Reading list

Books that pass the Bechdel test

Looking for great feminist fiction? We've picked out a host of great books that pass the Bechdel test

The Bechdel test, named after feminist cartoonist Alison Bechdel, has been around since 1985, and measures whether works of fiction actively include women's voices. To pass, a story must include two  women having a conversation about something other than a man. While a pass is less common than you might expect, these books have got it covered.

 

The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most iconic books grappling with ideas of gender politics; but it actually only just technically passes the test, as many of the women are named only in their relation to men. Some of the most interesting and revealing conversations in the book are the guarded exchanges that take place between the Handmaids themselves as they navigate the oppressive rules of Gilead. And the novel raises wide-ranging questions about politics and freedom and women’s bodies, centring women and the fight for equality in a way that defined a genre.

 

The Power

Naomi Alderman

One book that's been influenced by Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale is last year’s Baileys Prize winner, The Power. It follows four characters as they adjust to a world in which women have suddenly acquired the power to injure and even kill with a flick of their fingers. In one of these four stories, a mother and daughter navigate together the experience of discovering their power, and learning to control it. This is another book tackling gender politics head-on - and therefore a lot of conversation is about men and the relationship between the sexes - but you’d have a hard time arguing that it's anything but feminist. Whatever you think about gender, you’ll come out the other side questioning where you stand.

 

The Lark

E. Nesbit

From the fiercely contemporary to a rediscovered classic, E. Nesbit is famous for her beloved children’s books including The Railway Children and Five Children and It, but, after being selected by Penelope Lively to be included in the new Penguin’s Women Writers series, one of her forgotten adult books is also being revived. This charming, witty story follows cousins Jane and Lucilla, who are left, after the First World War, without parents or inheritance, and have to set about making their own way in the world.

 

The Bear and the Nightingale

Katharine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale also explores  the bonds and ties we have with our families and with tradition, as our heroine Vasya grapples with her father's expectations in snowy medieval Russia. But her story isn’t so simple. After an encounter with Morozko, the Russian frost king, sets her life on a different path, she battles for her independence and the right to tell her own story alongside corrupt monks, household spirits, forests, lords, and myths come to life.

 

My Name is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout

This Man Booker and Baileys Prize-longlisted book is firmly focused on the relationships between women. This is the story of a young woman, Lucy, whose estranged mother comes to visit her unexpectedly in hospital as she’s waiting for an operation. Over five nights, they reflect and reminisce and see if it is possible heal old wounds and build new bridges. A beautiful, quietly heartbreaking story of the difficult, complicated love between a mother and daughter.

 

Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing is another novel that explores the links that tie generations together or break them apart. But instead of maintaining a close focus on one relationship, this book covers a huge amount of history and geography. A readable, thoughtful epic, it traces two lines of one family stemming from half-sisters Esi and Effia - one sold into slavery, one married to a slave trader - from the late eighteenth century right up until the present day.

Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë

Although Jane Eyre is undeniably a romance at heart, it easily passes the Bechdel test. Jane, a wonderfully complicated, flawed character, is as much occupied with her own identity as a woman, daughter and educator as with the idea of herself as a potential wife. As she famously puts it: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

 

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