The other day, my coworker showed me an OKCupid profile of a guy she was chatting with. His list of favorite books was lengthy and thoughtful, and the dude was clearly what one would called "well read." Only out of the 15 or so books he listed as his favorites, not one of them written was by a woman.
When my coworker confronted him about it in a message — "Hey, just wondering, but have you not read any books by women?" — the dude (who seemed nice enough) had an honest response: he simply explained that in the moment of writing up his favorite books, no books written by women had come to mind. He could, when prompted, think of two books he'd enjoyed that were written by women, but on the whole, it occurred to him that he just hadn't read that many books by female writers.
And honestly, this does not surprise me. Women (and people of color) remain highly underrepresented in the American literary canon — so the majority of literature people read in school were written by white men.
The good news is that organizations like VIDA Lit are bringing awareness to the issue, as well as concrete change in how much representation is given to female writers. More good news: we've compiled a list of 13 books written by women that all men would benefit from reading to start you off.
Here's hoping for a future where people who say they are "well read" actually are:
"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood
In this dystopian world, Offred is a Handmaid who is only allowed to leave her Commander's house once a day to pray that her ovaries keep working — because if she can't get pregnant with the Commander's child, she might be sentenced to a very horrible fate. It's like "1984" meets "V for Vendetta" meets Ayn Rand — if Ayn Rand were a liberal.
Like I said, the plot of this book exists in a universe that does not exactly exist. But the themes it sticks to — sex slavery, genital mutilation, and the oppression of women both sexually and economically — are things that happen today in 2016. There is truth embedded deeply within the fantasy of this book. Through the eyes of a severely oppressed woman, modern issues women face become illuminated.
"In Zanesville" by Jo Ann Beard
The main character in "In Zanesville," which takes place in 1970s Middle America, is a 14-year-old girl who is bad at babysitting, dropped out of marching band, and can barely deal with being alive. In other words, she's just a normal teen — who makes for a hilarious, acutely self-aware narrator, and one who really captures what it is like to be a 14-year-old girl. If you feel like escaping your sad sack, overworked self and entering a very smart — but clumsy — teenage girl's brain, I would highly recommend this book. It's special. It'll blow you away.
"Bad Behavior" by Mary Gaitskill
Dudes, welcome to the world of Mary Gaitskill, who will definitely fuck you up for life — but in a great way!
"Bad Behavior" is Gaitskill's debut short story collection, which was published in 1988. The first half of the stories are written from a male perspective, and the second half of the stories are written from a female perspective. Many of the female narrators have questionable morals, unconventional sexual fetishes, or are just plain unlikeable. These complex female narrators are confusing and often infuriating, but they are three dimensional, free women whose perspective we do not hear from enough.
"To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf
In "To the Lighthouse," it takes most of the book for the characters involved to actually get to the lighthouse. But this story has nothing to do with the lighthouse — it's actually a stream of consciousness story about what it means to be a woman in a man's world who wishes to live and create. The character whose point of view starts off the book is a female painter who struggles with self-doubt throughout the novel, because another character has expressed his opinion that females cannot paint or write. Wonder what that feels like, to be told your entire gender is bad at something you are passionate about? This book will leave you woke af.
"Sula" by Toni Morrison
When Sula Peace, a sexually ambiguous and liberated young woman, moves back into her old neighborhood in a small Ohio valley town after living in the city, nobody is happy she's back — in fact, her presence causes the entire community to rise up against her and proclaim Sula the pariah of the town. This book deals with evil, and focuses on the way young girls' sexuality is controlled, whether we like it or not, by the male gaze. It's under 200 pages, so it'll fit in your pocket for easy subway reading.
"Fun Home" by Alison Bechdel
"Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" is a wonderfully sad and wonderfully sincere coming-of-age graphic novel memoir by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In "Fun Home," Bechdel's younger self navigates a relationship with her volatile father, who we learn has grappled with his sexual identity for his entire life. The running theme of the graphic novel is the sexual orientation of the teen girl narrator in contrast with her father's much different (and in ways, difficult, or at least more doomed) journey. Also, if you're an English nerd, this novel is chock-full of great literature references. "Fun Home" puts you directly into the mind of a teenage girl who is coming to terms with the fact that she's gay, and her father is gay, too. Even for me, as a straight woman, this book was super enlightening.
"Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." by Judy Blume
No one has perfectly captured the confusion of religious identity better than Judy Blume in "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." Born to a Christian mother and a Jewish father, sixth grade protagonist Margaret Simon tries to figure out what her religion is — or what religion is, in general. Margaret is dealing with heavy questions here, like "Who am I? Why am I here? Do I even need to believe in a God? If so, which version of God should I believe in?" There is not an ounce of "chick lit" in this young adult book.
"My Ántonia" by Willa Cather
If you read this in high school and found it boring because of all the corn fields, you should probably read this again now that you're an adult who loves corn (and good stories). OK, even if you don't love corn.
Cather's portrayal of a close bond between a farm boy named Jim Burden, who grows up to be a successful lawyer in New York, and a childhood friend Ántonia, who comes from a Bohemian immigrant family, is heartbreaking and real. It's the kind of relationship between a boy and a girl (plain ol' friendship) that doesn't get written about enough.
By the end of the book you'll be like, "Wait, maybe I should hit up Lindsay with the friendship bracelets from elementary school. I loved her." I swear. My Ántonia is the best platonic love story ever written.
"Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging" by Louise Rennison
Are you a dude who thinks "A Confederacy of Dunces" is the funniest book you've ever read? Well, "A Confederacy of Dunces" is funny, but not as funny as the "Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging" series, written for teens by the late great Louise Rennison. These hilarious books follow main character Georgia Nicholson through puberty, where she searches for help in grappling with the big questions of her life: Why does her dad have the mentality of a Teletubby? Why is her nose so big? Why did her best friend shave off her eyebrows in the first place?! Every single sentence in this book, and the series that follows it, will make you LOL. When you're done, you'll really understand what "being insecure" means for a woman.
"Emily Post's Etiquette" (17th edition) by Peggy Post
Emily Post is America's foremost expert on etiquette. The seventeenth edition of this important text originally published in 1921 has been rewritten by Peggy Post, Emily's great-granddaughter in law for the no-holds-barred, manner-less 21st-century world we live in. Inside, you'll find the answers to questions like "How long do I have to answer an e-mail?" or "What do you wear to a semi-formal wedding in November?" Believe it or not, there is also a section for text message etiquette. Historically, etiquette was always considered something a woman should be an expert in. But really, why should men not know about these things? Give this a read, even if chivalry is allegedly dead.
"The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy
In "The God of Small Things," fraternal twins Rahel and Estha go through traumatic events as children in India together in the late 1960s, and are reunited again at the age of 31. The book is a sweeping, almost cinematic portrayal (no joke — the novel inspired a Pakistani novela that aired in 2013) of family, loss, and forbidden love, and both sister and brother are portrayed as sympathetic, flawed characters. Another kind of bond we don't really see too much in literature — the bond between a brother and a sister. This one hits both sides of the relationship beautifully.
"The Turner House" by Angela Flournoy
When I saw Angela Flournoy give a reading recently, she talked a bit about the process of writing her debut novel "The Turner House," which centers around the patriarch of a large African American family in Detroit, Cha Cha, and the youngest daughter of the brood, Lehla.
"I didn't have a hard time writing from Cha Cha's point of view, because we hear from men all the time," she joked. "But what was more difficult for me to pin down was the voice of a middle-aged woman like Lehla, who we don't hear from too often." In my opinion, Flournoy tells the story of the family brilliantly between the two characters, who are both struggling with their identity in different ways.
(R)EVOLUTION: the Girls Write Now 2016 anthology
In the pages of the NYC non-profit Girls Write Now's 2016 Anthology "(R)EVOLUTION," you'll find musings from young women of diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic levels growing up in New York City on their personal (r)evolutions — that's evolution, plus revolution, if you didn't get that. The poetry, screenplays, and short stories in these pages are enlightening and shocking — in breadth, and in insight.
All the proceeds go directly to the programming of this very important non-profit, which pairs professional women writers with young female writers who might not otherwise have the resources or support to better their writing.
(Ed. note: For the sake of full disclosure, the author of this post is a former employee of Girls Write Now.)