In Depth

Seven best books on feminism

From Virginia Woolf to Roxane Gay, here are The Week’s top picks of feminist literature and non-fiction

As the dialogue surrounding modern-day feminism continues, here are seven of the best books on the subject that have sparked much debate, spanning several feminist movements throughout history.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, 1929

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” writes Woolfe in this key work of feminist literary criticism.

Through the fictionalised character of Mary, Woolf argues that both literature and history is a male construct, built to marginalise women. She explores the ideas of the erasure and silence of women throughout time, and how poverty and sexual constraint affects female creativity. In writing this, she rejects the notion that women are inferior writers and instead proves the existence of a space for women in both literature and history.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, 2014 

Gay’s book rejects the notion that feminists must be inherently perfect in order to obtain the feminist title. She argues that you don’t have to fit one mould and that it is possible to have dual identities and desires. For example, she wants to be independent, but also be taken care of; she enjoys rap while also finding the lyrics offensive. The author destroys the idea that there is a be all and end all to feminism, and most importantly, reminds us that feminists are human beings: nuanced, complex and not a rigid structure.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, 1963

Friedan’s book is often credited with sparking the beginning of second-wave feminism in the United States. She begins by describing the widespread unhappiness of women in the 1950s and 1960s, despite being married with children, a factor deemed the primary goal of women. Ultimately, she criticises all aspects of culture that have kept women in the domestic sphere, stripping them of autonomy and identity. Friedan challenged the widely shared belief that “fulfillment as a woman had only one definition for American women after 1949: the housewife-mother”.

How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran, 2011

This non-fiction memoir documents Moran’s early struggles, from teen to mid-30s. She wrote with the goal of making feminism more approachable to everyone, trying to break the stigma that feminists are radical man-haters. She advocates for the notion that all women should be feminists, as feminism is inherently just the idea of personal freedom. Like Roxane Gay, Moran makes feminism approachable, relatable and simple.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, 1985

This novel (also now a hit TV show) is set in a dystopian New England. Here, handmaids are bought and sold to their masters, and then must take or echo their name. For example, the main character Offred literally just means “of Fred”. It explores the themes of women as objects in a patriarchal society and the efforts they take to gain freedom and independence, all while being a thrilling read full of twists and turns.

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, 1984

A collection of essays and speeches by Lorde, Sister Outsider explores the complexities of intersectional feminism, tackling issues such as war, imperialism, police brutality, coalition building, violence against women, black feminism and movements towards equality. The title stems from Lorde’s identity as both sister (being a woman) and being an outsider (being a lesbian black woman). This collection emphasises the importance of intersectionality in feminism, as the equality of all women means including the LGBTQ+ community, as well as women of colour.

Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed, 1993

This book checks the reader’s assumptions about women and Islam in the Middle East. Ahmed explores the history of the Western gaze and its inherent misunderstanding about Islam and gender. Her book is a fascinating exploration of Islamic debates and ideologies about women and the historical circumstances of their position in society, noting that much has lead to the current state of what the West perceives to be Islam’s stance on gender, things that were put in place long before the birth of the religion.

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