9 Books You Should Read If You Really Want To Understand Feminism

Posted on October 7, 2014 in Culture-Vulture

By Arpita Pande: 

Feminism is a widely circulated concept, or more of a belief in the contemporary society. However, at many places, women were not even recognized as individuals till two centuries ago. For example, in 16th century England, rape was not even recognized as a crime against a woman’s body. If at all, it was to be persecuted, it was seen as a defiance of the father’s or husband’s virgin property. It was through ideological, social and repressive methods that male dominance prevailed for so long and still finds its existence. However, women have defeated patriarchy time and again. As informed young individuals it is important to be aware of what feminism is, what was the position of woman before, how they liberated themselves, where we stand today and finally how much more do we need to travel to reach the point of equality between the two sexes.

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1. Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (non-fiction): Considered to be the very first formal paradigm to voice the emancipation of woman, Mary Wollstonecraft lays stress on female education. She believes that women should not just focus on courting men with their beauty and stick to being meek and coy but women should be reasonable and rational. She lays stress on education that would make them aware of their fundamental rights. She also believes that marriage should be a companionship, where both husband and wife share a mental compatibility too. Though she adheres to a woman’s role of taking care of the family and does not equalize woman to man. However, this work is credited with the beginning of feminist theories.

2. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (fictionalized essays): In this series of essays, Virginia Woolf sends out a strong critique on the uneven conditions of living and growth distributed amongst men and women. She establishes that the reason why women can so easily be subjugated is because they are deprived of education and money, thus women haven’t been able to articulate much in the world of literature. They do not have the time and space to perform such activities. Woolf through her imaginative narrator (“call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton…”) goes to the past and imagines a scenario, where if Shakespeare had a sister, despite the same talent she would go unrecognized because she would simply not be given a chance to express herself. The narrator also opens up literature for women. But these too are written by men who dictate their personal ideologies, thus further propagating patriarchal notions. The series ends with an exhortation of the existing traditions and Woolf’s plea to the women audience to condemn it.

3. The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (non-fiction): This book finds its roots in the Charlotte Bronte’s Novel Jane Eyre. The character of Berth Mason, in Jane Eyre, represents the out spoken woman (a phenomenon uncommon in 19th century England) who refuses to submit to her husband’s (here, Mr. Rochester’s) will. And in order to restore the order of patriarchy, Bertha Mason is branded to be mad, locked in an attic and violently treated. Gilbert and Gubar select this marginalized character to question the polarities attached to a woman’s character as: “angel” or “monster”. These images were popularly circulated in the society and also within the canon of writers. The two theorists deconstruct this binary and question the practice of witch burning vis-à-vis notion of morality and the denial of freedom of speech for women.

4. A Literature of Their Own by Elaine Showalter (non-fiction): A Literature of Their Own encapsulates the growth of feminist theories and criticism from the Bronte sisters to Doris Lessing. Patriarchy being the dominant rule dictates the production of writings. Thus the literature produced by women is not independent of the style dictated by men. Showalter then explores the concept of “Amazonian Utopia”. She explains the growth of three waves of feminism and along with the growth of female writers. The first wave demanded for recognition of woman as a part of society, the second wave wanted equality with men. They launched the suffragette movement and wave of flapper generation recognizes these demands. The third wave looks at women as independent beings and not as a complimentary or equal to men. She also takes a step to recognize the unwritten struggles of woman written daily and believes that only the canonized writers don’t represent the entire realm of a woman’s struggle.

5. Sexual Politics by Kate Millett (non-fiction): This book deals with how the idea of “compliant woman” is actively accepted both in literature and society. She questions the all-pervading control that men exercise in all institutions like the police, church and so on. Further, Millett talks about the politics of subjugation that works by controlling a woman’s body in a male dominant society. A woman’s role is basically to satisfy the desires of man and her own sexual needs are either neglected or considered as evil. Their existence is a mutual barter: where women give sex to get food and shelter. And since women’s sexuality is easily suppressed, it becomes easy to control them. Rapes and domestic violence are an outcome when a woman sidelines herself from the norm. Millett’s urge is to restructure the existing system to that of equality.

6. Lihaf by Ismat Chughtai (fiction- short story): Chughtai explores female sexuality and lesbian bonding that is unacceptable by the society yet it exists. The narration opens up the reality beneath the veil.

7. The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir (non-fiction):One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”- this is the central idea around which this book revolves. It unlaces the ideologies that govern the subjugation of women. The subjugation is not only in form of violent repression but as a condition accepted by women and how the pre-defined roles aggravate this condition. For example, the role of a mother being the care-taker is performed with pride and it is natural for a woman to condemn her career to come back home and form a family. Gender is a produced category and the author criticizes the stereotypes that are culturally produced. Simone De Beauvoir sends out a message to women to re-examine their position in society.

8. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (fiction): This novel traces the double subjugation faced by the protagonist — Celie. First being a black, living in Georgia, she belonged to the race that was considered inferior in society. Secondly she was a woman who has societal norms dictating her obvious subjugation. The story traces Celie’s double fold struggle. First she bears up with the violence inflicted upon her, but later struggles her way out through the double fold subjugation. The novel also explores the essence of female bonding and homosexual desires.

9. Yellow Fish by Ambai (fiction- short story): Ambai is the pen name for the Indian feminist writer C.S. Laxmi. The story deals with the predicament of a woman who has no say in matters of female feticides, despite it being her own child. The narrator explains to us the position of a girl child in the society through the description of a yellow fish lying on the shore. The fish symbolizes the girl child and the sea symbolizes freedom. The woman imagines this fish as her lost child struggling to gasp water and she throws it down the sea giving it life. Though she could not save her own child, she wishes to save this fish. The very last line gives a sublime description of this act: “You can see its clear yellow for a very long time then it merges into the blue-grey-white of the sea”.

Feminists are often misunderstood. Women’s liberation is not about subjugating men, neither is it to shout out hoardings about patriarchy being bad. Feminism seeks a space for the 50% of the population that is repressed for unnatural reasons. The given books are but a fraction of narratives and accounts that are voicing the alternative discourse.