Womansplaining: books that every man should read
International Women's Day: Leading writers put together reading list for men
“There are so many books that provide great introductions to feminism, for women and men,” says Ivana Bacik. “Books like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, Edna O’Brien’s Girl with Green Eyes and many more, all helped to shape my own feminist views”
Stuck for something new to read? Curious as to what makes women tick or the books that have influenced them or reflected most accurately their experience of life and society? The Irish Times asked a cross-section of women, many of them writers, to recommend a book that every man should read.
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit says she is erroneously credited with coining the term “mansplaining”, after an incident some years ago. At a skiing weekend in Aspen, she is introduced to the host - a wealthy man - who asks what she does for a living. When Solnit tells him she’s a writer, he proceeds to talk loftily about a book currently on the bestseller list. Solnit’s friend casually interjects that said book – one the man argues strongly for, without having read – is actually written by Solnit. “He was already telling me about the very important book – with the smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority”. This, if you’ve ever wondered, is classic “mansplaining”, and while Solnit may not have used the specific term itself, she was the first to identity its casual condescension, the one that steers women towards the “slippery slope of silencings”. In Men Explain Things to Me, Solnit explores several issues that affect women’s lives, from gender violence and inequality, to domestic drudgery, and how marriage affects women. In one powerful chapter, she uses gang rapes in India as the lynchpin for a broader examination of violence against women. “Violence doesn't have a race, a class, a religion or nationality, but it does have a gender”, she says, who believes violence is always authoritarian and based on someone saying ‘I have the right to control you”. In “Ferite a Morte” (Wounded to Death) project, she examines how 66,000 women are killed annually by Femicide. It’s a compelling, well-argued book about issues that many assume are resolved for women, but Solnit’s writing proves we still have a long way to go.
Sinéad Gleeson is a writer, broadcaster and reviewer. She hosts The Book Show on RTE Radio and anthologies she has edited include The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has been an eloquent, funny, deadly serious writer about women and men for over 50 years. Her most famous book is The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985, a dystopian fantasy of a militarised world where poorer women are enslaved for breeding purposes by richer families who cannot have children. The rules are terrifyingly strict, the sex is grotesque, the punishment for infringement is death by public hanging.
Atwood has said that nothing happens in her books that has not already happened or that could not easily happen now. Think of stonings in football stadia by the Taliban; of Saudi Arabia’s laws against women; of Ireland’s continued ban on women’s right to safe, legal abortion; of Isis’s encouragement of sex slavery; of the determination of certain Republicans in the US to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Differences in degrees of suffering, all traceable back to a belief that women must be controlled.
Men need to read The Handmaid’s Tale to understand that the struggle for women to achieve bodily integrity and autonomy, not over yet in the West, and only beginning in some other parts of the world, is necessary because of traditional male attitudes about their ownership of women. Those attitudes are what allow some men to beat their partners, and to joke about rape, and to assume sexual favours are theirs by right.
The handmaids wore red to symbolise fertility and subordination. Men who wear white ribbons today have an opportunity to publicly proclaim their opposition to male brutality towards women. Atwood would approve.
Catriona Crowe is Head of Special Projects at the National Archives of Ireland
SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas
“‘Life’ in this ‘society’ being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of ‘society’ being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.”
Solanas is best known for shooting some guy: I can’t remember who, but that hardly matters because men are culturally irrelevant. Or so Solanas writes. Dismissing both the “well-behaved heterosexual dullard... Daddy” and his alternative, the “hippy” (SCUM was first published in 1967), she cheerfully overturns Freud (the male is “an incomplete female” who suffers from “pussy envy”) then goes on to take down education (“The purpose of of ‘higher’ education is not to educate but to exclude”), religion, government, sex, “Great Art”, the family, its alternative: the commune and, finally, humanity itself.
Flipping the culture, SCUM Manifesto is less about women vs men than the conflict “between SCUM – dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant females, who consider themselves fit to rule the universe” and “approval-seeking Daddy’s Girls.” “Dropping out is not the answer,” says Solanas, “fucking up is. Most women are already dropped out; they were never in.” In the meantime, accelerationist “SCUM is too impatient to wait for the de-brainwashing of millions of assholes,” but exhorts us all, women and men, to join “the unwork force, the fuckup force”.
As Margaret Atwood is said to have said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them: women are afraid that men will kill them.” From abortion rights to trolling, feminism is a serious business, and one of its sad ironies is that feminists must pay more, not less attention to men. Solanas’s modest proposal cuts straight through reverence and solemnity like a knife through #masculinitysofragile. Nasty, brutish and short: SCUM Manifesto is one of the most fun ways I can think to spend an hour, and I defy right-minded men not to “sit back, relax, enjoy the show and ride the waves to their demise”.
Joanna Walsh’s latest book is Vertigo
How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran
I’m not into revenge. There will be no “Six thousand years of patriarchal oppression and a 14 percent pay gap, you say? Thanks very much. Here’s a copy of St Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul for your troubles.”
And so my first thought, when asked to recommend a book I would urge men to read, was that the book would be Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman. I did briefly go on to toy with the idea of suggesting something else – Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which makes an impassioned plea on the need for partnership between the sexes on childcare and household responsibilities; Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, which captures universal concerns on age, love and vanity; or maybe I’d just plump for The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of work by Irish women, in case there’s a man out there who still believes women never write anything worth reading.
But I was always going to come back to Caitlin Moran, because she is a) funny and b) brilliant – two attributes I have found humans of all genders appreciate. Moran can wrest belly laughs from even the bleakest situations, from giving birth, to the time the guy she spent “two years pining after like crack cocaine” asked whether her nickname at school was “Fatty”. (Of course it wasn’t. It was “Fatso”.) She demystifies feminism, explaining that it is “simply the belief that women should be as free as men” and that “most sexism is down to men being accustomed to us being the losers.” Her rule of thumb for detecting whether something is sexist is simple and – I have found – incredibly useful: “You can tell .. by calmly enquiring, ‘And are the men doing this, as well?’ If they aren’t, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as ‘some total fucking bullshit’.”
Jennifer O’Connell is a writer and former Irish Times columnist
Shrill by Lindy West
In the last few years, a number of excellent non-fiction books have been published that have dragged feminist ideologies out of the academic field and have made them more accessible for a mainstream audience. Kate Harding’s Asking For It, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, and Emer O’ Toole’s Girls will be Girls are all excellent examples of this and I would highly recommend each one.
For the purposes of this piece, however, I am going to choose Shrill by the American writer and activist Lindy West. Shrill is a collection of essays that deals with topics such as fat-shaming, gender politics, abortion, online trolling and rape jokes. All serious issues yet West (a former stand-up comedian) manages to write about them in a manner that is often laugh-out-loud funny. She presents her arguments in such a clear, succinct way that it becomes increasingly difficult to disagree with what she says. Shrill is an utterly engaging book that should be read by everyone, regardless of gender.
Louise O’Neill’s latest novel is Asking For It
Hey Yeah Right Get A Life by Helen Simpson
In a review for the New York Times, Jay McInerney wrote that he has a friend who calls this collection of short stories “the ultimate contraceptive and sends it to any of her girlfriends who are considering the mommy track”. Hey Yeah Right Get a Life is a sharp, funny and unflinching articulation of the price society extracts from women who become mothers. Simpson’s stories explore in unsentimental fashion not just the consequences of parenthood, but also how these consequences differ for fathers and mothers. Here we encounter women practising selflessness only to get “spat on by the world. By your husband. By your children. By yourself.” As if this wasn’t enough there is also the judgement of other mothers: “Painted fingernails mean a rubbish mother,” someone declares with authority at the school gates.
Like Dorrie of the title story, my own children arrived “one, two and then three in the space of four years” and so I could identify with the description of Dorrie as having “broken herself into little pieces like a biscuit”. I first encountered this collection when my own kids were still quite young, and there were times, reading it, when I thought Helen Simpson must surely have been hiding under my kitchen table, writing everything down. There’s a lot that is close to the bone. In Cafe Society, exhausted mothers meet in a cafe with their small children seeking some adult conversation, a meeting of minds. They are there more in hope than expectation, but “Still they have decided to back that dark horse Intimacy, somewhere out there muffledly galloping”. Their unvoiced thoughts are “dangerous to articulate anyway”: “Why do they educate us, Sally, only to make it so hard for us to work afterwards? Why don’t they insist on hysterectomies for girls who want further education and have done with it?”
Dorrie is married to Max who regards her as “malingering round the house”. When he sacks a female employee who becomes pregnant, he tells Dorrie that she can cover the woman’s duties as well as looking after the children. “Fit it in round the edges,” he says, when Dorrie asks when she would do the meals, ironing, cleaning and shopping, “Other women do.” What Dorrie most wants to know is “was this temporary, like National Service used to be, or was it for good?”
There are other kinds of mothers here, too. Nicola, in Burns and the Bankers, has four children and is a partner at a law firm. “Why do you have four?” one of the male bankers asks, “We’ve got the three and that’s as much as Susan can cope with, and she doesn’t work.” Nicola, sharp and astute, observes: “but this man was not attacking her, he was in his befuddled way genuinely curious.” It’s a story that, among other things, questions the corporate world’s attitude to men who would like to be more involved in their children’s lives. “Family man,” one of the men says,”that’s the euphemism for a lazy bastard not pulling his weight.”
Danielle McLaughlin’s debut short story collection is There Are Dinosaurs on Other Planets
I have no book that every man should read, no more than I have a book that every woman or child should. What book could possibly be equally valid for all? Isn’t the Marmitey love-it-or-hate-it part of the point? But (yep, time to launch the but)... one book that is every man’s friend is a dictionary. It doesn’t have to be the size of a sliced pan to be useful; I’m quite happy with my Collins Gem, which kindly throws in the signs of the zodiac, the solar system and chemical symbols for good measure. There is serious learning (trimaran, cockatrice, pinchbeck); plenty of fun stuff (libation, lols, gallivant); and some very good advice. The meaning of some really important words, for example. Words such as yes. Words such as no.
A decade-long feat of solitary scholarship, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) is, if not quite the granddaddy of them all, then certainly the godfather. It’s no wonder Samuel Johnson allowed himself a sarcastic swerve from time to time – his definition of lexicographer is: “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words”.
The book with all the words. That’s the best book of all.
Henrietta McKervey’s latest novel is The Heart of Everything
Kaleidoscope by Ray Bradbury
This is a tough one. A sharp blow to the heart is what’s needed. One that leaves him short of breath and moves him – maybe – to tears. At least to pause. I sit on the floor of my book room and scan the shelves. I take great pleasure in matching books with individuals but splits along gender lines make me uneasy. I look up at Updike’s leaning tower – the novels I adore that so many women despise. “What about Rabbit?” I call out to Exhibit A (man on couch in the next room, laughing at a re-run of American Dad). “Yep, read Rabbit,” he says. “Then you know what not to be.”
Has to be fiction. Has to be short. And exquisitely crafted. A great story grabs you by the throat, hurls you right out of your life and returns you to your flawed self, a little improved. So it has to be Kaleidoscope by Ray Bradbury, published in 1951 which opens:
“The first concussion cut the rocket up the side with a giant can-opener. The men were thrown into space like a dozen wriggling silverfish.”
We already know how it ends. There is no possibility of rescue for the astronauts so Hollis, Stimson, Lespere and the others fall like “lost children on a cold night” through “the long endless dropping and whirling of silence”. Except they can talk. They can communicate. They can share their final moments. And Hollis, filled with despair about his “empty and terrible life” discovers he can do a good thing.
For the past five years Kaleidoscope wins the top vote from my creative writing students. It was a favourite of a beloved friend of mine and I read it so many times sitting with him when he was dying far too young. I return to it often – redemptive, hopeful about our search for meaning. A story that asks the urgent questions, like who the fuck are you? How do you live? What are you waiting for?
And at 12 pages long, a man can’t turn it down.
Kaleidoscope is puiblished in The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (Harper Collins. 2008) Aifric Campbell’s latest novel is On The Floor
My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
There are so many books that provide great introductions to feminism, for women and men. Books like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, Edna O’Brien’s Girl with Green Eyes and many more, all helped to shape my own feminist views. I was also very taken recently with Caitlin Moran’s contemporary version of feminism in How to Be a Woman. But right now, I think every man – and woman – should read Gloria Steinem’s new book My Life on the Road. This is a great memoir by the 81-year-old American women’s rights activist, journalist and feminist icon; it’s very readable and full of witty observations, yet infused throughout with reminders that the personal really is political.
Steinem’s feminism has informed her whole life, and she is known in the US and internationally as a dedicated organiser and agitator for equality. She is a particularly strong advocate for women’s reproductive rights and the right to choose. Male readers will note that although most of the significant friendships in Steinem’s life have been with women, her book is dedicated to a man; “Dr. John Sharpe of London”. She describes how in 1957, a decade before abortion was legalised in Britain, this male doctor took the “considerable risk of referring for an abortion a twenty-two-year-old American on her way to India”. At the time, the doctor advised Steinem to do what she could with her life – she says she has done the best she could since then. Few who read about her extensive travels and extraordinary life would disagree – and men and women alike will see the core values of feminism shine through Steinem’s personal story.
Ivana Bacik is Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College, Dublin
Kate Bornstein, My New Gender Workbook
Groundbreaking transgender thinker Bernstein’s new edition of her 1997 My Gender Workbook is the most entertaining – and mind-blowing – book about gender I’ve come across. Using a playful and provocative mixture of quizzes, puzzles and exercises, she shakes up assumptions and gets you thinking almost archaeologically about all the layers – body, mindset, clothes, desire, social role, etc – that have made up your sense of being a man or a woman. This book will leave you with a refreshed, kaleidoscopic vision of the spectrum of multiple genders being lived all around us.
Emma Donoghue’s latest novel is The Wonder
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
Everyone, regardless of gender, should read Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (Quercus). First and foremost because it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time (West is a comedy writer). Scientists aren’t sure why, but men tend to avoid humour books by women and trust me, you’re missing some big laughs if you miss this one. West is tricking us, though: she uses sweet, sweet sugar to give us our medicine and deals frankly with reproductive rights, fatness and one of the worst instances of trolling imaginable (someone set up an account as her recently deceased father). Her insights into US comedy writing are revealing, too. She captures really well what it’s like to be a woman today, when even those of us not in the public eye find ourselves in the public world of social media. The tedium of being called “shrill” when you’re justifiably angry – the attempt to silence that this really is – is explored beautifully here. If you want to get up close to the experience of being a woman who refuses to shut up, when the very act of women speaking irritates some men so much, this is the book for you. Maybe you’ll understand why we’re so tired of it all. And I promise, it’s funny.
Tara Flynn’s latest work is Giving Out Yards: The Art of Complaint, Irish Style
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
I feel that most of the miscommunication between the sexes can be explained by a lack of understanding of each other’s psyche. Which is why Prep should be required reading for any man wishing to comprehend why adult women are so often defined by their teenage anxieties.
Sittenfeld is an unparalleled observer of social nuance and in Prep, her debut novel, she writes a devastatingly compelling portrayal of Lee Fiora, a dorky 14-year-old from Indiana who ends up at one of America’s most prestigious boarding schools.
Lee is desperate to fit in but simultaneously uncool. When she somehow ends up dating one of the most popular boys, Lee feels pressurised into acting in certain ways. Sittenfeld charts her protagonist’s unease and sexual awakening with blackly comic precision. It’s a brilliant portrayal of a female inner voice.
American Wife, Sittenfeld’s absurdly good fictionalised biography of Laura Bush, will also teach you a thing or two about what it is to live your life in the shadow of a more powerful man.
You’ve only asked me for one recommendation and I’ve given you two. Typical woman.
Elizabeth Day’s latest novel is Paradise City
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
I read Naomi Wolf’s book The Beauty Myth in the mid-nineties, a few years after it came out. I was a young mother, recently finished college, and I was trying to make sense of why women’s magazines made me feel bad about myself when I read them, or even when I just skimmed their pages, looking at the pictures. I was reading Susie Orbach at the same time, but I found the message of Klein’s book easier to absorb: that women are fed an unattainable notion of what physical beauty is and they are then castigated for not looking that way.
Wolf wrote in the book that women should have “the choice to do whatever we want with our faces and bodies without being punished by an ideology that is using attitudes, economic pressure, and even legal judgments regarding women’s appearance to undermine us psychologically and politically”. In the 26 years since the book came out, it saddens me that women are still in the same position: we are bludgeoned by fashion editors to be ever thinner, ever prettier, and ever more devoted to products and gizmos. Natural beauty, and variance in shape, size and colour, are not valued; clothing choices are still questioned and legislated on. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all – women and men – stop judging, scrutinising and limiting people based on the way they look?
I cannot say that reading the book has spared me entirely from the tyrannies of the beauty myth, but it certainly helped me to understand myself, to be more forgiving about my own looks and others’, and it weaned me off any devotion I had to glossy magazines. It’s definitely a book that will inform and empower anyone who reads it, man or woman.
Nuala O’Connor’s latest novel is Miss Emily
Telling, New and Selected Stories by Evelyn Conlon
When I was young, I loved Tess of the D’Urbervilles and I do still in a way. I thought Molly Bloom must really have spoken and thought the way my hero James Joyce wrote. If she seemed alien, it could only be me and my repression. But now that I’m getting older, I’m becoming more impatient with male authors writing from the point of view of women. Not always but often with arrogance, especially if the woman in question is unhappy and physically attractive. I can never forget that snippet from Thomas Hardy’s letter to Lady Hester Pinney which I read over 30 years ago:
“My sincere thanks for the details you have so indefatigable as to obtain about that unhappy woman Martha Brown, whom I am ashamed to say I saw hanged, my only excuse being that I was but a youth, and had to be in the town for other reasons…I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back…
“I hope you have not felt the cold much; we have somewhat…”
Tess is a beautiful book but I wonder what the real Martha Brown was thinking. I wonder what Nora Barnacle was really thinking when she lay back at the end of a long day exhausted from taking in washing. And I am reminded of a story of Lilith – in contrast to Adam who named the plants and animals – Lilith went around Eden, listening to them as they told her their names. I’m not saying that I disagree with Molly Bloom – I can see what Joyce was trying to do. She wasn’t a victim and she called a spade a spade but somehow she just doesn’t convince me.
What would have been wonderful though is if Ulysses ended for me with an Evelyn Conlon character sitting up in bed, answering back. Her characters are genuinely sexy, shocking, intelligent, infinitely funny – they stand our world on its head. So for this reason I would like to recommend her volume of stories Telling, New and Selected Stories as an eye-opener for man or women. The title story is all about the telling of a woman’s story – four and a half pages – seemingly simple where a male novelist teacher tells a classroom of woman how to write this story. Five minutes to read and when the bomb goes off at the end, the questions it asks will never leave you.
I would also like to recommend Rita-Ann Higgins’ hilarious but deadly torpedo of a poem The Did-You-Come-Yets of the Western World – sound sexual advice for man or woman. It opens:
When he says to you:
You look so beautiful
you smell so nice –
how I’ve missed you –
and did you come yet?
It means nothing,
and he is smaller
than a mouse’s fart.
Don’t listen to him …
Go to Annaghdown Pier
with your father’s rod.
Martina Evans’ latest work is The Windows of Graceland: New and Selected Poems
Making Babies by Anne Enright
If you’re planning on Making Babies, or even empathising with someone who has done so, read this book. It contains the most accurate description of labour you’ll ever read and one of the most positive – and interesting – accounts of breastfeeding. And burps. And buggies. And the delicate movement of new-born babies hands.
I was given this book when I was expecting my first child, and cried laughing at the chapter on crying, then I read it again after the child was born and attempted to laugh through my tears. I don’t agree with everything Enright says about the baby-making process but that’s the whole point. Unlike most books on parenthood, she doesn’t tell you what to think, she tells you what she thinks and it’s highly likely the two of you will find some common ground.
Best of all, Enright doesn’t ignore the fact that babies, for the most part have two parents and the other parent, the one who doesn’t bear the child, still has an awful lot to do.
Sinead Crowley is RTÉ arts correspondent. Her next novel, One Bad Turn, will be out in June