My own feminist awakening came when I was 17 and my A-level English literature class was taught The Handmaid’s Tale. Our new teacher gave us the book during our first lesson; I started reading it on the bus home and had finished it by the next day. I was breathlessly caught up in it and morally outraged when our teacher told us that every heinous act perpetrated against women in the book had precedence in real life; suddenly, the feminist fire in my soul was ignited.
Looking back, I think I’d lived a pretty charmed life up to that point. Despite learning the word ‘sexism’ at the age of about 8 and cheerfully denouncing the patriarchy from that point onwards, I don’t remember encountering serious sexism as a kid, apart from a few incidents: being catcalled by builders when I was about 11; the many, many times a man challenged me to explain the offside rule because, obviously, tiny lady brains can’t possibly understand football. I went to an all-girls’ school so I had no real comprehension of being patronised academically and we didn’t have social media in the dark ages of the late 90s so many of the avenues available to raging misogynists these days just didn’t exist. I look at the teenage girls I teach and I think there is far more for them to contend with.
Which is where Holly Bourne’s Spinster Club series comes in. For anyone who hasn’t read the books, they focus on three teenage girls who, tired of the sexism they encounter every day, form the eponymous club: a feminist discussion group with cheesy snacks. Am I Normal Yet? is the first book, centring on Evie, whose feminist awakening comes amidst a relapse in her OCD. The second book, How Hard Can Love Be?, follows Amber as she travels to California to spend the summer with her estranged mother. In both of these, the feninist themes are important but usually secondary to romance, family, mental health and generally surviving being a teenager; in What’s A Girl Gotta Do?, feminism drives the plot, with the brilliant Lottie setting herself the task of calling out every instance of sexism she sees, after facing the kind of harrassment which, sadly, is entirely based in fact.
What I love most about these books is the explicit discussion of feminism; although there are a number of female YA heroines who could be read as feminists, there aren’t many who identify as such or participate in academic discussion of theory. Throughout the trilogy, Lottie’s role is to educate the others in the finer points of feminist ideology; at several points in What’s A Girl Gotta Do?, she explores the concept of cognitive dissonance and how this impacts on a feminist’s behaviour and I nearly cried because it was so intelligent and wonderful. Throughout the books, Holly Bourne raises a lot of interesting questions; in the third book, Lottie challenges a female teacher about her use of “Mrs” and the assuming of her husband’s surname, which made me consider my own answer to that question, as a Mrs myself (although a double-barrelled one, in a case of what I like to think of as nominative having-your-cake-and-eating-it; I just always wanted a more pretentious name than the one I was born with). Lottie herself is called out on continuing to wear make-up during her month of bringing down the patriarchy, which, again, I found interesting to think about; I don’t wear loads of make-up, but what I do wear is worn because I want to wear it, not because I have even the vaguest inclination to care whether men think I should. I love that there are YA books (or, to be honest, books of any type) that make me ponder these things.
There are some YA books I read whose YA credentials can be questioned; now that it’s such a lucrative area of publishing with a large adult readership, I do think a lot of books ostensibly aimed at teenagers are really for 30+ year old women. The Spinster Club series is entirely exempt from this; the dialogue, characters’ concerns and college settings of the books are on point and totally convincing. So convincing, even, that the only thing I don’t completely love in the books is the level of boy-craziness, particularly in Am I Normal Yet?; having thought this, however, I had to have a word with myself and bear in mind that a lot of conversations when you’re a teenage girl are, in fact, about boys. I’ll be honest; a lot of the conversations I have now, far beyond my teens, are about famous actors called Chris. Don’t judge me. I think a large part of Bourne’s readership will still be women rather than teenage girls because of how recognisable Evie, Amber and Lottie’s experiences are: we’ve all had to cross the road to try to avoid being wolf-whistled by dudes in a van; we’ve all had someone make assumptions about us because of what we’re wearing; we’ve all been told to “calm down” when we’ve pointed out how annoying these things are.
The teenager who still lives in my heart wants to be friends with these girls; the grown up mother and teacher who, sadly, is the outward face of the operation, wants to encourage and nurture and protect them. They all feel so real, so uncaricatured, so hilarious, that it’s impossible not to become really attached to them. I’m already eagerly anticipating the next instalment of the series in November. If you’re looking for something which will entertain as well as educate and empower you, you really shouldn’t look any further than The Spinster Club.