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Roundup: Feminist Books

Smart books for smart ladies

A Practical Wedding | Feminist Book Roundup

Meg Keene, APW Executive Editor

A few weeks ago, we got this question in a Happy Hour:

I’ve never had a women’s studies class, or known any feminists, but I’d really like to educate myself on feminism… What books do you wise women recommend?

I was all in. Feminism is complex and multi-faceted, and the best way to find your own place within it is to read multiple viewpoints, and ponder things slowly. If you’re just getting started, I wish I could tell you that there is one go-to book to explain feminism to you, but of course there isn’t. The minute I think I understand my own feminism, I read something new and it all changes, again. All the best things are complicated like that.

I asked the APW staff why they thought that doing some feminist reading was a good idea, and Rachel said, “For a budding feminist, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or clueless when you’re on a feminist website. You’ll often hear terms like ‘rape culture’ ‘the patriarchy’ ‘choice feminism’ and ‘intersectionality’ in posts and in the comments and not know what’s going on—and you may be too intimidated to ask, so you just check out. So it’s good to do your own research so you can form your own conclusions and have a voice in these conversations. And it also helps you have a voice in non-feminist conversations. There have been so many times when being able to cite one of these wise books has helped me immensely when dealing with people who are up to non-feminist no-good.” Reading about feminism doesn’t mean signing on the dotted line of mainline feminism (God knows I dropped out of my women’s studies minor because some of that shit just tired me out). But it does mean informing yourself, so you can decide what you care about, and what you really think. In the comments on my opening post of feminism month, I noticed commenters saying that they couldn’t consider themselves feminists because other commenters had offered up visions of feminism that they didn’t agree with. But in what other part of our life do we let other (random) people set the terms for engagement? I might not agree with your definition of democracy, but that doesn’t mean I give up, and think we just slide into a dictatorship. No way. I just agree to disagree (and maybe argue about it with you over a drink). Feminism is the same way. If you’re in for women having the vote, wearing pants, and having equal rights, then it’s your job to inform yourself enough that you can form opinions, and disagree with others over a beer. The good news is, informing yourself can be a lot of fun.

To get you started  with your learning, we put together a APW staff roundup. Since the staff all explores feminism in different ways, not everyone is represented here. Maddie, who could teach a seminar on sexuality, hasn’t read a lot of feminist books, so she’s not on the list. The rest of us have suggestions that are all over the map: Feminist classics! Books about stripping! Fantasy YA! Dystopian novels! The works! My challenge to you is to figure out a book your interested in (there is bound to be at least one), and get reading. After you do, you’ll be better equipped to argue with people at Happy Hour, which is all that I wish for all of us.

Here are our suggestions. I can’t wait to see yours in the comments.

Meg, Executive Editor:

How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran
Given that I hosted an APW bookclub for this book before it even came out in the US, it’s no secret that I’m pretty in love with it. I can’t think of a funnier witter introduction to what feminism is, and why you should care. And if (like me) you’re already an avowed (if non-academic) feminist, it still gives you plenty to think about, and giggle over.

Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, Inga Muscio
This is the book that inspired the Reclaiming Wife section of APW. In mulling over my new role as wife, I decided that much like the word cunt, wife needed a good feminist reclaiming. I haven’t read this since college, but it’s obviously stuck with me. It’s angry and a little new age, and isn’t my brand of feminism now, but it was damn important in shaping my feminist worldview.

The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
This book arguably kicked off second wave feminism when it was published in 1963. I read it last year, expecting a period piece, and came away with a gripping understanding of what feminism was still about. It’s dense and long, but if you skip around a bit, it’s still a page turner.

The Song of the Lioness Quartet, Tamora Pierce
This young adult series defined feminism for me at 12. Get it for all the young women in your life (disclosure, there are sex scenes, make sure that will pass parental approval), and read it before you wrap up the present. And then maybe buy it for yourself.

Promiscuities, Naomi Wolf
Next up, the book that defined feminism for me at 17. This highly personal book about women’s sexual coming-of-age is an interesting read for anyone growing into their sexuality. Again, the perfect gift (and read it before you wrap it.) I still keep my marked up copy on my shelf in tribute.

Strip City: A Stripper’s Farewell Journey Across America, Lily Burana
Look. I actually took my share of women’s studies classes in college, and as a result, I’m tired. I like my feminist books entertaining not theoretical, and Lily Burana’s first person exploration of stripping is just that. Powerful too. For the sex positive feminist, this is good, good stuff.

Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness, Jessica Valenti
I wrote a full review of Why Have Kids right before I… had one. It’s a damn good, damn smart book, and it explores why—though I’ll never tell another feminist what to do—choice feminism just doesn’t do it for me, at the end of the day.

Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, Ayelet Waldman
Ayelet Waldman has such a fearless way of saying all the things we’re not supposed to say. This book of essays about motherhood does just that. Speaking of, I should give it a re-read, now that I have a kid.

Anything by Anne Lamott
I mean, lets just leave it at that. You all read her stuff, right? It’s smart, enjoyable, and guided me through my 20s.

Elisabeth, Writing Intern:

The Bean Trees: A Novel, Barbara Kingsolver
This is the book that cracked it all wide open for me. I first read it as a high school freshman and still have that tattered copy on my bookshelves. The pages are littered with highlights and the best piece of marginalia I’ve written to date: “Feminism…Learn More.”

Women, Race, & Class, Angela Davis
This, from a class I took in college called “The Politics of Patriarchy” is another one of those books I’ll carry around forever. This taught me that it’s not enough to just say you’re for equality. It’s a good companion toMapping the Margins by Kimberle Crenshaw, which is fantastic but academic.

Next Time, She’ll Be Dead: Battering and How to Stop It, Ann Jones
OK, this one is a bit of a downer. But it’s another book I’ll remember forever—the first time I really thought critically about victim-blaming and the idea that the media perpetuates violence against women.

Killing Us Softly, video series by Jean Kilbourne.

The first video in this series about gender representation in advertising is from 1979, but it hardly seemed dated when I saw it in high school, and the series still nails it. This helped me put words to how the media and popular culture actively perpetuate (some might say encourage) violence against women. 

Rachel, Writing Intern:

Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a SmartMouth Goddess, Susan Jane Gilman
I don’t remember ever not identifying as a feminist, but this book re-awakened my feminist spirit when I was 15. I passed it around to the other girls at my Catholic high school (I was a feminist pain in the ass like that), hoping it would inspire them to fight the good fight with me. 

Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, bell hooks
As I said in a recent comment, feminism has a serious issue with race right now. If you’re looking to understand that better, or you’re a black woman feeling like feminism isn’t for you, this is a great place to start. 

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, Audre Lorde
For further reading on why we need intersectional feminism, read this essay (right now!).

A Room of One’s Own, Virgina Woolf
I read this essay in my Women’s Authors class at MSU, and still think about it regularly. As a writer, I think about having a room of my own often, and it’s something I hope all women feel empowered to fight for. (This is another one you can read online for free right now!)

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Honestly, this dystopian novel wasn’t my favorite book, but I’m on board with the overall message and enough feminists connect with it strongly, that I feel comfortable calling it a must-read, especially in the context of the way women’s rights are slowly being eroded around the country. 

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy
This quick and easy read is a good starting point for understanding women’s participation in “raunch culture;” I like its exploration on why some women find the idea of being “one of the boys” crucial to success in a man’s world. 

The Meaning of Wife: A Provocative Look at Women and Marriage in the Twenty-first Century, Anne Kingston
I read this book not long after I started dating Eric and it had a huge impact on me; it really helped me see why we need feminist marriages and gave me the tools I needed to ask for a true partnership. Its fascinating-history-meets-pop-culture approach is very APW and I can’t recommend it enough. 

Emily, Contributing Editor:

I read some literary feminist theory in my critical analysis course in college. I can spot womb imagery and phallic symbols like gangbusters, but I think I’ve learned the most from the stories of real women and the fiction of women writers. With that in mind…

Minor Characters, by Joyce Johnson
A memoir written by a Beat novelist and scholar who is often dismissed as “Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend.”

Me : Stories of My Life, by Katharine Hepburn
Women in the costume department used to hide Hepburn’s pants from her. She responded by walking around in her underwear. Enough said. 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
The first of several autobiographies. The grace with which Angelou has handled her life is unparalleled.

The Vagina Monologues, by Eve Ensler
Before I read this book in high school I wasn’t comfortable with the v-word—it was too taboo.

Woman Hollering Creek: And Other Stories, by Sandra Cisneros
This collection of stories has a lot to do with the identity and sexuality of its female characters.

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, by Melissa Harris-Perry
This is an amazing look at the roles women of color are often relegated to. (Okay, a non-fiction book snuck in.)

Lucy, Deputy Editor:

I don’t take in a lot of nonfiction, so when it comes to feminist literature, my mind automatically veers towards fiction novels that have a feminist slant—though not always an obvious one.

Bumped, by Megan McCafferty
A dystopian novel that serves as an amazing critique of modern society’s obsession with youthful femininity.

Eon, by Alison Goodman
A really great depiction of gender and the roles women play in a parochial society. Plus, dragons! How can you lose?

Emma, by Jane Austen
This is my classic pick, and one of the earliest books in which I realized as a writer that a feminist character does not have to be perfect, or even likable (though I love Emma).

Graceling, by Kristin Cashore
A lot of novels that focus on “strong female characters” have this underlying message that femininity is inherently bad. Graceling doesn’t, and that makes it really refreshing.

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Another classic pick. Short, haunting, and a very vivid depiction of depression and the unsympathetic, often tortuous “cures” that women used to endure.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel, by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman takes an often negatively used trope—the maid, mother, crone trinity—and tells a very different, compelling story with it. While the narrator of this tale is a young boy, this is definitely a female-centric novel. (Fun fact: every named character in the novel is female!) 

Liz, Contributing Editor:

The Awakening (Dover Thrift Editions), Kate Chopin
Wonderful for contemplating what it means to be a woman within a male society

Hills Like White Elephants and Cat In The Rain
Two short stories by Hemingway that look at male/female relationships around procreation. (I know, Hemingway, can you believe it?)

I Want A Wife, Judy Brady
You can read this essay online, right this second.

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