14 Books to Read for Every Woman (and Man)


14 books to read that inspire empowerment, induce laughter, build solidarity, keep us aware, and to simply remind us of why it’s great to be alive.

Reading lists are a complicated thing. How can we ever compile a list of “best of” when everyone has different reading tastes? Books strike a chord not just because they are well written, but because they appeal to something inside of us; different books are meaningful at different times in life. We read, we learn and when we’re in need of something comforting, we return to the books we love. And there are always some books that stick out, that speak to you no matter where you are in life.

These are those books.

Just 14? There are hundreds of books out there that could make their way on to this list. This list of books to read is simply a good starting point. It’s a list that was put together thanks to a few female friends that believe in empowerment, speaking out, building community and being real. If you’re a woman, this isn’t required reading, but hopefully it’s a list of inspiration.

Some are written by women, some are written by men, but ultimately, these are the kind of books that remind you of who you are and inspire you to be better. And, if you’re a man? These books are just as meaningful; we should all be gathering around women’s rights and empowerment no matter what our gender.

Now get to reading.

1. “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide” by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

There is a Chinese proverb that says “Women hold up half the sky.” But if we look at today’s world, women are unfortunately rarely treated as such. Rape, genital mutilation, lack of education; the list of obstacles many women around the world are up against is endless. The book, written by husband-and-wife team Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn is a call to action, to wake most of us up and inspire us to do something. To ensure that we deal with the issue of women’s rights, which as Kristof calls it, is “the paramount moral challenge.” A collection of stories about women from all corners of the globe, covering topics of rape to maternity to prostitution. But ultimately, as the title indiciates, this is a book about opportunity, if we choose to accept the wake up call for all of us to step up and do something.

2. “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions” by Gloria Steinem

Since coming out in 1983, “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions” is one of Gloria Steinem’s most popular and timeless collection of essays, a feminist classic so to say. It includes some of Steinem’s most famous essays like “Erotica vs. Pornography” and “I Was a Playboy Bunny,” a story depicting the time she went undercover to expose the reality of the working conditions females enjoyed to work in the male fantasy world. A book that is a reminder of what it means to be a woman, in intellect and in humor.

3. “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed

What do we do in order to heal ourselves? In her mid-20s, Cheryl Strayed had lost her mother and her marriage, so decided to take off on an epic journey: a 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Trail, from the Mojave Desert to the Washington-Oregon border. Along the way she is forced to deal with her personal struggles, giving us all a lesson in the power of pure will and what it means to go through a process of healing.

4. “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver

Colonialism, religion and cultural superiority; these are all complicated topics to tackle in nonfiction, and they all come together in Kingsolver’s bestselling novel “The Poisonwood Bible.” A story of a missionary family from Georgia who is stationed in the heart of the Belgian Congo in 1959, it is an intimate depiction of the realities of the post-colonial era. Having lived during her early childhood in the Congo, she only later in life learned of the CIA-backed coup against elected Patrice Lumumba, and his murder in 1961 which resulted in the installation of dictator Joseph Mobutu. The book is in turn a question of power and complicity in the face of horrendous events.

5. “How to Be a Woman” by Caitlin Moran

Do we need lessons in how to be women? We do if we have forgotten how to stand up for ourselves. Moran’s “How to be a Woman” is an effort to take back the word ‘feminist.’ “Do you have a vagina?” she writes. As she writes, ‘“Do you want to be in charge of it?” If you said yes to both, “Congratulations! You’re a feminist.”’And as such it is a look into all the modern day things about being a woman, from bikini waxes to wearing stilettos. A modern appeal to anyone that needs to be reminded of the ingrained sexism that surrounds us on a daily basis, and makes us laugh while doing so.

6. “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey

Abbey might not appear to be the obvious choice for this list, but one of his most well known works, “Desert Solitaire”, is the kind of book you read when you need to remember how to see. A series of vignettes from Abbey’s time in the southwestern U.S. as a national park ranger, it is a reminder that it is important to be alone, to find solace in nature, and to fight to protect the things you love. It is a book about questioning society, and not taking life for granted, encouraging you to embrace the wildness around you.

7. “The Art of Happiness” by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler

Who better to teach us about the beauty of living than His Holiness the Dalai Lama? His teachings are simple yet profound, highlighting that the state of our happiness is more influenced by our state of mind than our circumstances; the kind of thing that we can always come back to no matter where we find ourselves, physically or mentally.

8. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” by Joan Didion

Taking its title from “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats., “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is a collection of Didion’s essays, a portrait of American, and more specifically, Californian, life in the 1960s. It is a book that covers a place and era that have become the subject of many a novel and movie, a time and space that we as Americans often obsess over.

9. “My Life in France” by Julia Child

If you think “My Life in France” is a cooking memoir, think again. This is a book full of lessons in adventure from a wild woman born in a different age. Even if you’re not food inclined, this book is worth a read, because ultimately it’s about a woman that chose to live life her way. Funny, intelligent and perseverant, Child is the kind of woman that we can all look up to, no matter whether we have a way with copper pots or not.

10. “The Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela

As a friend put it, “this book inspires being a badass in the most extreme way possible.” She’s right. We have a lot to learn from this revered and loved world leader, South African President Nelson Mandela. Born out of his 27 years of imprisonment under the apartheid regime, “Long Walk to Freedom” is ultimately about Mandela’s strong and unwavering spirit, something that we can all aspire to as we seek to do better for humanity.

11.The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin

What do you want from life? Author Gretchen Rubin asked herself that question and realized that all she really wanted was to be happy. In fact many of us may have that response, but how do we actually get there? Rubin sought out to do just that, taking on a year-long project that combined age-old wisdom, current scientific research and lessons from pop culture on exactly what it requires to be happy.

12. “Persepolis: The Story of Childhood” by Marjane Satrapi

What most people know as an animated film was actually based off of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel. It is a coming of age book, but while most of us did our coming of age in the western world, Satrapi deals with all the issues of going from girl to women with the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution. Originally written in French, the first two volumes of the graphic novel were paired together for the U.S. market, and cover Satrapi’s childhood in Teheran as she watches the Islamic Revolution take place. A story of how we carry on, even in the unthinkable.

13. “Red Azalea: Life and Love in China” by Anchee Min

The memoir of Chinese American writer Anchee Min, “Red Azalea” was written in during her first eight years in the United States. Attempting to write it in her mother tongue, she found that only through her new English language could she freely express what she wanted to say. The memoir documents her coming of age, from working at a labor collective to a secret love affair with another woman, during the Cultural Revolution.

14. “The Favored Daughter” by Fawzia Koofi

Afghanistan’s first female Parliament speaker Fawzia Koofi is a woman breaking many barriers, documented in her memoir “The Favored Daughter.” The nineteenth daughter of a local village leader in rural Afghanistan, she was left to die after her birth, but such a tragic beginning hasn’t stopped her from pushing through in a world where women’s rights are far from given, and nowadays she is a renowned activist for women and children, having worked as a Child Protection Officer for UNICEF. Koofi herself has two daughters and the memoir is peppered with a series of letter she wrote to them before each political trip, describing the future that she dreams for them. An inside look at the hope that manages to stay alive in a country of strife and pain.

Have your favorite books to read that you think should be on every woman’s reading list? Add them in the comments below.

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Images: Half the Sky, Cheryl Strayed, Random House

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.