This is the final installment of our Books for Feminists series. If you missed it, there are three other parts: feminist books for children, feminist books for teens, and contemporary feminist books for adults. Now we’re going to talk about classic feminist literature.
Feminism has been around for a long time in the United States. From Abigail Adams’ letters to her husband, John Quincy Adams, asking him to “remember the ladies” when he worked with the constitutional congress on the establishment of this new nation to Sybil Ludington, the woman rider who rode twice the distances as Paul Revere on the same night to warn the Americans that the British were coming.
Feminism isn’t a movement restricted to one geographic location, indeed, it spreads across landmasses, nations, color, and gender. The books included on this list come from around the world and are all essential to any feminist’s reading.
This book by Mary Wollstonecraft was first published in 1792. It is considered one of the first manifestos of women’s rights. Wollstonecraft’s classic book makes an argument for women to be educating, noting that “Tyrants and sensualists are in the right when they endeavor to keep women in the dark, because the former want only slaves, and the later a plaything.” Her assertion that women should be educated to enable their independence was radical at the time it was made, despite women’s education not being questioned in current times. This book shows the evolution of thought and how it sometimes takes a radical to get an idea started that later becomes part of the common practices of a culture.
Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is a French classic, first released in 1857. While the link above is to a translated version of the text, I hear reading it in its original language is an absolute-must for people who are able because a lot of nuances can be lost in translation. Emma Bovary is bored. She’s a housewife and life couldn’t be duller for her, so instead of being an obedient wife, she pursues an affair with Rodolphe. This novel is often credited with being one of the first modern realism in addition to being celebrated for its poetic craftsmanship.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote this short story based off of her own experiences with depression (from the semi-autobiographic story, it can be asserted that she had postpartum depression) and her lack of power over her own treatment for her ailment. When the woman in the novel asserts that she would really feel better if she was able to get up, move, write, and see her baby, her husband, a doctor, banishes her thoughts on her own medical treatment and insists that she ascribes to his prescribed rest cure. Being locked up in an old nursery, unable to write, interact with people, or exercise her own will and judgement, the narrator slowly goes mad and starts seeing a woman in the yellow wallpaper of the room.
Kate Chopin’s classic novel first hit shelves in 1899. The story of Edna Pontellier, a woman that feels trapped in a loveless marriage that lacks passion. Her (risque back when it came out) solution is to find sexual satisfaction outside of her marriage. While this novel is short, it is well written and the characters are well developed. As Edna’s sexuality awakens, the reader is able to follow along and see her transform from a sad wretch to an empowered woman expressing her sexuality in (then) taboo fashion.
Joan of Arc is one of the few female saints. In 1936, Vita Sackville-West created the image of this female saint within her book that we are most familiar with today. Sackville-West creates a compelling heroine within her story of Joan. The reader starts with a 14 year old girl hearing voices and follows her as she progresses into a 17 year old girl leading the armies of France. Unfortunate for Joan, she was captured by the English, put on trial for being a witch, and lost. At the age of 19, Joan was burned alive. Sackville-West takes one of Christianity’s and history’s strongest militant women and invites us all to read her tragic story
I would argue that this 1929 novel written by Virginia Wolff has one of the most quoted lines from any feminist work: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This straightforward assertion is at the heart of this long essay-like piece of advice from Wolff. This book pushes the boundaries of gender for the time and questions conventional social practices that kept women from being independent and able to have sovereignty of themselves and their lives. Wolff makes a strong case within her text and it’s one that still rings true for female writers and non writers alike. To express ourselves, we will always need a room to call our own.
Simone de Beauvoir translated 1953 text looks at the role of others within a society, and how women are made to be others in a society dominated by men. de Beauvoir coins the term “other” and “otherness” in was at the time and still is a groundbreaking piece of literary criticism. I’ve studied de Beauvoir’s concept of otherness more than once within my literary courses and it is taught at top institutions around the world. Why is this book so readily studied 60+ years after its original publication? Simple, we still live in a society where women are treated as others in a man’s world from how women are treated in pop culture to unequal treatment in academic institutions.
The first time I heard about Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique, was in the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, a modern teen movie remake of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. This book is widely known to be an intricate part of any feminist’s reading list, so much so that the name alone invokes feminist ideals in modern pop culture. This book tackles “the problem that has no name” that so many women had to (and, honestly, still have to) face within society that kept them in the home and in doubt of their own intellectual abilities. This book was written in 1963, an era where women were expected to either get married right out of high school or drop out of college once they found a husband and take up homemaking and baking instead of reading and studying. This book is known for being an inspiration for women everywhere to put down the oven mitts and reshape their lives in a way of their choosing.
Sylvia Plath’s 1963 novel, The Bell Jar, is a favorite of my fellow co-blogger, Melanie Figueroa. Poet and author Plath follows Esther Greenwood, a woman who by all accounts is smart, pretty, talented, and successful. But something is happening to her. Plath takes the reader into Esther’s mental breakdown with a deeply emotional narrative that is both disturbed and realistic. Her insanity, through Plath’s story telling, becomes the reader’s insanity. This novel feels accessible because of its deeply humanistic qualities that make it hard to put down and easy to understand and sympathize. Plath also lets her poetic nature take over in her prose book, making for some exceptional passages and wordplay.
Kate Millett’s book is credited with the launch of the second wave of feminism. Sexual Politics looks at the way culture, from history, literature, philosophy, psychology, politics and more reflects a systematized subjugation and exploitation of women through a patriarchal society. What started out as Millett’s dissertation in critical theory has become a quintessential reading for a modern understanding of the feminist movement. While some of Millett’s ideas might not surprise modern feminists, her ideas were groundbreaking when they first came out in 1970 and help shape the women’s revolution that we know and love today.
You can check out more classic feminist books on this list from Goodreads.