Skip to main content
Senate House Library

Readings for Women’s History Month – our Library staff recommend


To celebrate Women’s History Month, the staff at Senate House Library have selected some items from our collections which explore fiction written by women, stories of pioneering women across time periods and cultures, and experiences of women’s fight for freedom and equality.

The covers of three books: In Defense of Witches by Mona Chollet, Red Rosa by Kate Evans, and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

In Defence of Witches by Mona Chollet

Translated from the French, In Defence of Witches: why women are still on trial explores how the legacy of historical witch-hunts still affect women today. As Chollet explains, although there were some men accused of witchcraft during these witch-hunts, the majority of those who suffered accusation, torture and often death during witch-trials were women. By examining the stereotypes about women which fuelled these accusations of witchcraft and representations of witches in art and culture, Chollet offers a fresh, historically informed look at the inherited prejudices which still exert a big influence over women’s lives. In defence of witches also looks at some of the ways in which modern women are reclaiming the figure of the witch.

I chose this book for Women’s History Month because I believe that it offers an illuminating investigation into some of the historical events which inform the inequalities and inherent biases of our current society.

Recommended by Emma Fitzpatrick, Serial and Digital Resources Coordinator

Red Rosa by Kate Evans

The graphic novel Red Rosa retells the story of Rosa Luxemburg (5 March 1871 – 15 January 1919), who was a leading Marxist philosopher, writer and political revolutionary of her time. Born in Poland with a physical disability into a secular Jewish household, she completed her doctoral dissertation on the industrial development of Poland at the University of Zurich before settling in Germany in 1898. There she became a major figure in left politics and a prominent anti-war campaigner in the lead up to the First World War. After the war, in the throes of the creation of what would become the Weimar Republic, she became the co-leader of the Communist Party of Germany alongside Karl Liebknecht on 1 January 1919. Following a failed putsch attempt to establish a communist regime, they were both assassinated days after on 15 January.

Based on thorough research and interspersed with Rosa Luxemburg’s own writing in italics, Kate Evans’ fictional graphic biography creates an accessible, vivid and multi-facetted portrait. I highly recommend this as an introduction to the fascinating life of Rosa Luxemburg and a great motivational read for how to use your intellectual powers to fight for the causes you believe in.  

Recommended by Argula Rublack, Academic Librarian (History)

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis by French-Iranian Marjane Satrapi is a graphic novel that is among the finest expressions of what the medium can achieve when it comes to making history and feeling alike accessible to a wide audience.  

Highly autobiographical, it relays the story of Marjane, a girl living through the reign of the last Shah of Iran, the Iran-Iraq war, and the Revolution which led to the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in the aftermath of which she and her family relocate to Vienna. There she attends a French Lyceum and, among other things, mingles with local political radicals during her coming-of-age.   

Throughout all of this, Marjane exists in a state of tension between different states, something beautifully captured by both images and text: Between existing in the private or public sphere in Iran as a Muslim woman; when meeting natives as someone having sought refuge, a stranger in a strange land; between having lived through history and its perception by outsiders of various ideological stances.   

While there is much pain in her story, there is also the care that her parents give Marjane. There is the love that she feels for them and the rest of her family, especially her grandmother. After all of it, she still grows up, and we are richer for having lived through it with her.  

Mindful of Iran’s most recent history, the graphic novel couldn’t be more topical today.

Recommended by Axel Sabitzer, Cataloguer

The covers of three books: Head Above Water by Buchi Emecheta, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, and Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller by Nadia Wassef

Head Above Water by Buchi Emecheta

Head Above Water, first published in 1986, is an autobiography written by Buchi Emecheta, a Nigerian-born novelist in the UK. Going episodically through situations that shaped her, she shows in a charming and often funny way her growth as a writer, mother, and an independent woman. She is a great observer and her ability to distance herself from her own self is infectious. Being an African immigrant arriving the in the UK in the 60’s and a mother of five at the age of twenty-two makes her life very difficult, but she is determined to be someone else than society expects her to be.  

This book cannot be read without reference to Buchi’s earlier novels that she described as being like her children, too close to her heart. Second-Class Citizen, In the Ditch and many more of her books tell her own story through the lives of the main characters.  

One of the reasons why Buchi’s books speak to me is because, as a University of London student, she was a frequent visitor to Senate House Library, which she often mentions and sees as the saviour of so many ‘borderline’ students like herself.  

Recommended by Aleksandra Piotrowska, Customer Service Supervisor (Membership)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Nobel Prize winner and winner of the International Booker Prize, Tokarczuk wrote Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead on the side whilst working on her major work, The Books of Jacob. It seems like she needed an entertaining break from the historical weight of the other work. The main character, Janina Duszejko is an eccentric “crazy madwoman” as described by the police. She is interested in astrology and living in peace with nature, she respects animals and their rights. She explains the mysterious killings in the village as the animals’ revenge. The advantage of being a middle-aged lady is that people do not pay attention to you, as Tokarczuk says. And then there is a twist.  

Despite it being a mystery-crime novel with some funny elements, as in every book by Tokarczuk, there are deep thoughts and questions about human nature, about existence and life.  

Recommended by Aleksandra Piotrowska, Customer Service Supervisor (Membership)

Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller by Nadia Wassef

Nadia Wassef’s memoir is her account of establishing and running one of the first modern bookshops in Egypt, Diwan. The shop was founded (coincidentally) on International Women’s Day, 8th March 2002 by Wassef, her sister Hind and their friend Nihal Schwaky. They aspired to create a new kind of bookshop for Egypt and Diwan grew into a chain and centre of literary culture. The book charts the experiences of women running a business in a patriarchal society, facing bureaucracy, censorship, and revolution as well as the practical challenges of day-to-day business from establishing procurement and stock management systems to a lack of ISBNs. The book is a personal insight into women working in the book trade during a time of immense change in Egypt and the author’s love letter to Diwan herself, who the founders saw as person in her own right.  

Recommended by Tansy Barton, Academic Librarian (Manuscript and Print Studies)

The covers of three books: Regina Anderson Andrews, Harlem Renaissance Librarian by Ethelene Whitmire, Hilma af Klimt: Paintings for the Future, and No, I’m not afraid by Irina Ratushinskaya

Regina Anderson Andrews, Harlem Renaissance Librarian by Ethelene Whitmire

Ethelene Whitmire’s biography charts the extraordinary life of Regina Anderson Andrews, one of the first African American women to train as a professional librarian and the first to head a branch library of the New York Public Library, breaking the colour barrier. Her life was multifaceted: librarian, playwright, campaigner, mother. In the 1920s and 1930s she was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, running a salon from her home and supporting a network of writers and intellectuals at the 135th Street Branch Library and co-founding several black theatre companies. In later life her membership and activism in civic organisations and of the United States National Commission for UNESCO led to travel around the world. A portrait of a pioneering librarian and leader in her community.   

Recommended by Tansy Barton, Academic Librarian (Manuscript and Print Studies)

Hilma af Klint [curated by] Tracey Bashkoff

I first encountered Hilma af Klint’s work via The Madame Blanc Mysteries on Channel 5. While I am no art historian, Madame Blanc apparently is (though technically she is an antique dealer) and in this particular episode, af Klint’s painting, Primordial Chaos, No. 16, is stolen. I had never heard of af Klint and thought the painting looked like a child’s scribbling and that the show’s art department had made very little effort to produce an artwork that looked worth stealing. It was only afterwards, researching af Klint and being blown away by her other work (e.g. The Ten Largest), that I regretted my incredulity. She started painting abstract work several years before Kandinsky made his famous claim that he did it first in 1911. She worked prodigiously and primarily in secret. Her mystic mentor told her that the world was not ready for her paintings, and so she only exhibited them a few times. Senate House Library has three catalogues of af Klint’s mesmerising oeuvre and one translation of her notebooks: Hilma af Klint: the art of seeing the invisible; Hilma af Klint: seeing is believing; Hilma af Klint: paintings for the future and Hilma af Klint: notes and methods.

Recommended by Katrina, Cataloguer

No, I’m not afraid by Irina Ratushinskaya

One of the Soviet Union’s best-known dissidents, poet Irina Ratushinskaya was arrested and convicted in 1983 of "agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime" and sentenced to seven years in a labour camp. She served three years in inhuman conditions and spent long periods in the “small zone,” a prison within the prison reserved for dangerous female political prisoners. There she composed some 250 poems, many written with burned matchsticks on bars of soap. She learnt to memorise them and managed to smuggle them out on cigarette paper through her husband to the West. Irina’s first book of poems No, I'm Not Afraid was published in the UK by Bloodaxe in 1986 and captured the imagination of many campaigners, including PEN International whose member she became. Irina was finally freed in October 1986 by Gorbachev in a gesture of glasnost.

I found her poetry very moving, speaking with such recognisable authenticity and conviction, ubiquitous among dissident writers behind the Iron Curtain, many of whom, however, remaining unknown in the West to this day. As a testament to her life as a political prisoner that “they can’t confiscate your brain”, the poems convey joy in the simplest experiences and in the beauty of life, faith and love set against the brutality of the camp.

Irina’s autobiographical account of her time in prison, Grey Is the Colour of Hope published in 1988, was an international bestseller.  

Recommended by Mura Ghosh, Academic Librarian (Philosophy, Psychology, Social Sciences)

Book display for Women's History Month in Senate House Library 2023

For further reading inspiration come and take a look at our display of books for Women's History Month, which you can browse and borrow. This display will be in the Service Hall at Senate House Library until the end of the month. If you would like to explore our collections further, you can visit the Senate House Library catalogue(Opens in new window).