52+ Revelations From a Year of Reading Women Authors
I’ve been discounting women’s literary voices my whole life.
It’s a hard thing to admit, as a woman, a feminist and a founder of a business with a specific aim to empower girls and women.
And yet, the books, authors and literary movements that I’ve grown up respecting as the most influential and “substantial” were most likely helmed by men (to be more specific: white men).
My high school fascination with Kerouac and the Beats. My college dalliances with Joyce, Salinger and Vonnegut. My literary fiction adulthood of Franzen, deLillo and Lethem.
Women and writers of color have never been absent from my reading, but I seldom reached for their stories and perspectives, or thought to wonder why I heard about them a bit less often than their white male counterparts.
This year, I wanted to change that.
A book a week, by women
In 2015, I challenged myself to read a book a week, focusing on women and underrepresented groups.
With a week or so left in the year, I have so far read 50 books written or co-written by 50 incredible women — poets and playwrights, critics and novelists, riot grrls and record label runners.
It’s been a year of incredible learning — about confidence, creativity, happiness, art, justice, style, fear, and so much more. A year of feeling understood and validated even as I was deeply challenged and stretched by new ideas and points of view.
It has been a wonderful gift and revelation.
I’d love to share some of the passages I highlighted throughout the year with you. In no particular order, here are 52 lessons from a year of reading women.
52 Lessons From a Year of Reading Women
“The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” — Kim Piper Werker, Make It Mighty Ugly
“Luxury is nice, but creativity is nicer.” — Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl
“Loneliness is failed solitude. To experience solitude you must be able to summon yourself by yourself; otherwise, you will only know how to be lonely.” — Sherry Turkle, Alone Together
“This is the way brown people have to fight, my grandfather says. You can’t just put your fist up. You have to insist on something gently. Walk toward a thing slowly.” — Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
“I think my mother is beautiful. But her negative feelings about her body can generate a force field that repels any appreciation of it. I’ve long known the drill: Boobs, too small. Butt, too big. Face, bird-like. Upper arms, old. But it’s not just age — she even disparages the way she looks in baby pictures. I don’t know why she has never seen herself as beautiful. I think I’ve been waiting all these years for her to do so, as if that kind of self-love would somehow offer her body to me. But now I realize — she already gave it to me.” — Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
“Joy comes to us in moments — ordinary moments. We risk missing out on joy when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary.” — Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
“My first boss out of college, a woman twice-divorced and living with a younger man, once told me You lead a charmed life. I thought: But where can I go from here?” — Jamie Quatro, I Want To Show You More
“To carve out within language another foreign language and to take all of language to a musical limit — that is to have style.” — Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, Women in Clothes
“All too often, when we see injustices, both great and small, we think, That’s terrible, but we do nothing. We say nothing. We let other people fight their own battles. We remain silent because silence is easier. Qui tacet consentire videtur is Latin for ‘Silence gives consent.’ When we say nothing, when we do nothing, we are consenting to these trespasses against us.” — Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist: Essays
“Sometimes a citizenry should not simply ‘be good.’ You have to leave space for dissent, real dissent. — Sherry Turkle, Alone Together
“Happiness has a longer half-life than joy but it’s still not a distance runner. Happiness is a day trip, a short story. Happiness implies a certain freedom from doubt or regret or existential discomfort and is therefore impossible as a long-term proposition, at least for all but the most unexamined souls.” — Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion
“They were mustering for battle against the idea that to be a girl was to be in grave danger that you could never fully escape, only manage by narrowing your life, your range, your wardrobe, your gaze.” — Sara Marcus, Girls to the Front
“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman.” — Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl
“Women relinquish all personal rights in the presence of a man.” — Ntozake Shange, For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf
“Corin watched it all happen, watched Allison go from a dorky-strange girl to the lead singer of a real band: still dorky, but with a microphone and an audience. Corin saw that you could do your growing in public and people would appreciate you anyway, that they might even appreciate you for being so honest.” — Sara Marcus, Girls to the Front
“…nothing we do in this life need have a lid crammed on it…no one set of practices or relations has the monopoly on the so-called radical, or the so-called normative.” — Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
“The twenty people who understand what you’re talking about are the twenty most important people in the world. … There are some kinds of art that are trying to find their peers, and there are other kinds that are trying to make peers.” — Jenny Toomey, Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small
“The freedom to be happy restricts human freedom if you are not free to be not happy. But one can make of either freedom a habit, and only you know which you’ve chosen.” — Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
“That should be written on my gravestone. She was scared. But she went anyway.” — Viv Albertine, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: A Memoir
“At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.” — Sarah Ruhl, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write
“Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists
“I don’t check out men on the street. I check out women. I am always checking out women because I love stories, and women in clothes tell stories. For years I watched other women to learn how I might someday be a woman with a story.” — Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, Women in Clothes
“They keep telling us we can’t do this and we can’t do that. The same obstructive attitude and closed-mindedness we encounter wherever we go. If we didn’t have each other, we would’ve been crushed by guys like this ages ago.” — Viv Albertine, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: A Memoir
“We are always asking for something when we get dressed. Asking to be loved, to be fucked, to be admired, to be left alone, to make people laugh, to scare people, to look wealthy, to say I’m poor, I love myself. It’s the quiet poem in the waiting room, on the subway, in the movie of our lives. It’s a big fucking deal.” — Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, Women in Clothes
“The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists
“Failure loosens the mind. Perfection stills the heart. If perfection were even possible.” — Sarah Ruhl, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write
“We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we’re afraid to let them see it in us.” — Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
“How often in life do we avoid doing something because we think we’ll fail? Is failure really worse than doing nothing? And how often might we actually have triumphed if we had just decided to give it a try?” — Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Confidence Code
“…most masterpieces aren’t intentional; they’re just regular projects that resonate unusually.” — Kim Piper Werker, Make It Mighty Ugly
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists
“When in doubt, act.” — Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Confidence Code
“But be ready to die, my grandfather says, for what is right. Be ready to die, my grandfather says, for everything you believe in.” — Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
“Aspirational is how I feel comfortable.” — Mindy Kaling, Why Not Me?
“Telling her she’s pretty was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the winning lottery number, the healing hand of Christ on top of her head. He had been made to believe he had such power. It had been given to him by women like her.” — Sarai Walker, Dietland
“Style is a feeling that no one else could have put on what you’re wearing that day because it sprang forth from your unique neon mind.” — Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, Women in Clothes
“Confidence, ultimately, is the characteristic that distinguishes those who imagine from those who do.” — Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Confidence Code
“Sometimes, being creative is saying YES, then figuring out how to deal with the ramifications.” — Kim Piper Werker, Make It Mighty Ugly
“The revolution is always going to be happening. I want to write this down, that the revolution is like a merry-go-round, history always being made somewhere. And maybe for a short time, we’re a part of that history. And then the ride stops and our turn is over. — Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
[The ones made for music are the most beloved of all. Their bodies a container for the spirit within; the best of them is music, the rest only instrument of flesh and bone.] — Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies: A Novel
“You are all your work has. It has nobody else and never had anybody else. If you deny it hands and a voice, it will continue as it is, alive, but speechless and without hands. You know it has eyes and can see you, and you know how hopefully it watches you.” — Kate Bolick, Spinster
“Quick and dirty wins the race. Perfection is the enemy of done. Good enough is really effin’ good.” — Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
“My secret is: even though I wish I could be thin, and that I could have the ease of lifestyle that I associate with being thin, I don’t wish for it with all of my heart. Because my heart is reserved for way more important things. I will leave you with one last piece of advice, which is: If you’ve got it, flaunt it. And if you don’t got it? Flaunt it. ’Cause what are we even doing here if we’re not flaunting it?” — Mindy Kaling, Why Not Me?
“But the real struggle for women — what amplifies shame regardless of the category — is that we’re expected (and sometimes desire) to be perfect, yet we’re not allowed to look as if we’re working for it. We want it to just materialize somehow. Everything should be effortless. The expectation is to be natural beauties, natural mothers, natural leaders, and naturally good parents, and we want to belong to naturally fabulous families.” — Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
“It’s important to undermine yourself and create a level of difficulty so the work doesn’t come too easily. The more comfortable you get, the more money you earn, the more successful you are, the harder it is to create situations where you have to prove yourself and make yourself not just want it, but need it. The stakes should always feel high.” — Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl
“In my own vision of utopia, there is not only more comfort, and security for everyone — better jobs, health care, and so forth — there are also more parties, festivities, and opportunities for dancing in the streets. Once our basic material needs are met — in my utopia, anyway — life becomes a perpetual celebration in which everyone has a talent to contribute. But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world.” — Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-sided
“People get scared when you try to do something, especially when it looks like you’re succeeding. People do not get scared when you’re failing. It calms them. — Mindy Kaling, Why Not Me?
“We teach girls shame. Close your legs. Cover yourself. We make them feel as though by being born female, they are already guilty of something. And so girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. Who silence themselves. Who cannot say what they truly think.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists
“We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.” — Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
“Happiness, after all, is generally measured as reported satisfaction with one’s life — a state of mind perhaps more accessible to those who are affluent, who conform to social norms, who suppress judgment in the service of faith, and who are not overly bothered by societal injustice.” — Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-sided
“Susan Sontag writes that under its influence, ‘travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.’ In digital culture, does life become a strategy for establishing an archive?…For surely, in the archived life, we begin to live for the record, for how we shall be seen.” — Sherry Turkle, Alone Together
“I suppose that’s always the playwright’s hope — that telling the story outweighs the very real fear of total public humiliation.” — Sarah Ruhl, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write
“I know that when I am dying, looking back, it will be women that I regret having argued with, women I sought to impress, to understand, was tortured by. Women I wish to see again, to see them smile and laugh and say, It was all as it should have been.” — Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl
A few final notes
As awesome as these quotes are, they still don’t represent the full breadth of all the amazing writing I read this year.
Many books on my full list don’t lend themselves easily to pithy quotes — Claudia Rankine’s searching essays on race in America, Jenny Offill’s lyrical story of a marriage, Dana Goldstein and Jill Leovey’s meticulous reporting. Please read them!
When I started this project I thought it might take a little extra work to find a year’s worth of books by women. Today’s I’ve got 40-plus more books by women and authors of color on my wish list and I’m ready to keep going into 2016 and beyond.
Women have so much to say. Their stories are necessary. I’m grateful to have learned to listen.
P.S. I am eternally grateful to my workplace family, Buffer, for not only encouraging and supporting my literary mission but also purchasing each of the books for me through our generous book perks for all teammates and their families. We’re hiring!