Women in Philosophy recommend: nine books to read Women's History Month 2021

To mark Women’s History Month 2021, the Women in Philosophy Group from the Department of Philosophy recommend books that inspire them.

The book cover for The Centre Cannot Hold featuring a woman on a swing1.  Lisa Bortolotti on Elyn R. Saks’s The Centre Cannot Hold

This is a beautifully written memoir of living with schizophrenia that changed my understanding of delusions. Elyn was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in her youth and experienced very severe symptoms which significantly disrupted her life. She tells her story with honesty and richness of detail. It starts as a story of pain and struggle but becomes a story of strength and courage which stresses the importance of friendship. Elyn is now Professor of Law and Psychiatry at University of Southern California Law School.  My favourite quote from the book: ‘The humanity we all share is more important than the mental illness we may not.’

2. Jane Kisbey on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

Although this book certainly revolves around melancholic themes, something can be overall uplifting and still contain melancholy and I think melancholic thoughts are part of the existential mind. So I love this book because it highlights one key point that's often missed about melancholy - melancholy can be bittersweet. 

3. Noorit Larsen on Sarah McBride’s Tomorrow Will be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality

The author is an American activist and the first transgender US state senator. This memoir is a touching tale of her personal coming out journey, the loss of her husband to cancer, and her relentless fight for equality and non-discrimination legislation.  It's quite eye opening to hear her tell in her own voice about her fight for civil rights issues, as well as her personal challenges both as a woman and in demanding to be accepted as one. 

4. Valeria Motta on Mary Beard’s Women & Power: A Manifesto

This book is based on two lectures where Beard intends to show how deeply embedded in Western culture are the stories and mechanisms that define, undermine, or silence women in different ways. The book is filled with enlightening illustrations. These go from classical texts and artwork (such as the Rebuke of Penelope by Telemachus or the Beheading of the Medusa) to how current women politicians are depicted in the media. We are also presented with utopian fantasies like Charlotte Gilman's Herland which invites reflection on what is possibly the main message in this book. That is, it's important to shed light on how culture has conditioned women to even be blind to the recognition of their own achievements. I loved this book. 

The book cover for Thinking in Pictures featuring a woman with a horse5. Kathleen Murphy-Hollies on Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures

Grandin writes about her experiences as someone who is autistic, a woman, and working in academia researching animal intelligence, and it’s a pleasure to read something which weaves together so many fascinating things. She dispels the mysteries of what life is like from an autistic point of view, and why many autistic people have the traits and preferences which they do. She also situates this against human psychology and animal psychology, bringing together a wonderful landscape of what thinking and feeling is like, from animals through to me and you.

6. Kathleen Murphy-Hollies on Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women

Despite thinking of myself as a feminist and having a 'feminist eye', it's still a surprise to see quite how widely the existence of women gets erased in simple data collection. Criado Perez explains, with the help of heaps of empirical research, how issues which don't immediately lend themselves to gender inequality actually have significant consequences for how all women live their day to day lives. From snow-ploughing to emojis to crash test dummies, treating the default as male has been detrimental to women and to our proper understanding of science, history, and the world.

7. Ema Sullivan-Bissett on Kamala Harris’s The Truths We Hold: An American Journey

I first encountered Kamala Harris when she debated Mike Pence in the Vice Presidential Debate in October 2020, ahead of the November US Presidential Election. I thought she was brilliant – articulate, passionate, and poised in the face of provocation from her opponent. Her and Joe Biden winning the election was of course momentous, she was to become the first female, and the first Black and Indian-American Vice President. I read her book the week before the inauguration and it was just magnificent, with a really terrific balance of the personal and political aspects of her life (and how they intersected), and an inspiring tour of the many wonderful things she has done for members of marginalized groups throughout her political career. For me, knowing all of this as I watched her be inaugurated on 20th January made that moment even more emotionally charged than it might have been. For women, and especially women of colour around the world who finally got to see someone like us enter the White House, I recommend her book as a brilliant telling of how she got there.

8The book cover for Bunny featuring a rabbit on a red backgroundEma Sullivan-Bissett on Mona Awad’s Bunny

What a ride this novel was! It’s hard to write about without giving too much away, but this is the story of a whip smart protagonist seething with resentment directed at cloyingly sweet performative classmates. Or at least, that’s how it seems. The character craft was amazing, the writing was compelling, and no one could see many dimensions of the plot coming. I rarely read a book more than once (a rule I’ve broken only for Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and Ellen Miller’s Like Being Killed), but Bunny is a book I will read again and again to savour every sentence morsel.

9. Heather Widdows on Kate Kirkpatrick’s Becoming Beauvoir: A Life

My most memorable recent read is Becoming Beauvoir: A Life by Kate Kirkpatrick, which presented Simone De Beauvoir in a new light. Beauvoir not as a mere disciple and helpmate of Sartre, but an exceptional thinker in her own right with loves and passions all of her own. A pioneer who made choices about how she positioned herself in different debates and contexts for different audiences and with different people. This is a wonderful book, about a woman by a woman, completely aware of the contradictions which Beauvoir presents for feminists. 

I was powerfully struck by Beauvoir’s preoccupation with the self and the inner. This resonates with my current work as the self becomes ‘the outer’, the body. Kirkpatrick writes: ‘At the age of 19, Beauvoir wrote in her diary that “the most profound part of my life is my thoughts”’. And despite everything else that she has become in life, 59 years later the 78-year-old Beauvoir still agreed: “to me the most important thing was my mind” (p.23). Just how many 19-year-olds would say this today? An image-based culture is a brave new world.