For centuries, the road toward gender equality has been—and still is—rocky. In Canada, it wasn’t until 1916 that women could vote in provincial and federal elections. By 1929, Canadian women were finally recognized as “persons.” Kim Campbell became the first and only female Prime Minister in 1993, while it was only in 2017 that Canada took formal action against gender-based violence.
Although our society has made great strides to improve gender equality, women and female-identifying people still don’t have the same opportunities in many facets of life. On March 8, to bring attention to those gaps in society where women, especially marginalized women, are left out of the narrative, we recognize International Women’s Day. And one of the most honest and enriching ways to recognize the experiences of women is through literature.
With that in mind, here are five inspirational books all genders should read in honour of International Women’s Day.
The first on our list is among the most well-known and groundbreaking pieces of feminist literature: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. Written in 1963, the book explores the term “feminine mystique” and its implications in society, particularly the assumption that women are most fulfilled, and considered most feminine, when they’re doing the natural work of a woman: maintaining the home, their marriage, and their children. Women weren’t (and sometimes, still aren’t) expected to have political opinions or an interest in education.
Controversial at the time of its publication, The Feminine Mystique is a foundational book that analyzes the societal expectations forced upon women, and promotes the idea that women can find fulfillment outside the home.
While full-length novels facilitate in-depth explorations, it’s often difficult to fit a long book into our busy schedules. That’s where short stories come in. Arranged Marriage by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a short story collection that follows the lives of Indian women who push and pull between cultural traditions and modern values. Navigating topics such as divorce, familial commitments, and finding your true self in another country, Divakaruni’s stories provide a raw, honest perspective of the conflicts that South Asian women experience every day.
The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi is another novel written by a South Asian author. The book follows Lakshmi, a seventeen-year-old Indian girl who’s forced to escape her abusive marriage. To do so, Lakshmi must leave her hometown, where she eventually grows her career as a henna artist to some of the wealthiest upper-class women. But her newfound stability collapses when she comes across her ex-husband and a young girl who claims to be her younger sister. Now, Lakshmi must acknowledge her trauma and learn to forgive yourself.
The Henna Artist is Joshi’s first novel. In it, the author captures a complex character who uses her perception and experiences to take charge of her narrative, all in an environment that works to do the opposite. The Henna Artist is a powerful story about endless determination and a woman who tries to do what’s right for herself.
While Joshi explores the experiences of a woman in India, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sets her stories in her native country of Nigeria. Her 2017 book, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, is a captivating read that provides suggestions on how to inspire and empower young women. Brief at a mere 63 pages, but packed with wisdom, Dear Ijeawele covers topics ranging from domestic duties and feminist ideals to the importance of open conversation between mother and daughter.
Adichie is a Nigerian author whose work often touches upon the intersectionality aspect of feminism. Dear Ijeawele is no different, as Adichie emphasizes the unique barriers that women of colour, specifically Black women, face and the ways we can help raise young girls to overcome and challenge these barriers.
For our last recommendation, we turn to another piece of classic feminist literature: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Set in the early 1900s, the story follows Celie, a motherless 14-year-old girl who’s forced to face her abusive father and a loveless marriage. Walker writes poignantly about Celie’s experiences navigating her young life in a world where her gender and race are her defining characteristics.
The Color Purple is a heart-wrenching novel about the gruesome truths of being born a Black woman, and the resiliency required to overcome devastating environmental circumstances. Walker’s story beautifully intertwines the narratives of multiple women, showcasing their enduring connection through their love, hardships, and families.
Literature is only one of the many ways we can become more aware and empathetic of the unique and complex struggles that women face. To make further strides in equality, it’s important to remember how marginalized and racialized women are impacted by societal structures and the significance of intersectionality. International Women’s Day is a beautiful way to celebrate the strengths that women bring to our world, and to reflect upon ways that we can all do better.