Intellectual journeys: books that changed lives

As the editor of GROUP 5, The Literature Issue (due out in June 2010), I’ve been thinking a lot about how books change our lives.  During my research, I stumbled across this collection of views by several prominent feminists who were asked to name the books that first opened their eyes to the women’s movement and to reflect on how these books altered their view of the world and their own experiences in it.  As Ariel Levy says: “feminism isn’t an argument or a position but a kind of sanity … a way of looking at the world that takes the humanity of female people seriously.”  It was a story by Grace Paley that led her to this conclusion.  And according to Rebecca Walker, the question to ask upon finishing a book is simply this: Is my world bigger or smaller?

Books intersect with our lives and experiences in all sorts of unexpected ways.  The stories that follow* are just a few examples that document these sometimes delightful, sometimes painful transformations.

Jessica Valenti

When I first saw my mother’s copy of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women, I remember being a little afraid of the cover, which featured a picture of a bizarre woman-like mask reflected in a compact mirror. Being the morbidly curious 13-year-old that I was though, I picked it up. I’ve never read a book faster.

Almost immediately, I was confronted with ideas that made sense of the thoughts I’d been having – that I wasn’t good enough, pretty enough, smart enough. It was such an incredible feeling to know that so many of my insecurities weren’t really about me, but were manifestations of a culture hell-bent on keeping women in their place.

From then on, I sought out Wolf’s writing as often as I could. When her book Promiscuities was published, I saw that she would be giving a weekend seminar at a Buddhist centre where my parents occasionally took classes. I was thrilled. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the reality of the author as a person. In a group exercise, Wolf asked us all to give a speech highlighting the things we were most proud of. I was still a teenager and didn’t really have anything to talk about. When my turn came, I declined nervously. Wolf angrily told me that I would have to leave the room. It was incredibly humiliating and I actually stayed away from feminism after that. It wasn’t until late in my college years that my interest resurfaced.

Now, as an author myself, I’m beginning to see how readers can have expectations that perhaps you can’t meet. Especially when it comes to something like feminism – something so personal and potentially life-changing. So while I still look back on that experience with Wolf and cringe, it doesn’t detract from the fact that her writing changed me. Ultimately, I think, that is what every author hopes for.

Natasha Walter

“As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” – Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf

Whenever I read those words I think that the person you would associate with such trenchant views would be someone like Andrea Dworkin or Alice Walker, a fierce 20th-century voice with a background in civil rights or fighting violence against women. But the words were written by a woman commonly derided as being too middle class and ineffectual to be taken seriously as a political thinker. Although we all still love Virginia Woolf’s fiction, her political polemics, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, tend to be marginalised even by her admirers. But they are not marginal; they are achingly relevant today.

When I read Three Guineas in my early 20s the book marked a turning point in my own thinking about feminism. I had been brought up on feminism, by a mother who bought Spare Rib and went to Greenham Common, but I saw that activism as something that belonged to her generation rather than mine. At university, at Cambridge and Harvard in the late 1980s, I was influenced by critical theories that saw radical feminism as all about celebrating textual dissonance rather than political injustice. If Virginia Woolf fitted into that project, it was because her fiction showed the free play of the feminine imagination.

But when I read her polemics I saw that this apparently free-flowing imaginative work lived alongside a fierce sense of injustice at women’s lack of political voice, lack of economic power; it is almost painful to see how relevant her anger still is today. I came at that point – late in the day – to see that there is no way that women can ever divorce their desire for personal freedom from the whole picture of injustice and inequality, and that it is not old hat to go on working on those injustices. We owe it to the women who came before us to keep going.

Now, I draw inspiration much more from the activists I meet on a daily basis rather than the writers. That’s important, but I think it is a great pity when I meet young feminist women and realise that they are simply unaware of their literary legacy.

I want to put everyone from Wollstonecraft to Woolf to Greer into their hands and tell them to start reading.

Rebecca Walker

I grew up with feminism. My mother is Alice Walker; my godmother is Gloria Steinem; bell hooks taught me deconstruction at Yale.

Under the circumstances it is difficult, impossible even, to identify a single book that illumined for me the necessity of the women’s movement. There is no one book that propelled me into the tempestuous fray of gender politics. There are many.

As a precocious child I pulled volumes from the treasure trove of my mother’s mahogany bookshelves: This Bridge Called My Back by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, Sita by Kate Millett, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, Gyn/Ecology by Mary Daly, Daughter of Earth by Agnes Smedley, Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith, Sisterhood is Powerful by Robin Morgan.

I devoured these feminist classics and several dozen more without critique, as if every line were unquestionably true and inherently liberating, applicable to my life and every other woman’s.

Whether or not my assessment was correct (it wasn’t) is not as important as what the books gave me: a blueprint for living my life as a renegade, an outlaw, a freedom fighter. The books, and the women who wrote them, gave me permission to locate myself within an extended matrix of female genius.

Of the hundreds of “feminist” books I have read, several have marked me for ever: – Things I do in the Dark by June Jordan; Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson; Woman, Native, Other by Trinh T Min-ha; Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Sadaawi; Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde; Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen; Wounds of Passion by bell hooks; The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta.

And yes, even though it is a controversial addition because of her scathing critique of the women’s movement, The White Album by Joan Didion.

By now I’ve read thousands of books by women and men, and would be hard pressed to say which is feminist and which is not. I tend to judge a book by who or what I become as a result of reading it. Is my world bigger or smaller? Am I more open to the truths of others or less? Feminist or not, this is the quality I crave, the destination I seek.

Julie Bindel

I left school aged 15 with no qualifications, barely educated in the basics. Becoming a feminist activist in 1979, aged 17, all my feminist friends were reading Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women, but it was to be five more years before I found the confidence to open that book. They had all read Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, two books credited with changing women’s lives. I struggled through Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and hated it.

The next year I found myself on holiday in Corfu with a girlfriend I was breaking up with, and no books – my luggage had been lost at Gatwick airport. There was a small library in my village, where tourists left the books they had brought on holiday for others to read. Ploughing through them, my heart sank. It was mainly women’s romance, or men’s war and spy fiction. Then I saw a book with my name on it – literally. The book, Brothers, by the late Bernice Rubens, was a fictional trawl through Jewish history, beginning with the build up to the pogroms in the late 1800s. It followed the fate of two brothers named Bindel, and their descendants, in order to question how certain groups of people become oppressed. The book’s analysis of how colonisation of any one people builds and is maintained spoke volumes to me. As a naive young feminist, it was an important lesson to learn – those who oppress you first have to dehumanise you, which is how men maintain power over women.

I also borrowed another book that looked light-hearted fun – Loose Change by Sara Davidson. The jacket described it as a story of the coming-of-age of three women in the 1960s flower-power era in California, but it turned out to be a feminist critique of the so-called sexual revolution. It read like a rallying cry for the formation of a women-only political movement and helped educate me as to how and why the second wave of feminism had begun.

Ariel Levy

Growing up, there were always feminist books around our house: Our Bodies, Ourselves – with its line drawings of hairy hippies having liberated sex – Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics. But except for the illustrations, I never really looked at them. My father worked for pro-choice organisations and my mother went to consciousness-raising meetings. I felt I knew it all by osmosis. Besides, I was interested in literature.

It wasn’t until my freshman year at university, when I took a class on the history of American short stories, that I fell in love with my first piece of feminist writing. “The Long Distance Runner” is a story by Grace Paley, who died of breast cancer, aged 84, in August. It showed me that feminism isn’t an argument or a position but a kind of sanity … a way of looking at the world that takes the humanity of female people seriously. Paley did more than make sense of the world and the women who inhabit it. She made art of it.

The women in her stories and poems are casually, often comically, torn – between, say, baking a pie and sitting down to write. Or between the lulling safety of comfortable love and the relentlessness of desire. Or their Yiddish-speaking childhoods in Coney Island and the assimilated excitement of anti-war rallies in Greenwich Village.

Paley herself never collapsed into just one thing. She lived in and loved the city and the country. She was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize but refused to become intimidating. And, perhaps most impressively to me, she was both an activist and an artist, who did not see one calling as more important than the other. I’ve been reading her work again since she died and am reminded of what I found in it the first time, besides enormous pleasure: a heroine.

Joan Smith

I read feminist books avidly in the 1970s and the clearest memory I have is of Susan Brownmiller’s Against our Will: Men, Women and Rape. Brownmiller is an American journalist and there was something about the way she wrote – her directness and irreverence – that appealed to me. It must have been 1977 or thereabouts and I read the book in the newsroom of the local paper where I was working – it was a lot more compelling than covering council meetings.

Brownmiller’s thesis, that “the threat, use and cultural acceptance of sexual force is a pervasive process of intimidation that affects all women”, seemed to me to be true from the moment I encountered it. The idea that sexual violence is about power – that men hurt women sexually because they can – was like a light going on in my head. It’s not that all men are rapists. I never believed that and I don’t think Brownmiller did either, but she was clear about the way the threat of sexual violence has been used to circumscribe women’s lives.

A year or so later, when I went to work in Manchester, I found myself pitched into the middle of the Yorkshire Ripper investigation, working alongside policemen (they were all men) and crime reporters who didn’t have the first notion of what they were dealing with. I remember going to press conferences and being hardly able to believe what I was hearing; the insistence that the killer must be totally alien to the community he had grown up in was astonishing, especially when I heard what cops and reporters said about women behind the scenes.

All these years later, the central idea in Against our Will has been vindicated by the way men are using rape to punish young women they see as terrifyingly out of control. The rape conviction rate has collapsed to a point where there is barely a penalty for rape, and I see what is happening as a brutal retaliation for the freedoms women have gained through a combination of feminism and economic prosperity. Sexual violence damages individual women (and a few men) horribly but it’s never just about individuals, and I’ll always be grateful that I read Against our Will so early in my own intellectual journey.

*First appearing in “The books that changed our lives: Six leading feminists recall the writing that first opened their eyes to the women’s movement”, The Guardian, 26 September 2007.


  1. There are many books that changed my life: The Waves by Virginia Woolf showed me a non-narrative path into fiction that stressed voice and character and helped me formulate the voices of the characters in my first novel, Fall Love. Love in the Western World by Denis de Rougement was a revelation: I understood the Western concept of romantic love as descended from the troubadours who “invented” lyric poetry, and I understood the Romantic idea of love leading to death–that connection which has historically been and continues to be prevalent in Western literature. Borges’ Ficciones changed my conception of the short story. Kafka’s fictions–The Trial, The Castle, the magnificent short fictions showed me how a great writer can develop mythologies. When I read Isabel Bolton’s New York Trilogy, I had a frisson–I had already finished Fall Love at this time, and yet I felt some of Bolton’s descriptions of New York were so similar to mine that I could have written them (and indeed, an editor commented on this, reinforcing my impression). These are just a few of the books that changed my life.

  2. Dear Writers and Readers of Grace Paley,

    I’ve just finished a documentary on GRACE PALEY, which should be of great interest to Grace’s many readers. Grace was a dear friend for over 40 years, and this work is a tribute to her and her work as a writer, educator and political activist.
    For info and to see a trailer:

    Sonya Friedman

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