(Originally posted: 1/6/17)
My Favorite Pieces of Writing by Women* in 2016
*and gender nonconforming persons
Welcome to this very special Friday issue of Staunchly!
Before we put 2016 in a time capsule (I don’t know—can you put smallpox in a time capsule?), I want to take a moment to celebrate one of the indisputably best things about last year. And that is: the absolute bounty of truly phenomenal writing done by women.
Behold, in no particular order, my 40 favorite pieces by women in 2016, and my favorite lines from each. There are pieces for everyone, about everything: guns, race, privilege, Prince, basketball, haircuts, Heathers, cults, motherhood, witchcraft, trashy books, DIY abortions, girls. Girls in suburbia. Girls in the CIA. Girls in power. Girls in despair. And, also, should we really be calling them—us, each other—“girls”? There’s an essay on that!
Above all, this is delicious writing. This is writing to cozy up with. Writing to decant a bottle of red over. Writing that sticks to your bones, like a garlicky roast chicken. Writing for cold nights in a cold world.
Now, go pour yourself a drink and enjoy the feast.
1. “The Single American Woman” by Rebecca Traister (New York Magazine’s The Cut)
Wherever you find increasing numbers of single women in history, you find change.
2. “‘Please, I am out of options’: inside the murky world of DIY abortions” by Molly Redden (The Guardian)
“I have seen a doctor. I have had a sonogram. Tricare covers that. I can give birth to my rapist’s baby for free.”
3. “Mother, writer, monster, maid” by Rufi Thorpe (Vela)
…There is nothing more subversive for a woman to do than believe she deserves to get what she wants...
4. “Winona, Forever” by Soraya Roberts (Hazlitt)
“Matt Damon was her one shot at being a Heather … I think for a girl like Winona Ryder, who has been not normal forever, and always sees herself as not normal,” [Elaine] Lui explains, “it would’ve been intoxicating to just be normal.”
5. “On Getting Dressed After Getting Raped” by Sarah Kasbeer (Elle)
A question that came to my mind: What does one wear to report a rape? I never actually took the opportunity to report my assault, but mentally, I settled on an impeccably tailored white suit, like the one Maggie Gyllenhaal's character Nessa, also a rape survivor, wore in the BBC series An Honourable Woman, and incidentally, not unlike the one Hillary Clinton wore to accept the Democratic nomination for president.
6. “What Should We Say About David Bowie and Lori Maddox?” by Jia Tolentino (Jezebel)
It’s easy to see what Bowie represents here: a sexual norm that has always appallingly favored men, and the abuse that stems from and surpasses even that…It is less easy to turn over what Maddox evinces in this narrative, from the late 1970s to her account of it now—which is that women have developed the vastly unfair, nonetheless remarkable, and still essential ability to find pleasure and freedom in a system that oppresses them.
7. “My Year of Watching Only Women on Netflix” by Rebecca Jade (Guts Magazine)
Cosmo wasn’t going to teach me how to thrive through the dissolution of decade-long friendships with boys who suddenly wanted to talk about how my body was excellent masturbatory fodder. Vogue wasn’t going to help me unlearn the idea that my relationships with other girls had to be predicated on competition. Women’s Fitness wasn’t going to teach me that my newly hyper-femme body was powerful. I cut them out of my life.
8. “Maria Bamford's Melancholic, Hallucinogenic, and Very Funny ‘Lady Dynamite*’” by Emily Nussbaum (The New Yorker) [*one of my favorite new shows of the year]
She’s fragile, but her jokes are hard.
9. “Road Tripping While Female,” by Bernadette Murphy (Lit Hub)
…the few stories of female road trips that do make it onto the larger cultural stage are more likely to be cautionary tales than celebrations of life and personal growth.
10. “Marie Kondo and the Privilege of Clutter” by Arielle Bernstein (The Atlantic)
Of course, in order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust. For a refugee, that trust has not yet been earned.
11. “On Prince, blackness, and sexuality” by Dodai Stewart (Fusion)
But Prince was his own unique invention, firmly a product of his own time and place, of a world he himself constructed—a Paisley Park, accessible by a Ladder, filled with the dank, damp sweat of tangled bedsheets, the wet heat of a tongue dragged along skin, a place where around every corner lurked the potential for the ultimate, most epic fuck.
12. “Witchcraft on the Campaign Trail” by Stacy Schiff (New York Times)
Witches remain in business so long as we feel powerless: They offer the blessed relief of assigning blame; they allow us to distill spite, that heady brew of vindication and humiliation…we still have few other names for the way a woman’s voice unsettles, for the queasy sense that the world must be upside-down if she happens to be running it.
13. “When Will The Nose Have Its Beauty Moment?” by Scaachi Koul (Buzzfeed)
Beauty is so frequently about an erasure of history, of ethnicity…it’s no wonder we’re still trying to hide our noses.
14. “The Conjuring” by Megan Abbott (Catapult)
I saw how, assembled a certain way (or another way, or another) words can yield so much more than the sum of their parts. I’d never thought of writing that way before. How a spell gets made so that the spell can be cast.
15. “Kim Kardashian West, Elena Ferrante, and the Right to Privacy” by Ann Friedman (The Cut)
Don’t listen to Ferrante’s outers or Kardashian’s haters, who say that women who shy away from publicity are inviting exposure and women court publicity are inviting attack. Listen to women themselves when they declare how much privacy they want.
16. “Women of the CIA: The Hidden History of American Spycraft” by Abigail Jones (Newsweek)
Thanks to Hollywood’s clichés, the American public has been largely kept in the dark about Virginia Hall, who joined the OSS in 1944, organized sabotage operations across France, mapped drop zones, and helped POWs to safety—all while disguised as an elderly female farmhand and with a prosthetic leg she named Cuthbert. The Gestapo considered her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.”
17. “Fences: A Brexit Diary” by Zadie Smith (New York Review of Books)
The profound shock I felt at the result—and which so many other Londoners seem to have experienced—suggests at the very least that we must have been living behind a kind of veil, unable to see our own country for what it has become.
18. “Kobe Bryant Isn’t Going Anywhere,” by Ramona Shelburne (The Undefeated)
There's an easy joke to be made here. Who else but Kobe would make a sequel to their own documentary?
19. “Reading Bored White Girls” by Morgan Jenkins (Hazlitt)
For women of color, any neighbourhood in America is moving and pushing against her personhood. But for white women in the aforementioned texts, their neighborhoods are static and affluent. These neighborhoods do not seek to destroy them and so in turn, they destroy themselves to break from the pattern of privilege society has placed them in.
20. “Inside the Federal Bureau Of Way Too Many Guns” by Jeanne Marie Laskas (GQ)
You can pass laws and add amendments until you paralyze an entire institution, but you can't outlaw the natural human urge to make life better.
21. “In one corner of the law, minorities and women are often valued less,” by Kim Soffen (Washington Post)
In one case, when a 6-year-old girl and a male fetus were killed in the same car crash, the settlement for the fetus was calculated to be up to 84 percent higher than the girl’s, according to court records.
22. “A Very Singular Girl,” by Lorrie Moore (New York Review of Books)
At the end, still in her Pucci dresses and fishnet stockings, Brown was wheeled into this office daily and mostly took naps there.
23. “Ivanka Trump Will Not Fix 'Women's Issues'—She Will Distract From Them” by Sady Doyle (Elle)
The overall effect is both soothing and dystopian, like watching a ladies' yogurt ad directed by Leni Riefenstahl.
24. “Why I Let Him Touch My Hair” by Tyrese Coleman (Brevity)
We were children, just children, and maybe to him, that was what children did. But there was authority to his touch, an exerted right, his God-given right to me. Because I was pretty. He said I was pretty. For a black girl.
25. “Jeb: An Elegy!” by Rachel Riederer (Catapult)
In other primates, the expression we know as a smile is called ‘fang flashing’: the baring of teeth and tightening of neck is a sign from a lesser animal to a more dominant member of the group, signaling submission. Getting the alphas not to bite you was basically the theme of Jeb’s campaign.
26. “When There Is No Option to Forget: How My Family Shares Our Stories of Survival” by Shani Gilchrist (Catapult)
I cursed under my breath in disbelief that the fear and uncertainty I felt now was something akin to what my parents had known decades ago, driving through the South with a trunkful of pre-packed lunches and dinners because they weren’t allowed to enter so many roadside restaurants.
27. “What Women Find in Friends That They May Not Get From Love” by Rebecca Traister (New York Times)
Friendships provided the core of what I wanted from adulthood — connection, shared sensibilities, enjoyment. Unlike my few youthful romances, which had mostly depleted me, my female friendships were replenishing, and their salubrious effect expanded into other layers of my life: They made things I yearned for, like better work, fairer remuneration, increased self-assurance and even just fun, seem more attainable.
28. “In Defense of Trash” by Lisa Levy (Lit Hub)
Women apologize for reading these books the same way they will for seeing a rom com, or eating something with calories, or, god forbid, spending time with friends instead of their families. In other words, we apologize for doing what we like to do rather than what we should, which is preposterous.
29. “How the Choker Became a Go-To Trend for Transgender Women” by Rose Dommu (Mic)
For most trans women, it seems that the appeal of the tattoo choker lies in its nostalgia, the same way it does for most women, but for a more sentimental reason.
Most of us never had the girlhoods we yearned for growing up, whether we always knew that we were girls or just knew that we were different. We flipped through Delia's catalogues and watched Clarissa Explains it All, fantasizing about what it would be like to have long hair and halter tops and boyfriends.
30. “One Woman’s Meat” by Antonia Malchik (Tin House)
How we assess the value of this the chewiest, densest area of our lives taints how we perceive a woman’s literary treatment of anything at all...There is fat and bone in the way we raise children, clean house, and strive to keep ourselves whole. Just as there is fiber and sinew in the way women fall in love, pursue astronomy, research World War II, trek through Patagonia, experience heartbreak and betrayal. There’s meat there, if we would only taste it.
31. “Rape Culture Is Surveillance Culture” by Scaachi Koul (Buzzfeed)
Surveillance feeds into rape culture more than drinking ever could. It’s the part of male entitlement that makes men believe they’re owed something if they pay enough attention to you…
32. “What Does It Mean When We Call Women Girls?” by Robin Wasserman (Lit Hub)
The persistence of girlhood can be a battle cry.
33. “The Post-Trump Haircut” by Heidi Mitchell (The Cut)
‘When you see that much blonde hair on the floor, you know something is going on.’
34. “Why Obamacare enrollees voted for Trump” by Sarah Kliff (Vox)
Mills was wrong about what Republicans would do to Obamacare. But then again, I write about it for a living. And I was wrong too.
35. “Marcia Clark Is Redeemed” by Rebecca Traister (The Cut)
Clark said she was made very aware of how her appearance affected her reception in the courtroom. A jury consultant had found that people were likely to find her “shrill” and to think she was “a bitch” and advised her, Clark said, to “talk softer, wear pastels.” In the retelling, Clark offers a deadly smile. “Oh, okay, that’ll wipe out 200 years of social injustice. Why didn’t I think of that?” The attempts at softening, she said, were destined to backfire anyway. “That kind of shit is a lose-lose proposition,” she said. “So I come in in a pinafore, and they say I’m a cream puff and I can’t handle a murder case like this.”
36. “How to Be a Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit” by Rebecca Solnit (Lit Hub)
Listen to your own feedback and remember that you move forward through mistakes and stumbles and flawed but aspiring work, not perfect pirouettes performed in the small space in which you initially stood.
37. “This Is How Much America Hates Women” by Anne Helen Peterson (Buzzfeed)
For many, that’s the real, if unconscious, fear: that women will take, women have been taking, the reins of power, the keys to the system, the position of the presidency.
38. “Hillary Clinton is More Than Just a President” by Virginia Heffernan
Maybe "I love her" seemed too womany, too sentimental, too un-pragmatic. Not coalition-building, kind of culty. But people say with impunity they love Obama, the state of Israel, their churches, Kurt Cobain. In the end, I wish I'd said it because it's true.
39. “Now is the Time to Talk about What We Are Actually Talking About” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (The New Yorker)
...an ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal.
40. “The Worst Year Ever, Until Next Year” by Jia Tolentino (The New Yorker)
But it doesn’t mean anything to say that 2016 was the worst year ever. It’s a tic, or a token—a prayer that next year will somehow be better, which it won’t. The world remains continuous; nothing changes on any particular midnight, no matter how glitzy the countdown...