referenced as an example of what happens to women who dare to raise their voices – or stick their heads above the parapet – to this day. The answer, she argues, is to redefine what power means and change the dominant narrative which confines women to the margins. Short, pithy, and inspiring.
Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now by Helen Pankhurst: £25.00, Sceptre
To be directly descended from the most famous line of female suffrage activists – the Pankhursts – is to be uniquely positioned to survey the progress, or lack of it, towards equal rights for women over the last century. In this book Helen Pankhurst presents a thoroughly researched and clearly written resumé of the successes women have achieved in both the public and private spheres, as well as the distance still to be travelled. In one chapter, she awards society’s progress in the area of violence a score of 1 out of 5, suggesting that gender-based violence is on the rise, partly fuelled by the internet. pulling together testimonies from women in all walks of life, and setting out a clear path for the future, this is a measured, objective, and ultimately optimistic account of where we are and how we got here.
The Little Book of Feminist Saints by Julia Pierpont: £12.99, Virago
Take a hundred remarkable women, from different countries and different eras, provide each with a graceful and striking portrait by talented illustrator Manjit Thapp, and you have another small book packing a big punch. There might be some argument about what constitutes a feminist icon, but in their varying ways all the women here have defied convention and made their mark in the world, whether in science, politics, art, literature, or sport, the net has been widely cast. Best-selling American author Julia Pierpont cleverly co-opts the format of the Catholic “Saint of the Day” book to showcase these secular “Matron saints” of everything. They range from from Sisterhood (Gloria Steinem) to Optimism (Helen Keller) to Irony (Jane Austen). Potted biographies with a twist, these quirky and anecdotal entries sum up the essence of their subjects. They are perhaps weighted towards American women, there are many discoveries to be made and the book is perfect for dipping in to.
The H Spot: the Feminist Pursuit of Happiness by Jill Filipovic: £20.00, Nation Books
Jill Filipovic gave up a budding career as a corporate lawyer in NYC to become a freelance writer in pursuit of that Holy Grail called happiness. Her investigation of women’s lives in the US, based on interviews with women of all ages and backgrounds, attempts to discover what makes women happy and why happiness is still elusive for so many of us. The answer is a mixture of systemic inequalities and internalised doubts and conflicts, which prevent women from achieving the ideal of personal fulfilment on the same terms as men. Filipovic gives a comprehensive breakdown of all the obstacles to women’s happiness, including outdated gender roles, poverty, the impact of motherhood on work, sexual double standards, and much more. Little new here, but nevertheless a readable and substantiated summary of the status quo, with plenty of ammunition for women who argue that a gender-neutral nirvana is still some way off.
Dear Ijeawele: A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: £5.00, 4th Estate
No stranger to the bestseller lists, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is as renowned for her feminist writings as for her prizewinning fiction. In this pamphlet-sized essay, she offers advice in the form of a letter to her friend Ijeawele, who wants to raise her daughter to be a feminist. She offers straightforward and practical suggestions on how to approach issues, from body image to female stereotyping and the very language used to normalise misogyny, providing essential talking points for the conversations mothers must have with their daughters – and also with themselves. If the goal of feminism is to allow girls to reach their full potential and overcome the kind of gender bias that is ubiquitous from infancy, these fifteen suggestions are common sense solutions to persistent dilemmas. Forget the pink babygrow and buy this for any new mother of a baby girl.
The Verdict: Feminist non-fiction books
We have heard so much about Weinstein, the casting couch and endemic sexism in Hollywood that readers might be surprised to find that Rose McGowan’s memoir could have any more to say on these subjects. But Brave manages to do two things: give a much needed context to the power dynamics of Hollywood, and tell the actress’s own story, elevating her far beyond the label of “rape victim”. Her brutally honest book may be called Brave, but it could be equally called Survivor. For black feminist history, How We Get Free is comprehensive and pocket-sized. And for readers keen to learn more about the male-dominated world of finance and investment, Helena Morrissey’s account of her career and diversity initiatives are well worth a read.
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