As an English major, there’s little more satisfying than reading a good book, and then being able to pinpoint why it was so good. What it is about some language that just strikes you in a certain way.
As I’ve become more closely familiar—and passionate about- the concept of feminism , I’ve created a list of my favorite feminist books. It’s not a standard list of books followed by plot overviews-- I provide context, but I also give my own interpretation, and include my favorite quotes.
Feminism, I think, is quite hard to write about. It’s enmeshed abstractly in our society
It is an issue that affects everyone, whether they know it or not, but in different ways that can feel impossible to trace. It is a topic everyone wants to talk about, yet we often lack the language to do so adequately. These books, in their own ways, have revealed to me an entirely new language to access and discuss feminism.
In the Company of Women, Grace Bonney
In the Company of Women is a collection of inspiration and empowering advice from over 100 artists, makers, and entrepreneurs. Each profile consists of a basic interview with questions like, “What does success mean to you?” or “What did you want to be when you were a kid?” or “What does the world mean more of? Less of?”
The questions are nothing particularly extraordinary. And yet, they yield honest, touching answers with vivid glimpses into the lives of so many women. From textile designers like Malene Barnett, ceramicists like Jennie Jieun Lee, illustrators like Olimpia Zagnoli, furniture makers like Jasika Nicole, and chefs like Carla Hall, and more, these stories radiate endless passion and a desire to take risks. Through these women’s stories, the book displays a multifaceted picture of success.
I’ve read this book through at least five times, and I treasure the fact that no matter what mood I am, glancing at a page or two will fuel me with a substantial dose of ambition and positivity. The women share personal and professional mottos, simple words that have nevertheless been ingrained in my conscience:
“Go where you want to grow.”
“The world could always use more people who are interested in lifting up others, not only themselves.”
“You have to be willing to be bad in order to get good at it.”
What feels so refreshing on each page is the genuine nature of each woman.
It’s a reminder that feminism doesn’t have to be a pointed political statement. While it should, and is, sometimes, we can just celebrate women—for being women. Take a break from to engaging in a contentious debate. This book doesn’t overtly say anything about feminism—it celebrates the passion and authenticity of over 100 women—and that speaks for itself. We can and should celebrate women every day.
2. We Should All Be Feminists
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short novel is a version of a powerful TED talk she gave in December 2012. Her simple language, devoid of extraneous descriptions, offers a unique window into feminism as a force of resistance. She writes with clarity and precision, yet her words are cloaked in raw emotion. And, I love how her writing style is profoundly personal while speaking to a universal struggle.
On the second or third page, she writes, “Anyway, since feminism was un-African, I decided I would now call myself a Happy African Feminist. Then a dear friend told me that calling myself a feminist meant that I hated men. So I decided I would now be a Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men. At some point, I was a Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men and Who Likes to Wear Lip Gloss and High Heels for Herself and Not For Men.”
Her objective language reveals the absurdity of misconstrued ideas about feminism—ideas that continue to persist, ideas that we struggle to abolish. Without outright saying it, she alludes to a desire to be identified as a feminist, but without its restrictive implications.
She strikes a remarkable balance between telling relatable experiences—ones that many of us know too well, ones that fuel anger in us—and offering her own unique wisdom about how to reverse this cycle. By the end, she directly reinvents the term feminism and confronts the connotations surrounding it.
“The best feminist I know is my brother Kene, who is also a kind, good-looking, and very masculine young man. My own definition is a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better.”
3. Why Not Me? By Mindy Khaling
I read this book years ago, and I couldn’t get enough of Mindy Khaling’s self-deprecating humor. I was deeply impressed by her success, and I knew I loved her attitude towards life. The word “feminism” certainly never came to mind, though, while or after reading this, until just recently.
I’m not even sure she mentions the word “feminist,” except to briefly describe a sorority at Dartmouth. And yet, looking back, and rereading the book, her writing is undoubtedly part of a larger fight for all women.
The title’s implication is present in each hilarious moment she recounts about her life—always with blunt and refreshing honesty. It speaks to a universal, often unspoken, feeling that you don’t deserve something, or don’t belong somewhere.
The title, and her language throughout the book is an acknowledgment that she has profoundly felt this sense of inferiority and that she has learned to confront it and reverse the self-doubt.
The first few pages are a melodramatic description of how her appearance—her style, her hair, her skin—has drastically shifted since becoming famous. Upon first read, I was humored, but felt a bit confused—isn’t she supposed to be “above all of that” celebrity superficiality?
“There, I’ve spilled all my beauty secrets and it feels really good. Like, benevolent even? Maybe I will count this as my charity thing for the year. If you found this helpful, then great, and I am more than a little bit surprised. If this all sounded ridiculous and you are laughing at what an idiot I am, that too is great. Because talking about looks isn’t important. It’s just supposed to be fun.”
She doesn’t apologize for caring about what she wears everyday and who does her makeup. It’s a part of her life, and she isn’t afraid to say so. At the same time, she is able to recognize, and admit, that it is important to not place extraordinary value in such pleasures.
4. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Have you ever felt like you’re not, perhaps, knowledgeable enough to qualify as a true feminist? You might believe in equal rights for men and women, sure, but the word “feminist” just seems reserved for those who know everything about the history of women’s rights—for those who refrain from listening to songs or watching movies or reading books that don’t exactly paint women in the best, or fairest light.
On the very first page, Roxane untangles this notion—she discredits the concept of the feminist movement as some flawless, impossible-to-attain status. She begins by frankly admitting the shortcomings and imperfections in the concept of feminism, but sheds light on its ability to generate unparalleled discourse on the ways in which our culture disadvantages and violates women.
The feminist movement doesn’t need to be perfect, and neither does anyone’s understanding of feminism. Her language is refreshingly humble: “I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers.”
This book appeals to readers who believe passionately in equal rights for men and women—but who are often intimidated by the connotations of feminism, and the way it has been put on a pedestal.
5. Men Explain Things to Me
Rebecca Solnit’s insights are the precursor to the infamous notion we all know too well today – mansplaining.
She doesn’t shy away from the grim, disheartening details about sexual assaults, harassment, and domestic violence that have scarred women’s history. These facts, she demonstrates, are necessary to reveal the legacy of silencing women that permeates our society.
My favorite chapter, though, has to be Solnit’s ode to Virginia Woolf and her willingness to venture into the unknown, into sheer darkness. I’ve read many of Woolf’s books throughout my high school English classes, but haven’t been able to pinpoint the striking effect of her words. Solnit does this flawlessly by pointing out the universality of Woolf’s language-- how Wolf is “always celebrating a liberation that is not official, institutional, rational, but a matter of going beyond the familiar, the safe, the known into the broader world” (Solnit 129).
Solnit takes the frustration and anger we’ve all experienced from a man’s arrogance, from the subtle belitting in a man’s words, and translates these feelings into something productive. She indulges us, agrees with us, sympathizes with us, and then demands a solution.
6. Girl Boss by Sophia Amoruso
Girl Boss is another read that will leave you in awe of Sophia Amoruso, founder of Nasty Gal.
Amoruso tells the saga of her rise from being a community college-drop out to selling store vintage clothing on Ebay, which then skyrocketed into the $350 million company many of us may know as Nasty Gal.
Throughout her witty, sarcastic writing, she intersperses her unique perspective on feminism. In the very first chapter, she addresses the so-called elephant in the room—the notion that perhaps selling clothing, perpetuating a society where girls care too much about their appearance—might be “anti-feminist.” In rejecting this notion, she appeals to many of us, who may often feel somehow guilty about indulging in “girly” lifestyles with makeup and clothes.
“I now know that letting someone open a door for me doesn’t make me any less independent. And when I put on makeup, I’m not doing it to pander to antiquated patriarchal ideals of feminine beauty. I’m doing it because it makes me feel good. That’s the spirit of Nasty Gal: We want you to dress for yourself, and know that it’s not shallow to put effort into how you look. I’m telling you that you don’t have to choose between smart and sexy. You can have both. You are both.” (Amorosu 39).
7. The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler
The Vagina Monologues is Eve Ensler’s show, based on interviews with more than 200 women about their vaginas. She took one word—“vagina”—and was perhaps the first person to publicly celebrate it, to acknowledge the taboos around it, and to question why we often feel ashamed to say it. On each page of her book, the word is basically in every sentence. It’s absurd, and wonderful.
These monologues are unlike anything I’ve ever read. There is seemingly no order to the sentences-- the narratives are strung together . It’s a collection of narratives, with no linearity, interspersed with “vagina facts.” By the end, it’s almost impossible to imagine feeling any discomfort, or any shame, at the word “vagina.” The word gains unthinkable power.
8. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of Unruly Women by Anne Helen Petersen
This book begins with the disappointment and terror that came from Hillary Clinton’s loss in the presidential election in 2016-- so I was hooked from the first page, eager to indulge my persisting feelings of shock and anger in these author’s words, eager to hear her reaction.
She writes ten chapters on ten female celebrities, all of whom she sees as united by the label “unruly.” Each chapter begins with a particular accusation against a female, like when Melissa McCarthy is called “too fat,” or Serena Williams “too strong,” and then analyzes how this behavior has historically been considered unfeminine. Petersen explains, “The more you analyze what makes these behaviors transgressive, the easier it is to see what they’re threatening: what it means to be a woman, of course, but also entrenched understandings of women’s passive role in society” (23).
It’s nothing short of eye opening to read about famous celebrities like Nicki Minaj, Kim Kardashian, and Caitlyn Jenner through Petersen’s feminist outlook, especially considering the starkly different way pop culture presents them in the media. Minaj is frequently labeled “too slutty,” and while the biased media makes it difficult to reject this label, Petersen shifts our perspective and urges readers to think about the larger anxiety about black women who have taken ownership of their bodies and sexuality.
Ultimately, Petersen fluidly meshes academic and culture writing to show us that the term “unruly” becomes far more unacceptable, far more riskier in a body that “is not white, not straight, not slender, not young, or not American.”
9. The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
Ariel Levy, a staff writer for the New Yorker, tells her story of unthinkable loss and trauma after having a horrific miscarriage and losing both her spouse and home. In the introduction, she says reflects, “People have been telling me since I was a little girl that I was too fervent, too forceful, too much. I thought I had harnessed the power of my own strength and greed and love in a life that could contain it. But it has exploded.”
She talks elegantly about her love affair with writing and her career as a journalist-- anyone who likes to write will soak up her words about how she feels automatically at home with a pen and a paper. Her passion for telling her stories as well as the stories of others-- particularly of women who are viewed as “too much”--is contagious. And it is through these stories that she cries for the rights of all women. One particularly heart-wrenching story is when, without any plan, she sets out to interview a famous runner from South Africa, Caster Semenya, who experiences intense discrimination when she discovers that she is a hermaphrodite. This is one of many woman Levy has encountered as “too strong, too powerful- too much.”
I appreciate this book as a feminist read in that it doesn’t announce itself as having a feminist purpose-- the empowering implications for women is subtle. Her blunt articulation of trauma and grief, her passion for storytelling, and her desire to dissolve the patriarchy that inhibits girls who are “too much” is an unparalleled treasure.
10. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid's Tale is often seen as a feminist dystopia, as it is set in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian state where handmaids must bear children for elite couples who cannot conceive due to low reproduction rates. The story is told through Offred, a handmaid who recounts her experience of being raped monthly, and of living in a world where women speaking can mean death. This is perhaps the most noteworthy takeaway from The Handmaid’s Tale- the correlation between silence and powerlessness.
Atwood’s novel presents an extreme but nevertheless crucial example of what can become of society when women are commodified by men. This is by no means a light read, but I admire Atwood for her willingness to confront the worst possible scenario in this dystopia. It is a reminder to appreciate the rights we do have as women, and the steps we need to take to sustain and acquire more power.