Feminist autobiography suggestions?

// 9 September 2008

books at the Berlin public library (I think it's the one from Wings of Desire!)Back in July we tossed about recommendations for feminist, or feminist-inflected fiction… but how about the autobiography section?

Have you read an interesting personal account of the women’s liberation movement in the UK? The suffragettes? The third wave?

To start it off, I am half-way through Michele Roberts’ autobiography Paper Houses, which romps through her personal life, deeply entangled in feminist activism (it’s subtitled ‘A memoir of the ’70s and beyond’).

Photo by svenwerk, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

chem_fem // Posted 9 September 2008 at 11:19 pm

This is cheating and doesn’t fit your requirements, but Climbing Free by Lynn Hill is a great auto-biography of one of the most talented female climbers who also has a feminist outlook on life.

Davina // Posted 9 September 2008 at 11:30 pm

Last year I volunteered for the Feminist Archive (South) in Bristol (there’s a Northern half too, in Leeds). I was helping out with cataloguing before it all went into storage – although now Bristol University’s acquired it and it’ll be going into their new library.

While I was there the archive manager lent me some booklets they’d produced over the years – personal histories of second-wave feminists who’d been involved in Bristol – and I ended up interviewing her and writing her story, as well as a former Lord Mayor’s (one of eight women to have ever been one) story, for a new booklet (there have been two volumes so far).

It always gets me wanting to do something when I read about activism – but I don’t. Even though they’re only I suppose ‘mini-autobiographies’, each one being only 5-10 pages long, it was an honour to read them, and is an honour to be part of the new volume. Sure, the suffragettes and the second-wavers may have been a bit short-sighted in their goals, but they did a hell of a lot of work for us. And I think I was short-sighted too in thinking I could never be friends with a white OAP. And now I am rambling!

Jess McCabe // Posted 9 September 2008 at 11:39 pm

That sounds great Davina – I know about the Feminist Archives, but not the booklets. Do you know if/how it’s possible to get hold of copies?

tom hulley // Posted 10 September 2008 at 10:30 am

2 books from Islamic women with feminist agendas (even if they did not call them this themselves) showing the strength of women often perceived only as victims:

Jasvinder Sanghera. Shame. Hodder & Stoughton.

Mukhtar Mai. In the Name of Honour. Virago.

and a website that offers live autobiography in a sense:


Davina // Posted 10 September 2008 at 11:51 am

Hey Jess,

I’m not sure if there are copies floating around on someone’s computer – I’ll have to ask Jane (the manager) – but I can find out & e-mail them to you? If not then I can just copy and post them, it won’t take too long ‘cos they’re quite short.

Soirore // Posted 10 September 2008 at 1:59 pm

In Love and Struggle: Letters and Contemporary Feminism (Columbia University Press, 2008) by Margaretta Jolly may be of interest to you.

She has also produced other life history/ autobiographical work, lots from the Mass-Observation Archive which is full of interesting women’s stories. Her stuff often looks at feminist movements too which is great.

Virginia Harris // Posted 10 September 2008 at 2:16 pm

MargoMoon, a poster at another blog summed up in one word how being disconnected from women’s history feels – homesick.

Well, I felt that homesickness too when I realized a few years ago that as a fairly well-informed American woman, I was totally in the dark about HOW the suffragettes won votes for women, and what life was REALLY like for women before they did.

Senator Clinton and Governor Palin are proof that women can and do diverge on important issues.

Even on the question of whether women should vote! I learned that suffragettes were opposed by many women who were what was known as ‘anti.’

The most influential ‘anti’ lived in the White House. First Lady Edith Wilson was a Washington widow who married President Wilson in 1915, after the death of his pro-suffrage wife.

The First Lady’s role in Wilson’s decision to jail and torture Alice Paul and hundreds of other suffragettes will never be fully known, but she was outraged that these women picketed her husband’s White House.

I’d like to share a women’s history learning opportunity…

I wrote “The Privilege of Voting,” a new, free e-mail series that follows eight great women from 1912 – 1920 to reveal ALL that happened to set the stage for women to win the vote.

It’s a real-life soap opera! And it’s ALL true!

Powerful suffragettes Alice Paul and Emmeline Pankhurst are featured, along with TWO presidential mistresses, First Lady Edith Wilson, Edith Wharton, Isadora Duncan and Alice Roosevelt.

There are tons of heartache on the rocky road to the ballot box, but in the end, women WIN!

Thanks to the suffragettes, women have voices and choices!

Exciting, sequential episodes are great to read on coffeebreaks, or anytime.

I hope you will subscribe, and pass the word along – it’s free at


Best to you! Thanks.

Sian // Posted 10 September 2008 at 4:42 pm

I can’t say I’ve ever read anything fitting this bill-so I will watch with interest. Tangentially, I did read Margot Fonteyn’s (the ballet dancer) biography recently and she had to have several abortions-remember thinking, yet again, how good the pill was.

Maria Dixon // Posted 10 September 2008 at 6:44 pm

chem_fem – I absolutely agree with you about Lynn Hill’s book etc., but I disagree with the way you have said that Lynn Hill was “one of the most talented female climbers”.

I don’t mean to sound picky, but Lynn Hill was the first PERSON (of either gender) to free climb The Nose and also the first to free climb it in a day. To my knowledge, only 3 people (2 men, 1 woman) have repeated the former feat in the last 15 years!

How often do you hear a good male sportperson described as “one of the most talented male…”? Never – the gender is left out because it is assumed that the best man is always better than the best woman.

So why use the word “female” when Lynn Hill’s achievements equalled or surpassed those of her male contemporaries. If a woman ran 100m faster than usain Bolt, would she still be described as “the fastest female runner”?

Using the word “female” to qualify the statement makes it sound like Lynn Hill was good for her gender, but not in the same league as the men, which is most definitely not the case!

Alice Dale // Posted 11 September 2008 at 11:32 am

I really liked Amanda Foreman’s The Duchess of Devonshire (which I read before the film came out). The way she was vilified for getting involved in politics (I think) suppressed the suffragette movement for at least 20 years – other women were scared they would be treated the same way.

chem_fem // Posted 11 September 2008 at 12:18 pm

Maria Dixon, I agree with you and was careful to consider my language when I wrote that but I feel it is justifiable.

I think being a woman climber is tougher in its own right. Men have been in the position to be able to do these things more than women due to sexism. It is hard full stop to get sponsorship to be a climber or mountaineer and harder still if you are a women. The negative press Alison Hargreaves got for mountaineering while being a mother (even though her children were looked after by their father and male climbers have children with no comment) is reason enough on its own let alone that when a woman completed a first female ascent the climb was often down graded as a result. I think this is the case that being a woman climber is worth more than a man in that you have a whole lot more to over come than just the climb.

Cara // Posted 11 September 2008 at 2:23 pm

Maria Dixon, I completely agree!

I am sick of hearing “one of the best FEMALE *insert profession*.


It is only necessary in sports where you might have to specify whether you are talking about the men’s or women’s game, even there, only if the person has a name that is not obviously of either gender.

Otherwise quite, it sounds like “good…FOR A WOMAN!” *sigh*.

At uni one of my professors made the same point in class, how she was almost invariably introduced as “one of the leading FEMALE researchers” in the field…*sigh* (and of course if the woman in question comments on this, she would be seen as “difficult” and “one of those moaning feminists” *sigh again*.)

I am sure chem_fem didn’t mean anything by it, but then that’s the point – we say these things unthinkingly, have all internalised sexism as it is everywhere in our culture. This is why it is so important to mention these seemingly “little” things.

Cara // Posted 11 September 2008 at 2:31 pm

On the subject – In the Name of Honour is definitely worth a read.

I am also a fan of Ayaan Hirsi Ali – her autobiography is called Infidel iirc.

Also – Waris Dirie the ex model and campaigner agianst FGM has written a 2 volume autobiography which is worth reading.

I enjoy biographies of women who have achieved notable things in general, hmmm, sometimes. I remember one of Rosalind Franklin which actually bugged me as it portrayed her as a loner with no friends and no men in her life…damn “eccentric scientist with no social skills” stereotype, also note how this is seen as amusing in men but in women well, they are doomed to a lonely and miserable life! Also she was portrayed as a victim of bullying by just about everyone she met, from sexist coworkers to anti-Semitic fellow students…

of course any woman who has an amazing career and does not reproduce must have a TRAGIC life!

Abby O'Reilly // Posted 11 September 2008 at 6:52 pm

Paper Houses is brilliant! At the moment I’m reading a biography of Martha Gellhorn, which is fantastic!x

Alex T // Posted 11 September 2008 at 7:40 pm

It’s a little after the suffrage movement and a little before women’s lib, but Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’ and ‘Testament of Experience’ are really great, meaty memoirs from someone who, although not overtly feminist in outlook, was most certainly left-wing in outlook and feminist in behaviour!

Maria Dixon // Posted 11 September 2008 at 7:59 pm


“It is hard full stop to get sponsorship to be a climber or mountaineer and harder still if you are a woman.”

I’m not sure I agree with this. In my experience, climbing is one of the few sports where the top women get sponsorship equivalent to that of the top men, and where the number of women who get sponsorship reflects or exceeds the proportion of women in the sport.

There are still more male climbers than female ones (although the ratios seem to differ wildly depending on the type of climbing*), but sponsorship seems to be equally difficult to get for men and women.

“when a woman completed a first female ascent the climb was often down graded as a result.”

I’ve never heard of this happening. Climbs do get down/up-graded of course, but I’ve never heard of it being because of a female ascent. Do you have any examples?

“The negative press Alison Hargreaves got for mountaineering…”

Absolutely agreed – society views women who participate in risky activities very differently to men & it’s made obvious when you compare the press coverage of Alison Hargreaves death** with that of any male mountaineer who also left children behind. A mother who dies in the hills is portrayed as irresponsible, uncaring and a bad mother, whereas a father who dies isn’t. I’ve had people say to me, “Oh, you’ll be giving up climbing once you have children, won’t you?”, but no-one’s ever said it to my partner.

*Purely based on observation (and therefore not scientific!): for bouldering, sport/indoor & single-pitch, I think the numbers aren’t that skewed toward men – maybe 60:40 men to women. However, on harder mountain routes or multi-pitch routes, the number of women starts to drop and the ratio seems more like 75:25. When you start getting on to winter or Alpine routes, there are around 9 or 10 men for every 1 woman (I actually did a quick head count at a few of the Alpine huts I visited this summer and this was the average ratio).

**particularly the venom spouted by Nigella Lawson – one of the worst of the media idiots who came out to slate Alison after her death

chem_fem // Posted 12 September 2008 at 12:13 pm

Maria dixon – I’ve never heard of this happening. Climbs do get down/up-graded of course, but I’ve never heard of it being because of a female ascent. Do you have any examples?

Yes, it’s in the book actually. I’d quote it, but I’m rarely home so it will never happen if I very honest with myself.

There is a lot more on the sexism within climbing in several articles on the UKclimbing website. There is a serial of articles called climb like a girl here:


and there were two articles on Planet Fear by katherine Schirrmacher:


you can get to the second one at the bottom of the first.

Cara // Posted 12 September 2008 at 5:43 pm

sorry chem_fem, your post hadn’t appeared when I posted – you’re right, I can see why in a feminist context it is appropriate to add “woman” because we do indeed have more challenges to overcome.

With Maria Dixon on the perception of risk-taking, too, another example is the way female reporters with children are vilified for going to war zones & anywhere remotely unstable. Don’t we women know we should stay home with the kiddies? ;-)

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