I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
In her first and most famous autobiography, poet Maya Angelou gives her readers a coming of age story in which she describes how reading and resilience helped her overcome trauma and the racism she experienced. She looks at her transformation from victim to survivor; from a woman who was deeply affected and made to feel inferior by the prejudice and racism she faced to a woman who used her strength to stand up to bigotry and find her voice, confidence, and self-possession.
Louisa May Alcott
While Little Women is antiquated and clearly a product of its time (the mid-19th century), it has a lot to say and teach about a wide variety of ways women can and do choose to go through life, and though the sisters in the March family cast judgement on one another, the narrator is sympathetic to all and allows them to make mistakes. From Amy’s obsession with decorum to Meg’s desire to be wealthy to Joe’s tomboyishness and incredible confidence in her own talents (as well as her deep insecurity) to Beth’s contentment to being with her family and close friends, Alcott explores the ways vastly different young women grow up.
The Handmaid's Tale
We’ve listed this book elsewhere, but we simply couldn’t leave it off this collection as it’s not only an incredible read, but an important one. Atwood’s world in this book is one not so far from our own, except that in a matter of only a few years, women have become second-class citizens, and fertility has dropped to the point where those who are apparently fertile serve as handmaids to the wealthy upper class. There are truly disturbing scenes in this book, and the explicit ones aren’t the worst. The memories of the narrator Offred (Of Fred, as in she belongs to a man named Fred) of how her once husband sort of began to go along with the new strictures placed on women, ostensibly for Offred’s own safety, are perhaps the worst ones, but the ones that are most important.
Rita Mae Brown
One of the first narratives of an openly gay woman who knows she is attracted to her own gender from early childhood, and who experiences early relationships with girls who then spurn her, Rubyfruit Jungle was like nothing anyone had ever seen before when it came out. It is still incredibly profound, especially as the narrator goes through so many things that queer youth still experience—and yet she never really wavers in her knowledge of who she is as a sexual being, even while she tries to figure out what the rest of her is going to do and be.
Pride and Prejudice
A classic (which you may have noticed we referenced in the introduction to this bookshelf), Austen’s most famous book is a must-read. Here’s the thing to remember if you feel like it’s too stuffy and old-school: don’t take everything at face-value. Austen is funny if only we’d let ourselves read her that way. The novel has its deadly earnest moments, yes, like Lizzie Bennet falling in love with a house, and consequently with its owner; Mr. Darcy coming to his senses and realizing his prejudice and snobbery and revealing it and his general mien to be a self-defense mechanism against getting hurt. But it’s also a social commentary on the Bennet family and the way various classes interacted during the 19th century in England. It also explores the idea of women’s education or lack thereof.
The Woman Warrior
Maxine Hong Kingston
A stylized memoir of sorts, Kingston’s gorgeous book is hard to describe. It is a series of recollections and stories about growing up as a Chinese-American. She describes stories her mother told her, Chinese folklore, and weaves together a tapestry made of memories, musings, and narratives. It isn’t a totally linear book, but it’s incredibly easy to follow along with and fall into and become mesmerized by.
The House on Mango Street
Esperanza Cordero, the main character of Cisneros’ coming-of-age novel, is a Latina girl growing up in Chicago. Experimental in its storytelling, the novel is told in vignettes, and deals with Cordero’s desire to leave her poor neighborhood and seek out a better life for herself. She describes her own life and puberty as well as stories about her neighbors, giving us a sense of the community she lives in. She also describes the difficult relationship she has with her budding sexuality and an incredibly difficult episode in which she’s sexually assaulted. This and other things she watches in her neighborhood make her even more sure she wants to leave Mango Street, even while acknowledging its importance to her and her desire to return to those she will leave behind.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman who enjoys literature must be in want of constant recommendations. Well, whether you need these recommendations or just want to check these books off your list and say, Hey, I’ve totally read that already, we’ve compiled this collection of books that we believe every woman (as well as genderqueer or non-binary folk) should read by the time they turn 20. If you haven’t read these books and you’re older—don’t fret! You’ve got plenty of time to read them now, too. (So many books, so little time, we know—our TBR list is endless too.)
Bookshelf compiled by Ilana Masad.
Image credits: adamkuylenstierna/Twenty20