On International Women's Day – Ten Influential Books (and a quick poll)

by |March 8, 2011

Which of these titles had the greatest influence on your life and thought…? Vote in our poll below…


THE FEMALE EUNUCH by Germaine Greer is probably the most famous, most widely read book on feminism ever…

When THE FEMALE EUNUCH was first published in 1970, it created a shock wave of recognition in women around the world. It went on to become an international best-seller-translated into more than twelve languages-and a landmark in the history of the women′s movement.

Positing that sexual liberation is the key to women′s liberation, Greer looks at the inherent and unalterable biological differences between men and women as well as at the profound psychological differences that result from social conditioning.

Drawing on history, literature, biology, and popular culture, Greer′s searing examination of women′s oppression is a passionately argued social commentary that is both an important historical record of where we′ve been and a shockingly relevant treatise on what still remains to be achieved.

THE FEMALE EUNUCH is essential to our understanding of feminism, for it reveals the origins of many of the attitudes and rights young women take for granted just one generation after their revolutionary introduction.

Order your copy of THE FEMALE EUNUCH here…


A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN by Virginia Woolf

A Room of One’s Own grew out of a lecture that Virginia Woolf had been invited to give at Girton College, Cambridge in 1928. Ranging over Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and why neither of them could have written War and Peace, over the silent fate of Shakespeare’s gifted (and imaginary) sister, over the effects of poverty and chastity on female creativity, she gives us one of the greatest feminist polemics of the century.

An Extract:  Chapter 1

But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what has that got to do with a room of one’s own? I will try to explain. When you asked me to speak about women and fiction I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant. They might mean simply a few remarks about Fanny Burney; a few more about Jane Austen; a tribute to the Brontes and a sketch of Haworth Parsonage under snow; some witticisms if pos­sible about Miss Mitford; a respectful allusion to George Eliot; a reference to Mrs Gaskell and one would have done. But at second sight the words seemed not so simple. The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like; or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them; or it might mean that somehow all three are inextric­ably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light. But when I began to consider the subject in this last way, which seemed the most interesting, I soon saw that it had one fatal drawback. I should never be able to come to a conclusion. I should never be able to fulfil what is, I understand, the first duty of a lecturer – to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up be­tween the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantel­piece for ever. All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point – a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved. Read more…

Order your copy of A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN here…


THE BEAUTY MYTH by Naomi Wolf

In the struggle for women’s equality, there is one subject still shrouded in silence – women’s compulsive pursuit of beauty. The myth of female beauty challenges every woman, every day of her life. The author exposes the tyranny of the beauty myth through the ages and its oppressive function today, in the home and at work, in literature and the media, in relationships between men and women, between women and women.

With examples, she confronts the beauty industry and its advertising and uncovers the reasons why women are consumed by this destructive obsession.

“Powerful… No other work has… so honestly depicted the confusion of accomplished women who feel emotionally and physically tortured by the need to look like movie stars” – New York Times

“The most important feminist publication since The Female Eunuch” – Germaine Greer

Order your copy of THE BEAUTY MYTH here…


THE WOMEN’S ROOM by Marilyn French

Written in the 1970s but with profound resonance today, The Women’s Room is a modern allegory that offers piercing insight into the social norms that were accepted blindly and revered so completely.

The Women’s Room expresses the inner lives of women who left education and professional advancement behind to marry in the 1950s, only to find themselves adrift and unable to support themselves after divorce in the 1970s. Some became destitute, a few went insane. But many went back to school in the heyday of the Women’s Liberation movement, and were swept up in the promise of equality for both sexes.

Marilyn French’s characters represent this wide cross section of women, and her wry and pointed voice gives depth and emotional intensity to this timeless book that remains controversial and completely relevant.

THE WOMEN’S ROOM is a landmark in feminist literature,  a biting social commentary of a world gone silently haywire.

‘Today’s desperate housewives eat your hear out! This is the original and still the best, a page-turner that makes you think. Essential reading’ Kate Mosse The twenty-one-million copy bestseller.

‘They said this book would change lives – and it certainly changed mine’ Jenni Murray

‘Reading THE WOMEN’S ROOM was an intense and wonderful experience. It is in my DNA’ Kirsty Wark

‘THE WOMEN’S ROOM took the lid off a seething mass of women’s frustrations, resentments and furies; it was about the need to change things from top to bottom; it was a declaration of independence’ OBSERVER

Order your copy of THE WOMEN’S ROOM here…


THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK by Doris Lessing

Widely regarded as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century. Anna Wulf is a young novelist with writer’s block.

Divorced, with a young child, and disillusioned by unsatisfactory relationships, she feels her life is falling apart. Fearing the onset of madness, she records her experiences in four coloured notebooks. The black notebook addresses her problems as a writer; the red her political life; the yellow her relationships and emotions; and the blue becomes a diary of everyday events.

But it is the fifth notebook — the Golden Notebook — which is the key to her recovery and renaissance. Bold and illuminating, fusing sex, politics, madness and motherhood, The Golden Notebook is at once a wry and perceptive portrait of the intellectual and moral climate of the 1950s — a society on the brink of feminism — and a powerful and revealing account of a woman searching for her own personal and political identity.

Order your copy of THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK here…


A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN by Mary Wollstonecraft

Writing in an age when the call for the rights of man had brought revolution to America and France, Mary Wollstonecraft produced her own declaration of female independence in 1792.

Passionate and forthright, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman attacked the prevailing view of docile, decorative femininity, and instead laid out the principles of emancipation: an equal education for girls and boys, an end to prejudice, and for women to become defined by their profession, not their partner.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s work was received with a mixture of admiration and outrage – Walpole called her ‘a hyena in petticoats’ – yet it established her as the mother of modern feminism.

Extract: Women are every where in this deplorable state; for, in order to preserve their innocence, as ignorance is courteously termed, truth is hidden from them, and they are made to assume an artificial character before their faculties have acquired any strength. Taught from their infancy, that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison. Men have various employments and pursuits which engage their attention, and give a character to the opening mind; but women, confined to one, and having their thoughts constantly directed to the most insignificant part of themselves, seldom extend their views beyond the triumph of the hour. But was their understanding once emancipated from the slavery to which the pride and sensuality of man and their short sighted desire, like that of dominion in tyrants, of present sway, has subjected them, we should probably read of their weaknesses with surprise. I must be allowed to pursue the argument a little farther.

Order your copy of A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN here…


MY BRILLIANT CAREER by Miles Franklin

‘I am given to something which a man never pardons in a woman. You will draw away as though I were a snake when you hear.′

With this warning, Sybylla confesses to her rich and handsome suitor that she is given to writing stories and bound, therefore on a brilliant career.

In this ironically titled and riotous first novel by Miles Franklin, originally published in 1901, Sybylla tells the story of growing up passionate and rebellious in rural NSW, where the most that girls could hope for was to marry or to teach. Sybylla will do neither, but that doesn′t stop her from falling in love, and it doesn′t make the choices any easier.

The fierce, irreverent novel of aspiration and rebellion that is both a cornerstone of Australian literature and a feminist classic.

Miles Franklin began the candid, passionate, and contrary My Brilliant Career when she was only sixteen, intending it to be the Australian answer to Jane Eyre. But the book she produced, a thinly veiled autobiographical novel about a young girl hungering for life and love in the outback, so scandalized Australia upon its appearance in 1901 that she insisted it not be published again until ten years after her death.

Order your copy of MY BRILLIANT CAREER here…


THE SECOND SEX by Simone de Beauvoir

One is not born, but rather becomes, woman…

First published in Paris in 1949, The Second Sex by Simone de Beavoir was a groundbreaking, risqué book that became a runaway success. Selling 20,000 copies in its first week, the book earned its author both notoriety and admiration.

Since then, The Second Sex has been translated into forty languages and has become a landmark in the history of feminism. Required reading for anyone who believes in the equality of the sexes, the central messages of The Second Sex are as important today as they were for the housewives of the forties.

Of all the writing that emerged from the existentialist movement, Simone de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking study of women will probably have the most extensive and enduring impact. It is at once a work of anthropology and sociology, of biology and psychoanalysis, from the pen of a writer and novelist of penetrating imaginative power.

The Second Sex stands, five decades after its first appearance, as the first landmark in the modern feminist upsurge that has transformed perceptions of the social relationship of man and womankind in our time.

Order your copy of THE SECOND SEX here…


FEMALE CHAUVINIST PIGS by Ariel Levy

Meet the ‘female chauvinist pigs’ – a new generation of ‘empowered women’. If the male chauvinist pigs of yesteryear saw women as pieces of meat, today’s female chauvinist pigs go one better, wearing the Playboy bunny with pride and making sex objects of themselves. They think they’re being brave, they think they’re being funny – but, Levy asks, what if the joke is on them?

Levy interviews young women raised on a diet of Paris Hilton and plastic surgery, and dissects the media and marketing that have helped to promote ‘raunch culture’. She argues that the trend reveals unresolved conflicts between the women’s movement and the sexual revolution – and that rather than being a sign of women’s liberation, today’s ‘raunch culture’ is doing young women real harm.

In the afterword to this new edition, she reflects on her initial findings and considers how much – or how little – has changed five years on. Hailed as ‘provocative and persuasive’ by the New York Times and ‘brilliantly acerbic’ by Linda Jaivin in the Monthly, Female Chauvinist Pigs remains the definitive account of a phenomenon that refuses to go away.

Order your copy of FEMALE CHAUVINIST PIGS here…


THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE by Betty Friedan

Feminism … began with the work of a single person: Friedan‘ Nicholas Lemann

When Betty Friedan produced The Feminine Mystique in 1963, she could not have realized how the discovery and debate of her contemporaries’ general malaise would shake up society. Victims of a false belief system, these women were following strict social convention by loyally conforming to the pretty image of the magazines, and found themselves forced to seek meaning in their lives only through a family and a home. Friedan’s controversial book about these women – and every woman – would ultimately set Second Wave feminism in motion and begin the battle for equality.

This groundbreaking and life-changing work remains just as powerful, important and true as it was forty-five years ago, and is essential reading both as a historical document and as a study of women living in a man’s world.

‘One of the most influential nonfiction books of the twentieth century’ New York Times

Order your copy of THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE here…


I’m sure there are books you believe should be here – please leave a comment and let me know what they are…

A reader has suggested this title – The Hearts and Lives of Men by Fay Weldon


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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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Comments

  • March 8, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Did you have to make me pick? It was too hard. I have never read the Levy book or that particular Doris Lessing, but the other 8 would be equally influential for me. But at the time of reading “A room of one’s own” had the biggest impact – and yes, I do have a room of my own.

  • Shell Tobin

    March 8, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    Have only read My Brilliant Career from this list. The Female Eunuch, however, had a huge impact on my life because of the influence it had on my mother’s generation, and on my mother in particular. Germaine’s book was a reflection of a need for change brought on by the ready availability of ‘easy’ contraception. I’ve never read the book but have a pretty good idea of its content. The term ‘feminism’ does not offend me but I do not include myself as one. The conundrum of raising a family, having a meaningful relationship with a life partner and enjoying personal interests while maintaining necessary financial security is perhaps more complex than ever for today’s humans. I do object to being lumped together with other women just because we are women. That de-individualises people, which is what the women who wrote the above books were actually speaking out against.

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