Our list of essential reading material includes a host of heartfelt, wise, and witty books to choose from, many of which are powerful enough to be called life-changing.
It’s impossible to talk about women’s lit without exploring feminism and its implications for modern living, so some of these books deal with that topic. Still others talk about what it means to be alive as a woman, to accept inner turmoil as a path to wisdom, and to find ways to gain a deeper personal understanding.
The 20 books here won't be the final word on what’s important to read and what isn’t, but these titles make a great start to a reading journey whose lessons will stay with you for life.
Here are some well-known and soon-to be classics you need to read right now.
1. Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Yes, it was made into a movie, and yes, you need to read the book. Few authors talk about the pain of losing a long relationship, and how it really feels to be emotionally lost. Picking up the pieces and moving on against your will is no fun place to be, but Gilbert takes the reader to a place of redemption that is as touching as it is surprising.
2. The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
Before Sex and the City came The Best of Everything. The book takes us back to the male-dominated sixties and a group of young women attempting to find careers, love, and sex without getting a "bad" reputation. Unfortunately, things haven't changed much, so the book is relatable to modern women.
3. Just Kids by Patti Smith
Patti Smith, the rocker, led a bohemian life that included on-again-off-again lover, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith captures the sense of unfettered wildness, hope, despair and vague ambition that were hallmarks of her time. It is a tale of someone who actually pulled off many women's secret dream, to be a wild child.
4. Backlash by Susan Faludi
This is a major contribution to feminist literature. It deals with the slow progress of women's accomplishments, and how an era of moving forward is so often followed by one of moving backward. This will appeal to those who consider the pace of progress to be too slow.
5. The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor by Patricia Williams
This unusual book is a combination of diary, musings on legal history, and a declaration about the injustice of racism. It deals with how we treat people of different genders, how we put them in predetermined statuses that are hard to get out of, and what race has to do with it all. You don't have to know law to read this one.
6. Heartburn by Nora Ephron
This funny and touching book takes women on a journey into their own heartbreaks, comments on how to survive them, and doesn't shy away from the pain of living an honest life. The book is not new, but the topics are timeless, and Nora Ephron's writing is quick and witty.
7. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
This is an argument for women's equality. It explores the various methods society has used to hold women back and keep them down. Readers will forget this was written in the 1940s, because so little social progress has been made. The journey from seeing women as wombs to seeing them as equal partners in society is a long one, and this book reminds us of that.
8. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The author paints a picture of a fictional society where most people cannot procreate, and the few women who can are only allowed to breed. Readers will go on a chilling adventure that questions why we can't see women as more than child-rearing robots.
9. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Women have been told so often to "just get over it" when suffering from depression, it's a wonder more books like this haven't been written. Plath honestly records the pain of sinking into mental illness and depression. All of this is set against the backdrop of 1950s society, where women didn't have many choices about how to spend their lives.
10. The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
Another feminist tome, this book examines the lengths women often go to in order to appear physically attractive and perfect. Wolf sees women as being victimized by advertising that consistently portrays a beautiful woman as an ideal that few women can realistically expect to attain.
11. Wasted by Marya Hornbacher
Anorexia and bulimia seem to be overlooked as serious problems, perhaps because they are most common among women. Hornbacher confronts the shame associated with these conditions, using wit, honesty, and humor as her weapons. The result is a book that speaks to women not only about the pain of anorexia and bulimia, but about being ignored when they need help.
12. Bossypants by Tina Fey
Tina Fey reminds us that feminism is not a historical curiosity, but a living modern struggle to balance romantic relationships, careers, friendships and the demands of being a mother. The comedienne is at no loss for funny things to say, but the book is most worthwhile for its biting insights on modern society.
13. A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
This book takes us back to 1929, when Woolf wrote about her own struggles to overcome barriers as a female writer. The pages have their share of darkness as we go on a journey with Shakespeare's sister, Judith. She was a gifted writer, but being a woman, could not even get an education, much less a theater job.
14. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
Here is an essential feminist book exploring 1950s women who had little choice but to be a housewife and bear children. Friedan was arguing even then that women should be allowed to find fulfilling work. Actually published in 1963, this book set off a wave of feminism that still has implications for today.
15. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
We go back to the 19th century for this one. This tale of sisters during the Civil War is best known for its feisty lead character, Jo March. She was a woman with a temper and distaste for romance. This is one of the first books to depict a woman as something other than dainty and fixated on finding a man.
16. The Second Shift by Arlie Russell Hochschild
This is a discussion and study of the changing household. America moved from a single-career home headed by the father to a dual-career house where both the father and mother worked — while the woman was still supposed to do all of the housework. The book is still relevant today, though it was first published in 1989.
17. Corregidora by Gayl Jones
Jones depicts the inner life of a woman who is constantly searching for a sense of completeness. Being owned as a slave marks a woman for life, according to Jones, and this mark is both physical and spiritual. In a way, it is a slave story, and in another way, it is the tale of all women who feel they have struggled to keep from being owned.
18. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Few writers have been brave enough to explore the grief of losing a husband, but Didion takes on the subject with courage and honesty. This book is based on the loss of her own husband. Women who seek to be understood in their grief will find an understanding friend Didion.
19. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Explore what being a woman means by going on a journey into female mental illness. Perhaps the most generous insight of this book is that women should not only own up to their own darkness, they should consider it a crucial part of understanding life.
20. The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto
This book is about going forward despite your own weaknesses and your doubts about the world. The author delves into what it means to keep going when you don't feel like it, and not expecting a reward so much as a meaningful journey.
The Bottom Line
This list of vital books for women may not be a definitive set of recommendations on the subject, but it is a good place to begin a reading journey that will take women on a trip through their own understandings of what it means to be female in today's society. Some of the books deal with personal issues, and some deal with societal problems. All of them are written with a focus on women, and female readers would do well to read at least some of them.