So much has been achieved by the canon of feminist literature in recent centuries. We have come from George Eliot being forced to write under a male pseudonym, to Florence Given’s compelling and confident feminist manifesto ‘Women don’t owe you pretty’ in the last 200 years. We are exposed to the term ‘feminism’ everywhere these days, but not everyone seeks out additional information about the movement. The holidays are the perfect time to experience how literature has sign-posted the way throughout our history towards equality, and to discover what kind of a feminist you want to be.
Here are three brilliant classics which I love about women and their experience. Some are fiction, one is an essay, but all works of art. Perfect to read abreast a hot chocolate, hiding from the wintry weather!
The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This short psychological thriller created “feminist firework” when it was published in 1892. It portrays a young woman, locked in a room by her husband until her ‘hysteria’ is cured. In retrospect, one can tell she suffers from post-natal depression, and the deprivation of her new-born, any work, or thinking, is what drives her to insanity. Gilman is writing from her own experience of a Doctor Mitchell, who believed that by removing all stimuli, women would stop wanting an education, the vote, or any equality, and thus return to their sphere of domesticity. On the one hand, the protagonist is demonised because she is a woman who cannot fulfil her role as a wife and mother, typical of the society at the time. On the other hand, it has taken on a renewed urgency during our time of #MeToo; the husband exerts his power through coercive control, persuading his wife that he is trying to help, while actually inflicting psychological torture.
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
One of the best classic feminist novels, perfect for a Christmas read. This beautiful story shows us that feminism is really about choice; four sisters with completely different ideals get to choose their own destinies and pursue happiness down different paths. The protagonist, Jo March, is a tomboy who would have been incredibly successful if she wasn’t born a woman. Although the author wanted Jo to remain a spinster and show young women that success doesn’t always mean settling down, she was forced to marry her character off, otherwise her book would not be published! “Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for.” The other sisters have empowering soliloquies, saying “Just because my dreams are different than yours, doesn’t make them unimportant”, and of course Florence Pugh’s incredible Amy March in the recent film gave us the iconic “I’m just a woman” speech.
A Room of one’s own, Virginia Woolf
This feminist treatise calls for female writers to fight for their voice to be heard among the men who have silenced them throughout history. It addresses its 1929 economic under-class of women, which is still relevant in the gender pay-gap we have today! She also introduced the concept of the ‘Invisible Women’; those who were silenced because men’s authorship has always been prioritised. Furthermore, she asks how women are meant to stand out in writing if they have so few female role-models from whom to draw inspiration? Indeed, Woolf is adamant that if Shakespeare had a sister as talented as him, we would never know.
These books published over 100 years ago fuelled my feminism as well as doing what all stories should: immersed me in a world where the characters felt real. I thoroughly recommend using the holidays to enjoy these feminist classics. They are a welcome change from women simply being the object in literature; we can be more than just a love interest, or the subject of a sonnet.