Film & literature is what ushered my fifteen-year-old self into the world of feminism, so I took the time to compile this list of texts I believe to be essential for any feminist, regardless of “how long” you’ve identified as one. Add one, two, or all of them to your summer reading list.
1. The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan
Obviously. Friedan’s investigation into the morose lives of ‘60s housewives is often credited as the catalyst for second-wave feminism in the U.S. You’re not going to agree with everything she says (it was ‘60s-’70s era feminism, after all), but this text is crucial for understanding where the movement came from.
2. The Women (1998) by Hilton Als
Als’ prose is beautiful and raw; when I first read this memoir I kept thinking of Ellison’s Invisible Man. Als confronts ugliness such as racial and sexual stereotypes, sociopolitical issues regarding minorities, and the limitations of identity with grace and empathy. It’s a funny, heartbreaking, exhilarating book. If you read only one text from this entire list, make it The Women.
3. Bossypants (2011) by Tina Fey
Tina Fey is the blazer-wearing, hilarious, nerdy, confident woman I’ve always wanted to be. Fey candidly talks about her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated industry, detailing her weird early jobs to her span on SNL. In between the self-deprecating humor and 30 Rock anecdotes, Fey offers invaluable advice on succeeding in life when so much is set up against you. Her non-preachy, light style of social commentary is enough to shatter any notion those MRAs have of “feminazis.”
4. So Far From God (1993) by Ana Castillo
Castillo’s third novel follows Sofi, a single mother with four daughters in the middle of cultural, religious, and sociopolitical crossroads. It plays like a telenovela infused with magic realism and a story of a woman strengthened by hardship, rather than beat down by it. Its melodrama is balanced out by the strikingly written characters and skillfully incorporated social message.
5. A Room of One’s Own (1929) by Virginia Woolf
Woolf’s classic extended essay explores the struggle faced by women writers and brings up questions that still resonate today. It was difficult to pick a Woolf text, as she is THE quintessential feminist author, but this short, engaging read will be sure to push you to her other works.
6. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton (published 2012)
This collection is an essential not only for feminists, but for poetry lovers. Clifton’s words are fluid, but she’s not afraid of being rough. Her work delves into matters of race, sex, and the female form in an accessible, satisfying, thought-provoking way.
Also, there’s a section of ouija board poems, which are very compelling (or weird, depending on how you look at it). Hey, you’re already exploring feminism, why not foray into experimenting with the supernatural as well?
7. Bad Feminist (2014) by Roxane Gay
We can always do better. Let Bad Feminist show you how without wagging a finger at you.
8. The Woman Warrior (1976) by Maxine Hong Kingston
Kingston’s memoir meshes her own personal experiences with Chinese folk tales, diving into the systematic oppression exercised by the various institutions in a woman’s life. She even describes the difficult relationship she has with her native Chinese language, writing: “There is a Chinese word for the female I — which is ‘slave’. Break the women with their own tongues!” Her self-loathing of her womanhood is upsetting and relatable all at once, culminating in a not-so-decisive conclusion that still leaves the reader satisfied.
9. Dorothy Parker – Complete Stories (published 1995)
Parker is perfect for those who are really into The Office or 30 Rock. Her biting satire of 20th century society and chaotic personal life (seriously, why hasn’t there been a major biopic on Parker yet?) come together to form some of the wittiest, most astute works in American literature.
Parker is more of your low-key feminist; she’s definitely no fierce warrior fighting for gender equality, but make no mistake, she was a boss. Parker wrote female-centric films such as A Star Is Born and the Story of a Woman, was nominated for two Academy Awards, and even earned 3x more money than her (possibly bisexual) spouse who worked in the same business. Her intelligence, humor, and sharp tongue struck fear into the hearts of men and women alike, making her a perfect into-to-feminism role model.
10. The Quilt (1944) by Ismat Chughtai
Chughtai was one of the Muslim writers who remained in India after the nation was partitioned, which contributed to the introduction of feminist politics to South Asia. The Quilt explores female sexuality, class struggle, and evolving Indian politics in relation to Indian women, which made it highly controversial at the time of its publication. Chughtai is often credited as bringing feminist ideals to the youth of India, sparking a silent, underground revolution.
11. Sister Outsider (2007) by Audre Lorde
Caribbean-American activist Audre Lorde writes in her collection of essays and speeches:
“Perhaps 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?”
12. Middlemarch (1871-2) by George Eliot
Love her or hate her, every self-respecting feminist must have an opinion on George Eliot (a pen name; her real name was Mary Anne Evans). Middlemarch is Eliot’s magnum opus, a dense, sprawling story that may or may not be feminist– which is always a fun argument to start at parties.