24 Empowering Books Every Feminist Needs to Read
Every woman has her own relationship to the word “feminist.” For some, it’s a no-brainer identification. For others, it’s a bit thornier.
If you believe that women are entitled to the same opportunities as men, you are, by standard definition, a feminist. And if you’re interested in engaging more in feminist conversations, activism, and art, there’s really no better time to get started than right now. (In the same way that January 1st is the perfect time to kick off a new fitness routine, consider March 8th, International Women’s Day, the ideal day to jump deeper into the women’s empowerment pool, so to speak.)
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Below, some suggested titles for some deeper thoughts on women’s intersection with history, race, class, sex, and culture. Whether you want to start with some foundational collections or to dig into contemporary writers, we’ve got some recommendations that will rile you up, make you laugh, and get you thinking.* Also, one book listed below includes step-by-step instructions for crafting a “male chauvinist tears” coffee mug. Seriously. Read on!
(*An important caveat. There’s no way to make a definitive list of this kind. For every title included below there’s surely twenty others that we’ve missed. Consider this a well-meaning, but surely flawed primer.)
Let’s start with some classics:
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf: This seminal essay, first published in 1929, based on a series of Woolf’s lectures, argues that without the financial means and some space to create, the voices of women writers will continue to go unheard.
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan: Feminist force Friedan (try saying that five times fast) wrote this 1963 book after surveying her former Smith College classmates about their lives and happiness levels at a 15th reunion. The book introduced the phrase “the problem that has no name” to define the lack of personal fulfillment housewives were experiencing.
Women, Race, and Class by Angela Y. Davis: This 1983 book by activist and scholar Davis looks at the women’s movement through the context of both race and class, showing that extreme bias within the movement has historically led to division—and lack of progress.
Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism by Camille Paglia: This upcoming (out March 14th) essay collection packages Paglia’s most famous essays on the subjects of sex, gender, beauty, and feminism in one volume.
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong: This 1973 novel tells the story of 29-year-old poet Isadora Wing and her desire to find her place—both in terms of her career and her personal life. Ever read an essay that referenced “the zipless f—k”?—the phrase originated in this novel.
Sister, Outsider by Audre Lorde: Writer, poet, and activist Lorde’s collection of essays and speeches centers on the need for representation and the importance of different groups of people finding common ground if we truly want to combat sexism, racism, homophobia, and classism.
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir: French existentialist de Beauvoir wrote this 1949 look at the treatment of women throughout history. The text, a foundational piece of feminist philosophy, is credited with clearly defining the difference between sex and gender, including the phrase “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks: Cultural critic and writer hooks’ short book explains the aims of feminism and the meaning of gender equality—and how all of society is affected by how women are treated within it.
Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem: Though Steinem is often held up as one of the representatives of the women’s movement, she considers herself a writer first. In addition to her recent road memoir, we suggest this collection of essays, first published in 1983. From her famous New York magazine expose “I Was a Playboy Bunny” to 1981’s “Men and Women Talking” which looks at misconceptions of the supposed “scientific” differences between the way men and women speak.
More interested in starting in the present day? Here are some contemporary voices to check out:
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Adapted into a long essay from Adichie’s powerful 2012 TED talk, this 64-page paperback is a witty and thoughtful cross-cultural call to action, with an urging for wider understanding and acceptance.
Why I Am Not a Feminist by Jessa Crispin: Let’s think about feminism from another perspective. In this just-published book, Crispin critiques the politics of the modern women’s movement and argues that it’s lost focus—and efficacy.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: Exploring gender and race through the lens of culture, Gay investigates The Hunger Games, Sweet Valley High, The Bachelor and more on both a purely emotional and highly intellectual level.
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg: Of the many recent books on women, work, and success, 2013’s Lean In leads the pack as a cultural game-changer, with the COO of Facebook urging young women to not hold themselves back and offering strategies to combine professional achievement with a satisfying personal life.
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran: British Times writer Moran charms in this fictionalized take on her unconventional adolescence in the ’80s and ’90s. Moran’s been called the UK’s answer to Tina Fey and Chelsea Handler for a reason.
All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister: Journalist Traister’s look at the history of the unmarried American woman and her role in society uncovers, through over 100 interviews, an interesting portrait of our country’s politics, socioeconomic divides, and reaction to sexual orientation.
Shrill by Lindy West: Culture writer, editor, and performer West’s memoir—in addition to chronicling her evolution as a person—tackles rape culture, calls out Internet trolls, and offers her un-sugar-coated experience of navigating the world as a plus-size woman in a witty but very real way.
Here We Are: Feminism for the New World by Kelly Jensen: Forty-four writers, performers, artists and more contribute to this ‘zine-like collection that offers reading lists, comics, a 4-step guide for becoming a superheroine, and essays from writers like Mindy Kaling.
And these three titles will allow you to catch up on all of the amazing women that deserved to be in history books, but often weren’t given their due:
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky: Pumped up after seeing Hidden Figures? This illustrated hardcover spotlights fifty notable women who made strides in science, technology, engineering, and math.
Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz: In her back-cover blurb for this graphic collection, writer Miranda July says “Imagine learning history right the first time, without having to unlearn all the lies and omissions. Rad Women Worldwide lifts the doom—maybe this is, in fact, a wonderful time to grow up.” We couldn’t have said it better—get to know 40 boundary-breakers who lived betwen 430 BCE and 2016.
Dead Feminists: Historic Heroines in Living Color by Chandler O’Leary and Jessica Spring: This beautifully-illustrated letterpress hardcover weaves drawing, photographs, artifacts, and text to tell the story of 27 pioneers of the women’s movement from Sappho to Eleanor Roosevelt to Shirley Chisholm. It had us at letterpress.
Bonus bin: Parenting, kid-friendly, and arts and crafts books!
Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: In this pseudo-sequel to We Should All be Feminists, Adichie writes an e-mail to a friend who’s just had a daughter and asks how she can raise her to fully understand her power and worth.
Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself by Amy Richards: Richard’s book works through the history of women in the workforce, the reality of the biological clock, and the seeming catch-22 of childcare costs, analyzing how those issues have set the stage for women who want to make both their career and motherhood a priority in their lives.
Strong Is the New Pretty by Kate T. Parker: Real beauty, writes Parker in the introduction to this empowering photo book, is about being your authentic self and owning it. Subtitled ‘A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves,’ this glossy paperback presents young women in these authentic moments—it’s a beautiful collection to share with the girls in your life.
Boss Babes, a Coloring Activity Book for Grown-Ups by Michelle Volansky: Hey, it doesn’t all have to be theory and discourse. Part of feminism is feeling proud to be a woman and in awe of the work that’s been done by amazing women worldwide. How better to celebrate than, say, unwinding by coloring Beyonce, Hillary Clinton, Amy Poehler, Serena Williams, and the notorious R.B.G.? We can think of no better way. Buy this one for yourself—and all your friends.
Crafting With Feminism by Bonnie Burton: Ready to take your feminist passions up a notch? How about you make your own power panties, ‘male chauvinist tears’ coffee mug, or even huggable uterus body pillow? (Please tweet us a picture of your creations @instylemagazine, if you take on any of the aforementioned projects.)
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