There is more to women's fiction than pink glittery book jackets with curly writing and protagonists obessessed with shoes and Chardonnay. We're not deriding the chick-lit genre, just saying that certain preconceptions about what women like to read can distract from the impact women's fiction has had, and continues to have, on the history of literature as well as the history of feminism.
From fearless female protagonists realising their dreams in the face of adversity, to witty social commentaries on the female condition as well as two very different feminist manifestos written fifty years apart - here are 10 of the most influential and unputdownable books that celebrate, in their own way, what it is to be a woman.
This is by no means a comprehensive list so please do tell us about your own personal favourites in the comments below...
'The Feminine Mystique', Betty Friedan (50 Years)
A pioneering feminist of mid-century America, Friedan identified a widespread and debilitating ennui among US housewives in the 1950s. Her seminal text, <em>The Feminine Mystique</em>, warns women against relying on marriage and children alone for fulfillment and incites them to use their minds through meaningful work: "We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: 'I want something more than my husband and my children and my home." Widely regarded as the catalyst for ‘second wave feminism’, <em><a href="http://www.amazon.co.uk/Feminine-Mystique-Betty-Friedan/dp/0393063798/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1374219598&sr=1-7&keywords=The+Feminine+Mystique" target="_blank">The Feminine Mystique</a></em> is a heartening reminder of how far feminism has come in the last 50 years, since its initial publication, and an inspiration for the continued fight for equality.
'The Help', Kathryn Stockett
A story of Afro-American maids working in white households in Mississippi in the 1960s, <em><a href="http://www.amazon.co.uk/Help-Kathryn-Stockett/dp/0141039280/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1374219520&sr=1-1&keywords=the+help" target="_blank">The Help</a></em> is told from the point of view of three unforgettable women – maids, Abileen and Minny, and Skeeter, the daughter of a wealthy, white family, who has been raised by maids. When Skeeter is given the opportunity to become a published author by writing a book about the lives of ‘the help’, the three women get together, risking everything to tell the story of a group of women who have never before been given a voice. Taking you through the full gamut of emotions, this harrowing tale of female oppression and racism becomes ultimately an uplifting story of empowerment.
'How To Be A Woman', Caitlin Moran
Half autobiography, half feminist-manifesto, <em><a href="http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Be-Woman-Caitlin-Moran/dp/0091940745" target="_blank">How To Be A Woman</a></em> tackles the issues that face women in the 21st century with a wit, accessibility and lightness of touch that smashes the stigma and stereotypes surrounding feminism in one fell swoop, and brings it into the mainstream. No longer the preserve of activists and academics, feminism is for every woman, according to Moran. Believe in gender equality? Then you’re a feminist.
'The Handmaid's Tale', Margaret Atwood
Set in a dystopian world in the near future, <em><a href="http://www.amazon.co.uk/Handmaids-Tale-Contemporary-Classics/dp/0099740915/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1374237751&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Handmaid%27s+Tale" target="_blank">The Handmaid's Tale</a></em> paints a bleak picture of a theocratic society in which certain fertile women are forced to produce babies for elite barren couples. These women, known as 'handmaids' are deprived of any human rights. The story, told from the viewpoint of one such 'handmaid' who reflects on her life before and after the revolution, is a haunting warning of the threat that extremism poses to the human race, and specifically to women.
'Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit', Jeanette Winterson
Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel about the adopted lesbian daughter of a God-fearing Pentecostal tyrant is both laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly moving – not least because it is a loosely veiled memoir of Winterson’s real-life childhood. This, her debut novel, is a celebration of what Winterson achieved in the face of adversity. Having grown up in a home bereft of love and literature, the writer left home and moved into her clapped-out car, where she slept by night, devoting her days to the library. This led to her attaining a place at Oxford to read English Literature - and the rest is history.
'The Complete Persepolis', Marjane Satrapi
Marjane Satrapi’s internationally acclaimed comic-strip memoir tells the story of Satrapi’s childhood and coming of age, within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. A bittersweet tale of a spirited girl growing up in a country beset with political unrest.
'The Bell Jar', Sylvia Plath
A semi-autobiographical look at Plath’s battle with mental illness, <em><a href="http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bell-Jar-Sylvia-Plath/dp/0571226167" target="_blank">The Bell Jar</a></em> follows Esther Greenwood’s spiral into depression after landing an internship on a New York fashion magazine. Like <em>The Feminine Mystique</em>, Plath’s only novel explores women’s oppression in the patriarchal society of mid-century America. A must-read for any woman who has felt the pressure to conform to other people’s expectations.
'The Color Purple', Alice Walker
With her debut novel, <em><a href="http://www.amazon.co.uk/Color-Purple-Alice-Walker/dp/0753818922/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1374238062&sr=1-1&keywords=the+color+purple" target="_blank">The Color Purple</a></em>, written at the age of 38, Alice Walker shone a light on the African-American literary voice, becoming the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer prize and the National Book awards for fiction. Based in rural Georgia in the Southern States the Color Purple tells the harrowing story of an uneducated African-American girl, Celie, through the letters she writes to God over a twenty year period. Subjected to sexual violence and abuse by her father and then her husband, the novel has courted much controversy for its graphic depiction of violence and negative portrayal of African-Amercian men. Though it paints a dark picture, the strength of its protagonist makes this at once, shocking and uplifting. The book was <a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088939/" target="_blank">adapted into a film</a> directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopie Goldberg in 1985, and also a <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Color_Purple_%28musical%29" target="_blank">stage musical, currently showing in London</a>.
'Jane Eyre', Charlotte Bronte
One of the most fiercely independent and strong-willed female protagonists in the history of literature, the eponymous heroine, Jane Eyre, could teach us all a thing or two - even now. Widely regarded as a masterpiece, <em><a href="http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jane-Wordsworth-Classics-Charlotte-Bronte/dp/1853260207/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1374240677&sr=1-1&keywords=jane+eyre#reader_1853260207" target="_blank">Jane Eyre</a></em> is one romance novel you can read without fear of compromising your feminist integrity.
'A Thousand Splendid Suns', Khaled Hosseini
This uncompromising chronicle of three decades in war-torn Afghanistan, told through the eyes of two indomitable women, is a deeply moving account of the power of love and friendship in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. <a href="http://www.amazon.co.uk/Thousand-Splendid-Suns-Khaled-Hosseini/dp/074758589X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1374241192&sr=1-1&keywords=a+thousand+splendid+suns" target="_blank">Hosseini's heartbreaking tale</a> is made bearable, even beautiful, by the hope and heroism at the heart of his central characters, Mariam and Laila.