8 best books by empowering women you need to read

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The rights of women should not only be celebrated on one day, so get reading to get inspired (iStock/The Independent)
The rights of women should not only be celebrated on one day, so get reading to get inspired (iStock/The Independent)

Established in 1911, International Women’s Day aims to honour the achievements of women around the world, while identifying the work that must continue to ensure all women have equal access to the opportunities and freedom only enjoyed by some.

If, like many women, the current political climate has left you despondent, seek solace in books.

Literature has long offered sanctuary and reassurance to despairing souls and reading about the challenges, differences and similarities experienced by other women can be a galvanising force to inspire action and initiate change.

From urgent investigations into some of society’s most marginalised people, to stories of women who break rules and conventions, we’ve selected some of the best books by women to inspire, provoke and motivate.

Keep loving, keep fighting.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

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‘Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights’ by Molly Smith and Juno Mac, published by Verso

A divisive and contentious issue, both in and out of feminist circles, Revolting Prostitutes is an overdue and essential addition to critical analyses on sex work. Written by actual sex workers – a group too often excluded from discussions on the issue – this exquisitely researched text offers a comprehensive and nuanced account of the impact of prostitution laws, borders, police and the prison system on sex workers around the world. In clear, accessible language, the authors put forward the argument for why sex work needs to be decriminalised from a harm reduction perspective. Smith and Mac refuse to be drawn into binary positions on the “morality” of sex work, arguing instead for greater compassion and understanding of the fact that a “familiar and mundane” need to make money tends to drive most people to sell sex. An essential addition to the feminist canon and required reading for anyone who cares about equality and human rights.

Buy now £10.49, Verso

‘No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference’ by Greta Thunberg, published by Penguin

This slim book is comprised of a series of speeches made by the teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg at events such as the UN Climate Change Conference, the European parliament and at Extinction Rebellion protests. That a Swedish teenager is even present on such platforms speaks volumes about her passion, influence and message that “change is coming”, whether we like it or not. Citing her Asperger’s Syndrome, Thunberg acknowledges her tendency to think in black and white about the environment, but it’s difficult to contest this when, as she states, the “the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions.” Her frustration at the adults who have the power to make essential changes is palpable – and she’s absolutely correct to state that it’s hers and future generations who will be most impacted by our failure to act. The slightly naive words seem to be her own and her clarity means her message is difficult to misunderstand. There is some duplication, but the world’s failure to adequately address the climate crisis suggests that this is a message that bears repeating again and again. A necessary and urgent call to arms, from a remarkable young woman.

Buy now £3.99, Waterstones

‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernardine Evaristo, published by Penguin

Joint winner of the 2019 Man Booker Prize, this collection of 12 interconnected stories follows the lives of a group of black, largely British women. As multifaceted as they are different from one another, Evaristo poetically weaves issues of race, class, ageing, inequality, sexual assault, same-sex partner violence, otherness and the establishment into a glorious melting pot of voices that are routinely ignored by the mainstream. Lamenting this invisibility of black British women in literature, Evaristo previously stated that her intention was “to put presence into absence”. To dismiss a novel tackling such hefty issues as pious or arduous would be a mistake; Girl, Woman, Other is eminently readable, with humour and thoughtfulness threading through it. A truly accomplished work, this is a superb snapshot of contemporary British womanhood.

Buy now £16.99, Waterstones

‘Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People’ by Dr Frances Ryan, published by Verso

As one of the UK’s leading voices on disabled issues and rights, Dr Frances Ryan – herself a disabled woman – is well placed to speak with authority and insight into the challenges facing people with disabilities in the UK. Rigorous reporting into the experiences of those with disabilities in the UK, shattering case studies and a history of the hard-won rights secured by disabled people – and subsequently dismantled over the past decade – makes for sobering reading. The cumulative impact of £28bn worth of cuts to disabled people’s income overseen by the 2010 coalition government has had a catastrophic impact on disabled people: one in five disabled people in the UK are living in food poverty, with one in six reporting having to wear a coat indoors, disabled and chronically ill people have been hit with a 580 per cent increase in sanctions between 2013-14 alone, coroners repeatedly cite “fit for work” tests as a contributory factor in a number of disabled people’s deaths… the list goes on. Women are more likely to be disabled with 6.4 million disabled women in the UK, compared with 5.5 million men, making this not only a human rights issue, but a feminist one. Read this, get angry and act: some of society’s most marginalised people are depending on it.

Buy now £9.09, Verso

‘Burn it Down: Women Writing About Anger’ edited by Lily Dancyger, published by Seal Press

Women have plenty to be angry about. In this collection of essays, 22 writers portray, with verve and nuance, what it’s like living with anger in a society that dismisses and trivialises this emotion in women. From racism to physical pain, restrictive gender norms to sexual abuse, women’s anger often conceals pain, trauma and injustice. Monet Thomas Patrice writes of how “fear is the one the emotion black women are allowed to freely explore” as “an angry black woman is thought to have an attitude”, while Leslie Jamison assesses Tonya Harding’s anger in the context of poverty and violence, noting that “no woman’s anger is an island”. Melissa Febos argues that her anger was “a reasonable reaction to the experience of growing up in a country that hated women and encouraged women to hate each other”, while Sheryl Ring takes a more positive stance, stating that “prolonged anger can distil into a fuel for creativity and resistance”. An overarching theme throughout the book is rage and grief about male anger and violence, proof if any were needed that this continues to be a significant barrier to women’s progress. As long as girls are socialised to repress, silence and pacify their emotions, books like this that analyse and explain women’s anger are necessary; read it to feel less alone.

Buy now £10.99, Amazon

‘All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation’ by Rebecca Traister, published by Simon Schuster

Once upon a time, women who did not marry were derided as outcasts, spinsters or “fallen”. Since then, several studies have revealed that unmarried and childless women are in fact happier and live longer than their married and child-rearing counterparts. Despite being married herself, Traister has written eloquently and enthusiastically about this growing demographic. Rather than being “selfish”, a woman’s choice to exist independently of a partner is revolutionary, argues Traister, adding that “any time women do anything with their lives that is not in service to others, they are readily perceived as acting perversely”. Combining interviews and historical analysis, her emphasis is not just on an individual’s decision to marry or not, but their choice and autonomy in the matter. While the book is based on North American data, its message equally applies to the UK and to all readers, whether married or single and regardless of gender.

Buy now £9.99, Foyles

‘Gaining Ground’ by Joan Barfoot, published by Women’s Press

Originally published in 1978 by the legendary Women’s Press publishing house, Barfoot’s story of a woman abandoning her husband and child to go and live like a hermit in the woods is as sublime today as it’s ever been. Written with sensitivity and beauty, the protagonist’s delight in the natural world and journey to self-sufficiency and self-discovery is simply wonderful. In a world where women continue to be defined as wives and mothers, Barfoot’s book offers a welcome and radical alternative to societal conventions and norms. Simply put, a classic of feminist fiction.

Buy now £4.33, Amazon

‘The Trouble with Women’ by Jacky Fleming, published by Square Peg

“In the olden days there were no women which is why you don't come across them in history lessons at school. There were men and quite a few of them were geniuses.” It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or plain powerless at the state of gender and equality today, which is why we liked Fleming’s short and humorous illustrated book on women’s history. Relayed with a tongue firmly in the author’s cheek, this satirical work considers women’s invisibility throughout much of history and the overt and covert ways in which women are still left with the short straw. An institution in the world of feminist art, Fleming submitted her first cartoon in the legendary feminist publication Spare Rib in 1978. Since then, her anarchic scribbles have inspired and amused generations. A great gift for any woman in your life.

Buy now £9.99, Waterstones

The verdict: Books to read for International Women's Day

While all the books featured deserve a space on any discerning bookshelf, Smith and Mac’s Revolting Prostitutes provides an urgent and overdue insight into an industry that is too often talked about in sensationalist or moralising tones. If we’re serious about harm reduction, we need to listen to those with lived experiences to tell us how we can best support them. On the fiction front, Girl, Woman, Other is an absolute joy to read, while Joan Barfoot’s Gaining Ground remains a classic of the feminist canon.