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International Women Day 2021; Reading female voices

Women's voices and experiences are powerful and need to be heard. We've picked out some of our favourite female authors talking about female experiences, a few classics and some more contemporary ones for you to browse through this International Women's Day. Find your new favourite or rediscover a classic - happy reading!

‘Ghosts’ by Dolly Alderton (Penguin)

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Nina Dean has arrived at her early thirties as a successful food writer with loving friends and family, plus a new home and neighbourhood. When she meets Max, a beguiling romantic hero who tells her on date one that he's going to marry her, it feels like all is going to plan.

A new relationship couldn't have come at a better time – her thirties have not been the liberating, uncomplicated experience she was sold. Everywhere she turns, she is reminded of time passing and opportunities dwindling. Friendships are fading, ex-boyfriends are moving on and, worse, everyone's moving to the suburbs. There's no solace to be found in her family, with a mum who's caught in a baffling mid-life makeover and a beloved dad who is vanishing in slow-motion into dementia.

Dolly Alderton's debut novel is funny and tender, filled with whip-smart observations about relationships, family, memory, and how we live now.

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press)

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‘When we first met, I was a child, and she had been dead for centuries.'

A true original, this stunning prose debut by Doireann Ní Ghríofa weaves two stories together. In the 1700s, an Irish noblewoman, on discovering her husband has been murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary poem that reaches across the centuries to another poet. In the present day, a young mother narrowly avoids tragedy in her own life. On encountering the poem, she becomes obsessed with finding out the rest of the story.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa has sculpted a fluid hybrid of essay and autofiction to explore Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, famously referred to by Peter Levi as ‘the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century.’

A devastating and timeless tale about finding your voice by freeing another’s.

‘Mad and Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency’ by Bea Koch (Grand Central Publishing)

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Discover a feminist pop history that looks beyond Jane Austen to highlight the Regency women who succeeded on their own terms and were largely lost to history — until now.

The popular image of the Regency continues to be mythologized by the hundreds of romance novels focusing on wealthy, white, Christian members of the upper classes.

But there are hundreds of fascinating women who don't fit history books limited perception of what was historically accurate for early 19th century England. Women like Dido Elizabeth Belle, whose mother was a slave but was raised by her white father's family in England, Caroline Herschel, who acted as her brother's assistant as he hunted the heavens for comets, and ended up discovering eight on her own and Anne Lister, who lived on her own terms with her common-law wife at Shibden Hall.

In Mad and Bad, we look beyond popular perception of the Regency into the even more vibrant, diverse, and fascinating historical truth.

‘Here's the Story: A Memoir’ by Mary McAleese (Penguin)

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When a young Mary McAleese told a priest that she planned to become a lawyer, the priest dismissed the idea: she knew no one in the law, and she was female.

The reality of what she went on to achieve – despite obstacles like the sectarian attack that forced her family to flee their home – is even more improbable.

In this luminous memoir, Mary McAleese traces that astonishing arc: from the tight streets of north Belfast, to a professorship in Dublin while still in her twenties, behind-the-scenes work on the peace process, and two triumphant terms as President of Ireland. She writes of prime ministers, popes and royalty with the same easy candour and intimacy with which she describes her childhood.

Here's the Story is an extraordinarily intimate memoir by one of the most remarkable public figures of our time.

‘Dangerous Women’ by Hope Adams (Penguin)

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Set in 1841, ‘Dangerous Women’ follows three women as they board a ship in London that will take them on a three-month voyage to the other side of the world. The women are all convicts, being transported for petty crimes. Except for one, who is a secret killer fleeing justice. When a woman on the ship is mortally wounded, the hunt is on for the culprit.

‘Black is the Body’ by Emily Bernard (Penguin)

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In these 12 interconnected essays, Emily Bernard looks at everything from surviving a random stabbing to inheriting a family name from a white man to her experiences being a Black woman teaching in a primarily white university. Ann Patchett has called the collection “really life-changing”.

‘Olive’ by Emma Gannon (Harper Collins)

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Her best friends since secondary school, Cecily, Beatrice and Isla, all seem to be moving on to a new stage in their lives. They’re all married, all expecting or trying for children and Olive can’t help but feel a little…behind. She has never wanted children, but as the friendships she considered rock-solid begin to crumble and she is asked to write an article as to why millennial women don’t want children, she begins to question all the choices she has made. And time is running out – isn’t it?

Flashing back and forth between her present and her past, we see how Olive’s friendships with Isla, Cecily and Bea has developed from a constant thing in her life to something less solid as children and fertility struggles take over. Olive envisions herself as a bit of an outsider to all of this, having recently just broken up with a boyfriend of nine years due to the fact that she doesn’t want children. A the tight-knit security of friendship begins to unravel too, she finds herself increasingly frustrated by the all-consuming lifestyle of motherhood, when she needs her friends around her.

‘Break the Mould: How to Take Your Place in the World’ by Sinéad Burke (Ren and Rook)

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Sometimes we can feel like we are not good enough. That we don't belong. Or that we want to be more like our friends. In this empowering guide, Sinéad Burke draws on her own experiences and encourages young readers to believe in themselves, have pride in who they are and use their voice to make the world a fairer, more inclusive place.
From the power of being different, to celebrating the things you love about yourself and helping others do the same, this is a brilliantly inspirational handbook for breaking the mould and finding your place in the world.

‘The Henna Wars’ by Adiba Jaigirdar (Page Street Kids)

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When Nishat comes out to her parents, they say she can be anyone she wants—as long as she isn’t herself. Because Muslim girls aren’t lesbians. Nishat doesn’t want to hide who she is, but she also doesn’t want to lose her relationship with her family. And her life only gets harder once a childhood friend walks back into her life.

Flávia is beautiful and charismatic and Nishat falls for her instantly. But when a school competition invites students to create their own businesses, both Flávia and Nishat choose to do henna, even though Flávia is appropriating Nishat’s culture. Amidst sabotage and school stress, their lives get more tangled—but Nishat can’t quite get rid of her crush on Flávia and realises there might be more to her than she realised.

'Savage Her Reply' by Deirdre Sullivan (Little Island)

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A dark, feminist retelling of The Children of Lir told in Sullivan's hypnotic prose. A retelling of the favourite Irish fairytale The Children of Lir. Aife marries Lir, a king with four children by his previous wife. Jealous of his affection for his children, the witch Aife turns them into swans for 900 years. Retold through the voice of Aife, Savage Her Reply is unsettling and dark, feminist and fierce, yet nuanced in its exploration of the guilt of a complex character.

Voiced in Sullivan's trademark rich, lyrical prose as developed in Tangleweed and Brine - the multiple award-winner which established Sullivan as the queen of witchy YA. Another dark & witchy feminist fairytale from the author of Tangleweed and Brine 

'The Bluest Eye' by Toni Morrrison (Plume)

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The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison's first novel, a book heralded for its richness of language and boldness of vision. Set in the author's girlhood hometown of Lorain, Ohio, it tells the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blonde, blue-eyed children in America. In the autumn of 1941, the year the marigolds in the Breedloves' garden do not bloom. Pecola's life does change- in painful, devastating ways.
What its vivid evocation of the fear and loneliness at the heart of a child's yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfilment. The Bluest Eye remains one of Toni Morrisons's most powerful, unforgettable novels- and a significant work of American fiction. 

'Only Ever Yours' by Louise O'Neill (Quercus)

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In a world in which baby girls are no longer born naturally, women are bred in schools, trained in the arts of pleasing men until they are ready for the outside world. At graduation, the most highly rated girls become “companions”, permitted to live with their husbands and breed sons until they are no longer useful.
For the girls left behind, the future – as a concubine or a teacher – is grim.
Best friends Freida and Isabel are sure they’ll be chosen as companions – they are among the most highly rated girls in their year.
But as the intensity of final year takes hold, Isabel does the unthinkable and starts to put on weight. ..
And then, into this sealed female environment, the boys arrive, eager to choose a bride.
Freida must fight for her future – even if it means betraying the only friend, the only love, she has ever known. . .

'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' by Maya Angelou (Virago Press)

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Maya Angelou's seven volumes of autobiography are a testament to the talents and resilience of this extraordinary writer. Loving the world, she also knows its cruelty. As a black woman she has known discrimination and extreme poverty, but also hope and joy, achievement and celebration. In this first volume of her autobiography, Maya Angelou beautifully evoker her childhood with her grandmother in the American South of the 1930s. She learns the power of the white folks at the other end of town and suffers the terrible trauma of rape by her mother's lover.

'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Bronte

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Orphaned as a child, Jane has felt an outcast her whole young life. Her courage is tested once again when she arrives at Thornfield Hall, where she has been hired by the brooding, proud Edward Rochester to care for his ward Adèle. Jane finds herself drawn to his troubled yet kind spirit. She falls in love. Hard.

But there is a terrifying secret inside the gloomy, forbidding Thornfield Hall. Is Rochester hiding from Jane? Will Jane be left heartbroken and exiled once again?

'Wide Sargasso Sea' by Jean Rhys ((W.W. Norton Company)

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Wide Sargasso Sea, a masterpiece of modern fiction, was Jean Rhys’s return to the literary centre stage. She had a startling early career and was known for her extraordinary prose and haunting women characters. With Wide Sargasso Sea, her last and best-selling novel, she ingeniously brings into light one of fiction’s most fascinating characters: the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This mesmerising work introduces us to Antoinette Cosway, a sensual and protected young woman who is sold into marriage to the prideful Mr. Rochester. Rhys portrays Cosway amidst a society so driven by hatred, so skewed in its sexual relations, that it can literally drive a woman out of her mind.

A new introduction by the award-winning Edwidge Danticat, author most recently of Claire of the Sea Light, expresses the enduring importance of this work. Drawing on her own Caribbean background, she illuminates the setting’s impact on Rhys and her astonishing work.

'The Country Girls' by Edna O'Brien (Plume)

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Meet Kate and Baba, two young Irish country girls who have spent their childhood together. As they leave the safety of their convent school in search of life and love in the big city, they struggle to maintain their somewhat tumultuous relationship. Kate, dreamy and romantic, yearns for true love, while Baba just wants to experience the life of a single girl. Although they set out to conquer the world together, as their lives take unexpected turns, Kate and Baba must ultimately learn to find their own way.

'Girl, Woman, Other' by Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton)

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Teeming with life and crackling with energy — a love song to modern Britain and black womanhood
Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.

Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible. 

'Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History - without the Fairytale Endings' by Linda Rodríguez McRobbie (Quirk Books)

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You think you know her story. You've read the Brothers Grimm, you've watched the Disney cartoons, and you cheered as these virtuous women lived happily ever after. But real princesses didn't always get happy endings. Sure, plenty were graceful and benevolent leaders, but just as many were ruthless in their quest for power and all of them had skeletons rattling in their royal closets.

Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe was a Nazi spy. Empress Elisabeth of the Austro-Hungarian empire slept wearing a mask of raw veal. Princess Olga of Kiev slaughtered her way to sainthood while Princess Lakshmibai waged war on the battlefield, charging into combat with her toddler son strapped to her back. Princesses Behaving Badly offers true tales of all these princesses and dozens more in a fascinating read that's perfect for history buffs, feminists, and anyone seeking a different kind of bedtime story.

'The Awakening' by Kate Chopin (Elibron Classics)

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When first published in 1899, The Awakening shocked readers with its honest treatment of female marital infidelity. Audiences accustomed to the pieties of late Victorian romantic fiction were taken aback by Chopin's daring portrayal of a woman trapped in a stifling marriage, who seeks and finds passionate physical love outside the confines of her domestic situation.

Aside from its unusually frank treatment of a then-controversial subject, the novel is widely admired today for its literary qualities. Edmund Wilson characterised it as a work "quite uninhibited and beautifully written, which anticipates D. H. Lawrence in its treatment of infidelity." Although the theme of marital infidelity no longer shocks, few novels have plumbed the psychology of a woman involved in an illicit relationship with the perception, artistry, and honesty that Kate Chopin brought to The Awakening.

'The Yellow Wallpaper' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Feminist Press at CUNY)

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A woman and her husband rent a summer house, but what should be a restful getaway turns into a suffocating psychological battle. This chilling account of postpartum depression and a husband's controlling behaviour in the guise of treatment will leave you breathless.

Fiona Murphy is a freelance writer, specialising in book-related content, fiction and poetry. She can be found drinking tea, craving tapas or attempting to finish her never-ending-novel.

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