BBC Radio 4 is launching a Big Read-style poll to find which novels have changed the way women see themselves.
Men and women can both nominate their essential female read
Both men and women will be able to vote for their favourite Women's Watershed Fiction book on Woman's Hour.
The Orange Prize for Fiction has surveyed 400 women from academia and the arts to start the BBC poll.
The survey led to a longlist of 40 - including titles as diverse as Little Women and Catch 22 - to inspire a top 10 "essential reads" for women.
Voters can chose any book, not just from the longlist. A final list will be announced on 8 December.
Professor Lisa Jardine, who carried out the research for the Orange Prize for Fiction, said: "'What a wonderful question!'. This is the response we encountered most often on our journey to find the work of fiction, by a woman or a man, which had proved an inspiration in the lives of women.
"We were fascinated as researchers by the very idea of a life-changing book, the fact that absolutely every woman we spoke to had one and the wide variety of things that book meant to each individual woman."
Professor Jardine defined a watershed book as "a book that has made a difference in a woman's life".
She told Woman's Hour: "There are all kinds of watersheds, moments of crisis when a woman has reached for a book, but there may be moments of intense joy, passion, where somehow a work of fiction enhanced those feelings or made sense of those feelings.
TOP FIVE 'LAUNCH' LIST
1. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
2. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
3. The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood)
4. Middlemarch (George Eliot)
5=. Beloved (Toni Morrison)
5=. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
"A watershed book helps you make a change, it changes the way you are in the world."
Professor Jardine, who has chaired award panels including the Booker Prize, told the programme she "loved" the top five.
"After all those interviews I feel it reflects at least this first stage of research," she said.
"There are three great 19th Century novels that women read at many stages in their life, and still do.
"None of them wanted to marry Mr Darcy or Mr Rochester, but they knew how to use those books to change their life."