But, before we get to the book list, I must add that this list is in no way comprehensive. I am a firm believer that we should value books that speak to our most inner truths. So read as widely, as deeply and as critically as you can. And when you find a voice or a story that whispers to you in ways only you can feel – hold on to it and share it whenever and wherever you can.
What I offer here are books that have whispered to me and informed my view of feminism. It is my hope that they will do the same for you. I also limited the number of books to ten, simply for the sake of my own sanity. I did create a list of “Honorable Mentions,” which you will find at the very end, since there were really just too many books to chose from!
Jessica Valenti was my first source for feminist thought. She was conversational and funny, authoritative, and had a unique ability to connect the history of feminism, the who, what, when and why to the young women struggling to put their feelings into words. Valenti has gone on to write several more books, as well as many articles as a columnist for The Guardian. She even has a podcast: What Would a Feminist Do? – which I highly recommend. But it was this book, “Full Frontal Feminism” as well as her blog Feministing, that opened the feminist door for myself and many other young women of the 90s and early 2000s. She told us to value ourselves, our sexuality and our intelligence. The best part, Valenti published a newer edition of “Full Frontal Feminism” in 2014 with updates for a new generation of feminists to find their wings and their voice.
Value yourself for what the media doesn’t – your intelligence, your street smarts, your ability to play a kick-ass game of pool, whatever. So long as it’s not just valuing yourself for your ability to look hot in a bikini and be available to men, it’s an improvement.
“ManifestA” is an account of a thrilling moment in recent feminist history, the ’90s. In a time when little girls had Sassy, not Seventeen; were inspired by Kathleen Hanna, Rebecca Walker and Susan Faludi; and feminism was as fashionable as you could get. From Lilith Fair to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to the WNBA, it seemed that female pride was the order of the day. Yet feminism was also at a crossroads: “girl power” feminists were obsessed with personal empowerment at the expense of politics, while political institutions such as Ms. and NOW had lost their ability to speak to a new generation. Baumgardner and Richards brilliantly revealed the snags in each feminist hub, all the while proving that these snags had not imperiled the future of the feminist cause, but had forced it to grow and change.
In the years since “ManifestA” was published, the world has changed in ways both promising and disheartening for the feminist cause. Despite major strides forward, the wage gap remains vast, many feminist publications have died, shame around abortion has lingered and nineties-style anti-abortion terrorism has reemerged. The original arguments in “ManifestA” remain urgent, highlighting why it’s still critical for today’s young women to focus on gender, and shows why the issues first raised by Baumgardner and Richards remain as timely as ever.
As we said, consciousness is everything. Even now, acknowledging inequality begs one to do something about it–and that is a daunting, albeit righteous, responsibility.
I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked up this book. It had been recommended to me by almost every professor I had ever had that knew something about feminism – and with an 8 hour flight to get through – why not? The life changing power of “The Feminine Mystique,” which is widely credited with sparking the beginning of second-wave feminism in the United States, is hard to put into words simply because no two women seem to have the same relationship with it. We can all agree on the main theme of the book, that the social roles forced upon women as wife and mother were extremely harmful to women and society, but that seems to be where most commonality ends. No two readings are alike and no two women have the same relationship with Friedan’s words. The discussions that come from these differing relationships are as life changing as the book itself – and that just might be my favorite part.
Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves? Who knows what women’s intelligence will contribute when it can be nourished without denying love?
There has been a much overdue conversation happening in feminist circles recently about the intersectional nature of feminism and white feminist privilege. I am, personally, a firm believer that feminism can not be truly feminist if it is not intentionally intersectional – “This Bridge Called My Back” is one reason why I think that way.
Originally released in 1981, “This Bridge Called My Back” is a testimony to women of color feminism as it emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Through personal essays, criticism, interviews, testimonials, poetry, and visual art – the collection explores “the complex confluence of identities—race, class, gender, and sexuality—systemic to women of color oppression and liberation.” It is a book that begs the white reader to listen and then goes on to list the harsh truths that is the reality for many women of color. A reality that sees them silenced, killed and sexually assaulted at higher rates than their white sisters. It is uncomfortable to many readers, but especially the white reader, and it may take some time to work through. But is it important that you work through it because if you view feminism as a white woman behind a podium at a predominately white women’s march, then you really don’t know feminism at all.
The real power, as you and I well know, is collective. I can’t afford to be afraid of you, nor you of me. If it takes head-on collisions, let’s do it: this polite timidity is killing us.
I have always had a love affair with myths and legends, so it seems rather apropos that I would count this book as one of the most important to my early feminist growth. Dr. Estés believes that in every woman “there is a wild and natural creature, a powerful force, filled with good instincts, passionate creativity and ageless knowing. Her name is Wild Woman, but she is an endangered species.” Using multicultural myths, fairy tales, folk tales and stories, Dr. Estés helps women reconnect with the healthy, instinctual, visionary attributes of the Wild Woman and at the same time creates a new lexicon for describing the female psyche. Fertile and life-giving, it is a psychology of women in the truest sense, a knowing of the soul. “Women Who Run With Wolves”, was not just a feminist awakening for me, but also a spiritual one – one that asked for me to go to the land, to go to the earth and find that most primal of feminine forces.
I hope you will go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you, and that you will work with these stories… water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.
Because “duh” this list would contain at least ONE Maya Angelou work. “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” should be read by everyone – not just feminists and not just women, but everyone. The first in a series of autobiographies by Angelou, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” deals with the period in Angelou’s life up until she turns 17. Like Angelou, the book is fearless and honest in the way so few books, or really anything, is. At 7 years old, Angelou went silent after her mother’s boyfriend raped her. She convinced herself that her voice had killed him, so she stopped speaking for six years. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is about finding your voice after unimaginable violence and violation. Her story of trauma and recovery has helped countless women regain their voice after the violence of sexual assault – and although her voice has been physically silenced by death, her commentary and advocacy for women of color continues today through the works she left behind. After hearing her voice so often in my head, in my heart, in the words of others, and the books she left behind – I am certain that Angelou will never be silent again. And if you have never seen or heard her read “And Still I Rise,” you are in for a treat that you will never forget.
The black female is assaulted in her tender years by all the common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in a crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and black lack of power.
For the Love of Novels …
Fiction has always been my gateway to knowledge – all of my “I need to know more” moments have started with a story. What follows are some of the feminist fiction that helped me answer the hard truths and taught me to ask better questions about my newly formed feminism.
I know, I know – for many, I am listing the wrong Brontë sister. But, by not placing “Jane Eyre” or “Wuthering Heights” on this list, I am hoping to prompt a simple question: is a Byronic hero who spends most of the novel being a broody misogynist with an anger/violence issue, really the Victorian feminist archetype that we want to cling to? I hope the answer is no and present the better Brontë alternative.
“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” is the second and final novel by Anne Brontë. It was first published in 1848 under the pseudonym Acton Bell. Probably the most shocking of the Brontës’ novels, it had an instant and phenomenal success, but after Anne’s death her sister Charlotte (of “Jane Eyre” fame) prevented its re-publication, thinking it vulgar and inappropriate. While her two sisters were writing towering Gothic epics, Anne Brontë was concerning herself with the lived reality of the woman in Victorian England. In the novel, a mysterious young widow arrives at Wildfell Hall with her young son and a servant. She lives there in strict seclusion under the assumed name Helen Graham and soon finds herself the victim of local slander. Refusing to believe anything scandalous about her, Gilbert befriends Helen and discovers her past. Helen is escaping from the physical abuse and moral decline of her husband. In leaving her husband, Helen violates not only social conventions, but also early 19th century English law – where the woman, her children and any property that she may inherit or possess becomes the property of her husband. By leaving him, Helen is essentially committing theft and could be legally punished if caught.
“I would not send a poor girl into the world, unarmed against her foes, and ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself.”
A feminist retelling of the biblical story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, where Dinah is raped and her brothers decide to welcome in her rapist’s family into their own tribe, circumcise them and then kill them. Because the biblical telling of the story is a “male narrative” written with a patriarchal agenda, we never hear Dinah’s version of the story, the story of her rape. Instead, like so many after her, her violation is superseded by how that rape is interpreted and used by a man. So Dinah remained silent, that is until “The Red Tent.” In Diamant’s novel, Dinah gets a voice and she tells not only her story, but begins even earlier: telling the stories of her mother Leah (her birth mother), as well as Leah’s three sisters – Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah who all marry Jacob. This is a novel that celebrates and explores the voices of women. As Dinah says in the first chapter of the book “If you want to know about any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully.” This novel gives you no choice but to listen. The goddesses Dinah’s mothers worship are goddesses which value women and hold menstrual blood as sacred, not profane, and is so closely tied to women’s storytelling. The red tent is where women go when they are menstruating, where they relax and tell stories and live as women unencumbered by the lives and world of the men.
“The hills in the distance held my life in a bowl filled with everything I could possibly want.”
Before “Full Frontal Feminism“ and the “Feminine Mystique” – there was “The Awakening.” I read Chopin’s short but powerful masterpiece in Honors English my Junior year of high school and I am positive that it set the stage for what was to follow. Originally titled “A Solitary Soul,” “The Awakening” was first published in 1899, and tells the story of Edna Pontellier. Edna, a wife and mother, struggles to reconcile her increasingly unorthodox views on femininity and motherhood with the prevailing social attitudes of the turn-of-the-century American South. It is one of the earliest American novels that focuses on women’s issues without condescension and is widely seen as a landmark work of early feminism, generating mixed reaction from contemporary readers and criticism. And you will never be able to forget that ending….
“She was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.”
If you have already been lucky enough to experience Toni Morrison’s words, then you know it is not an exaggeration to say everything Toni Morrison has written has, in some way, defined my feminism and world view. It was hard for me to point to just one of her novels as that most formative work for me, but after some inner investigation I can say with confidence that that work is “Beloved.”
“Beloved” begins in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Sethe, a former slave, has been living with her eighteen-year-old daughter Denver. Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs lived with them until her death eight years earlier. Just before Baby Suggs’ death, Sethe’s two sons run away. Sethe believes they fled because of the malevolent presence of an abusive ghost that haunts their house at 124 Bluestone Road. The story opens with an introduction to the ghost and maybe one of the greatest opening lines ever: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
“Beloved” weaves such a complex web of pain, the love and sorrow held within family relationships, and the unforgivable and unforgettable brutality of slavery that one really must read it, experience it in all its pain and beauty, to truly understand its impact. So please, if you read only one book from this list, make it “Beloved.”
“The dark, dark liver–love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”
Honorable Mentions: Because there was just too many!
What is the Steinem Sisters Collection?
The Steinem Sisters Collection was made possible by a generous donation from the Steinem’s Sister’s Collective. It is a special collection consisting of nonfiction feminist materials, which explore the lives and achievements of women now available at the Main Library.