Where do you think badass women learn their sass, if not from books? Without strong female heroines like Jo March, Scarlett O'Hara, and, more recently, Ani FaNelli, how would women have learned to dress fearlessly, boss men around in style, and shut down Internet trolls like pros?
Through books, women have been teaching other women for generations. Our female ancestors had it pretty tough, but they still managed to grace the pages of books in style, shutting down the patriarchy left, right, and center. These 33 books showcase some of the best badass women — both real and fictional — of the last few centuries. After all, where else can we learn but from the best?
Image: Dita Margarita/Flickr
'Yes Please' by Amy Poehler
To kick things off, the mother of all badass women: Amy Poehler. Yes Please is a bit of a rogue choice here, because honestly, this book wasn’t a standout. That sounds like a criticism, but it isn’t. Stick with me. Poehler’s unashamed admission that she struggled to write Yes Please is right there in the preface. Throughout the book, she hands things over to colleagues, and even her parents, when she gets stuck. She’s even left some pages blank! And that is why this book is on the list. Because it’s okay to not be good at everything, and it’s okay to ask for help. Badass women keep on trying, anyway.
'Emma' by Jane Austen
Jane Austen herself was pretty badass, and she created a whole host of feisty female leads who don’t need a man to make them happy. (Sure, they all get married at the end, but they were doing just fine on their own.) It was a real challenge to pick just one Austen heroine here (Lizzie Bennet is so spunky! Anne Elliot is so strong!), but in the end, I just had to go with Emma Woodhouse. She’s kind of crabby, and Austen didn’t think that anybody would like her, but she’s also sassy as all hell, devoted to looking after her (useless) father, and she doesn’t want to get married because she likes having her own power. You go, girl.
'The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden' by Jonas Jonasson
Nombeko Mayeki has fought her fate every step of the way. Born in a Soweto shack, she taught herself to read, write, and do some pretty complicated math. Faced with some intense social injustices (like when she is made a slave as punishment for the terrible crime of being hit by a car while being black), she never gives up, and instead sets off on a serious of ridiculous and hilarious adventures.
'Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape' by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti
This book is a series of 27 essays on the theme of rape prevention. The twist: They ditch the usual focus on “no means no” and give it a positive spin, spiraling in on the power of “yes.” It’s reminiscent of the university campaign that says, “Consent is a low bar; let’s hold out for enthusiasm.” The essays take into account race, class, ability, and sexuality to explore every angle of female sexual autonomy. The result is pretty empowering.
'Snapshots of Dangerous Women' by Peter Cohen
In Snapshots of Dangerous Women, Peter Cohen has collected vintage pictures of awesome women breaking out of their conventional gender roles to be their badass selves. Expect to see women boozing, smoking, playing sports, shooting guns, and even flying planes — all while wearing stockings and suspenders.
'Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference' by Cordelia Fine
Badass women understand brain science. Delusions of Gender is a neuroscientist’s perspective on our differing gender roles — namely, that they’re complete crap. Cordelia Fine argues that even our seemingly most innate gender differences are just products of society, and that women really are every bit as able as men to do whatever we want. Scientifically speaking, there’s nothing stopping us.
'Briar Rose' by Jane Yolen
Novels that retell traditional fairy tales include some of my favorite portrayals of tough young women, and Briar Rose is no exception. This gritty reboot of Sleeping Beauty throws the action into Nazi Germany, exploring the experiences of Jews, the Polish, homosexuals, gypsies, and all the other “undesirables” targeted during the Holocaust. And in the middle of this horror, Yolen gives us an updated Briar Rose — a strong young girl who takes a much more active role in her fate than the original sleeping princess.
'The Bloody Chamber' by Angela Carter
My other favorite fairy tale reincarnations are Angela Carter’s Gothic tales. These are not so much retellings as they are brand-new stories that subvert the messages of the original tales with feminist twists. The tales are gruesome and often violently sexual — characteristics borrowed directly from the original subtexts. But where Carter differs entirely from her predecessors is in refusing to ever reward her female characters for being passive.
'Boy, Snow, Bird' by Helen Oyeyemi
Boy, Snow, Bird is retelling of Snow White which follows a young woman, Boy Novak, and her unexpected transformation into the mythical wicked stepmother. The original tale’s obsession with looks and beauty is played out in Oyeyemi’s version alongside a narrative of race. When Boy’s own daughter, Bird, is born dark-skinned, she realizes that her husband and stepdaughter are light-skinned African-Americans posing as white.
'Luckiest Girl Alive' by Jessica Knoll
Protagonist Ani FaNelli goes from bitch to bitchin’ in the course of this gripping page-turner. A sort of reverse Gone Girl, Jessica Knoll’s novel slowly reveals the victim behind the tough façade of her seemingly shallow protagonist. From page to page, the genre switches from romance to tragedy to horror. It’s so addictive that I read the entire thing in one day. Ultimately, the protagonist undergoes a pretty badass transformation: She learns to accept herself.
'Bad Feminist' by Roxane Gay
To women who worry that feminism is too exclusive, too unapproachable, or too unattainable, Roxane Gay’s fierce, funny essays reach out with open arms. Gay writes from the point of view of a black queer woman (a miserably underrepresented viewpoint). She also writes as someone who loves pink, reads fashion magazines, and listens to offensive rap. To her, “bad feminism” is a way to be a feminist and also be herself. It’s raw and it’s honest, and I love it.
'For Today I Am A Boy' by Kim Fu
Kim Fu’s For Today I Am A Boy tells the story of Peter Huang, the only son in a family of three daughters. His immigrant father is obsessed with shedding any trace of his Chinese heritage, and views Peter as his chance to found a new “dynasty” on Western masculinity. It is with the weight of this obligation that Peter struggles with his own understanding of his identity: that he is a woman. Knowing who you really are? That’s badass.
'Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More' by Janet Mock
Janet Mock’s memoir offers an intimate view into her decision to transition, starting from her difficult youth and taking the reader through her experience of childhood abuse and time as a sex worker. Mock’s writing is conversational and never sugarcoated; she lays bare all the truths and dangers of being a trans woman of color. Her book is brave and hopeful, and challenges our notions of what is “real” or “natural” in a way that transcends the experiences of trans women and will resound with readers of all genders and sexualities.
'What's a Girl Gotta Do' by Sparkle Hayter
With a name like Sparkle Hayter (yes, it’s her real name!), she was always going to be cool, and her sexy murder mystery doesn’t disappoint. The protagonist, Robin Hudson, is having a bad time. Her husband has left her for someone younger, prettier, and pregnant. Her elderly neighbor has assaulted her, thinking she is a call girl. Her boss has demoted her. Her cat is being demanding. Then she finds herself accused of murder. What’s a Girl Gotta Do is just the first in a series about this spunky reporter-turned-detective.
'Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure' by John Cleland
Fifty Shades has got nothing on this 18th-century erotic novel. Seriously. It’s actually very graphic. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure — usually known as Fanny Hill — is one of the most banned books in history, and that’s reason alone to grab a copy. It also presents a female protagonist who unabashedly enjoys sex and working as a prostitute, so that’s pretty cool, too.
'Push' by Sapphire
The book behind the award-winning film Precious is Push, the grueling story of 16-year-old Precious Jones, who is obese, illiterate, and pregnant with her second child by her rapist father. Her horrific story is turned around when she changes schools and meets an inspirational teacher, Ms. Blue Rain. This novel is heartbreaking but hopeful, a powerful portrayal of a tough young girl and the extraordinary young woman who helps her.
'Just Another Number' by Maggie Young
Maggie Young divides the narrative of Just Another Number between the first 23 men she slept with. Handing over her narrative to these men is deliberate. Young is making a point here about the need to please men that society has forced on her. Her story is dark, and tragic at points, but Young’s voice remains strong, satirical, and even humorous throughout. Her raunchy and highly readable memoir stands as proof that women can make it through an awful lot and stay standing. Respect.
'Pippi Longstocking' by Astrid Lindgren
To ensure that we raise another badass female generation, we better make sure we’re all brushed up on plucky children’s book heroines so that we can introduce them to our kids. Pippi Longstocking is playful, assertive, and really, really strong. She can lift her horse with one hand; that’s how strong I’m talking. And as if that weren’t enough, her braids stick out from either side of their head like they’re stuck there with a coat hanger (which is exactly how I make up my hair for a fancy dress party, in case you were interested).
'Ain't I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism' by bell hooks
In Ain’t I a Woman, bell hooks argues that feminism is fought mainly from a white, privileged position, and allows black women to absorb the “seductive whore” stereotype formerly placed on all women. It is an important exploration of feminism from a non-white perspective — one that is often overlooked. The book’s title is taken from a speech by anti-slavery speaker Sojourner Truth.
'Ruby' by Cynthia Bond
Cynthia Bond puts her protagonist Ruby through some pretty atrocious experiences, but in doing so, she creates a totally unforgettable character. Despite the heavy plot, Bond’s writing is never guilty of melodrama; Ruby is a hard-hitting novel that tackles racism, abuse, and mental health head-on. Oprah Winfrey picked this debut novel for her Book Club 2.0 list, and it more than proves itself worthy.
'The Crocodile Bird' by Ruth Rendell
Sixteen-year-old Liza has never been allowed to leave the gatehouse in which she lives with her mother, Eve. Those who enter their home mysteriously disappear, and Liza thought she was the only one who knew where the dead bodies went. When the police show up at their doorstep, however, Liza is thrown into the real world. Slowly, she reveals the truth behind her mother’s obsessive and violent behavior. Badass women love a good murderess …
'Little Women' by Louisa May Alcott
This beloved novel follows the four March girls as they navigate their way from childhood to womanhood with the help of their wonderful mother. The main character is tomboy Jo, whose hot temper, love for literature, intelligence, and independence are just a few of the reasons she is so adored by readers today.
'Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina' by Misty Copeland
Misty Copeland is a fighter. She fought a vicious custody battle with her mother, she fought prejudice as the only black woman in the American Ballet Theatre, and anyone who’s seen Black Swan will know how much fight it takes for ballerinas to keep their bodies in perfect dancing shape. Copeland’s triumph in forcing the ABT to accept her makes this memoir an empowering read.
'Tracks' by Robyn Davidson
Tracks recounts Robyn Davidson’s extraordinary journey across the Australian desert on the back of a camel. She both faced sexism from men who mocked her journey and encountered racism directed at the Aboriginal Australians she met on her way. Her memoir is an exploration of these prejudices, as well as of her own personal journey.
'The Hundred Secret Senses' by Amy Tan
'Famous for 15 Minutes: My Years with Andy Warhol' by Ultra Violet
In Famous for 15 Minutes, the self-styled Ultra Violet gives us a grand tour of Andy Warhol’s exotic world of sex, drugs, and art. Ultra Violet was a muse for Salvador Dali before Warhol, so she was obviously a force to be reckoned with. Famous for 15 Minutes is an addictively colorful and glamorous read.
'Just Kids' by Patti Smith
Patti Smith is so rock and roll. Her writing just oozes with how cool she is. Just Kids chronicles her relationship with iconic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. With two such legendary figures as the main characters, it’s a wonder that the pages don’t burst into flames — this book is seriously on fire. Do I need to tell you why a badass woman needs to read this? (No.)
'Six Girls Without Pants' by Paisley Rekdalís
Six Girls Without Pants is a collection of contemporary poetry about women’s expectations, desires, and sexuality. The poems are strong and direct, and Rekdalís’ voice is subtle yet demanding. Each of her poems is born from an obvious desire to speak out and make herself heard, and her powerful way with words ensures that we listen.
'A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York' by Anjelica Huston
Nobody who has seen Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch in the utterly terrifying The Witches would ever doubt her badass status. The woman is petrifying and awesome all at once. In A Story Lately Told, Huston brings her own fierce elegance to her memories of her glamorous childhood as the daughter of film director John Huston and prima ballerina Enrica Soma.
'The House on Mango Street' by Sandra Cisneros
The House on Mango Street is a coming-of-age novel following Esperanza Cordero as she grows up in an impoverished Latino neighborhood in Chicago. The book is not in chronological order, but instead drops you directly into the protagonist’s psyche through vignettes, short poems, and a series of everyday observations about the world. Esperanza often has a jaded view of life, but ultimately, the novel is about a young girl’s hopes, dreams, and escape from the home that has held her back.
'Ten Days in a Mad-House' by Nellie Bly
Nellie Bly (real name Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman) was one brave woman. In order to write Ten Days in a Mad-House, she feigned insanity in order to be committed to a mental institute, putting herself at risk of the same brutality she was investigating for a series of newspaper reports. The graphic descriptions of conditions in the asylum prompted a grand jury to launch its own investigation, and ultimately grant an extra $850,000 to the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections.
'When I Was Puerto Rican' by Esmeralda Santiago
Esmeralda Santiago’s memoir about moving to New York from Puerto Rico forms an important part of the narrative experienced by many Latina women in America. It is a story of identity and rediscovery, and of a generation of young people forced to become teachers, as they learned a new culture on their parents’ behalf.
'Gone with the Wind' by Margaret Mitchell
Scarlett O’Hara isn’t always an especially likable character, but she’s certainly an unforgettable one. It’s been nearly 80 years since Gone with the Wind was first published, but its lively heroine is still as infamous as the day she was launched onto bookshelves across America (and, shortly afterwards, the world). Scarlett may be selfish, spoiled, and vain, but above all, she’s a survivor.