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100 Books Every Woman Should Read, Part One

Before you read this list, we strongly recommend reading Experimental Wifery’s Guide to the 100 Books Every Woman Should Read.

See parts two, three, and four of our list.

The Odyssey by Homer

Odysseus spends ten years trying to make his way home to Penelope in one of the foundational texts of Western literature. Penelope is one of the best wives literature has to offer—so wise, faithful, and desirable that no fewer than 108 suitors try to win her hand.

The more she spoke, the more a deep desire for tears welled up inside his breast—he wept as he held the wife he loved, the soul of loyalty, in his arms at last.

Read more about The Odyssey

Antigone by Sophocles

Antigone defies her uncle, the king, to obey the gods and pay her respects to her dead brother. Her actions remind us to always stand up for what’s right, no matter what the cost.

My nails are broken, my fingers are bleeding, my arms are covered with the welts left by the paws of your guards—but I am a queen!

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

T. S. Eliot remarked that Dante, more than any other writer, shows us the depths and heights of the human soul. Dante goes on a journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven with the guidance of his perfect lady, Beatrice.

Do not rest in so profound a doubt except she tell it thee, who shall be a light between truth and intellect. I know not if thou understand: I speak of Beatrice.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

The classic pair of “star-crossed lovers” make this play the most highly-regarded romance ever written. Teenage girls love it and adult women can look back to a time when they had a very different—perhaps more dangerous—idea of what true love looks like.

Do thou but close our hands with holy words,

Then love-devouring death do what he dare;

It is enough I may but call her mine.

The Letters of John and Abigail Adams by John and Abigail Adams

The letters exchanged by John and Abigail Adams during the turning point in the struggle for American independence show us a woman fighting to support a cause she causes about, enable a man she adores, and protect a family she loves. Plus Abigail has a political mind every bit as astute as her husband’s.

Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat [women] only as the vassals of your sex; regard us then as Beings placed by Providence under your protection, and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Like every other Austen novel, a tale of virtuous women looking for virtuous—and wealthy—husbands. Two sisters struggle, like all women, to find balance their brains and their hearts.

She was stronger alone; and her own good sense so well supported her, that her firmness was as unshaken, her appearance of cheerfulness as invariable, as, with regrets so poignant and so fresh, it was possible for them to be.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelly

More an intellectual thriller than a gruesome horror novel. In one reading, Dr. Frankenstein is an anti-mother whose murderous creation serves as a warning about what happens when parents don’t love their children.

I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hester Prinne triumphs over the oppressive Puritan culture by owning up to her sins and becoming a better woman. Hawthorne’s novel is a great fable for accepting our mistakes and moving on with our lives.

She would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of women’s frailty and sinful passion.

Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte

Obsessive love gone horribly, horribly awry. Some find the romance between Heathcliffe and Catherine beautiful; others, terrible. But we can all agree about the cost of their selfish love.

It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am.

Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

A collection of love poetry unrelated to Portuguese or Portugal. Browning opens her heart to us by publishing the sonnets she wrote to her husband Robert.

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Pip may be the protagonist of Dickens’ novel, but he certainly isn’t the most memorable character. Miss Havisham is the world’s most famous spinster: a bitter, man-hating woman who reminds us all of the consequences of letting resentment ruin our lives.

With my teachings, and with this figure of myself always before her a warning to back and point my lessons, I stole her heart away and put ice in its place.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women is probably the best book ever written about how girls can grow up to be great wives. (Modern versions actually combine Alcott’s first two books—Little Women and Good Wives.) Every woman I’ve ever met can see herself in at least one of the four sisters struggling to be good.

I’ll try and be what he loves to call me, “a little woman,” and not be rough and wild; but do my duty here instead of wanting to be somewhere else.

Read more about Little Women

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Two stories in one—the adulterous title character and the romantic land-owner, Constantine Levin. Through their parallel stories, we see what love can take away from and add to an ordinary, human life.

Freedom? What do? Happiness lies in simply loving her, and in whishing and thinking her wishes and her thoughts, that is, no freedom at all—that’s what happiness is!

A Doll’s House by Henrick Ibsen

Although generally read as a proto-feminist play, Ibsen insisted that his play was about what it is to be human. Nora’s husband fails to recognize her years of secret worry and self-sacrifice to support his ambition. Her story suggests that respect and love in a marriage must be mutual for a marriage to work.

I have been performing tricks for you, Torvald… You wanted it like that. You and Papa have done me a great wrong. It’s because of you I’ve made nothing of my life.

An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde

A dark comedy about expectations and intrigue. Mrs. Chevely discovers that, though there is no such thing as an ideal husband, there are men worth loving and living for nonetheless.

There was your error. The error all women commit. Why can’t you women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals?

Etiquette by Emily Post

This isn’t a book to read from cover to cover, but a reference to own and cherish. Whether in its original 1922 printing or its current, 18th revision, Etiquette is an indispensible guide to making other people feel comfortable, welcome, and respected.

As fluid as manners are, they all rest on the same fundamental principles: respect, consideration, and honesty.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

An important feminist text by modernism’s Most important female writer. Woolf reminds us all women that we need space for creativity in our lives.

Life for both sexes—and I look at them, shouldering their way along the pavement—is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength.

Howard’s End by E. M. Forster

One of the few stories in which a woman sets out to save a man through marriage—and actually succeeds. A great novel about the power of love and the importance of home.

You picked up the pieces and made us a home. Can’t it strike you—even for a moment—that your life has been heroic

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The classic romantic thriller. Young, inexperienced narrator must find herself while standing up to the ghost of her new husband’s first wife, Rebecca. Thank goodness most of us are fighting against less impossible odds.

I wish I was a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Anne’s unintentional autobiography is one of the most famous books by women ever written. Her light-hearted diary of teenaged life is all the more moving for its tragic, unwritten ending when Anne becomes a victim of the Holocaust.

I sometimes wonder if anyone will ever understand what I mean, if anyone will ever overlook my ingratitude and not worry about whether or not I’m Jewish and merely see me as a teenager badly in need of some good, plain fun.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

Southern Gothic stories about what it is to be human. Racism, religion, class prejudice, and serial killers all come together in one of literature’s strangest and most profound collections of short stories.

She would have been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Immigrants struggle to make a new life for themselves in early twentieth-century New York. This largely autobiographical novel is the ultimate story of a young woman pulling herself up by her bootstraps.

A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the boot-strap route has two choices. Having risen above his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it…

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

A classic story about growing up in the Jim Crow South. Lee’s novel is a strong contender for the great American novel. Young Scout Finch struggles to come to grips with how ugly—and beautiful—life really is.

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Love it or hate it, probably the most politically important book ever written by a woman. Atlas Shrugged is the great objectivist manifesto, loudly declaring that the only moral purpose of life is to pursue one’s own happiness. Even if you disagree with Rand’s philosophy, her novel serves as a powerful reminder of the human desire for autonomy.

I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorainne Hansberry

A black family in Chicago tries to find their place in this world—and in an all-white neighborhood. Although originally criticized for being relevant for only black audiences, Hansberry’s  play shows the universal importance of family and of striving to achieve our dreams.

Oh—So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life—now it’s money. I guess the world really do change…

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Set during and after the Iranian Revolution, this is one of the most recent and obscure books on the list. Nafisi’s book is a powerful memoir about the way fiction can change lives.

A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil…

5 responses »

  1. Thanks for the ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ suggestion–I’m adding it to my wish list!

  2. I apologize in advance for how long this comment is going to be, but I have this book journal that I bought about 5 years ago, titled Smart Women Read Between The Lines, and I absolutely love it! Anyway, in the back, it had a list of books women should read, and the list was called 100 Best Books By Smart Women. I thought I’d share that list, since it seems to be a relevant (although lengthy) thought. I’m sorry that there’s no convenient link to it =(
    1) Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, Isabel Allende, 1998
    Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison, 1992
    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou, 1969
    The Dollmaker, Harriette Arnow, 1954
    Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood, 1988
    Nightwood, Djuna Barnes, 1936
    Annapurna: A Woman’s Place, 1980
    Book of Dead Birds, Gayle Brandeis, 2003
    Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, 1847
    Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown, 1973
    The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck, 1931
    The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1911
    Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns, 1984
    Possession: A Romance, A.S. Byatt, 1990
    Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, 1962
    My Antonia, Willa Cather, 1918
    Life and Death in Shanghai, Nien Ching, 1986
    The Awakening, Kate Chopin, 1900
    The House on Mango Street, 1984
    Elders and Betters, Ivy Compton-Burnett, 1944
    Clear Light of Day, Anita Desai, 1980
    The Red Tent, Anita Diamant, 1997
    Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard, 1974
    Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen, 1938
    Rebecca, Daphne DuMaurier, 1938
    Tracks: A Novel, Louise Erdrich, 1988
    The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman, 1997
    Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg, 1987
    Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room, Janet Frame, 1969
    The Women’s Room, Marilyn French, 1977
    The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1892
    The Mind-Body Problem: A Novel, Rebecca Goldstein, 1983
    July’s People, Nadine Gordimer, 1981
    The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall, 1928
    The Furies, Janet Hobhouse, 1993
    The Bone People, Keri Hulme, 1983
    Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, 1937
    The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson, 1959
    Heat and Dust, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 1975
    Now in November, Josephine Johnson, 1934
    Fear of Flying, Erica Jong, 1973
    Lucy, Jamaica Kincaid, 1990
    Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver, 1990
    Tripmaster Monkey, Maxine Hong Kingston, 1989
    The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence, 1964
    To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee, 1960
    The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing, 1962
    Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively, 1987
    Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Anita Loos, 1925
    Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde, 1982
    Ancesteral Truths, Sara Maitland, 1994
    The Balkan Trilogy, Olivia Manning, 1981
    West With the Night, Beryl Markham, 1942
    The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers, 1940
    Place of Execution, Val McDermid, 2000
    Mama, Terry McMillan, 1987
    Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, 1936
    Spoon Handle, Ruth Moore, 1946
    Beloved, Toni Morrison, 1987
    Wife, Bharati Mukherjee, 1975
    Lives of Girls and Women, Alice Munro, 1971
    A Severed Head, Iris Murdoch, 1961
    You Must Remember This, Joyce Carol Oates, 1987
    A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor, 1955
    Tell Me a Riddle, Tillie Olsen, 1979
    Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Grace Paley, 1974
    The Collected Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker, 1973
    Bel Canto, Ann Patchett, 2001
    The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath, 1963
    Ship of Fools, Katharine Anne Porter, 1962
    The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx, 1993
    The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand, 1943
    Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys, 1966
    The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy, 1997
    All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville-West, 1931
    Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, May Sarton, 1965
    Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers, 1935
    Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, 1818
    The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields, 1994
    Almanac of the Dead, Leslie Marmon Silko, 1991
    The Changelings, Jo Sinclair, 1955
    By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart, 1966
    The Age of Grief, Jane Smiley, 1987
    Map of Love, Ahdaf Soueif, 1999
    The Volcano Lover, Susan Sontag, 1992
    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961
    Three Lives, Gertrude Stein, 1909
    The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan, 1989
    Fresco, Sheri Tepper, 2000
    If Morning Ever Comes, Anne Tyler, 1964
    The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Jane Wagner, 1986
    The Color Purple, Alice Walker, 1982
    Paris Was a Woman: Portraits from the Left Bank, Andrea Weiss, 1995
    Selected Stories, Eudora Welty, 1943
    The Wedding, Dorothy West, 1995
    The Return of the Soldier, Rebecca West, 1918
    Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton, 1911
    Frost in May, Antonia White, 1933
    Oranges Are Not the Only Fruits, Jeannette Winterson, 1985
    Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf, 1925

  3. That list being said, my favorites on there (and that I would LOVE to see included on your list) are Jane Eyre (the first “classic” I read), The Secret Garden (it was the first chapter book I read as a child), The Awakening (my favorite book in high school AP English), Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (the first book I remember laughing out loud at a passage), Gone With the Wind (a book every woman in my family has read), The Joy Luck Club (such an excellent observation of mother-daughter relationships), and Mrs. Dalloway (perhaps my favorite book ever.)
    Other books that I would love to see considered are:
    — Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child et. al
    — Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott
    — The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
    — People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
    — Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
    — Sex With the Queen by Eleanor Herman (not nearly as dirty as the title suggest)
    Sorry for so much commenting. I just absolutely love reading! And I love your blog! Thanks for combining the two in such a wonderful way =)

    • Thanks so much for the suggestions! I see several on here that are already on my list and several more I’d like to add. My interested to see The Happiness Project your list. My mom followed the blog for a while and spoke highly of it.

      I do notice that these are all books by women. I’ve tried to consider books by male and female authors, anything that shows us how to be good women. If you’d like another great list of books by women, check out The New Noblewoman‘s excellent list.

      If you’re looking for other posts about reading, check out the Lessons in Wifery series’ entries about Little Women, The Scarlet Pimpernel (two more great books by women), and The Odyssey.

  4. Glad you enjoyed them! I saw that there were some duplicates, and I know that these are all by women (this journal focused solely on women, but acknowledged that many great books are written by men), but I thought it might be an interesting list for you to consider.
    I really enjoyed The Happiness Project. It’s a lot like Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, in that it makes you think about the things that make you happy and then try to apply it to your life through a formula. She’s a meticulous thinker (she’s a former lawyer), and she’s great in setting out steps in a clear, concise manner.
    And I’ll definitely check out those links. I absolutely LOVE book lists. I obsess over them, and collect them, and then check them off when I read them. It’s sort of disturbing, actually…


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