By Kimberly Wilson
With so many books available, it can be difficult to decide which books you want to add to your reading list. This listing of 101 books every woman should read will make that task a bit easier. Browse through these categories, which include classics; children's literature; books that were made into movies; literature that highlights families, the strength of women, and coming of age; recent literature; books about incredible women and their accomplishments; and important non-fiction books written by women.
These classic books tell tales of love, strong characters, painful lessons learned, and family. These classics are not to be missed.
- The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Feeling trapped and unhappy with the way her life has turned out, Edna reaches for a different path and ultimately finds her freedom in a tragic form.
- Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. A story in two parts, the first story is about Franny as she experiences an existential crisis and has a sort of breakdown. The second half is told from her brother, Zooey's, point of view as he helps her get through her crisis.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelly. Mary Shelly's classic tale of the desire to control nature and the personal responsibility that comes with such actions is a must-read for everyone.
- The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. A massive book, this one will require some dedication, but is worth reading for the strong characters Rand created and her theory of objectivism played throughout the story.
- Howards End by E.M. Forester. The sisters in this novel set in early twentieth century England guide the reader through an exploration of class as their relationships evolve.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The life lessons young Scout learns in this book teach her to see the good in humanity despite the ugliness people can often show.
- The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Atwood explores a world where women are stripped of their rights and forced into lives of slavery based on their skills and abilities, specifically following the story of Offred who has been selected to provide a baby for the infertile Commander and his wife.
- Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. This popular story of true love between man and woman is just one of the heart-stirring tales of fidelity and relationships in this classic.
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Not only is this story a captivating tale of morals and society full of rich characters that has lived on for generations, the fact that Jane Austen was able to publish the book as a woman at the turn of the 19th century is remarkable.
- Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. The gorgeous writing for which Woolf is so famous meshes beautifully with the theme of this story about finding and appreciating the beauty in life as the reader follows Mrs. Dalloway through one day of her life as she prepares for a party.
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Learn about the strength of a woman who can see the goodness of a man others cannot in this beloved tale.
- The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. This story chronicles the life of Chinese farmers Wang Lung and his wife O-lan and their devotion to each other and their family.
- Middlemarch by George Eliot. This classic book tells the story of a strong woman and an ambitious young doctor who live in a community full of richly-drawn characters.
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. This epic of love and fidelity is a classic–don't depend on the movie to truly know this story.
Children and Young Adult Literature
If you didn't get a chance to read these as a child, or even if you did, put them on your list of inspirational and touching stories.
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This timeless tale of sisters who embrace their family despite hard times is a story to be appreciated by all women.
- Pippi Longstockings by Astrid Lindgren. Pippi is a little girl with a lot of pep. She stretches the truth and makes life seem fun even when faced with rules.
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Talk about a leading lady, Dorothy guides this famous troop through Oz, stands up to the Wizard, and gets everyone what they need.
- Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. Where would Wilber be without the love and guidance of the nurturing spider, Charlotte? This classic tale of unconditional love will win your heart.
- Five Children and It by E. Nesbit. Five children who have recently moved from the city to the country discover a magical sand-fairy who grants their wishes each day. The misunderstanding of the wishes brings even more adventure.
- Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. Friendship and imagination lifts these two children out of their everyday lives, until tragedy strikes. This story is based on a real-life friendship between the author's son and his friend, Lisa.
- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. This classic tale of adventure has Alice traveling through a topsy-turvy world where nothing is what it seems.
- Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell. The resourcefulness of the young Karana who is stranded on an island is inspirational for girls of all ages.
- Matilda by Roald Dahl. The spunky, precocious Matilda learns to use her special talents for good as she finds unconditional love with a special teacher in a story that is true to the imaginative writing style of Dahl.
- Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien. A story of both community and technology vs. nature, this tale will surely make a place in your heart long after you've finished the book.
- Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingles Wilder. The story of Mrs. Wilder growing up in a time long past in the midst of a family full of love and the joy of life has made this book a classic enjoyed by many.
- Heidi by Johanna Spyri. Heidi's sweet nature that wins over her grandfather's heart will also win yours as you read about this vivacious young girl who creates a family full of love in the Alps.
- Aunt Maria by Diana Wynne Jones. After the death of their father, Mig and Chris are sent to live with Aunt Maria–but things aren't what they seem there. Mig is the bold girl who braves the controlling aunt and her cronies and their magical powers.
Books Made into Movies
These books have all been made into movies, but be sure to read the books, too, for a more in-depth perspective that can't always be portrayed on the big screen.
- The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Even if you want to discount this book because of the time travel aspect, don't. This book is all about love, life, and making do with what the universe throws your way.
- The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. A young woman overcomes a traumatic childhood and finds love among the three women who take her in and teach her about family.
- Brick Lane by Monica Ali. A Bangladeshi woman moves to London to marry her husband in an arranged marriage. The story of Nazneen and her struggles to live a domesticated life beyond her control are paralleled with that of her sister, living as a social outcast back home.
- The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. Ondaatje's lyrical writing develops the characters of the novel and delivers them into an enchanting tale of love, loyalty, and war.
- Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe by Fannie Flagg. This book, some might say, has been overshadowed by the popularity of the movie, but don't miss reading this one to really understand the relationships and adventure of these two friends.
- Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. Enter the secret world of the geisha in pre-WWII Japan in this story that follows Sayuri as she grows up groomed to be a geisha and her life as a woman in a society ruled by men.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison. Follow the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver as they try to escape the haunting effects of slavery in this novel loosely based on the story of a real slave.
- Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. A young woman comes to the house of Dutch painter Vermeer and inadvertently becomes an inspiration for him.
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Celie learns to overcome her difficult life as a black woman in the south through a magnificent friendship that gives her the gift of inner strength.
- Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen. Karen Blixen, writing as Isak Dinesen, relates her life in colonial Nairobi where she falls in love the the land and the people who live there.
- The Constant Gardener by John le Carre. The story of Justin investigating his wife, Tessa's murder and his revelations about their relationship and Tessa as a woman are beautiful and inspiring and are set against the backdrop of intrigue.
Books Featuring Familial Relationships
Parents, siblings, and daughters: these books all offer a look at the interactions that make or break a family.
- The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. A beautiful story of family secrets and quiet love, The Joy Luck Club tells the story of a young woman discovering the woman who was her mother.
- The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Family relationships parallel the political climate of one corner of Africa in this powerful story.
- Midwives by Chris Bohjalian. Told from the perspectives of both the midwife's journal and her daughter, this story tells of a family strained by an incident that is far from clear-cut to anyone involved.
- A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee. Franklin Hata struggles with his past as he attempts to reconcile with his daughter and forge a life more meaningful.
- The Memorykeeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards. A powerful secret creates and destroys families in this story of love conquering all.
- The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. This is a story of family and secrets, and how a sister and brother are affected throughout their lives.
- Splendor of Silence by Indu Sundaresan. Star-crossed lovers who face cultural differences lead this story about family, politics, and freedom.
- Away by Jane Urquhart. This lyrical Irish tale begins with a mystical love four generations earlier and finds great-granddaughter Esther searching for answers in her family history.
- Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. Tita must follow family tradition and is not allowed to marry her love in this enchanting and delicious story.
Books Celebrating the Strength of Women
While many of the books on this list celebrate the strength of women, these especially highlight how women can persevere through anything.
- Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood: A Novel by Rebecca Wells. Mothers, daughters, and friends are mixed and mingled in this story of sisterhood among the women in this novel.
- Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. Loosely based on a real village that isolated itself from the rest of the world during the plague, the heroine of the story loses much to the plague, yet perseveres in her attempt to save others.
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Jane Eyre is an independent woman with principles she stands by–despite living in an unenviable situation.
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Battling depression, the protagonist in this story finds a way to fight for her happiness and come through on top.
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorn. Hester bears the scorn of society as a result of a love affair, but she carries on and demonstrates a strength and humanity above that of her lover.
- Chocolat by Joanne Harris. Vianne and her daughter settle in to a small French village where they shake things up with their unconventional ways.
- Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King. Get to know the female spirits that rule this Native American world and the human women who have a unique strength of their own in this book that will take you on a fun journey.
- Babette's Feast by Isak Dinesen. The amazing Babette, who arrives unexpectedly in a remote village in Denmark, has amazing skills and a secret that, when revealed, shows her fortitude and adaptability.
These books offer some of the more recent offerings from the literary world that women will surely enjoy reading.
- The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani. This story of a 17th century young woman in Iran who, upon the death of her father, is forced into a new life–and one in which she discovers her autonomy through her skill as a rug maker.
- Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. This beautiful collection of short stories highlights women and their relationships, with each story featuring a woman and her parents, husband, sibling, or lover.
- The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory. Fidelity, infidelity, and political intrigue are the major themes of this story that tells the tale of King Henry VIII and the Boleyn family.
- The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Two women of different backgrounds and different generations both learn to find meaning in their lives in this captivating book.
- Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. This tale of a man joins the circus after he discovers his father's veterinary business is going under is a beautifully written account of the animals and people in the circus–and based on research Gruen did from actual circuses.
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson. This compelling mystery will reel you into the plot, but the characters (one of which is based on the author's imagining who Pippi Longstocking would be as an adult) will keep you reading to the end.
Books about Finding Oneself
Coming of age is the major theme of these books that show young women struggling to find out who they are as adults.
- Bee Season by Myla Goldberg. A young girl who never stood out in life suddenly finds a hidden talent, and then stumbles upon a way to enhance that talent. As her family falls apart, she must make a choice that will affect how others perceive her.
- Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy. This true story documents Lucy's battle against a rare form of cancer that leaves her face disfigured from an early age.
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. A moving story, Middlesex starts with the family history that leads to the protagonist, Cal, living a life as a hermaphrodite.
- Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende. A young woman leaves her life in Chile to travel to the US in search of her lover and finds herself along the way in this adventurous story.
- The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Despite loneliness and isolation, the characters in this book find a way to find push through.
- The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Offered in vignettes, this tale documents a young woman coming of age in the Latino district in Chicago.
Banned or Challenged Books
Books that are banned or challenged are certainly provocative. Find out why these books have sparked controversy, then be sure to put them on your list to read.
- Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Often challenged, Whitman's book contains poetry that often celebrates sexuality, both homosexual and heterosexual. This shouldn't stop you from recognizing the beauty of Whitman's poetry.
- Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. A touching story, this tale tells of Charlie, a mentally challenged young man who participates in a scientific experiment to raise his intelligence, portrays the awakening both intellectually and emotionally of the man. Charlie's newfound sexuality has offended some and caused the book to be challenged.
- Fanny Hill by John Cleland. Fanny Hill describes the sexual exploits of a woman who sells her virginity and ends up a prostitute, and is considered the first erotic novel published in English.
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. In an attempt to escape from a loveless marriage, Madame Bovary engages in adulterous affairs, and thus this books has been banned in many countries.
- Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov. The illicit affair described in this book between a man and a 12 year-old girl causes this book to be challenged in many places today. Don't read it as an endorsement for pedophilia, but as a study of oppression, loss of identity, and tragedy that mankind is capable of inflicting.
- A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. This story is a powerful one that highlights the loyalty and bonds of friendship and family infused with a humor that makes this book a favorite for many. However, others feel that the stance Irving takes on religion and opposition to US in Vietnam are reason enough to challenge this book.
- Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe. When this book was published in 1851, it was criticized by those who supported slavery as a false depiction of slavery. Luckily this novel has survived the censorship it has experience to allow current generations to learn from their ancestors' mistakes.
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. The language, social and racial implications, and violence in Steinbeck's book have been reasons for challenging this touching portrayal of an unusual friendship between two men.
- Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence. Lawrence's book about his famous adulterer was banned in the UK and eventually published in Italy.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Who knows if the profanity, portrayal of smoking and drinking, and anti-religious and anti-establishment sentiments cited are the real reason for banning this book–or maybe it's all about wanting to overshadow the idea of censorship being challenged put forth in this story of firefighters who burn down houses discovered to have books inside.
- East of Eden by John Steinbeck. This book has been challenged as an obscenity that is ungodly. Ironically, it's major theme is the battle of good and evil that parallels the book of Genesis in the Bible.
- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Hosseini's beautiful book of friendship and loyalty looks at the life of two boys from different social classes in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan government's upset over the content of the book is not the only reason it has faced problems. Others have challenged the book based on offensive language and a sexually explicit scene in which a young boy is raped.
Stories of Real Women
These biographies and autobiographies tell the story of amazing women, from Maya Angelou to Marie Antoinette to Amelia Earhart.
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. This autobiographical story of Angelou's life as a young girl growing up in a time of segregation.
- The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. Posed as an autobiography of Stein's lover, Alice Toklas, this book is truly about the life of Stein herself.
- Florence Nightingale by Cecil Woodham-Smith. Florence Nightingale was a woman who made extraordinary changes for the field of nursing, bringing it from a disreputable job to the honorable one it is today.
- Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. While most people know who Anne Frank is, many have not had the pleasure of reading her journal documenting her family's time in hiding from the Nazis. Do yourself a favor and read this one.
- The Story of My Life by Helen Keller. Read about the amazing accomplishments Helen Keller made over her lifetime in this truly inspirational book.
- Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America by Elliot J. Gorn. Learn about this powerful woman who organized and agitated for the sake of the American labor movement.
- Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser. This book helps readers see beyond the public perceptions of Marie Antoinette and learn about the real woman.
- Personal History by Katharine Graham. From a childhood of privilege, Graham grew into a role of a powerful publisher of the Washington Post, but along the way faced a number of challenges.
- Amelia: A Life of the Aviation Legend by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon. Find out about who Amelia Earhart really was–not just about her disappearance–in this biography.
- Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe by Laurie Lisle. Learn about this amazing artist and woman who broke all the rules.
These non-fiction books have been written by women and provide insight on a range of topics that shouldn't be missed.
- Fire in the Lake by Francis Fitzgerald. This interpretation of the Vietnam war is considered one of the best. Fitzgerald was a journalist in Vietnam, and she studied the culture at Yale prior to going there. Her experience and craft combine to make a powerful book.
- Pilgram at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. Annie Dillard wrote about the nature of nature in this classic book.
- A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. Learn what Woolf has to say about why women write differently from men.
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Carson's popular book brought environmental justice to the American consciousness.
- Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey. Detailing the establishment of a gorilla research center in Rwanda and fighting for conservation and against poaching are the bulk of this popular book published just two years before her murder in Rwanda.
- On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. This book lead the way to reduce the fear and silence surrounding death in the medical community and remains an important work today.
- Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert. Learn how Gilbert found herself after one year of traveling to attain some of her life goals.
- Twenty Years at Hull-House,With Autobiographical Notes by Jane Addams. Addams started the first settlement house and worked tirelessly to provide for and educate the poor.
- The Language of the Night by Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin writes about writing in this masterful book that demonstrates why she stands as one of the most important writers of the 20th century.
- Is There No Place on Earth for Me? by Susan Sheehan. This book by a former New York Times investigative journalist won the Pulitzer Prize for its documentation of the plight of a woman called Sylvia Frumkin who suffered from schizophrenia and went in and out of the mental health system.
- Rescuing Sprite: A Dog Lover's Story of Joy and Anguish by Mark Levin. This touching story is about the love a family can have for a dog, what the dog can bring to that family, and how to say goodbye.
- Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. This true story of a man who has taken on the Taliban by building schools and providing education for girls.