8 Books About Women’s Rage

Kelly Barnhill, author of "When Women Were Dragons," recommends female protagonists whose fury is a catalyst for radical change

Photo via Unsplash

On a particular afternoon, I drove my minivan through the rainy streets with the radio on, my 15-year-old daughter sitting at anxious attention next to me. We were at the tail end of a particularly dreadful Supreme Court nomination hearing, and I, like many women in America, felt a crushing sense of ominousness and doom. My daughter and I listened, barely breathing, as Christine Blasey Ford resolutely testified to the details of her sexual assault to a room full of senators who did not seem particularly inclined to listen to what she had to say, to say nothing of altering their vote. I gripped the steering wheel and watched my child shake her head, realizing with a start that I was her exact same age when Anita Hill testified to another similarly disinclined group of senators. I remembered how galvanizing that moment was for me at 15. How enraged I felt. I remembered the looks the senators gave Prof. Hill, and their dismissive and diminishing and offensive comments. And here we were, an entire generation later, facing the same goddamned thing. Nothing had changed. I pulled over and felt my anger and frustration expand within me, igniting my bones and blistering my skin. 

When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

I decided right then and there that I was going to write a story about dragons and rage. That I would write a story about a bunch of 1950s housewives who turn into dragons, whereupon they possibly eat their husbands, or former teachers, or physicians, or youth group leaders, or camp counselors, or anyone else who had wronged them once. Men who grasped where they should not grasp, or who felt entitled to claim what was never his. I’ve met men like that in my life. And maybe so have you.

Rage isn’t meant to stay in one place. It moves us from one state to another—like a refiner’s fire, or a catalyst. Rage brings heat, light, and clarity. It burns the chaff away, leaving that which is essential behind. Growing up as a woman, I was raised to mistrust my rage. To feel ashamed of it. To distance myself from it and pretend it never existed in the first place. 

I don’t feel that way any longer.

As I wrote, I quickly realized that I wasn’t writing a short story at all. It was a novel, perhaps. Or a series of historical documents. Or the musings of a scientist. Or a memoir. Or maybe all these things at once. I wasn’t sure, but knew enough to trust the story. It would tell me what it wanted to be eventually. As it asserted itself on the page, I started exploring other books that walked through this same territory—rage, feminism, memory, and maybe dragons too. I hope you like them as much as I did.

A Natural History of Dragons, by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons is written as a memoir (albeit of a fictional person, in a fictional world) of Lady Isabella Trent, the world’s most famous dragon naturalist. Though her interest in science and natural observation was tolerated as a child, as she grew it became very clear to Isabella that her future was limited by her gender and social status, and that her duty to her family was to make an acceptable matrimonial match. How vexing! And how unacceptable. This is a story about dragons, obviously, and science, and the practice of biological research, as well as a play on manners and expectations and the ridiculousness of society. But it is more besides: persistence, curiosity, attention to detail, a refusal to be dominated, and a profound sense of that deep joy of learning, and wonder. The way that Lady Trent pushes on the boundaries of her society, and deftly steps beyond them, was a thrill to read.

The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

A story of collapse, chaos and perseverance. Taking place in Butler’s imagined post-apocalyptic 2020s, we enter the world of 15-year-old Lauren Olamina, resident of a gated community that offers a thin safety from the ravaged world outside. Her preacher father, along with the rest of the community, stubbornly cling to the truths that once kept them safe, but our perspicacious and pragmatic heroine sees dangers that the adults in her life cannot, and imagines a future that the past itself could never dream of: a new path, a new religion, the birth of a new world.

This is a book I have returned to many times in my life, and every time I find something new. Butler engages furiously with the threat of climate change, the moral injury inflicted by late-stage capitalism, the assault on democracy, the rise of demagoguery, and the generational plague of racism. What emerges is a character so singular, and a vision so profoundly hopeful. There is no other writer who sees so clearly the purpose of rage, and the utility of harnessing the resulting energy from rage as it transforms the self, the community, and indeed the world. 

The Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Searing. Terrifying. And utterly believable. A near-future novel about an America that has outlawed abortion, contraception, in-vitro fertilization, and  single people adopting children—all of which is couched in the syrupy, maudlin moralization of “won’t you THINK of the children”. We don’t have to look very far to see the rhetoric that could potentially usher us into this particular possibility. I wish this book wasn’t necessary for all of us to read, consider, and fight against. But here we are.

Just as I Thought by Grace Paley

A memoir-in-essays, Paley provides space for the reader to occupy her incisive, agitated, and often furious mind. Paley’s vision is as sharp as razor blades and her gaze is unrelenting. She dissects the world around her with the precision and brutality of a biology teacher, cutting open the guts of the still breathing frog and showing the class the full gamut of what’s inside, leaving nothing unremarked. 

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

This book is a sweeping, searing, riveting exploration of the violence and corruption embedded in the very flesh of the American body politics—clear-eyed slice into the heart of the matter delivered through the slant of alt-history. We meet our heroine, Jane McKeene, on the day of her birth, as a squalling, gooey infant, the Black child born in secret to “the richest white woman in Haller County”, just as she is about to be murdered by the midwife to prevent scandal to the family. Instead, she is rescued and grows up in Ireland’s imagined version of the Reconstruction South—a landscape where the Civil War dead have scrambled and crawled out of their battlefield graves, and are now ravaging the barely-healed nation. They are called the Shamblers, zombies with memories and absolutely out for blood, and they are terrifying.

To protect white families (and by extension, white supremacy), Jane, along with other Black and Native children, are rounded up and sent to re-education camps, where they are taught the art of battle, and to sacrifice their own well-being for the continuation of white society. She trains at Miss Preston’s School of Combat, where she grows into an adept, ambitious and furious fighter, and an unapologetic and incisive young woman—personality traits that get her into trouble. “It’s a cruel world,” Jane muses. “And people are the cruelest part.” Indeed.

Dread Nation is a dense novel, and it doesn’t shy away from the complex and layered permutations of the scourge of racism, the weight of history, the complications of complicity and betrayal coming from both without and within, and the boot of misogyny standing on the necks of every woman, across the social spectrum, no matter how hard they try to move it. At the center of this stands Jane, her talents and her fury, her intellect and her resourcefulness and her unwillingness to suffer fools, and most of all her courage as she battles the creeping, groaning, shambling horrors pouring unrelentingly forth, threatening to destroy them all. Have you read this book yet? Well. Get on it.

Circe by Madeline Miller

How is it that a novel that spans generations, centuries, and even millenia manages to feel so intimate, immediate and brave? Is Madeline Miller a sorceress? I’m starting to think she is.

Miller takes on on a journey through the landscapes of Greek mythology—war, death, betrayal, castle intrigue, lust, possession, dissolution, the insufferable snobbery of gods and the heartbreaking frailty of humanity. This is the story of Circe, a disempowered daughter of a careless god, unappreciated and disparaged by her own kind; she lives in exile among the animals, where she cultivates her skills in witchcraft and discovers a wellspring of power that even the gods don’t understand. Both diminished and demeaned, Circe discovers the roots of her own anger, and both the power and possibility presented by that rage. She is both startled and transformed—as are we, the reader. Rage in this story acts as a fire—it burns away the lies that she has been told and the lies she tells herself. It clears away the debris and clutter, allowing her, at long last, to see a new path, a new self, a new way forward.

How many times have I read this book? I shan’t say. How many more times will I read it? Oh my dears. Many.

Mechanique: a Tale of the Circus Trisaulti by Genevieve Valentine

This book is dark, lush and profound. An astonishing circus, populated by performers with augmented bodies (bones replaced by lightweight copper; spines embedded with springs; clockwork lungs that gently wheeze out melodies—all possible thanks to the strange magicks of an enigmatic woman known as the Boss), moves through the margins of a world that has lost its mind. The cyborg performers, once upon a time, subjected themselves to the Boss’s knife willingly, often when they had no other options. They are now capable of such beauty, such grace, such astonishments of movement and possibility, all of which came at such a price. So it goes.

There is a war (there is always a war), but the Boss—who is, to the performers, a combination of ringmaster, guardian, and mostly-beloved tyrant—protects her circus, her magic and her autonomy as fiercely as she protects her own secrets. She is larger than life, judicious, fair, beloved, and absolutely terrifying. When the troupe is waylaid in a city known for fomenting trouble, a Government Man proposes a bargain with the Boss—an offer she can’t refuse, as it were—in hopes of regaining what is lost. Or so he says. What results is a death-defying battle of wits, will, and circus acts so marvelous you’ll have to stop and catch your breath. A story of loyalty, truth, commitment and hope set against a backdrop of a grim, post-disaster world. And wings, too. Oh! The wings!

When Women Were Birds: Fifty Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams

This memoir begins at the deathbed of the author’s mother, who in her last moments, tells Williams, “I am leaving you my journals, but you must promise not to look at them until after I am gone.” But in the aftermath of the death, funeral, and countless tasks that must be done after our mothers leave us, Williams finds the journals—and discovers that they are all blank. So what was her mother trying to say? And why did she ask it at all? The result is an exploration of nature, voice, female presence, marriage, the unnatural rigidity of gender roles, and the particular (and peculiar) language of silence.

Williams unpacks the cultural silencing of women, the promise, joys and predictable failures of orthodoxy and communal faith, the voice of nature and the intelligence of the land, and the thousands of ways that our parents fail us—just as we fail our own children. Willams is a gorgeous writer—each sentence rings like a bell—but more important here, she creates space in the narrative for the reader to stand next to her. She guides us, step by meditative step, through the landscape of own sorrows, loss, frustration and fury, all in the context of her boundless and persistent love. She forces us to pause and breathe, to open our eyes, to bear witness to the mountain, the desert, the gasping, dying cancer patient, the mirror, the marriage bed, the empty page, the words never uttered.

This is the book that made me interrogate the utility of memory, the purpose of image and metaphor, the redemptive potential of righteous rage, and both the process and the gift of motherhood. It is a book that communicates in silence. It is a book that speaks loudly upon the heart. 

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