A Year of Reading Only (Well, Mostly) Women

Whenever someone asks me for my favourite (or top 5, or 10) books of the year, I become aware of the fact that in the last year (and some), I’ve read books only or mainly written by women.

This wasn’t entirely planned. Of course, I was aware of Sara Ahmed’s approach to citational justice in Living a Feminist Life, which entailed citing only women (and recall with amusement the shocked reaction of some of my colleagues to hearing this at Ahmed’s lecture in Cambridge, as if not citing white men constituted the ultimate betrayal of academic mores). But over the past year-and-some, I became increasingly aware of how much erasure of women’s work there is in the UK – in particular in theory. Some of this came through my work on epistemic positioning; but, like the concepts developed in the article, most of it came from participation in academic and other intellectual environments. I encountered social theory syllabi where barely any women were present (and if they were, they were all grouped in the incongruous pile called ‘feminist theory’ or ‘gender’, just like Black and minority ethnic scholars were to be found under ‘studies of race and racism’ and nowhere else); I saw special issues of academic journals on rather general topics that would feature articles only by men.  

As someone who read lots and indiscriminately, the absence of women – even those run-of-the-mill, obligatory ‘passage points’ like Arendt and de Beauvoir – truly stunned me. My own work gave me a good sense of how and why this was happening; but it left me none the wiser in terms of how to change it beyond the remit of my teaching. When it came either to reading/referencing recommendations or course design, I found myself mentioning or encouraging people to read women authors rather than just the ‘usual suspects’ White men. More often than not, it would turn out that people were in fact aware of the book/author, or at least had heard of them, but had forgotten about them, or just never considered them.

This brought to mind the relevance of attention, and time, in the fight for epistemic justice. Of course academics are overworked; as clearly expressed in the strike at the beginning of December, there has been a constant workload creep in the UK academia. It isn’t only about Zoom and incessant meetings in the first pandemic year, or juggling both online and offline content and growing student numbers in the second. Everyone is struggling. In this context, it is only too imaginable that people reach for the ‘usual suspects’, for the references they already know and have been using for years, rather than look for new (or old!) ones.

It also encourages lazy and reductive reading: of course you’re not going to bother with this book if it’s only about a ‘feminist’ reading rather than, say, about class and labour, or with this as it’s about ‘women’s history’ rather than philosophy. The only innovative thing about such tropes is the ingenuity with which they apply the assumption that ‘(White) boys write about everything, women write about women’s issues’, to a seemingly endless set of authors and topics. 

In this context, my New Year’s present is a list of things written only by women. Some of these have been published in the course of the last year; some of these I have been re-reading for different reasons, often connected with work. Every single time, however, I was struck by the relevance of ideas, the clarity of prose, and, not least – the patent absence of self-indulgence and clunkiness of phrase that so often characterises theoretical writing by men. Not all of these books were ‘theory’, either; there is a good degree of fiction, essays, as well as auto/biography.

Of course I also read some men – most notably when I had to for work, but also when I found pieces really interesting, although in this case as well I privileged men who were not white (two favourites: here and here), or who set good examples on how to cite women (and survive!). Goes without saying I also read non-binary scholars (two favourites: here and here).

So here’s my New Year’s list, with random annotated comments at times, and, roughly, in the order I have read them.

Simone de Beauvoir, Collected Works (2020)

This was a present for my 40th birthday. Given that my birthday took place under a lockdown, five months after I had lost my mother, and pending Year 2 of a global pandemic, this is one of the few things that made it worth it. There are many excellent, previously untranslated, essays here, with analytical prefaces by a range of contemporary readers, which are often almost as good; I read Pyrrhus and Cinéas for the first time (I read French, but have over time become lazy at reading philosophy in languages other than English, something I regret). It is one of the most powerful philosophical reflections on the nature of agency, and it helped me direct my thinking about the meaning of legacy, temporality, and change. Shorter pieces on abortion, Marxism, and colonialism, among others, are well worth a read, for the understanding of the evolution of de Beauvoir’s politics and the range – and influence – her thought exercised in the day (only to be, like many other women intellectuals, erased retrospectively). This edition is the first to fully recognize this legacy.

If you are new to de Beauvoir’s writing, you can start anywhere; if you have access to institutional libraries, encourage your university or institutional library to buy the collected works, and then you can read or assign specific essays. (Un)surprisingly, many students had actually never read de Beauvoir previously – despite being fed ‘post-feminist’ ideas about how feminism was passé.  Wonder why.

Kate Inglis, Notes for the Everlost: A Field Guide to Grief

This book reached me in an envelope sent in the post, together with some (vegan) chocolate, some loose leaf Darjeeling tea, and a note saying ‘Here if you want to talk. Or if you do not. Or just generally here’, reminding me why feminist (and women’s) friendships are, and I use neither lightly, a blessing and a privilege.

Inglis’ book is exactly what the subtitle says. She wrote it after one of the twins she gave birth to never made it out of the intensive neonatal care unit. In some ways, of course, the experience that prompted the book could not be farther removed from mine: Inglis had lost a child; I had lost a parent. But it’s an excellent guide to mourning (don’t worry – no prescriptive ‘five stages’ bullshit here). It also contains one of the most insightful observations I have ever heard: the first moments after losing someone are uncharacteristic because you get to peek behind the thin boundary of life and death; if I recall correctly, she compares it to a heroin high, where you almost feel omnipotent just for being alive. It’s the comedown that’s difficult. I probably owe a lot of preserved sanity to this observation.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice

In addition to dispensing wise books, tea, and chocolate at exactly the right moments, one of my best friends also shares my love of sci-fi, and the corresponding frustration about the lack of good new stuff. I was dispatched from New Year’s visit to her and her partner with Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which is excellent; I look forward to reading the sequels (Mercy, Sword, and Provenance).  

Chloe Cooper, The Arsonist

Know how I said it’s a privilege to have friends who buy you good books? I was lucky enough to get two of each at the end of last year – Sakshi Aravind and Solange Manche gave me Cooper’s The Arsonist and James Bradley’s Clade. I got started on Cooper, which is set in Australia; my partner borrowed Clade, which I was glad about not only for helping me maintain gender consistency but also because it’s a book about climate change. I look forward to picking up both in the new year!

Jacqueline Rose, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty

This might seem like it’s repeating the point made earlier, but I in fact bought and started reading Rose’s Mothers a few years back. I only picked up on it, however, after my own mother had died; I read it on and off throughout the year, and having finally completed it, must say it’s excellent. It also made me consider trying to read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels again, which I started but did not feel compelled by in the slightest. I am an unrepentant longitudinal *and* parallel reader – I often pick up on books years after starting them, much to the chagrin of some of my friends – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t books that I can’t put down.

Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? and The Psychic Life of Power

I’m not even sure why I started re-reading Frames of War, but I found it – especially ‘Torture and the Ethics of Photography’ – incredibly relevant for the present moment. It’s also now part of the mandatory reading on my theory modules.

Speaking of which: The Psychic Life of Power is Butler’s best book. It’s a shame many social theory syllabi rarely feature Butler’s writing beyond Gender Trouble or Bodies That Matter (if at all); Butler is by far one of the most insightful theorists of power, which enforces my point that she should be read as a political philosopher.  

Kelly Oliver, Witnessing: beyond recognition

It was actually Oliver’s book that inspired me to read The Psychic Life of Power – it is a remarkably comprehensive yet analytical take on the logic of I-Thou, applying it to a range of examples from debates on politics of identity to transitional justice. Outstanding political theory writing. It’s a shame it’s not better known – oh, wait, I have an idea of why that might be the case.

Nancy Folbre, The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems: an Intersectional Political Economy

As Folbre noted in a recent book talk, a probably better title would have been ‘The Rise, Decline, and Rise Again’, given the resurgence of anti-feminist and misogynist politics, policies, and sentiments we are witnessing. Rest assured, however – the book is no friend to the ‘equality achieved, what are women complaining about’ brand of ‘theory’ (for a useful takedown of such theories, see here).  

Francesca Wade, Square Haunting

Wade’s book is part history, part biography, insofar as it details the lives of exceptional women – H.D., Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Sayers, Eileen Power, and Jane Harrison – who all lived in the same area of Bloomsbury around Mecklenburgh Square, but it is both so rich in narrative detail and strong on feminist politics of the day that I used it as bedtime reading. It is also one of my favourite parts of London, which helped soothe the London withdrawal syndrome caused by both lockdown and moving farther away.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick

Another present, this one from my dear friend and collaborator Linsey McGoey – I love McMillan Cottom’s writing and this is a good analysis of how raced (and gendered) assumptions shape dominant institutions’ perceptions of talent and intelligence, told from a biographical perspective. Now that the book made it out of storage, I look forward to continuing it!

Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life and Complaint!

I am a regular reader of Ahmed but this was a fantastic double-bill. The first I re-read because I needed it (meaning, I was using it for an article I was working on); the second I eagerly anticipated. As it turns out, they also provided the framing for thinking about mediating my own personal experience of bullying and gender-based discrimination at work; in this sense, I certainly needed the first, and I am adamant about using the second as a guide for all scholars who are experiencing, or have experienced, these forms of abuse. I have also, with a few others, been discussing/planning a reading group on Complaint! at Durham.

Jacqueline Rose, On Violence and on Violence Against Women

In a year so defined by sexism, misogyny and patriarchy, my second most eagerly anticipated book after Complaint! was Jacqueline Rose’s On Violence and on Violence Against Women. Not sure what specialists would have to say about it, but I was impressed by Rose’s capacity to say something new about a subject that has been extensively written about – and to connect it to the deepest questions of social theory. A difficult book – not for the style, which is excellent and crisp, but for the topic – which I’ve occasionally had to put down, but look forward to completing in the new year.

Adriana Zaharijevic, Life of Bodies: Political Philosophy of Judith Butler

Full disclosure: this book has not yet been published in English, but it is in the process of being translated by Edinburgh University Press. Written by my dear friend and feminist co-conspirator Adriana Zaharijević, it is an excellent analysis of the connections between Butler’s treatment of gender, precarity, and agency, by one of the best Butler scholars today. Incidentally, it also concurs with my reading that Butler is above all a political philosopher.

Katherine Angel, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent

Angel’s book is excellent in managing to work through an issue that’s been extensively discussed while calling bullshit on both faux libertarianism and moralism in (almost) equal amounts. I was super-glad Angel was able to give the first lecture in the new Josephine Butler lecture series – if you missed it, your loss.

Deborah Levy, Things I Do Not Want to Know, The Cost of Living, Real Estate

I thought I hated (auto)biography. Turns out, I only hate autobiography because it is almost always focused on the lives of men. Levy’s ‘Living Autobiography’ series is a fantastic, funny, and at times shattering reminder that needn’t be that way; it is also a take on London through the eyes of a foreigner, something I can deeply relate to.

Levy’s books came to my reading list as I was beginning to contemplate the value of my own life (cost?) as well as ‘real estate’, both in terms of what my mother was leaving me, and what I was thinking about acquiring, or building, on my own. For someone whose preferred approach to dealing with the (im)permanence of material property was to acquire as little of it as practicable and dispense with it (or pass it on) as quickly as possible, this introduced a whole new element of ‘reality’ or, at least, materiality (no, I’m not saying they’re the same thing; no, this isn’t a social ontology post) to ‘estate’.

Annie Ernaux, The Years

Speaking of autobiography: I only arrived at Ernaux’s ‘The Years’ (Les Années) this year, which speaks to the degree to which I’ve given in to UK’s intellectual parochialism. The deep sense of shame did not prevent me from enjoying the narrative crossover between biography and sociology that she uses to depict the post-war years in France; I also found it interesting to reflect on how many of the references she uses made sense to me (French was my first foreign language, and I’ve spent some time part-living in Paris, but have allowed both linguistic and cultural competence to deteriorate since).   

Nancy Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism: from State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis

Think you know what Fraser’s argument was about? Think again. I picked up Fortunes of Feminism as a holiday read (well, I was at a friend’s house in Wales for a holiday, the book was on his desk – yes, sorry, this is what happens if you host me in your house, I am going to read your books), and while I thought I had read most if not all of the essays included in the volume, I discovered several angles I had never noticed before, and was struck again by the clarity of writing and the ability to anticipate challenges – many of which are very much with us today.

Iris Marion Young, Responsibility for Justice

Speaking of feminist icons: I know, I know, you’ve ‘read’ Iris Marion Young already. So have I. I just never read her last – and unfinished – book, which is a fantastic re-engagement with some of the issues raised in Justice and the Politics of Difference. And one much more relevant for the present moment, given that it addresses the thorny question of not just what is wrong but who has the moral (ethical, political) responsibility to fix it – something that speaks directly to issues ranging from the Covid-19 pandemic to climate change and, obviously, the role of social sciences in addressing them. Give it a go and see for yourself.

Serene Khader, Decolonizing Universalism: a Transnational Feminist Ethic

Speaking of which: worried all this ‘white feminism’ is ruining your progressive credentials? Before you buy into the argument that the best way to wiggle out of your shame for reading and citing almost exclusively white men is to hate on white women, read Khader’s Decolonizing Universalism – among other things, to try and understand what exactly decolonizing social and political theory might entail.

Laura Bates, Men Who Hate Women

I know, I know, the value of reading something you already know about is doubtful, and thus I avoided reading Bates’ work for a long time (not least because I was mildly resentful that the most recent book appropriated the title of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy). Turns out, it makes sense to remind oneself how widespread women-hating is, from incels proper to your garden-variety whatabouter (it will also make it easier for you to spot them, especially when they show up in classrooms, on boards, and, of course, your Twitter mentions).

Manon Garcia, We Are Not Born Submissive: How Patriarchy Shapes Women’s Lives

One of the most pressing questions emerging from the contemporary readings of de Beauvoir is why some people will choose to submit, or to relinquish their freedom. Garcia’s book engages with this question, while also presenting a very accessible introduction to de Beauvoir’s thought. I’ve included it both in the mandatory reading and have recommended it to friends and family (and possibly also bought a few of them a copy ).

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation

In my neverending quest to diversify syllabi in theory (AKA: Only Men), I’ve introduced Federici to reading lists on both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Turns out students love it, which isn’t surprising, given that it is remarkably accessibly written, manages to weave a set of historical data into a remarkable and persuasive analysis of the constitution of gender inequality in the modern West that doesn’t, imagine that, avoid the question of colonisation and slavery, and does all of that in fewer words than Foucault. I’ve read the Autonomedia edition back in my anarchist days, but there’s a new Penguin edition that puts the book where it properly belongs – Modern Classics. Simply can’t understand how anyone can learn anything about the history of capitalism, class, or inequality without reading Federici (and Ellen Meiksins Wood, too).

Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism

Berlant died this (!) year, so, as is customary, many people only noticed her work after that (same goes for bell hooks, who passed away shortly before the end of 2021). I started re-reading Cruel Optimism for an article I am working on; I also introduced affect theory to undergraduate theory teaching, though it sadly occupies only one third of a single session, because, you know, MEN). While my first reading of Cruel Optimism was somewhat reductive – I was interested in the ‘relational ills’ element, which is what I presume what attracts most people who work in moral and political theory – on this reading, I became fascinated by arguments I had simply never noticed before, convincing me Berlant’s work was both more far-sighted than it is normally given credit for, and probably one of the most suitable for comprehending the present moment.

Hannah Arendt, On Violence and Life of the Mind: Thinking

Much like de Beauvoir, I believe One Should Regularly Re-Read Arendt, whether for writing or for General Edification Purposes. Enough said.

Amia Srinivasan, Right to Sex

I bucked and followed the trend of reading the Most Eagerly Anticipated Philosophy Book of 2021, at least according to white men who are trying to vindicate the absence of diversity of their reading lists. As it happens, I’ve read some of Srinivasan’s stuff before, and as it happens, I like it, so I am mostly enjoying the book so far, not least for the precision and clarity of prose – something, again, that is both the mark of Oxford’s school of philosophy but also of women philosophers’ writing more generally.  

Tabitha Lasley, Sea State

This one was excellent! I bought the book soon after it was published, but only got to reading it in November this year. Worth every page; I considered inviting Lasley to speak at the Qualitative Methods module I taught last year, so hope I will still get to do it – her work, not unlike Joan Didion’s, Alice Goffman’s, or Simone Weil’s, points to the ongoing challenges in engaging with ‘the field’ and as a woman.

Amelia Horgan, Lost in Work

I was the discussant for Amelia’s book in the Philosopher seminar series. In this sense, reading it was…’work’ (ha), but it also came at the right moment, because I was at the beginning of a very exhausting academic term. If you’re looking for a good primer on the history of work, labour struggles, and relations, especially in Western industrial capitalism, this is your book!

Katie Goh, The End: Surviving the World Through Imagined Disasters

The only thing I regret about this book is not having written it myself. That being said, I am (still) working on the sociological equivalent of it (early drafts here and here).

I picked up both this and the next book in The Bound bookshop in Whitley Bay, during one of my frantic searches for a flat in the area. I didn’t find a flat, but I found this bookshop, which is worth coming back for – fantastic selection, lovely staff, and a reminder (as clichéd as this may sound) of the value of independent bookshops.

Jacqueline Harpmann, I Who Have Never Known Men

Part-Handmaid’s Tale, part-Wittgenstein’s Mistress, but in some ways better (and earlier!) than both. A gem of a read.

Ruth Ozeki, Tale for a Time Being

This was also a present, this time for Christmas. Don’t know if it just the exhaustion of the preceding year, or my general interest in transcultural, translocal, and the combo of climate change, feminist anarchism, and Zen Buddhism, but this book feels like a balm on a weary soul. Thank you ❤

I am ending the year with two books I’ve taken with me – one is Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice; the other is Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings.

Campbell’s book attracted my attention as soon as it was published; I was even at the book launch/reading (held, fittingly, in Cambridge’s Polar Museum) before the pandemic. It is an impressive artistic/philosophical/literary reflection on change…and ice. Now that I finally got my (non-work) books out of storage, I can read it at peace. For someone who dislikes the cold (the northernmost I lived was Copenhagen, and I hated it), I have a long-standing obsession with the extreme North (possibly fostered by reading Jack London and wanting to own a husky dog as a child). My favourite photograph is Per Bak Jensen’s Disko Bay: I like it so much that I have two reproductions – albeit both small – hanging on my walls.

I was reminded of Ngai’s book by Milan Stürmer in a recent Twitter exchange in which I asked people what their dream interdisciplinary reading list/group would be. Ngai was one of the few authors mentioned that I haven’t read before. It’s definitely time to rectify that.

More importantly, however, reading the suggestions, I was once again reminded of the value of reading broadly, anti-disciplinarily, and against the tendency to reproduce structured inequalities in knowledge production, even if it is sometimes easier. So, for new year, my wish for everyone is not only to read more women, but also to read outside of the immediate or proximate zone of disciplinary, linguistic, conceptual, or even political comfort. This is not saying I always succeed – while I take pride in regularly stepping outside of #1 and #3, as this list demonstrates, I have grown lazy in terms of #2 and the events of the previous year have made me reluctant to engage with #4 beyond what I anyway had to by the virtue of living in a racist, misogynistic world.  

Books are many things – but one of them is lifeworlds. The words we surround ourselves with provide building blocks for the worlds we will inhabit. Make yours, you know, a bit less…predictable.