The Handmaid’s Tale and Other Books by Women that Changed the World
Today is Margaret Atwood’s 79th birthday. Knowing that made me reach for my dog-eared copy of The Handmaid’s Tale.
I remember the first time I read this book, and how chilling it was to me.
Gilead, the dystopian city in which women are forced into reproductive slavery to bear children for the elite ruling class, wasn’t a world I knew. But certainly, being female, I could relate to and fear deeply the experiences of the fictional women who did live there.
Atwood wrote most of the book while living in West Berlin during the Cold War. She claims that living in a divided city and an atmosphere of secrecy and fear informed the mood she created for Gilead in her tale.
Nowadays, with the political climate as it is, that mood seems more a reality than ever. And, for sure, the red cape and white bonnet “uniform” of the Handmaids’ has become an international symbol of protest. Especially signifying situations in which women’s rights are in question or danger.
Even those who’ve never read Atwood’s bestseller or seen the current award-winning TV series based on the book, understand the oppression that this clothing alludes to.
If nothing else, then, The Handmaid's Tale has caused people to think differently - or think again - when considering women's rights or acts of sexism.
And it certainly made me think - Not just about this particular book, but the other books by women that changed the world.
There have been so many, but it is easy to forget their impact.
Here are just a few. And if you haven't read them, now's as good a time as any to add them to your reading list!
The Tales of Genji by Murasaki Shibiku
The Tales of Genji is considered the world’s first modern novel.
It was written at the beginning of the 11th century by Murasaki Shibiku, a Japanese poet and lady-in-waiting at the Imperial court during the Heian period.
Concentrating on the romantic life of Prince Genji, it doesn’t have a plot such as we would recognize today. But the story does have many elements of a modern novel, including a main character, a supporting cast, and complex characterization.
The significance of The Tales of Genji isn't just in the fact that it gave us the novel (which is impressive nonetheless.)
It is also a book that is culturally significant depicting as it does court life and aristocracy in painstaking detail.
Alongside that, The Tales of Genji is remarkable for another reason: Written by a woman primarily to entertain the ladies at court, it also reveals these women's views on many aspects of their lives and creates complex, fully-rounded, and often empowering visions of 11th-century womanhood.
When you think about it - if Murasaki had never created this exceptional book, such enriching details of the lives of Japanese women of this time might never be known.
Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
Richard Rothwell's portrait of Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus is credited as being the world’s first science-fiction novel.
Written in the early part of the 19thcentury, it combined that era’s hopes and anxieties around the potential of the new technology and science with the horrors of the supernatural.
In doing so, Shelley, who was 18 at the time of writing, created a tale timeless in its themes of fear of change and the unknown.
The ‘Frankenstein,’ of the book is a young natural philosophy student who, fascinated with the possibilities of creating life, does so only to reject his terrifying ‘creature’ in fear and disgust.
So impactful has the basis of this story been, that it has been interpreted and parodied again and again as a means of discussing fear in all aspects of culture and society - Religious fear, race relations, gender and sexual inequality, lookism, evolution, anxiety about science and technology (still), and the destructive possibilities of power in all forms.
There have been numerous Hollywood versions from James Whale’s 1931 film starring Boris Karloff to Tim Curry’s leather-thonged monster in cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There are Frankenstein movies in a wide variety of languages, and even a Blaxploitation version called Blackenstein.
Along with that, the prefix ‘Franken-’ has ably slipped into the modern lexicon and is used regularly to underscore worries we may have about anything that has been artificially enhanced (think of the use of the term Franken-foods when debating GMO-foods.)
The influence of this story across our world is really quite remarkable. In the preface to the 1831 edition of the book, Mary Shelley wrote: “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper.”
But I wager she never imagined just how far her literary progeny would travel, shaping our very culture and society and representing our fears, our hopes, and the power we each possess.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Illustration of Tom and Eva by Hammatt Billings for the 1853 deluxe edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin
Can a book start a war?
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s powerful abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is often cited as doing exactly that.
In fact, it is reported that when Beecher Stowe visited Abraham Lincoln at the White House in December 1862, he greeted her with the rhetorical question, “Is this the little woman who made this great war?"
Whether Lincoln uttered those words or not, the fact remains that as a story empathetic to its black characters, Uncle Tom’s Cabin presented slaves in a way that they were rarely viewed – as thinking, feeling human beings.
The book sold more than 300,000 copies in the North the first year it was published, and proved even more popular overseas, selling tens of thousands of copies a day upon publication in England.
Of course, it may be something of an exaggeration to say that this book alone instigated the Civil War. Yet many historians do credit Beecher Stowe’s heartfelt tale of three slaves yearning for freedom, as activating a collective cultural awakening to the plight of those enslaved and a rallying cry for the abolitionist movement.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Who would have thought that the musings of a teenage girl would remain a timeless and poignant reminder of how ugly and yet how beautiful the human spirit can be.
But that is exactly what has been achieved by The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Translated into over 60 languages, the book has sold millions of copies across the globe.
Created from a series of diary excerpts, The Diary of a Young Girl contains the private thoughts of the young daughter of a German-Jewish family, living in hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
Anne Frank was just 13 when she and her family went into hiding in Amsterdam. Together with four other Jews, they lived in a secret annex at the back of the business premises that belonged to Anne’s father’s Otto. They survived with the help of their non-Jewish Dutch friends but were eventually betrayed and discovered.
During the two years (July 1942 to 4 August 1944) that the families lived there, Anne wrote about her daily life, her family and her impressions regarding their circumstances.
She had hoped to be a writer, and her fine literary talent is part of what makes this famous account of life during the Holocaust so compelling.
What makes it so enduring, however, has likely more to do with the hope and optimism that Anne expressed in the face of incomprehensible adversity. In one excerpt, for example, she wrote:
"It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart… I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquillity will return once more.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be true for Anne. She and her family and friends were discovered a few days after she wrote this, and Anne was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
It was here in March 1945 that at the age of 15 she succumbed to typhus.
When her father Otto, the only survivor of the eight who went into hiding, was given Anne’s diary by a neighbor who had found it and kept it after the family had been arrested, he decided to honor his daughter’s ambitions to be a writer.
Though he initially struggled with the idea of making public his daughter's private thoughts, in a letter to a friend he wrote:
“Anne’s Diary helped me a great deal to gain again a positive outlook on life. I hoped by publishing it to help many people in the same way and this turned out to be true.” *
The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir
In 1949 a landmark study into the history of women was published.
Written two decades before the modern feminist movement came into existence, and preceding Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique by fourteen years, The Second Sex by the French intellectual philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, asked a fundamental question: ‘what does it mean to be woman?’
In asking this question de Beauvoir explored every aspect of womanhood from marriage, motherhood, work, female representation in literature, economic independence, sexuality and ageing.
She sought to rip apart the prejudices and traditional roles that women had been forced into, often without question – and instead lay a path for new ways of thinking about womanhood.
De Beauvoir was one of the first to explore gender as a social construct, distinguishing between the terms “sex” and “gender,” and famously wrote: “A woman is not born, but rather becomes a woman.”
However, her frank discussion of the female body and female sexuality shocked many readers, with furious accusations claiming that, as she wrote herself, she was, “Unsatisfied, cold, priapic, nymphomaniac, lesbian, a hundred times aborted, I was everything, even an unmarried mother.”
Nonetheless, her book was embraced by women around the world, for it sought to do what no-one had done before – dispel the myths created about women since the beginning of history.
These are just a handful of books written by women that changed the world forever. In highlighting these, though, I challenge you to think of other books by female writers that have specifically changed your life.
* Letter from 16 June 1968, from Cara Wilson’s book Love, Otto. The Legacy of Anne Frank.
Main image credit: FeelieLefay