Required Reading: Revisiting Gender Outlaws


Most of us read “serious books” about feminism in high school and college, but how many of us have gone back and read The Second Sex as adults? Stephanie Staal recently revisited the writers that made her start thinking differently about the world when she decided to take a college course on feminist theory at Barnard. She even includes the reading list in her book, Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life and will deliver excerpts from it tonight at Book Court in Brooklyn. The following are some of the books Staal explores in her studies, as well as a few others worth considering.

The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone

“To assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility…”

Firestone distilled a number of theories from the Communist Manifesto, psychoanalysis, and first wave feminism and expanded on them in order to create a radical politics of sex, whereby women alter the means of reproduction by refusing to act as the only childbearing members of the human race. There’s a Malthusian drive at work here, which made Firestone the subject of fierce debate, as some argued that her work puts her on the side of racist proponents of eugenics. Discuss.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition.”

The protagonist is a young wife writing from the confines of the nursery, where she is sent to cure herself from the mind-numbing depression that won’t go away, despite the comfortable surroundings and pretty things she owns. Gilman describes the emptiness encountered when a woman is taken care of but not allowed to think, or dream.

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler

“[Gender] identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.”

Is gender constructed? Is it performed? What are the limits of feminist theory? Butler’s 1983 tour de force asked as many questions as it answered, all in one dense, critical text which served as the launching point for queer theory. The author makes her readers question their premises at every turn, challenging a new generation to think about the fluidity of sex and sexuality.

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks

“From the time the women’s liberation movement began, individual black women went to groups. Many never returned after a first meeting.”

Gloria Jean Watkins, AKA bell hooks, wrote this condemnation of the “white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” in 1984, arguing that only through long-term collective struggle would men and women together be able to dismantle the corrupt system in which we all live. However, the only way to do this is for all members of society to recognize our privileges and assume responsibility for our actions, making it impossible to leave men out of the equation, or white privilege, for that matter.

In a Different Voice by Carol Gilligan

“Herein lies a paradox, for the very traits that traditionally have defined the ‘goodness’ of women…are those that mark them as deficient in moral development.”

In this early ’80s book, Gilligan argues that renown psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s conception of the six stages of moral development is biased against women. This idea reshaped previously held notions about their psychological development and inspired extensive political debates that went beyond academic squabbling.

The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism by Katie Roiphe

“Preoccupied with issues like date rape and sexual harassment, campus feminists produce endless images of women as victims–women offended by a professor’s dirty joke, women pressured into sex by peers, women trying to say no but not managing to get it across.”

Roiphe claims that campus feminists infantilized women and stripped them of their agency in order to stoke fear and increase their numbers. The voice of this contrarian stood out in 1994, when her argument that the rape crisis was manufactured caused an uproar among academics, activists, and members of the general public.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

“The problem of woman has always been a problem of men.”

Masculine = human = normal, feminine = weak = submissive. You know the drill, because de Beauvoir wrote about it in Le Deuxième Sexe. Last year, Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier offered a new unabridged English translation, which Francine du Plessix Gray denounced in her review in the New York Times here. Ah well. Regardless of the translation, de Beauvoir’s passionate arguments continue to inspire generations of women and men to tackle difficult questions about gender.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

“The feminine mystique has succeeded in burying millions of American women alive.”

In the late 1950s, Friedan set out to discover why women of her generation seemed to be so unhappy, and in 1963, she published this landmark book in order to explain how conformism has suppressed the desires of American housewife. (Cue Betty Draper shooting backyard pigeons.) Parker Posey reads the audio book version here.

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

“Neither storm nor sleet nor dark of night could faze it. It was always there, always ready. Quite terrifying, when you think about it. No wonder men hated women. No wonder they invented the myth of female inadequacy.”

Scores of sexually unfulfilled women and scads of men wanted something prurient to read bought Jong’s 1973 novel and paged through to get to the dirty parts. The protagonist, Isadora Wing, visits Vienna with her then-husband and decides to embark on a series of adventures across Europe with an intrepid, sexually curious paramour. Fear of Flying has been printed in 27 languages and sold over 12 million copies to date, making it the quintessential novel of female liberation and self-discovery for the time.

Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation, edited by Barbara Findlen

“Some of us came to feminism because of abuse, harassment, eating disorders. I came to feminism because I hated shaving my legs.”

Contributors to this varied collection of essays offered a range of testimonials about growing up female in the United States during and after the rise of second wave feminism. In “One Bad Hair Day,” Jennifer Reid Maxcy Myhre recounts her decision to shave her head and quit shaving her legs, making her an androgynous, confusing presence to people on the street. It’s self-righteous, it’s funny, and it’s an accurate reflection of the brashness of 90s women’s studies rhetoric. The other essays also focus on identity and body politics while maintaining a youthful edge.