10 books by women to read before starting Law School

Update: August 2017 This post was originally written around this time last year (2016) and since then some great suggestions have come in on the comments too.

Earlier this week, Martin Partington shared a list of “the top 10 essential books for aspiring lawyers” on the OUP Blog. The books on the list are all perfectly interesting and good recommendations for students (and others) interested in law, society and justice. However, I couldn’t help but notice that nine of the ten were written by men, and the tenth by “Anon” (it is a 13th Century Icelandic saga about a blood feud, so it is to be expected that there is no attributed author). Thus, on my short train trip to work this morning I rapidly assembled a list of ten books by women that aspiring law students might find useful and interesting to read. I won’t call them essential, but they are certainly stimulating and, in many cases, harrowing. They also, of course, reflect my own tastes in books and ideas about where and how we ‘see’ narratives about law and justice.

Other ideas and suggestions welcome in the comments.

Toni Morrison, Paradise 

One could pick almost any Toni Morrison book to recommend to someone interested in lived experiences of brutality, systemic racism and misogyny, and structural injustice. It so happens that Paradise is my favourite of Morrison’s novels, not only because of the complex and elegant way in which it is conceived and written, but also because of the subtle ways in which rigid structures of ‘public order’ (represented by the townspeople) are subverted by and contrasted with the lived, connected, flexible and yet ordered and internally regulated dynamics between the women characters. It starts with the iconic line “They shoot the white girl first”, and is effectively a gateway drug to all of Morrison’s works.

Jean Rhys, Wide Saragosso Sea

Many people have read Jane Eyre by the time the come to Law School, but for me Wide Saragosso Sea is a much more compelling book. Those who have read Jane Eyre will know that there was a woman–a Creole woman–to whom the male protagonist was married before. This is her story; the story of Antoinette Cosway (or Bronte’s “madwoman in the attic”). It is a story of colonialism, patriarchy, and injustice. It is also a useful reminder that beneath the ‘official story’ (including the official stories that law tells us), are myriad unofficial stories–hidden, retold, reconstructed, often disregarded.

Louise O’Neill, Asking for It

This is a very recent novel by Irish author Louise O’Neill. It is ostensibly a teen novel, but its story (and the craft that goes into telling it) is sophisticated, harrowing, and sadly all too familiar. A teenage girl, a gang rape, a video uploaded to Facebook, a charge, a small town, a set of accusations, victim blaming, victim shaming–this is not an easy read. But if you want to think about the ways in which formal structures of law are both problematic in themselves and struggle to mitigate the informal structures of society, family, and gender stereotyping this is the perfect novel to read.

Shirin Ebadi, Iran Awakening: A memoir of revolution and hope

One of my favourite possessions is a signed copy of Iran Awakening that was gifted to me some years ago. It is effectively the autobiography of Nobel prize winner Ebadi and the biography of modern Iran told through her story. It is an inspiring story of how socio-political change impacts deeply on both formal structures of the state and the everyday life of those who live there, as well as of how individual people committed to change and to justice can try to mitigate that, and must sometimes bear heavy costs to do so. If you want to awaken your imagination to the possibilities of lawyering in oppressive regimes, this is a great place to start. (Albie Sachs’, The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law is also, in my view, a wonderful book for these purposes).

Åsne Seierstad, The Bookseller of Kabul

This book makes my list because of both the evocative narrative of life in Kabul shortly after the 11 September 2001 attacks (and especially of life for women), and because it itself was the subject of a legal dispute after it was published. Seierstad went to live in Kabul with a bookseller–Shah Muhammad Rais–and his family, donned a burka when she went outside, and recorded her experience of life in Afghanistan in this non-fiction book. But the book is not only the story of Kabul; it is also the story of the bookseller’s family. His sister, who Seierstad depicts as being treated very poorly, and his wife who struggles when her husband takes a second (16-year old) wife. After the book was published, Rais claimed that the author’s accounts were inaccurate and invasive, resulting in a court case in Norway (where it was originally published). The claim was actually lodged by Suria Rais, the second wife of the bookseller, but it did not succeed. You can read about the author’s reaction to the judgment here. The case shows the thin lines between journalism, accounting, and invasion and raises all sorts of interesting questions about ethics, representation, and ‘truth’; it is almost as interesting as the book itself.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Although many readers may not realise it, Pride and Prejudice is essentially a book about law, or more specifically about how law imposes itself on the intimate lives of people (often women) who must find ways to negotiate the limitations it places on them. In this case, Mr Bennet holds property for life as part of a (now obscure) type of estate called a fee tail, meaning that it will then pass on to the male issue leaving all of his daughters, including Elizabeth around whom the plot primarily rotates, without home or income. Marriage, then, was the only way to secure their futures, and so while Pride and Prejudice is in some ways a commentary on marriage and manners, on love and on etiquette, it is also a commentary on how forms and structures of landholding and inheritance structure (and restrict) choices about how one arranges one’s intimate life. While this form of landholding is almost obsolete in the UK today, similar property-related laws impact on women’s choices all over the world on a daily basis.

Emma Donoghue, The Sealed Letter

Many people know Emma Donoghue as the author of Room, but know relatively little else about her. She is in fact a prolific author who does an excellent line in historical novels, informed by real lives and sometimes cases, often with interwoven romantic (and sometimes profoundly sad) lesbian love stories. The Sealed Letter is one of my favourites. It is set around the famous divorce of Vice-Admiral Henry Codrington from his first wife. Codrington was a successful navy officer, becoming Admiral of the Fleet, and had a much-publicised divorce in which he accused his wife of being too intimate with Emily Faithful, herself a famous feminist, social reformer, and member of the Langham Place Group. She was roundly condemned at the time, accused of having led Helen Codrington astray (see this report in The Spectator, 26 November 1864). The novel is Donoghue’s rendering not only of the complex relationships between the protagonists, but also of the case and of the impact of legal and social judgment, divorce and the attendant publicity of the court, and social expectations on the parties. (The author’s note is available here).

Louise Erdrich, The Round House

I discovered this book when I was visiting at Osgoode Hall Law School in January 2015. While there, my colleague Sonia Lawrence invited me to the Institute of Feminist Legal Studies book club, and this was the assigned book. It is a wonderful novel, but not an easy one. Joe Coutts lives on an Indian reservation in North Dakota with his mother Geraldine and his father Bazil. Geraldine is raped in the Round House, and the novel is the story not only of the impact of that rape on her, but also of its impact on Joe and on his father Bazil–a tribal judge–and on their faith (and hers) in justice, in the state, and in one another. It is a story of gender, ethnicity, race and racism, justice and injustice, formal and informal justice, mysticism (of many kinds), brutality (of multiple kinds), and repeat and complex victimisation. As well as reading the book, you can see a series of commentaries following the book club meeting in Osgoode Hall here.

Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

This long triple auto/biography is one of the best books I have ever read. It tells the story of Jung Chang, her mother and her grandmother, from her grandmother’s bound feet to June Chang’s life in the UK, and through them the story of regime change, gender stereotyping, political repression and brutality, education, family, and socio-political regulation (formal and informal) in China. It is not obviously a book about law, but when reading it one cannot escape the extent to which law and political structures impact on the protagonists, their lives, their families, their choices (or lack thereof), their ability to flourish, and their experiences of all forms of formal and informal regulation. It is a reminder that law and life cannot be easily separated out.

Antjie Krog, Country of my Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa

Many years ago someone recommended that I read this book, and it completely changed my perception of the value and disadvantages of formal and informal legal processes, of forgiveness and repentance, and of law as a means to structure transition. Of course, I had heard about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, but at that time my knowledge of it was naive and largely adhered to the idea that it had been unquestionably effective in building the foundations for a new South Africa. Country of my Skull does not deny the importance and effectiveness of the TRC, but it does present an account of its limitations, and of the messiness of reconciliation for the state, and for the person, that is compelling and challenging. The book is not uncontroversial; there has been a claim that parts of it are plagiarised, but it does not seem to stand up to serious scrutiny.


13 thoughts on “10 books by women to read before starting Law School”

  1. Excellent list to which I would add Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story, which is a difficult, harrowing but also inspiring account of activism, law reform, gender and the law, as well as the ways in which legal processes can operate to protect dominant (masculine) interests.

  2. I’ve never read any of these but can’t wait to start. Margaret Atwood’s scifi novels are a must read for anyone interested in exploring governance. Her reimagined worlds help us to imagine what it would be like not to have a patriachy/if we used diplomacy rather than force/non-capitalist society. Great great reads. I’m a fan of Doris Lessing and for the budding lawyer, ‘The Good Terrorist’ is great. George Elliot, Middlemarch!

  3. I would add Patricia Williams’ The Alchemy of Race and Rights. It’s a fantastic blend of the personal, the political and the legal, challenging the way we think and write about them.

  4. I’m sure you’ve read it already but probably worth pointing Law students to Treitel’s (IIRC) lovely and typically masterful essay on the Law in Pride & Prejudice in the centenary volume of the Law Quarterly Review.

  5. A law prof (Kerry Rittich, thank you!) gave me a copy of Alchemy of Race and Rights when I was in my last year of law school. Told me, i picked this up for you. First invite into the academy, an amazing gift – and what a book!
    Thanks for the mention in this post, Fiona! and I’m going to get that last book. Honestly I think what’s great about these lists is finding new books to read and so I like the idea that we need to treat these lists as personal recommendations, rather than new attempts at a canon (so predictably boring, honestly, to kill a mockingbird, sorry fans, we need more now!). And in that vein, i’d want to tell students in addition to reading something new, find the last book you loved and read it with an eye to questions of justice or looking for laws of behaviour or … – what do you see now? Also: books to read when you finish law school. I’m not sure what i would have done with Zadie Smith’s NW before law school. But 12 years after law school, it captured so much of what i felt (which was bad enough, even before that ending oh god). Reading something deeply set in the place but not the time where your school is could be an idea as well. Thank you Fiona, for the post. I kind of also want to do book pairings, like wine pairings, for students and profs. “Reading (or writing) your sentencing casebook? Try Alias Grace!” etc. Going to order books now.

  6. Marilyn French Womens Room. Also anything by Bechdel, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Giaconda Belli and bell Hooks.

  7. Further to Pride and Prejudice, I found Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly to be fascinating. Lots of insight into the coded Austen addresses law and social mores of her time in a manner that might bypass the modern reader.

    Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life is also so so good. I wish I’d had it as a younger woman. It’ll light a fire under you.

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