The best books on being a young woman in the USA

The Books I Picked & Why

Slut: The Play

By Katie Cappiello

Book cover of Slut: The Play

Why this book?

This play, inspired by the experiences of a racially diverse group of New York City teenage girls, explores the intersection of slut-shaming and sexual violence. At its core, the play questions the wisdom of girls embracing the “slut” label for themselves. “Slut” may seem like a carefree term of endearment, and it is—until the moment Joey, a member of her school’s dance team, informally known as the Slut Squad, is sexually assaulted by two boys from school. She brings charges against them, and every sexually provocative thing she previously has done is used as evidence that she is lying. If you want to understand the pressures teenage girls face today, this play breaks it down for you.

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Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography

By Audre Lorde

Book cover of Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography

Why this book?

Audre Lorde writes about her young intersectional life—Black, poor, lesbian—by combining memoir with history and myth. Lorde shares how, from childhood in the 1940s through her post-college years, she lacked a language to describe her experiences with racism, sexism, and heteronormativity. How could she explain to a White friend that she needed a dangerous, illegal abortion—obtained the day before she turned 18—because Black babies were not regarded by White parents as adoptable? What words could she use to tell her White gay friends that even though they are oppressed, they will never understand the oppression of racism? What does a woman’s body look like in a woman-centered world? Lorde discovers the power of language, and along the way writes a beautiful book that is both personal and political.

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The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

By Maxine Hong Kingston

Book cover of The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

Why this book?

In this 1976 literary classic, composed of five stories that blend folktale and memoir, Kingston describes growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She is confused about what it means to be a girl and what is expected of her as she becomes a woman. Kingston wonders: Will she grow up to become a surgeon, as her mother had been in China; a fierce woman warrior; or like the ill-fated No Name Woman, who killed herself and her baby, born out of wedlock, after bringing disgrace to her family and village? She learns that women are the ones tasked with cultural preservation—and that this work can drive one mad. The trick is to create stories from this nonsensical and patriarchal world.

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The House on Mango Street

By Sandra Cisneros

Book cover of The House on Mango Street

Why this book?

In this classic series of vignettes, 12-year-old Esperanza Cordero grows up in impoverished and violent Chicago. She yearns for autonomy and is excited as her physique becomes more shapely and womanly, but she is sexually assaulted at her first job and raped by several men at a carnival. Her best friend is abused physically by her father and, to escape, marries before she enters the eighth grade. Though she wants to leave Mango Street, Esperanza remains rooted to her patriarchal Mexican-American heritage and community. This is a book to savor slowly—the text, as Cisneros has written, “is as succinct and flexible as poetry, snapping sentences into fragments so that the reader pauses, making each sentence serve her and not the other way round.”

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The Bell Jar

By Sylvia Plath

Book cover of The Bell Jar

Why this book?

Brainy and beautiful Esther Greenwood lands a coveted internship at a prominent glossy magazine in New York City, but the experience only magnifies her depression. From confronting the sexist double standard that makes a sexually active young woman a slut but her male counterpart just a regular guy, to her near-rape, to the patronizing attitude of her psychiatrist, who prescribes electroshock therapy that traumatizes her, Esther feels suffocated by the bell jar of sexist culture experienced by young White women in the 1950s. She breathes more fully only after seeing a woman psychiatrist and obtaining a diaphragm--her ticket to sexual liberation. This compulsively readable novel was published after author Sylvia Plath committed suicide in 1963, but many of the obstacles for young women remain strikingly similar today.

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