6 Books Every Smart, Forward-Thinking Woman Needs to Read
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688 pages; Harper Perennial Modern Classics
The story: One woman's struggle to write a notebook that contains all the compartmentalized facets of her life—her childhood, her politics and her lovers.
Why it inspires: "Unlike the popular books of the 1960s, which featured 'mad housewives' jumping out of windows, what Lessing tried to do was to bring together a woman's brain and a woman's body, to show the delight in physicality. Womanhood is exuberant—and wonderful."
264 pages; Mariner
The story: The nonfictional account of Mary McCarthy's idyllic childhood, cut short by the death of her parents.
Why it inspires: "McCarthy was orphaned by the influenza epidemic that followed WWI; both of her parents died in a flash. She was then raised by her grandparents in Seattle. The wonderful thing she does in the book is to tell what happened, and then to write about what might have happened. It takes 'memoir' to a whole other level. It gives you a shot of adrenaline; it makes you ask yourself, What was the transformational moment in my life when my story really begins?"
544 pages; Plume
The story: The coming-of-age story of two young Catholic girls in Ireland.
Why it inspires: "This is a writer who is a woman, a lover, a daughter, a mother and she tries to bring all that together in her work. So few women writers were doing that in the 1960s. Instead, they were writing through a male persona, because they knew that otherwise they wouldn't be taken seriously. But as O'Brien says, 'I am the mother of sons; my sons have given me joy. I am a lover of men, and men have broken my heart—but they've also given me joy.'"
288 pages; Harper Perennial Modern Classics
The story: A young woman suffers a breakdown while pursuing her dream of being a magazine editor.
Why it inspires: "Plath made it possible for women to confront our anger and make literature out of it. She made it acceptable to declare our rage."
384 pages; Mariner
The story: A young woman's awakening in Paris.
Why it inspires: "In Nin, you see a woman owning up to her sexuality. She was a great feminist, a great lover."
328 pages; Wilder
The story: A younger woman comes to serve as governess in an English country manor—and falls for the mysterious owner of the house.
Why it inspires: "There is so much about this book that was revolutionary. You have a heroine who is plain, but she's clever. Also, Jane is a woman who speaks her mind—she doesn't lie to please the establishment, or to please men."
Next: The 7 books every spiritual person needs to read