The Feminine Mystique , Betty Friedan
Friedan’s 1963 investigation into “the problem that has no name” — that is, the unrepentant unhappiness she found among housewives — is one of the most influential books of the 20th century, and is generally credited with being the catalyst for the rise of second-wave feminism in the United States.
Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics , bell hooks
Well, you heard her — this is by its very project a book for everyone. bell hooks has written a host of books that could fit this list, but this one is a primer of sorts to the movement — or at least hooks’s interpretation of the movement. She calls for a feminism that breaks barriers: “A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving,” she writes. “There can be no love without justice.”
A Room of One’s Own , Virginia Woolf
Another classic, we’d recommend Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own — an extended essay that explores women’s relationship to writing — to just about anyone. The Woolf devotees in this writer’s life happen to be almost exclusively men, so this might be a particularly good place to start for all you literary boys curious about feminism.
The Beauty Myth , Naomi Wolf
This 1991 text, which dissects the relationship between the growing social prominence of women and society’s demands for them to conform to specific standards of beauty, is as relevant now as it was 20 years ago — since, sadly, nothing much has changed in this arena since then. Betty Friedan herself wrote in Allure that “The Beauty Myth and the controversy it is eliciting could be a hopeful sign of a new surge of feminist consciousness.”
Sister Outsider , Audre Lorde
One of the most influential voices of the feminist movement rings out in this collection of 15 essays and speeches by Caribbean-American activist Audre Lorde. “Perhaps,” Lorde challenges her reader in “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” “I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am a lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours?”
The Second Sex , Simone de Beauvoir
“I hesitated a long time before writing a book on woman,” De Beauvoir begins. “The subject is irritating, especially for women; and it is not new. Enough ink has flowed over the quarrel about feminism; it is now almost over: let’s not talk about it anymore.” This was in 1959 — and the sentiment is as fresh now as it was then, just like (most of) the rest of De Beauvoir’s lucid, equal parts literary and philosophical, book. Another installment in the classic-for-a-reason file.
The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton , Lucille Clifton
Feminism and poetry have a long and storied history together, and Lucille Clifton is one of the most beloved of its flagbearers, her poems ringing with race, sex, and the ever-present body. This volume, which collects all 11 of Lucille Clifton’s published collections, plus 50-odd unpublished works, is not only an essential text for those interested in feminism, but a must for all readers of poems, heralded by Publisher’s Weekly as “the most important book of poetry to appear in years.”
The Woman Warrior , Maxine Hong Kingston
Maxine Hong Kingston’s take on the memoir blends her personal experiences with traditional Chinese folktales, examining the Chinese-American experience as well as the female one, taking on the cultural source of oppression. She writes: “There is a Chinese word for the female I — which is ‘slave’. Break the women with their own tongues!” So why not seek the attention reserved for boys by channeling Fa Mu Lan and swapping out her gender? “I refused to cook. When I had to wash dishes, I would crack one or two. ‘Bad girl,’ my mother yelled, and sometimes that made me gloat rather than cry. Isn’t a bad girl almost a boy?”
Sexual Politics , Kate Millett
For the staunchly literary-minded among you, try Kate Millett’s 1970 book, widely heralded as the very first work of “academic feminist literary criticism,” which started as her doctoral dissertation. Though the book stirred up as much denunciation as it did praise, we think it’s an essential lens (one of many) for looking at the Western canon.
How to Be a Woman , Caitlin Moran
This list is filled with books written decades ago, so we thought we’d conclude with a recent triumph: Caitlin Moran’s manifesto on being a woman today, filled with brash, no-nonsense criticism steeped in a saucy sense of humor. An example: “We need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29% of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42% of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?”