Six years writing the life of Eleanor Marx made me review everything I’ve read about fighting injustice against women and the arrested development left to men by patriarchy. Living with her and her radical friends brought an intimacy to my relationship with the trailblazers of feminism. I rather hope that Tussy – as Marx was known to her friends – might enjoy my choices.
What makes a great feminist text? The right values for sure. But it also needs sufficient wit, wisdom, energy and eloquence to inspire change beyond its time, perhaps beyond the imagination of its author. My list includes fact and “non-fact” – as I sometimes think of fiction – poetry, original English and translated writing. Two male authors have made the cut, though I could easily have included more.
Gender-based inequality remains the greatest global injustice and the struggle against it spans millennia and continents. These books make us more impatient for change, but they may also be turned to in dark hours when it feels change might never come. Feminism is no impulse or outcome of modernity. As these books show, it has been around for centuries. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel, or number what “wave” we are now riding; we need to harness an atomic rocket to it.
This book literally saves lives. Some on the edge have stepped back to have another go after reading this. Bestselling 80s novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was a “cover version … a story I could live with. The other one was too painful.” Twenty-five years later Winterson confronts it head on in the “finding place” of literature: “A tough life needs tough language – and that’s what poetry is. That’s what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.”
2. Fat Is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach (1978)
Groundbreaking in 1978, Orbach’s original exploration of the body fascism of diets and body obsession is – sadly – even more relevant today. Activist and psychotherapist Orbach recently founded Endangered Bodies, a global campaign challenging the merchants of body hatred. There is a growing movement of girls, women and men who reject the horrors of body uniformity, cherishing the variety of shapes, sizes, colours, ages of us all.
3. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1856)
Publication in France prompted an obscenity prosecution. The novel was first translated into English by Eleanor Marx in 1886, the same year she published The Woman Question from a Socialist Point of View. Emma Bovary haunted Tussy: ”She is foolish, but there is a nobleness about her too. She is never mercenary … her life is idle, useless. And this strong woman feels there must be something to do – and she dreams … In all literature there is perhaps nothing more pathetic than her hopeless effort to ‘make herself in love’.”
This principled, logical tract is an inspiration for three centuries of subsequent human rights thinking. Wollstonecraft identifies natural rights as inalienable and God-given. So they cannot be denied to any group in society by another. Enemies of the Human Rights Act, please note.
5. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison (1992)
Nobel laureate Morrison is the greatest living philosopher of the racialised imagination, its pervasive effect on culture and why racism can never be separated from gendered inequality. This political and cultural analysis encapsulates in an elegant 90 pages Morrison’s thinking, whose relevance reaches far beyond literary criticism.
6. Fear of Flying by Erica Jong (1973)
Like Emma Bovary, Jong’s hero Isadora Wing reminds us feminism makes us badgirls. “The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not ‘taking’ and the woman is not ‘giving’. No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.” Jong’s unabashed sexual adventure has sold more than 20m copies worldwide, mostly to women fed up with bad marriages.
7. The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues by Angela Davis (2012)
I waited all my adult life for this book. An indispensible collection of great speeches by this activist for equality and social justice, its cover – and contents – feature the apartheid wall that blights all our lives and shared humanity.
8. The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology edited by Nathalie Handal (2001)
The Arabic poetic tradition is among the world’s oldest. Iraqis say if you throw a stone you are bound to hit a poet. Arab women’s poetic voices are still too rarely heard. This groundbreaking anthology by award-winning poet Nathalie Handal, protege of Adrienne Rich, is an all-important first of its kind.
9. The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism by George Bernard Shaw (1928)
Polly Toynbee says it all in her new introduction to Shaw’s masterpiece. This is a brilliant debunking of the myriad excuses for inequality. Shaw hates the poor, pities the rich and is bent on the extermination of both. Women of all classes must free themselves from economic dependence on men. Raising children and family structures are at the heart of patriarchy; capitalism the villain of the piece. Humanity is driven by forces other than self-interest. Like slavemasters, men will not be free and realise their full potential until women are, and do.
10. Saint Joan of Arc by Vita Sackville-West (1936)
“She breaks as an apparently ordinary little girl of 12 or 13 into the pages of history.” The Maid of Orleans’s story has been told many times, but never like this. Sackville-West portrays peasant girl, soldier and saint as the icon she is. Vita understands the central power of the biographical form; there is the grand impersonal narrative of history; and then there is the life lived.
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