25 must-read classics for women

25 must-read classics for women

Have you ever finished a book and thought, Wow, I wish everyone would read that?

An avid reader myself, I love hearing about the books that inspire strong reactions in other readers—the ones they finish thinking the world would be a better place if every single person would read it.

But here’s the funny thing about these books we consider “must” reads: every reader has a different list. I asked on Instagram for you to share the books you think are so good that every woman has gotta read them. And WOW, did you deliver: the comments, both public and private, contained an astonishing variety of literary works.

I’m sharing the most frequently cited books in two blog posts: today, I’m listing the ones that can reasonably be considered classics (which is good timing if you need a classic to read for the 2018 Reading Challenge). Later this month I’m sharing 50(!!!) contemporary works that many women consider must-reads.

Readers, I hope you enjoy getting to see the variety of books many different women consider to be must-reads. Are YOUR must-reads on this list? If not, please tell us all about them in comments.

Series: 25 Must Read Classics for Women
The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye

Author:
Morrison takes her title from her dark-skinned protagonist's deep desire to have blue eyes, because that is the standard of beauty in the 1941 Midwest. Through the eyes of this girl, Morrison explores the ideas of beauty, love, and what it does to a person to internalize hate. Remarkably, this was Morrison's first novel. More info →
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Rebecca

Rebecca

$9.99$2.99Audiobook: 12.49 (Whispersync)
This 1930s Gothic classic is an un-put-down-able, curl-up-by-the-fire mystery. Du Maurier's approach is unusual: the woman of the title is dead before the action begins; the young second wife, our narrator, is never given a name. Because she doesn't understand what's going on for a long time, neither does the reader. And by the time you find out what really happened, you may find yourself one of the many readers who feel almost complicit in the crime. Suspenseful, and it holds its tension on a re-reading: a sure sign of a well-crafted thriller. More info →
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Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre

$7.69$0.99Audiobook: 1.99 (Whispersync price)
First line: "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day." So begins this groundbreaking classics featuring one of literature's most beloved (and relatable) heroines. Gothic mystery, psychological thriller, and love story, all rolled into one; its themes were astonishingly modern for 1847. More info →
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Little Women

Little Women

When I asked what books every woman's gotta read, Alcott's 1869 novel about New England sisters growing up in the Civil War Era was an overwhelming crowd favorite. I only recently learned that Alcott herself didn't want to write Little Women: when a publisher asked her to write a book for girls, she put aside the thrillers she'd been writing and wrote about the only girls she knew— her sisters. The book's unexpected success changed her life and literary career. More info →
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Middlemarch

Middlemarch

Author:
Eliot’s hefty masterpiece combines her “study of provincial life” with a close look at several young couples who fall (or think they fall) in love. Who will find lasting happiness, and who won’t, and why? By focusing on the narrow disappointments and particular joys of this small community, Eliot cuts to the heart of human nature. A novel about love, happiness, and second chances. More info →
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Kristin Lavransdatter

Kristin Lavransdatter

Author:
This one is still on my reading list. Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset tells the story of her heroine in 14th century Norway with great love and attention to detail. Book-of-the-Month Club famously said, "We consider it the best book our judges have ever selected and it has been better received by our subscribers than any other book." My friend (who's been urging me to read this for ages) tells me she'd give it ten stars if she could. More info →
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A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time

L’Engle begins her groundbreaking science fiction/fantasy work with the famous opening line “It was a dark and stormy night,” and plunges you headlong into the world of the Murray family, who must travel through time to save the universe. I wanted to be Meg, of course. Wrinkle is the first—and most famous—of the Time Quintet, but I read them all, again and again. More info →
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Gaudy Night: A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery with Harriet Vane

Gaudy Night: A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery with Harriet Vane

$7.99$1.99
This is Sayers’ tenth Lord Peter novel, the first told from the perspective of Harriet Vane, and undoubtedly one of her finest. (They needn’t be read in order.) When Ms. Vane returns to Oxford for her college’s reunion (the “gaudy” of the title), the festive mood on campus is threatened by an alarming outbreak of murderous threats. Sayers makes this much more than a crime novel, though it's a good one—through her character Harriet, she grapples with questions of love and friendship, life and work, gender and class, and the writing life. More info →
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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

$10.99$2.99Audiobook: 7.49 (Whispersync)
Author:
If you're new to this novel, brace yourself: Francie Nolan is about to win you over. Her Irish Catholic family is struggling to stay afloat in the Brooklyn slums, in the midst of great change at the turn of the century, while her charismatic but doomed father is literally drinking himself to death. But Francie is young, sensitive, imaginative, and determined to make a life for herself. A moving story of unlikely beauty and resilience, wistful, satisfying, and heart-wrenching. More info →
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The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar

$9.99$2.99
Author:
This is the only novel by poet Sylvia Plath; it was published in 1963, just one month before her death by her own hand. In it, she draws heavily on her own experience with depression. She told her mother, "What I’ve done is to throw together events from my own life, fictionalising to add colour – it’s a potboiler really, but I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown… I’ve tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar." More info →
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My Ántonia

My Ántonia

$13.972.95 (Audible Daily Deal)
Author:
Cather herself considered this to be her finest novel. This is the story of the life of an immigrant woman, who struggles and prevails in the midst of near-overwhelming hardship, and also the story of America, which was built by countless immigrant men and women who worked hard in a country that often didn't welcome them. More info →
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A Room of One’s Own

A Room of One’s Own

$7.95$0.99
Author:
Woolf's long essay about society and art and sexism is thoroughly of its time and timeless. She argues that a woman must have money and a room of her own (literally and figuratively) in order to write well. This is one of Woolf's most accessible and rewarding works. At 112 pages, if you're doing the 2018 Reading Challenge, this could be "a book you can finish in a day." More info →
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The Feminine Mystique

The Feminine Mystique

Author:
Widely considered one of the most influential books of the century, for its role in sparking second wave feminism when it was first published in 1963. Friedan's book—originally intended to be no longer than a magazine article—is part manifesto, part social critique. She put words to "the problem that has no name" and encouraged women to strive to fulfill their potential. More info →
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Gift from the Sea

Gift from the Sea

$7.99$4.99Audiobook: 7.49 (Whispersync)
Equal parts memoir, meditation, and practical guide, this one is worth coming back to again and again: you'll discover new insights with each reading. Lindbergh muses on womanhood, solitude, busyness, contentment, growing older, and more. This short book was first published in 1955 yet still feels fresh and relevant for today. More info →
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The Diary of a Young Girl

The Diary of a Young Girl

Author:
In 1942, in occupied Holland, Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis in a tiny attic for two years. After an informer gave them away to the Gestapo, they were discovered and sent to the concentration camps. This is Anne's diary that she kept during that time. It was discovered in the attic, after her death. More info →
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West with the Night

West with the Night

$8.54$2.99Audiobook: 7.49 (Whispersync)
Author:
Beryl Markham was an amazing woman, and one of the first people to successfully cross the Atlantic by plane. Yet she's not nearly as well known as others who share her arial accomplishments. In her autobiography, she preserves the moments that meant the most to her—from her childhood, spent in Africa with her British colonial family, to her adult years, when she became the first professional pilot in Africa and successfully crossed the Atlantic, alone. The title refers to the fact that when she flew, she was mostly in the dark. More info →
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The Hiding Place

The Hiding Place

$12.99$3.64Audiobook: 7.49 (Whispersync)
Author:
Corrie Ten Boom lived an ordinary, uneventful life as a watchmaker—for the first 50 years. But when the Nazis invaded and occupied her home country of Holland in World War II, she and her family became leaders of the Dutch Underground, built a room in their home to hide Jewish people from the Nazis, and risked their lives to help Jews and underground workers escape. A moving story, inspiring and insightful. The title refers to both the hiding place where the ten Boom family hid Jews, and also to Psalm 119:114, "Thou art my hiding place and my shield: I hope in thy word... " More info →
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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

$7.99$2.99Audiobook: 7.49 (Whispersync)
Author:
In her debut, the first of six autobiographies, Angelou tells the haunting story of her childhood in the American South in the 1930s. The prose is incredible, and the story is by turns heartwarming ("I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare") and utterly heartbreaking. If this is one you've been meaning to read, give the audio version a try: Angelou narrates her own work, and her lilting voice brings this powerful, touching story to life. More info →
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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

$8.99$1.99Audiobook: 7.49 (Whispersync)
Author:
When I first read Pilgrim as a college freshman, I'd never encountered anything like Dillard's genre-defying reflections on the changing seasons in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. (I talked about this as a life-changing book in the Ask Anne Anything episode of What Should I Read Next.) More info →
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A Circle of Quiet (The Crosswicks Journals)

A Circle of Quiet (The Crosswicks Journals)

$14.99$1.99Audiobook: 7.49 (Whispersync)
Anyone who can coin a phrase like “the tired thirties” and admit that her kids told her to sit down at the typewriter and write when she got cranky is worth listening to. Reading these pages, in which L'Engle muses on her life and her career, it's clear that L'Engle sees herself as a work-in-progress. But she's working it through, and this peek into her thought process gives women hope that they can work it through, too. More info →
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Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables

Author:
Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert of Prince Edward Island decide to adopt an orphaned boy to help them on their farm, but their messenger mistakenly delivers a girl to Green Gables instead—an 11-year-old feisty redhead named Anne Shirley. She brings compassion, kindness, and beauty wherever she goes; she's a hopeless romantic, committed to her ideals, and guided by pure intentions—though that doesn't keep her from completely upending Marilla and Matthew's quiet life. More info →
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The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden

$19.592.95 (audiobook only)Audiobook: $2.95
This story about a spoiled, loveless orphan and a coddled, cantankerous invalid bringing a forgotten garden to life has been called the ultimate children's classic, but don't let that stop you from reading it now if you never read it as a child. Children will be intrigued by the actual garden, but adults recognize the story is ultimately about the power of learning to love, and be loved. More info →
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Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice

Audiobook: 0.99 (Whispersync)
Author:
For two hundred years this has remained one of the most popular novels in the English novel; Jane Austen herself called it her "own darling child." If you've never read Jane Austen, start here, with Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, and you'll see why, like Anne, devoted readers keep picking this one up again ... and again and again. If you don't fall in love with her writing (although I certainly hope you do), at least you'll know what the fuss is about. More info →
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To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill A Mockingbird

Author:
In this 1960 classic, small-town attorney Atticus Finch attempts a hopeless defense of a black man unjustly accused of rape, and to teach his children, Scout and Jem, about the evils of racism. A moving story about an iconic character, and the powerful effect he has on his community. (I talked about my significant high school experience with Mockingbird here.) More info →
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P.S. If you haven’t yet, sign up for the 2018 Reading Challenge and get your free challenge kit. Plus 7 books that will make you a better human, 4 female authors worth binge reading, and my favorite books of 2017.

classics for women

56 comments

  1. Austin says:

    So many great books on this list! This gives me some great ideas for what to read this year (next on my nightstand is Kristin Lavransdatter, so I’m pleased to see it on this list).

    I particularly love Gaudy Night–when pressed, I sometimes rank it as my favorite book. Though then I remember my undying love for Jane Austen…it’s so hard to choose favorites!

      • Amelia Brown says:

        Oh, I’m so glad! It is so incredibly thought provoking. She has many books, and the Earthsea ones are marvelous. But she also has a book of essays, short stories, thoughts on writing, and being a woman called Dancing at the Edge of the World – its an absolute favorite of mine, and what I’d really like to put in the ‘every woman should read’ category, although it probably is not considered a classic… yet.

  2. Katie says:

    I’m 100 pages away from finishing Jane Eyre and I already want to reread the book. It’s been years since I’ve added a “forever favorite” to my very short list, but I’m pretty sure this book is going to make the cut. It’s one of maybe 2-3 books that have made me cry and feel all the feels. I cannot believe I made it to 28 without ever reading it!

  3. Michelle Wilson says:

    I set a goal for my 2018 reading to read a classic written by a woman every month. This will be a great resource! P.S. I think The Bluest Eye is the best Morrison and a lifetime favorite of mine.

  4. mari says:

    Great picks here! Including some I haven’t read, And I’ve read most of the classics! Apropos of nothing really, but I didn’t like Left Hand of Darkness. Other than “gender doesn’t matter” , I couldn’t figure out what made this book a “classic”. I found the whole theme of “gender doesn’t matter” kind of boring and it made the characters less interesting, not more. Of LeGuin’s work, I preferred her traditional fantasy: The Earthsea Trilogy, even though she herself became annoyed at its use of traditional fantasy tropes and went on in the series with books that corrected what she perceived as error. I am probably the only reader who says I preferred her work before she got, in my opinion, self-consciously political and preachy. She’s known for breaking barriers, guess I kind of preferred the barriers!

    • Amelia Brown says:

      I can understand that. Left Hand of Darkness is definitely more of the movement of Feminist Sci-Fi that came out in the ’70s and ’80s (along with Triptree, Russ, and Butler). Its all rather dark, and misses that redemptive element that great fantasy tends to possess. But to a purpose, I think. I do know that I take far more to it now with the state of the world as it is than I did in the past. I will say, though, I’m glad she has writing that is writing for its own sake, as well as stories to explore hard, complex, and confusing social concerns.

  5. Erin says:

    I’ve read twenty of these, which is making me feel pretty good about myself right now! LOL. I’ll have to check out the rest as the year progresses.

  6. Annette Silveira says:

    Such good books! I’ve read many of them, and there are a few that keep coming onto my radar. It’s time to pick them up. I’ll be getting to the library soon. Thanks so much!

  7. I so want to read Rebecca, which was I think sparked by another of your lists.
    And The Secret Garden was one of my favorites as a child! We gave our 4 year old daughter an illustrated children’s edition and she’s loving it now too!
    Finally, my mom gave me Gift from the Sea when I got pregnant with my first child and it didn’t quite resonate with me. Then, I listened to it on audio last year after having 6 years of motherhood under my belt and BOY DID IT RESONATE! Timing is everything…

  8. Sheryl says:

    I’m terrible about reading the classics. I am vowing to change this in 2018. I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn last year and loved it. I’ve read so few on this list it’s embarrassing lol

  9. Suzanne Watkins says:

    All is these are great choices, except Feminine Mystique, and I’ve read all but 5. Can’t wait to dig in to those. It’s amazing to get a list of 25 and already know that you appreciated and enjoyed 19 of them! Makes those other 5 move higher on the TBR!

  10. Odette says:

    Two of my all-time favorites made your list: West with the Night and Gift from the Sea. Gift from the Sea should be read slowly and with reflection. Her words make an even greater impact if you’ve read one of the bios on her husband and how she was marginalized by him and his achievements.

  11. Joni says:

    I would add The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. It’s a classic mystery that doesn’t get enough love, and it has a great (smart!) heroine and some truly scary villains. It’s also a great commentary on how women were legally pretty powerless back in the day.

  12. Sarah Hicks says:

    In addition to other gender-interested scifi mentioned – try Sheri S. Tepper’s “The Gate to Women’s Country”. Also, I’m just finishing the audiobook (read by Reese Witherspoon!) of Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee, and it’s fantastic. Its universal themes of “can’t step in the same river twice” and “feet of clay” should make it a classic, also.

  13. Andrea Wells says:

    I have read 19 out of the 25 and just added the other 4 to my list:) Kristin Lavransdatter may be my all time favorite book.

    • Leanne says:

      I’ve scrolled up and down several times and I only counted 24 also. Love the list and I’m happy to see I’ve read many of them but also it gave me some great ideas for my TBR list.

      • Lisa Bergin says:

        Glad I am not the only one who wrote the list down and only reached 24 🙂 Of which I have read 9 of the books listed

  14. Sophie says:

    Glad to see Kristin Lavanstadder on here. I’m almost finished and if it’s by far one of the best books I’ve ever read. The second book to bring me to tears. Charlotte’s Web was the first. 🙂 I also never thought I’d be able to stick with it at 1000+pages!

  15. Meghan says:

    I would add The Red Tent by Anita Diamant as a newer book destined to become a classic. And the most beautiful book I’ve ever read (even though P&P is my all-time fav) is Witch Light by Susan Fletcher. Do yourself a favour and READ it! 🙂

    • Anne says:

      The Red Tent is a great one for this list! (And as a matter of fact, I believe it’s queued up for the contemporary list coming soon 🙂 ) I’ve never read Witch Light—thanks for putting it on my radar.

  16. Aloha Rover says:

    Rebecca sounds so intriguing! That’s definitely going on my list for 2018! There’s so many books I want to read, I always feel like I’m wanting to sit down and read, read, read so I can get to them all. Can’t wait to read some of these! Thanks so much for this list

  17. Pam says:

    I’ve read just over half of these already, but have decided to make reading 2 a month this year a reading goal. Plan to re-read the ones I’ve read at least once already.

  18. Angie says:

    Um, I only count 24; not that I’m complaining. This is a great list with some of all-time favorites and others that I’ve intended to read but haven’t…yet. Thanks!

  19. Rhonda says:

    One of my favourite Jane Austen novels is “Persuasion.” I love the way the word “persuasion” and variations such as “persuaded” is repeated throughout the book. I think many women can relate to the theme of this book, and how they cope with the pressure to conform to expectations.

  20. Kassie Joslin says:

    I read Anne of Green Gables after seeing this list, and couldn’t love it more! Already on to Anne of Avonlea and enjoying such a classic series. Thanks so much!

  21. Lisa says:

    These are fabulous picks!! I would add The Red Tent…thanks for the post…its a good one! So glad a friend suggested i check you out…lovely writing! Xo

  22. Oh my goodness. I knew I wasn’t as well-read as I wished, but this list makes me realize I’ve barely scratched the surface! Thank you so much for this list. . . there are several titles here I’ve never even heard of, much less read.

    Right now I’m under contract to write a book, and most of my research is theological, so almost all of my reading is non-fiction. But I’m realizing more and more that, even as a non-fiction author, if I want to write well, I need to read well, across all genres. Bless you for compiling this list!

  23. Kate Burton says:

    Two things: My favorite totally interesting classic is We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. My favorite food to buy at TJ’s is Maple Leaf Cookies.

  24. Sybil says:

    Although there are many great books on this list, I am sadly a bit disappointed. It may just be a matter of a difference of opinions, but to me a classic is something that stands the test of time. Many of these books were written within the last hundred years. To me, that isn’t a “classic.” Sorry, but I was hoping for something different (ie more along the lines of the Bronte sisters and Austen, not Morrison and L’Engle).

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