Sometimes, the hardest part of feminism is remembering how much you can get wrong (and that’s okay! Getting it wrong is how we learn) and to that end, I’ve spent a lot of time reading up and around the subject.
What exactly are ‘feminist’ books? Is it possible to have books which entirely explain the concept of feminism through and through by themselves? If there’s anything that can be certain about as diverse a movement as this, it is that people everywhere will have different interpretations and ways of looking upon it. These can range from the expansive (covering trans rights, reproductive rights, black women’s right etc) to the extremely narrow, leading to confusion. Understandable since feminism is in itself a form of political theory and deserves a study in its own right.
Here’s a list of books which I feel is a good introduction to the world of feminist literature.
‘Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics’ by bell hooks
If there’s ever a word which brings strong emotions to the table, its feminism. Throughout history, be it the first wave, second wave or third wave, feminism has prompted strong reactions, both for and against it. In all the noise, the common message is sometimes lost, sometimes misunderstood. bell hooks brings to the table this feminism that people sometimes miss and talks about the hardest hitting topics (abortion, violence, race etc) in a manner so as to introduce their relevance not just for women but for everyone. Highly recommended as a beginner text for anybody wanting to grasp the basics of feminism.
‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ by Mary Wollstonecraft
The title is a heavy one and understandably so. But before you get scared off, it is recommended that you give it a try. Considered as one of the seminal texts of feminist theory (or Women Studies), Mary Wollstonecraft’s text talks about the role of women in the developing world and how they can be much more than mere ‘wives’. She is among the first to discuss the idea of regarding women as mere ornamentation and not human beings by themselves. Written in the 18th century, it is a political treatise whose ideas still hold strong today. For trivia hunters out there, Wollstonecraft is also the mother of another renowned female author: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin also known as Mary Shelley, author of the first science fiction novel Frankenstein.
‘A Room of One’s Own’ by Virginia Woolf
Not so much a book as a fairly large series of essays/lectures, this is also considered another great classic. Woolf explores the meaning of women’s space, especially women’s space in a largely man centered world. It takes the idea of a room both literally and figuratively, i.e., a room as space for women writers and also literally a room for women to write- women need money and the luxury to write, both which can come with a room of their own. It still rings true now and is a fascinating read to boot, so don’t miss it.
‘Protector of the Small’ by Tamora Pierce
Adding a dose of fiction to the so far heavy-on-theory list, Tamora Pierce’s Young Adult Novels are a joy to read for both young and older readers. While Pierce has always been known for her strong female protagonists, she particularly shines in the Protector of the Small series which introduces Keladry of Mindelan, one of the first female knights in a realm of male knights. Set in a fantasy, the series tackles very real issues from menstruation to pregnancy and how Keladry deals with becoming the first female knight of her generation.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood
Set in a dystopian future, The Handmaid’s Tale examines a world in which women and their bodies have becomes literal objects of subjugation (one of the characters is named ‘Offred – Of Fred’- in other words, she has no identity beyond that of the man who owns her). The result is a brilliant work of speculative fiction and one of the best feminist novels of our time. It was also the winner of the first Arthur C. Clarke award and was also nominated for the Nebula and the Booker.
‘The Madwoman in the Attic’ by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar
A discussion of Victorian literature from a feminist perspective, Gilbert and Gubar both offer their take on the concept of madness among women, especially the age old concept of ‘hysteria’. The title is taken from Jane Eyre where Mr. Rochester’s first wife Bertha is kept locked up in the attic because she’s mad. Women in certain roles have always been dismissed or had this form of madness ‘hoisted’ upon them. They become the titular ‘madwoman’. Even if the analysis is considered a little dated now, it’s still well worth a read.
‘The Second Sex’ by Simone de Beauvoir
A book which ends up in the Vatican’s list of prohibited books should be worth looking at. ‘The Second Sex’ is a text written during Second Wave Feminism (and many consider it the starting point). In this book (published in two parts) Beauvoir examines the woman’s body, her sexuality and her role in society through the lenses of history starting from the Dark Ages up till the time of which she is writing. She examines the ideas of many famous thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Engels, and Alfred Adler (to name a few) and traces the path of women’s movements from the domestic sphere to the public sphere. ‘The Second Sex’ covers a vast range of topics right from economic production to menstruation and is worth reading simply for its sheer breadth of information.
‘The Colour Purple’ by Alice Walker
Rounding off this list with one of the most beloved yet frequently targeted books of the last century, ‘The Colour Purple’ continues to move people young and old alike. Walker takes on a range of topics in her story about Celie, a young black woman in the rural South. Celie is black, poor, uneducated and a woman – a recipe for absolute oppression. But despite all of this, she holds her own and survives and emerges victorious at the end of the novel. Walker discusses many so called ‘taboo’ topics in the novel right from lesbian relationships, to menstruation to pedophilia, domestic abuse, rape and yet through its very lense on reality, does ‘The Colour Purple’ become one of the most hard hitting and feminist novels of our age.
This list not meant to be an exhaustive reading of feminist texts. There’s a whole world of books out there for people to read and enjoy. For further reading I would recommend, other works of the authors given above (such as Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series) as well as texts as Alison Bechdel’s graphic novels and comics such as ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ and ‘Are You My Mother?’, You may know Bechdel from the famous Bechdel test, a test for gender bias in films. Other books include Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ which is considered by many as one of the first feminist stories as well as a discourse on women’s mental health and the evergreen Jane Austen (‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Sense and Sensibility’).