Inspirational books by inspirational women

Inspirational books by inspirational women

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On 6th February 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed which allowed women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification to vote. This gave 8.5 million women the vote (though it is important to note that this only represented 40% of the total population of women in the UK and it wasn’t until ten years later that women achieved full equality in voting rights).

In honour of this some of the women of the Gladstone’s Library team have picked books by female writers that have either inspired or empowered them. 

Louisa Yates, Director of Collections and Research

It has to be 'A Room of One’s Own' by Virginia Woolf. Delivered in 1928 and published in 1929, Woolf was thinking, writing and speaking just at the time of the Representation of the People Act 1928. I read it quite young, perhaps age 11, after struggling mightily with 'Mrs Dalloway'. After that challenging, modernist narrative, the essay was like the firing of a gun. Woolf is calm, but she’s not grateful for what women had only so recently been given. And why should she be? Votes aren’t enough. What is really needed is a systematic overhaul of a system that renders women invisible, and does so while pretending to be a meritocracy. As Virginia points out, women need education, time, and MONEY (in ascending order of importance) if they are to fully express themselves as citizens and individuals. It’s lucid, logical, and fiercely relevant.

But everyone knows 'A Room of One’s Own', and if they do they should read 'Consequences' by E. M. Delafield. Published in 1919 by the author who would become famous for her 'Provincial Lady', the novel follows Alex Clare. Middle-class and secure, Alex should float serenely through school (not that important), debutante balls (very important) and marriage (the pinnacle of life and the aim of the previous two stages). But Alex can’t; she’s too impulsive, self-centred, and peevish for that. I can’t bear Alex. She drives me to distraction. In a stroke of utter genius, however, Delafield shows us that the system Alex can’t understand – and which punishes her so terribly – is even more hateful, pointless, and unaware than she is. It’s an inspired piece of writing and it’s now published by Persephone Press, which does vital work in amplifying women who have expressed themselves as Woolf said they should. 

Elspeth Brodie-Browne, Intern

I have ummed and ahhed over this but for me it has to be Jane Austen’s, 'Emma'. I had the audio book on tape when I was seven years old and fell in love with it, and by extension Austen, immediately. Though Emma herself isn’t considered as likeable as other heroines, I have always loved her. She is flawed, superior, competitive, insecure and selfish but she also learns from her mistakes and has a flaming streak of fierce independence which makes her very precious to me.  Austen’s depiction of a confident woman (and one that for most of the novel maintains she never wants to marry at that!) struggling to define herself outside of her desirability to men and to navigate societies obsession with pitting woman against woman is always painfully relatable.

The novel doesn’t really to fit the brief of ‘feminist’ by modern standards and has many problematic moments (hence the indecision) but for me it has always symbolised being unapologetically yourself and it’s the book I always go back to when I’m in need of comfort, strength or a bit of both - so I couldn’t, in all good conscience, choose anything else! 

Carla Manfredino, Intern

I can’t pick just one writer, so I’m giving two: Miranda July and Louise Gluck. Both have redefined what ‘womens writing’ means to me in very different ways. 

I remember reading Miranda July’s 'No One Belongs Here More Than You' when I was 16 and being excited but baffled by this odd voice. The stories take a ridiculous subjective view of what could be a simple and ordinary event. In one story a woman teaches elderly people to swim on her kitchen floor, and in another, the narrator fantasises over Prince William after she has a dream about him. July’s narratives are often eccentric, but the words are simple and poetic. In many very funny ways, the stories deal with a deep human loneliness. Her writing is always on the right side of ‘twee’, balanced carefully between pathos and humour. 

Secondly is Louise Gluck, a former Poet Laureate of the U.S. Her collection of poems which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, 'The Wild Iris', imagines the voices of many flowers in a sometimes terrifying way, that evades sentiment or stereotype. An early poem of hers, ‘Mock Orange’, has one of her most unpredictable openings - ‘It is not the moon, I tell you./ It is these flowers/ lighting the yard./ I hate them. I hate them as I hate sex’. The precision of form and diction in her poetry and her unique personification of the natural world are occasionally bleak with their nihilism, but always enrapturing with their sudden incandescence of true feeling. 

Katie Ruffley, Intern

For me, it has to be Emily Wilson and her new translation of 'The Odyssey'. The first female translation published (2017) and the first to use words with Latin roots as well as Greek. The Odyssey is hardly a feminist text and the simple fact that a woman has translated it doesn’t suddenly make it one. It is still the story of a male hero, in a male dominated society where the female characters, no matter their standing, are still marginalised and suffer great injustice. However Wilson’s translation uses simple yet elegant language to present the reader with the realities of the poem and exposes (I think) what is missing from the narrative – women. 

Amy Sumner, Marketing Manager

I'm choosing to nominate a writer for her body of work as a whole rather than a single text, and that woman is historian and writer Philippa Gregory who for over 30 years has traced forgotten and side-lined women (of predominantly Plantagenet and Tudor history) through fleeting mentions in manuscripts and records and breathed life back into them through her historical fiction. Her commitment to research and historical accuracy has ensured solid foundations for these previously untold histories, and we have been given access to some truly remarkable and powerful women.

Philippa Gregory writes as a feminist and is committed to telling the stories of these women and I would recommend her to anyone who is yet to discover her work.

What is your favourite book by an inspirational woman writer? Share it with us on Twitter @gladlib!