Last night, about 1:30am, I was wide awake, my mind racing through all the things that I’d agreed to take on, all the things that I didn’t know how to finish, and all the men – yep, just men (but not all men, of course) yesterday – who had seen fit to dump things on top of me like I was a pack mule.   Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

I learned long ago on the rare nights when I cannot sleep, it’s best to not just lay there and let the panic overtake me.  So I got up, wrapped a quilt around my legs, and started reading Anne Lamott’s Small VictoriesTwo chapters in, and I was more balanced, stronger, a little teary, and ready to sleep again.

I grew up in a relatively conservative Christian community, where many of the families I knew had very “traditional” (here, the hint of sarcasm in those quotes, please) gender roles.  While my parents never overtly reinforced those roles, they also didn’t overtly buck them either.  So by the time I was about 12, I believed – unconsciously – that my job as a female was to “help.” Always help.  It’s a role I still treasure and rebel against every day.

So when I feel the piles of expectation coming – particularly from men but also from women – and when I see myself trying to shove them all into my arms, I have to take a step back and remind myself what I have learned – almost entirely – from books: my job on this earth is not to make life easier for everyone else here.  Nope, my job is to be as loving as I can be, to give kindness as much as I’m able, to give – as Lamott reminded me last night – “welcome” to the people I meet.  I can’t really do that if I’m buried under other people’s stuff. I’m learning to shuck off the burden of expectation and do what I choose to do instead.

It’s taken me a long time to live into my feminist self, to respect myself enough to know when to say “NO” to others and “YES” to myself.  And I’ve set those boundaries largely because of insights I’ve gained from books.

So today, here are the 10 books that have most helped me honor myself as a woman:

1. Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott – There’s a reason she’s my favorite writer, and it’s because she manages to inhabit grace, be bitingly honest about herself, and still do what she needs to do to be healthy.  This book gave me a way to see the cracks in the perfect, “traditional” Christianity I was raised in so that I wasn’t crushed by that tradition.

2. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – Janie!! Goodness, I love this woman.  For her mistakes and her wisdom.  But the end of the book, where the women rally for her defense, well, that’s what I’ve found in my community of women – people who have got your back.

3. Drunk, Divorced, and Covered in Cat Hair by Laurie Perry – After my first husband left, I kind of collapsed on myself.  This book helped me find my way out of the mire through yarn and embroidery floss, but through an honesty and humor that I really needed.

4. One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp – Voskamp is one of those women who, it seems to me, lives that “traditional” Christian family life, but it seems to be the life she has chosen – and of course, choice is one of those central tenets of feminism. Her honesty and slant perspective on gratitude gave me hope again after Mom died. Plus, I love her use of language.

5. Paradise by Toni Morrison – Another novel where the women protect each other, gather round and give support and accountability.  A hard novel – both in terms of content and language – but powerful, beautiful, and full of spiritual metaphor that I’m still thinking through years after reading it.

6. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – I LOVE fairy tales, and these are some of my favorites – feminist retellings of classics where women fight for their own freedom, take their own revenge, and develop their own stories.  Not for the faint of heart but definitely powerful.

7. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf – The central idea here – that a woman needs her own space to do her own work – is one that I have fought hard to accept and then gain.  (We’re in progress on my new office here on the farm – repurposing the old kitchen.)  I’m rethinking this book in light of a wise critique that this “room” is one only available to economically privileged women, and I’d like to think more about how to give that opportunity to ALL women.

8. Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris – One of my biggest internal struggles as a feminist is with the very fact that I enjoy greatly things that have been traditionally viewed as women’s work – cooking, sewing, even cleaning sometimes.  Norris’s words here helped me own those things as beautiful symbols of strength rather than burdens I have just taken on against my will.

9. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – I still remember the middle-aged mother in one of my earliest composition classes who objected to this book because it included sex scenes that were too graphic.  The fact that she was more appalled by the sex than the rape bothered me then and still does now. As a woman who has lived much of her adult life single and childless, I found this book so powerful as it challenged the idea that a woman’s chief purpose is to mother and that somehow she has failed if she does not.

10. Taming of the Shrew by Wiliam Shakespeare – For a brief few months in high school, I was the stage manager for a production (that never happened) of this play, and our director – the high school vice-principal – made a decidedly feminist choice in the production – Kate would be a strong woman who stood up to Petruchio and chose him, rather than the other way around.  For that reason, it’s still one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s works.

I still haven’t read some classics – Feminine Mystique or The Second Sex among them.  But I’ll get there.

What feminist books do you appreciate? What books helped you understand yourself as a woman or understand the women in your life more fully?