17 Essays by Female Writers That Everyone Should Read


As the VIDA count shows, the ratio of male to female writers published in literary journals, magazines, and book reviews remains largely disproportionate in favor of male writers. In the conversation around this imbalance, some have suggested (among other silly arguments) that women should simply write about more important subjects. The folks over at Creative Nonfiction, the literary magazine that this year celebrates its 20th consecutive year of publication, scoff at this assessment of the situation. In fact, CNF’s current issue, “Female Form,” includes only essays by female writers. While the theme of the issue was initially unintentional, CNF’s editors think this only shows that there are indeed plenty of women writing serious nonfiction; they’re just not getting the serious attention they deserve. Just to hammer the point home, the magazine curated this list of 17 essays by female writers every woman (and man) should read. Check them out after the jump, and if we missed any of your favorites, add them to CNF‘s list in the comments.

Split at the Root,” Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich was one of the major feminist writers of the 20th century, and throughout her many volumes of poetry and essays, she has voiced the struggles to establish identity — especially female identity. In 1982’s “Split at the Root,” Rich recalls growing up in a Southern, Christian household, and frets over the significance of identifying — as an adult — as Jewish.

“Living Like Weasels,” Annie Dillard

This essay, excerpted from Dillard’s memoir, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, begins with a moment at Hollins Pond where Dillard and a weasel lock eyes and swap brains. “If you and I looked at each other that way, our skulls would split and drop to our shoulders,” Dillard writes. The essay then explodes into an exploration, in Dillard’s unforgettably imaginative and passionate style, of what we might learn from the weasels about living in the present moment, “noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.” If this essay does not make you see the world like a weasel, it will at least make you want to see the world with Dillard’s inexhaustible sense of wonder.

Heroin/e,” Cheryl Strayed (1999)

“I wanted my mother to love me, but more. I wanted her to prove it, to live, to be a heroine. To go to battle and win. And if she was going to die, I wanted her to tell me, in the end, how I should live without her.” Writing in her distinctive emotionally raw and straightforward style, Cheryl Strayed introduces us in this heart-wrenching essay to many of the themes and stories more fully explored in her New York Times bestselling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail: the author’s mother’s early death, the crumbling of her first marriage, and her addiction to heroin in her early 20s. (Strayed fans will also want to check out her new interview with Elissa Bassist in the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction; they discuss fame, writerly jealousy, and writing like a motherf*#ker.)

“The Solace of Open Spaces,” Gretel Ehrlich

Gretel Ehrlich has become one of today’s most influential environmental writers; she is well known for her work exploring the relationship between land and culture, often focusing on rapidly disappearing or isolated landscapes. She began her writing career with 1985’s The Solace of Open Spaces, a collection of personal essays about her time working as a rancher in Wyoming following the death of her partner. The eponymous and first essay from that collection, lyrically beautiful and haunting, specifically explores how the history of settlement in barren and remote Wyoming influences the culture of the scattered ranchers and farmers making their lives there.

“The Ugly Tourist,” Jamaica Kincaid

“You make a leap from being that nice blob just sitting like a boob in your amniotic sac of the modern experience to being a person visiting heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it.” A must-read for anyone who dreams of a tropical vacation, this ruthless essay, written in 1988, forces us to take a good look at what it means to be a tourist and what it is we think we’re escaping when we travel. Antiguan-born, Kincaid specifically talks about the conditions on islands, such as her home, where a certain brand of tourism continues to flourish, which ignores the hardships of islanders’ lives.

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Joan Didion

It would be impossible to put together this list without including this powerhouse of literary journalism, a seminal figure in the New Journalism movement of the ’60s who has since become one of our most beloved and prolific writers. Famed for her clear-eyed and vivid descriptions of her home state, California, in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion explores Haight-Ashbury in 1968, at the height of counterculture.

The Fourth State of Matter,” Jo Ann Beard

This moving essay captures the events in Jo Ann Beard’s life preceding and surrounding the 1991 shooting at the University of Iowa, which claimed the lives of four faculty members and one student in the physics department, where Beard worked part-time. The juxtaposition of Beard’s daily struggles — caring for her sick dog, navigating a separation, and getting rid of squirrels from her attic — with the shooting underscores the unpredictability, shock, and otherworldliness of tragedy.

Photo Credit: Star Black

Against Nature,” Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most prolific writers of our time, is also — to judge from this essay — one of our most prolific readers. Ruminating on her own body and relationship to nature, and surveying (many) other writers’ depictions of nature, Oates ultimately disagrees with the writers she cites that nature is “an experience.” “Against Nature” builds to a conclusion that is as unique as Oates’ own place within the literary landscape.

No Name Woman,” Maxine Hong Kingston

Every family has at least one big secret. In this imaginative and brave essay, second-generation Chinese immigrant Maxine Hong Kingston tells us what she knows and what she imagines about her aunt, who became pregnant outside of her marriage, gave birth in a pigsty, and drowned herself and her baby in a well. Hong Kingston gives her relative a voice by imagining her story, and makes us consider what silence can do to a person’s memory within a family.

My Misspent Youth,” Meghan Daum

The dream is not always what it seems. Ever since visiting the apartment of a music copyist with her father as a girl, Meghan Daum confesses, she had romanticized living in New York. She details her fantasies of a life accessorized with an apartment with oak floors, “faded Persian rugs… and NPR humming from the speakers.” The essay was published in 1999, but the struggle to “make it” in New York is, if anything, more challenging today (as any fan of Girls knows). Daum details her efforts, as a young woman working in publishing, to attain her dream of being a successful writer, and her painful decision ultimately to leave the city, dragging her debt behind her.

Shunned,” Meredith Hall (2003)

Today, we have Sixteen and Pregnant and Teen Mom, but the world was not always thus. In “Shunned,” Meredith Hall recalls being a pregnant teenager in a small community in the 1960s, cut off by her family, church, and community. “The price I paid seems still to be extreme,” Hall reflects, in this moving exploration of the facades communities maintain, as well as the costs individuals pay for not belonging.

He and I,” Natalia Ginzburg

“He loves museums and I will go if I am forced to but with an unpleasant sense of effort and duty. He loves libraries and I hate them.” Do opposites attract, and can they stay together? With a simple and matter-of-fact tone, acclaimed Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg chronicles the telling details of a 20-year relationship. This poignant essay sneaks up on you, and by the end leaves you breathless at the way one moment can influence who we become and how we see the people we love.

Notes on a Difficult Case,” Ruthann Robson

At age 42, attorney Ruthann Robson was diagnosed with a tumor in her liver; doctors pronounced her “hopeless, incurable, and inoperable.” Robson suffered the effects of toxic chemotherapy and the condescension of her doctors for asking questions. Desperate and finally deciding to seek a second opinion, she discovered she had been misdiagnosed; her tumor was easily operable. “Notes on a Difficult Case” explores Robson’s search for justice amid the frustrating legal intricacies of medical malpractice.

The Fracking of Rachel Carson,” Sandra Steingraber (2012)

The dangers and drama of hyrdrofracking are attracting increasing visibility (Gasland; 60 Minutes stories showing tap water that catches on fire; and even a new Matt Damon flick, Promised Land). Focusing specifically on Rachel Carson’s homeland of Pennsylvania, the heart of the Marcellus Shale fracking boom, acclaimed ecologist Steingraber details Carson’s own battle throughout her lifetime to raise awareness about the effects of pollution. This essay is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the implications of fracking for our health, or who worries about Carson’s prophecy for future silent springs.

The Bitch is Back,” Sandra Tsing Loh (2011)

At the beginning of this rollicking tour through modern hormonal advice, Sandra Tsing Loh declares herself the reader’s “Virgil to the literature of menopause.” What follows is a hilarious analysis of the recommendations made to women coping with the effects of mid-life changes — and for the record, women between 44 and 65 is currently America’s largest demographic group. But no matter your age or gender, Tsing Loh’s Sedaris-like wit makes this essay a fun and thought-provoking piece that asks us to re-examine what we mean by a “normal” woman.

“Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf

Can we ever really escape ourselves? Nope – -or at least, Virginia Woolf could not. In “Street Haunting,” she takes the reader along on a seemingly humdrum evening walk to pick up a lead pencil. But what we really get is a peek into Woolf’s wild consciousness; this essay is one reason why many point to her as one of the originators of the personal essay form. (It’s also worth reading strictly for Woolf’s vivid descriptions of 1920s London.)

Joy,” Zadie Smith (2013)

Children — as many a parent has realized — are a joy, but not always a pleasure. In this essay that ranges through the many experiences of adulthood (you know: taking ecstasy in nightclubs; being so carelessly in love the thought of breaking an ankle seems a trifle; becoming a parent) the incomparable Zadie Smith puzzles over the differences between joy — which she describes as a “strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight” — and pleasure.