This article on the best books written by women was written specifically for international women’s day, but I turned it into my tribute to women’s history month.
I have read several of them and I feel confident that I’ll get to more of them soon. I think I will add these to my challenges, along with the 20 books that people lie about and the 40 best books. These are the 25 best books by women.
I’ll eventually be writing a little about each of these on my own.
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Austen remains one of history’s greatest masters in two tricky literary fields: the world of romance and the world of social satire. Pride and Prejudice, then, sees her at the peak of her powers. Through the eyes of Elizabeth Bennet, her sharp-witted protagonist, we witness upper-class Regency England as both a dream and a farce. Not all is as it seems, and society betrays its hollowness when it deems that money should trump love.
Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
Despite the fact that Hurston was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, Their Eyes Were Watching God was largely rejected by her peers. It was during the 1970s and 1980s that her novel was essentially rediscovered, with many contemporary black feminists heralding the genius of her work. The novel focuses on Janie Crawford, a black woman who refuses to give in to bitterness or sorrow, as she navigates three marriages and a life marked by poverty. It’s a story bursting with passion and soulfulness.
The Lottery and Other Stories – Shirley Jackson
Jackson probed the darkest corners of the American psyche during the 1940s and 1950s, all thanks to her collections of ghost stories, including 1959’s The Haunting of Hill House, which was recently adapted into a Netflix series. With several novels and over 200 short stories for readers to get lost in, there are very few horror writers like her. That’s especially true when it comes to (arguably) her greatest work, 1948’s The Lottery, which traces a small town’s annual tradition to its sinister conclusion.
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
A Pulitzer Prize winner, To Kill a Mockingbird has carved its place in history. Its depiction of racial injustice in the American Deep South was startling frank for the 1960s, in a way that undeniably had a social impact at the time – it became an instant sensation and is now widely taught in American schools. Lee writes about the world’s cruelties with an honesty and compassion that still resonates, with the character of Atticus Finch becoming a enduring model of integrity for the legal profession.
Octavia E Butler – Kindred
Butler was a key figure in sci-fi history, expanding the boundaries of what the genre could achieve and what it could come to represent. First published in 1979, the book still feels as fresh as ever in its first-person account of a young black writer, Dana, who through strange circumstances finds herself travelling between her own reality and a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. It’s through this unusual theme that Butler can explore the lasting trauma of America’s history on African Americans today.
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre feels, in many ways, thoroughly modern today. Although originally published under the pen name “Currer Bell”, it feels likes a dive into the mind of Brontë herself. The story is told through a first-person narrative that feels so psychologically intimate, it’s as if she’s sharing the secrets of her own world with us. We follow Jane through her school years, all the way to her later employment by Mr Rochester, a tortured soul whom she falls madly in love with, with many aspects of her journey reflecting elements of Brontë’s own life.
Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie, who was born in Nigeria, is considered one of the most original literary voices of her generation. You can see why this is when reading Half of a Yellow Sun, which depicts the brutality of the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s, as seen through four different perspectives: twin daughters of a wealthy businessman, a British citizen, a professor and a houseboy. It’s history via an achingly human lens.
White Teeth – Zadie Smith
Smith remains a modern titan of the British literary scene, thanks partially to White Teeth, which is considered one of the most sensational fiction debuts of all time, becoming an immediate bestseller and sweeping up multiple awards. The book begins with two men – Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and Englishman Archie Jones – who become friends after being stationed together during WWII. Their return to London sees Smith examine British postwar attitudes to those from formerly colonised countries, although she ensures the subject is approached with both heart and a sense of humour.
The Hour of the Star – Clarice Lispector
Lispector was a literary innovator. The Hour of the Star, published posthumously in 1977, invents a narrator called Rodrigo SM, who in turns tells the story of Macabéa, a poor young woman who hails from Alagoas, where Lispector’s family first settled when they emmigrated to Brazil. However, the way Rodrigo perceives Macabéa, and reckons with her story, itself creates a dialogue between the two characters, calling into question notions of identity and authorship.
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
One of literature’s sharpest minds and inspiration to the feminist movement in the 1970s, Woolf not only helped pioneer the use of the stream of consciousness as a narrative device, but utilised it to speak openly about sexuality, mental illness and gender roles. The novel largely follows the inner thoughts of two characters, Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith, one a high-society woman in interwar-period England and the other a veteran suffering from shell shock.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories – Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor wrote hard stories for a hard world. Her unsentimental, sardonic use of the Southern Gothic style helped weave her own take on the parable, in which the morally weak often face violent, painful punishment for their misdeeds. That said, the door is always open for transformation and spiritual awakening by the story’s conclusion, with her work frequently confronting ideas of morality and ethics through the lens of her own Catholic faith.
Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi
At times, it seems less like Persepolis is a story. Satrapi’s graphic novel, published in two volumes in 2000 and 2004, feels more like an invitation, as she takes our hand and leads us through her childhood and early adult years, so that we can see through the eyes of a curious, funny, smart young girl who must face the personal repercussions of war and religious extremism in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution. It’s the political seen through the personal, but it’s always Satrapi’s own spirit that shines the brightest.
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Many have now come to consider Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first pure work of science-fiction, with a central narrative driven a character’s exploration of a world beyond what we already know. Not only is it significant for its later influence on culture, but Shelley’s work, initially published anonymously, is astonishing in both its emotional vitality and its philosophical implications. It’s a work where we both feel the anguish of the misunderstood, while also reckoning with the concept of man’s unbridled power.
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Beloved takes its inspiration from the true story of Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in Kentucky in 1856 and fled to Ohio, a free state. However, the story itself focuses on a protagonist named Sethe, a former slave whose home is haunted by a malevolent presence that she believes is her eldest daughter. It’s through this vivid sense of magical realism that Morrison can confront the unfathomable trauma that slavery has inflicted on the African American collective memory.
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Although the book has received increased attention thanks to Hulu’s critically acclaimed TV adaptation, it’s all thanks to the fierceness of Atwood’s critical analysis of gender politics. Her 1985 book, which imagines a near-future New England controlled by a totalitarian state, in which women are completely subjugated to men, has only become increasingly relevant – and prescient. Her work provides a continued reminder that it doesn’t take much for our world to slip into complete dystopia.
Middlemarch – George Eliot
Mary Anne Evans, amongst other concerns, feared that her work Middlemarch would be dismissed entirely due to the notion that women’s writing was strictly light and romantic. And so, instead, it was published in eight instalments across 1871 and 1872 under the name George Eliot. The book is far from light; set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch, it follows a vast, sweeping narrative that encompasses subjects of religion, idealism and political reform.
Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng
Ng writes about American suburbia with an astounding clarity, perhaps partially because she considers the act of writing about one’s hometown as a little like “writing about a relative”, with an attachment that perceives both their greatest attributes and their flaws. Little Fires Everywhere is her second novel to take place in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where she grew up, and focuses on a new arrival to the town, whose sense of mystery disrupts its residents’ obsession with structure and rules.
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
Famous for its popularity with teenage girls, Plath’s work speaks to clearly to an adolescent precisely because it makes no attempt to sugarcoat the prospect of the entrance into adulthood. The book’s protagonist, Esther, a young woman attempting to establish herself in New York, feels more like a front for Plath to discuss her own experiences of struggling with mental health, especially in the context of the 1950s, when women’s concerns were so rarely paid attention to. There is an honesty to Esther’s frustration that has been a comfort to many.
Elena Ferrante – My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend is only one part of Ferrante’s four-book series, known as the Neapolitan novels. As the first chapter, it is, de facto, the most well known of the series, but it’s also an invitation to such raw intimacy that readers will be unable to resist delving into the rest. Ferrante serves as a pseudonym, allowing the books to illuminate with candour the friendship between two women, born in Naples in 1944, who try to find peace in a world of violence and misogyny.
The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton captures with vigour both the opulence and the suffocating claustrophobia of New York’s Gilded Age, as two future newlyweds – in every other way society’s perfect vision of man and woman – find their union disrupted by the arrival of a cousin shrouded in scandal. The Age of Innocence is a wistful, romantic novel that still succeeds in treating society’s hypocrisy with an acute sense of disdain.
The Color Purple – Alice Walker
Marking a rare mastery of the epistolary novel, The Color Purple focuses on the experiences of black women living in the US south during the 1930s. Although it deals with themes of abuse and violence, the honesty in Walker’s voice is disarming in a way that opens us up to her protagonist’s journey towards self-realisation and personal freedom. It’s no wonder that the book’s continued relevance saw it both adapted into a 1985 film directed by Steven Spielberg and a Broadway musical.
Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
Rebecca remains one the finest examples of Gothic literature, despite the fact that Du Maurier wasn’t writing within the confines of some drafty Victorian castle; rather, she was examining the world of spirits during the interwar period. In its story of a woman whose whirlwind courtship with a widower turns sour when she becomes haunted by the lingering presence of her husband’s first wife, Rebecca is a book filled with suppressed desires, loss and a looming sense of threat.
The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
As Roy’s debut novel, it’s an extraordinary first outing. Roy contrasts the innocence of childhood, as seen in the book’s protagonists, fraternal twins Rahel and Estha, with the rising political turmoil in Kerala during 1969. It also features a non-sequential approach to narrative, with the novel intricately weaving between the twins’s reunion in 1993 and the lengthy flashback and sidetracks, all painted with a massive sense of scope and imagination.
Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie
We may know every twist and turn of Christie’s best works by now, but there’s still a frisson to how intricately and confidently she pulls the rug from underneath readers. Murder on the Orient Express still feels like her most enthralling work, as famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot finds himself in the midst of a murder scene, after his train is blocked by the heavy snowfall and a passenger is found dead, making the rest of those on board all instant suspects.
The Tale of Genji – Murasaki Shikibu
The oldest book on this list, this classic of Japanese literature was written by Shikibu, a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting, in the early 11th century. Although the original manuscript no longer exists, what’s been passed down to us now was translated initially into modern Japanese, with English translations being published at a later time. An account of the life Hikaru Genji, the son of the emperor, it’s a masterful work of psychological portraiture, which offers a rare glimpse into the cultural customs of post-classical Japan.