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Though women have been contributing to the literary world for centuries, sometimes under male pseudonyms, recognition of their works has often been scarce. For instance, only 16 women have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, which has been awarded to must-read books every year since 1901. In recent times, luckily, things have started to shift. Female authors are carving a space for themselves with stories that are hard to miss.

From social satire and exploring love, to commentary on feminism and personal memoirs, some of the world’s best known literary masterpieces on diverse issues have been written by women. And we have shortlisted some of the best books that are a must-read.

(Main and featured images: Amazon)

This story first appeared in Prestige Hong Kong

1
A Room of One’s Own — Virginia Woolf

Based on two lectures Woolf delivered at Cambridge University in 1928, the book is considered one of the first feminist works of all time. Published in 1929, it talks about the lack of freedom for women in society and, through the narrator, points at the discrimination women have faced through the ages because of male-dominated history. Woolf points out that if Shakespeare had an equally talented sister, she would have been so suppressed that she “must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty”. The title of the book comes from one of the lines in the first chapter — “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

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2
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — Maya Angelou

In the first of her seven autobiographies, Maya Angelou writes about her early life and struggles of being an African American living in the 1930s and 40s in the US.

Sent to live with their paternal grandmother, Maya and her brother Bailey deal with the feeling of abandonment and face systemic racism. At eight years old, she is sexually assaulted and raped by a much older man and has to live with the trauma throughout her life. However, over the years she learns to love herself and fights her way to become the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco at age 15. The book ends with Angelou emerging as a confident young woman and mother to a newborn son.

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3
The Color Purple — Alice Walker

Through the protagonist, Celie, Walker draws attention to the painful life of a young African American woman in the southern United States in the early 20th century. Born into poverty, Celie faces sexual abuse at the hands of her father (she later finds out they are not biologically related), a difficult marriage and rampant racism until two women help her rediscover her inner strength. Released in 1982, the epistolary novel earned Walker the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year.

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4
I Am Malala — Malala Yousafzai

Co-written with British journalist Christina Lamb, Yousafzai’s autobiography traces the inspiring life of the young activist who took on the Taliban in the troubled Swat Valley region of Pakistan to fight for her right to education. The book offers details of the events that led to her getting shot in the head by the Taliban and her journey thereafter — from her recovery to winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The autobiography also throws light on the tremendous support she received from her family as well as the untold suffering that is caused by terrorism.

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5
To Kill A Mockingbird — Harper Lee

Considered by many as one of the finest American books of the 20th century, To Kill a Mockingbird follows a young girl, Jean Louise Finch aka Scot, who witnesses racism faced by African Americans in a small town in 1930s Southern United States. Her father Atticus Finch, a widowed upright lawyer, tries to defend a Black man falsely accused of raping a white girl, and some consequences follow. Through her spellbinding writing style, Lee underlines the importance of humanity, equality and justice.

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6
Jane Eyre — Charlotte Brontë

First published in 1847 by Brontë under the pseudonym Currer Bell, the novel is a coming-of-age story of its eponymous protagonist. Through the trials and tribulations faced by the character, Brontë comments on morality and religion and underlines the struggles of an independent woman in Victorian era. Though this is a romance, the story also has some Gothic elements due to Brontë’s dark descriptions and the hints of the supernatural lurking about in parts of the story.

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7
Frankenstein — Mary Shelley

One of the most acclaimed horror novels of all time, Frankenstein is the tragic tale of a scientist who, in his quest to reanimate the dead, creates a monster that destroys everything he holds dear. Shelley had the novel published anonymously in 1818 when she was only 20 years old. The book is named after its principal character, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and the monster he creates is called “the Creature”. But over the years, the name of the book has come to be identified with the monster itself. Frankenstein is also recognised as one of the earliest books in the sci-fi genre due to its detailing of modern scientific experiments. With everything from movies to video games based on the book, its impact on popular culture has been phenomenal.

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8
The Age of Innocence — Edith Wharton

Set in the late 19th century New York, the novel is as much a brilliant social satire as it is a poignant tale of love that remains unfulfilled. Newland Archer is an aristocratic lawyer who is engaged to the conventional May Welland. But when May’s cousin Ellen Olenska arrives from Europe after a failed marriage, Archer finds himself drawn towards her independent nature. The realisation that he is actually in love with Ellen, and not May, affects the lives of all three principal characters. It was released in four parts in the Pictorial Review magazine in 1920. Wharton was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921 for the book, making her the first woman to win the honour.

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9
Pride and Prejudice — Jane Austen

Published anonymously in three volumes in 1913, Austen’s book gave the literary world two of its most famous characters — Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Through their battle of wits and romance, Austen, one of the greatest women writers in the history of literature, presents an outstanding story of love and society in a class-conscious England of the early 19th century. Over the years, Pride and Prejudice has been adapted into films, television series and plays.

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10
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before — Jenny Han

The young-adult romance novel by Han is about a 16-year-old Asian American girl, Lara Jean, who wrote love letters to her five past crushes but never posted them. One day she finds out that the letters have been mysteriously posted and her life takes an interesting turn. She also ends up falling in love for the first time. The book was No. 1 on The New York Times Bestsellers list and has been adapted into a popular Netflix film. It has two sequels, P.S. I Still Love You and Always and Forever, also made into movies.

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11
The Handmaid's Tale — Margaret Atwood

Atwood’s book is set in a dystopian world where a totalitarian, religious and patriarchal power has taken over the US and formed The Republic of Gilead. Its protagonist is Offred, who is a handmaid — a class of women forced to produce children for the oppressive class known as Commanders. Atwood’s description of Offred’s experiences in the land where persecution of women and their torture is the norm is bone-chilling. The book, which is considered a classic feminist work, was published in 1985 and nominated for the Booker Prize the following year. Its sequel, The Testaments, was released in 2019 and won the Booker the same year. The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted into an award-winning television series, a film, a graphic novel and several stage shows.

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12
Beloved — Toni Morrison

In 1993, Morrison became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Beloved is one of her best-known works. The harrowing tale is about Sethe, a free African American woman in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1873 who is suffering from the trauma of her days as a slave before the Civil War. Her house is haunted by the ghost of her daughter she was forced to kill while escaping her owner to prevent the girl from ending up as a slave. When she is visited by a young woman who calls herself Beloved, a guilt-ridden Seethe becomes obsessed with giving her whatever she wants believing that it is her deceased daughter.

Morrison’s book, which is based on the true story of a Black slave woman Margaret Garner, was published in 1987 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize the next year. In 2006, a hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages surveyed by The New York Times picked Beloved as “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.”

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13
Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom — Catherine Clinton

Harriet Tubman was a noted American abolitionist and political activist who is hailed for helping slaves escape to freedom as a “Conductor” of the Underground Railroad. Known as “Moses of her people”, she also served as a scout, spy, soldier and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War. The biography by Clinton takes a deep dive into Tubman’s life to reveal remarkable details of her celebrated character and unflinching spirit. The book has been praised for offering significant insights into the turbulent times of mid-19th century America.

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14
Lajja — Taslima Nasrin

Lajja is the Indo-Aryan word for “shame”. Nasrin wrote the book as a mark of protest against the horrific atrocities committed by Muslim fundamentalists on Hindus in Bangladesh after the 1992 demolition of Babri Masjid in India by Hindu fundamentalists. Through the lives of the Dutta family, who are Hindus, Nasrin not only highlights the menace of Islamist majoritarianism and its terrible impact on her country but also the suffering of women in patriarchal societies irrespective of religion. Lajja was banned in Bangladesh two months after its release in 1993 and Nasrin had to flee her country after a fatwa (an Islamic legal order) was issued calling for her death.

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15
God of Small Things — Arundhati Roy

Highly praised for its evocative style, the story is set in Kerala and deals with caste issues, religion, shifting political ideologies and forbidden love. Seven-year-old fraternal twins Estha and Rahel are the main protagonists, who see their lives turned upside down due to the events that tear their family apart. This was Roy’s debut novel and it won the Booker Prize in 1997, a year after its release.

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