The Female Gaze: 11 Unmissable Books by Women
Great change, as they say, is preceded by great chaos. And in these chaotic times, there is certainly a breath of change in the air. In light of the current bubbling media furore around workplace sexism — from unequal pay through to sexual harassment and abuses of power — there is a fresh understanding of the need to listen to women’s voices.
Indeed, many of you have asked us for a reading list of books written exclusively by women, and so here are a few that stretch across time and topics to underline the breadth of ideas that women writers have introduced to the world. What these books by women reveal is that despite so many strides being made towards equality between the sexes, there’s still much, much more work to be done.
Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates takes a hard look at real-life examples of women’s everyday experiences of sexism. Collectively these cases of discrimination, abuse, and unfair treatment demonstrate how entrenched in our society sexism really is. Bates points out that the problem is not just how many men do not realize or care that their behavior is discriminating on the basis of gender, but also how many women fail to recognize sexism when they experience it first-hand.
Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall
Naomi Watts, author of The Beauty Myth, argues that although women’s reproductive and work rights have significantly improved over the last half century, there has concurrently arisen a backlash against women designed to curtail their freedom. This backlash appears in the guise of The Beauty Myth which enforces the view that “beauty” as a quality exists, is a good and beneficial attribute, and should be sought-after by women. Crucially, a woman is deemed worthless when she is not beautiful. When self-worth becomes so intrinsically linked to appearance, Watts argues, women then become totally subservient to how they look.
Let Me Tell You…
In her book, Men Explain Things To Me, Rebecca Solnit discusses varying forms of gender discrimination, from the less serious “mansplaining” through to rape, domestic abuse and murder. Solnit writes that while the media often seeks to justify violence against women by depicting incidents as isolated cases, when women attempt to examine the whole picture and speak about the endemic problem of misogyny they are often threatened with further violence.
Cardiac Stress Test
Arlie Russell Hochschild lifts the lid on emotional labor: the management of our feelings to ensure they’re appropriate for our current environment. Due to unequal power dynamics women often end up doing more of the emotional labor than men. The author claims that although being “nurturing” or “empathetic” are often seen as innate character traits of womankind they’re actually learned behaviors performed to make up for women’s other inherent disadvantages.
Blame the Victim
Asking For It by Kate Harding takes a look at rape culture: the very low rates of conviction for rapists, the normalization of sexual abuse and how perpetrators portray themselves as the ‘real’ victims. Harding discusses how women are often warned to behave in certain ways in order to not be raped. But, as the author points out, when we put the onus on the woman to not be raped, if it then occurs, we allow for partial blame to be attributed to her.
Who Run the World?
Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is a call to arms for both men and women to recognize inequality between the genders at home and in the workplace. She describes the most dangerous form of sexism to be that of “benevolent” sexism, whereby the person has no deliberate intention to discriminate against women but does so unknowingly. She urges women to ‘lean into’ their careers by pursuing leadership positions and to openly discuss the discrimination they face.
Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, first published in 1949, was considered to be a groundbreaking work on the differing social statuses of men and women and how they came to be. de Beauvoir puts forward the theory that the female gender has been culturally defined to complement the male through the definition of womanhood itself as “other”, “incomplete” and “lacking”. She argues that although there exist physical differences between the sexes, there is no biological reason for women to be seen as the lesser of the two and in earlier societies it was actually women who held the power.
From Ritual to Romance
Labor Of Love by Moira Weigel is a history lesson in dating, from how couples met through matchmaking parents in the early 19th Century to the freedom that came with the introduction of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s. The role of marriage and its waning popularity in the latter half of the 20th Century is also discussed, as young people became more liberated in their sexual expression.
A seminal work in the feminist movement, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication Of The Rights of Woman addresses some of the fundamental flaws in a patriarchal society as she saw them at the time: namely, how women are put at a disadvantage from childhood, how emphasis on a woman’s appearance means she is not taken seriously and how lack of education for women is a disservice to society as a whole.
Put a Ring on It
Author Stephanie Coontz discusses the history of marriage and the many purposes it has fulfilled in society. For a long time the goal behind a marital union was to bring about peace between clashing communities, in doing so avoiding further conflict and ensuring a more secure future. Money and power were also key reasons to marry. It was not until the Enlightenment that the concept of marrying for love became more commonly adopted as individuals no longer had to rely so heavily on their families’ financial support.
The Wound of Shallowness
Hunger is an autobiographical tale of how a young woman, Roxane Gay, was left traumatized following a violent sexual assault. In a bid to repel other potential sexual predators the author began to overeat, wishing to make herself overweight and therefore ‘unattractive’ and less vulnerable to another attack. Gay discusses her experiences as an obese person, the abuse she receives from strangers and how society puts too much emphasis on losing weight regardless, and very little emphasis on why a person got to be that way in the first place.
As we mentioned, this is just a showcase of a few outstanding books. Although the subjects covered vary greatly — from careers, sexual violence, unequal pay, emotional work, and the beauty industry — they seek to reflect the experiences of women today and throughout history. And hopefully, before long, the word ‘author’ won’t need qualifiers to emphasize the fact that women — or any minority — write powerful, moving, crucial work, too!