So, you’re a feminist in college. You believe in equality of the sexes, in women’s rights, reproductive freedom and maybe you’ve even participated in a march or two. Maybe you’re involved in a feminist or social-justice focused club on campus, maybe you’re interested in women’s studies, maybe feminism is just part of how you see yourself.
If any or all of the above applies to you, here are five books of feminist theory that will help you hold your own in any academic conversation about women’s rights.
1. “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf is my favorite author, and when I read “A Room of One’s Own” for the first time, I cried.
I cannot express how true the book rang to me, and how deeply I felt each point Woolf made, each observation and comparison. Woolf comes to the sensible and basic conclusion that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction, but the way she reaches this conclusion, and its groundbreaking simplicity, is incredible.
In one of the most famous passages of “A Room of One’s Own,” Woolf compares the life of Shakespeare to that of his equally-talented sister (whom she invents for the purposes of this comparison), and finds that while Shakespeare reaches wealth and success, his sister lives a trapped and unfulfilling life, eventually killing herself from despair of her unrealized passion. Woolf goes on to attempt to account for the overwhelming maleness of the literary canon, explaining how men’s reason for this—that women are intellectually inferior—is inaccurate, and pointing out other likely causes. Beautifully written, thoughtfully explained and even funny in parts, “A Room of One’s Own” is the must-read text for all women writers.
2. “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir
Perhaps the most famous book on women’s subordinated position in society, Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal work is not only a well-written, well-researched treatise and the foundational text of second-wave feminism, but also a classic work of existentialism, the philosophical movement of which she was a part. One of the most well-known tenants of “The Second Sex” is the idea that male is considered the default, the “normal,” while woman is considered the “Other.”
This idea holds true to this day, and could be one cause of the lack of female representation in everything from media to business; when thinking of a neutral or relatable person, people tend to think of a man—in our society, specifically a white man. The idea of the woman as “Other” is only one of the many concepts Beauvoir explores, and I cannot emphasize enough how important “The Second Sex” is to the feminist movement and to feminist philosophy. If possible, pick up the most recent English translation, since the original 1953 version is known to have some oversights.
3. “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan
Published in 1963, fourteen years after Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex,” Friedan’s legendary sociological book kicked off second-wave feminism in the United States.
Painstakingly researched and based off a series of interviews with women who felt something intangible was wrong with their lives, “The Feminine Mystique” asserts the existence of this mystique, an elusive thing that oppresses women and attempts to convince them that their oppression is desirable. Though the scope of this work is certainly limited—it applies to upper-middle-class white women, even more specifically those who are married and have children—it is the first American book to put into words something that many women were feeling.
To read “The Feminine Mystique” is to realize, painfully, how far our society has come in terms of women’s rights, yet how achingly far we have yet to go.
4. “Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde
“Sister Outsider” is not a novel or a particularly unified work, but a collection of essays and speeches written by Audre Lorde from 1976-1984. The title refers to Lorde’s position as a black lesbian woman and a mother; she is both a part of and apart from each group with which she identifies. The essays within this book are complex and challenging, but since “Sister Outsider” is one of the foundational texts of intersectional feminism, and presents extensive thoughts on social theory, it is worth the read.
Unlike Virginia Woolf, who attempts to write devoid of fury and who distances herself from her narrator by deconstructing the subject “I,” Lorde writes in an unapologetically angry and distinctly personal way, as has become more commonplace since the second-wave feminism of the late ‘60s and ‘70s.
If you don’t have a chance to read all of “Sister Outside,” I recommend the short essays “The Master’s Tools Will Never Destroy the Master’s House” and “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.”
5. “Borderlands / La Frontera” by Gloria Anzaldúa
Half theory and half poetry, Gloria Anzaldúa’s “Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza” is a truly original text, and investigates an intersection of gender, sexuality, race and language that has not been explored as deeply either before or since. Anzaldúa writes as a bilingual lesbian Chicana feminist, and in “Borderlands / La Frontera” she studies every aspect of her identity, examining how they interact with each other and how she relates to the world because of them.
The theory section of “Borderlands / La Frontera” explores everything from the Mexican-American border to the symbolism of snakes, but most fascinating to me was the work’s focus on language and bilingualism. Language is, for Anzaldúa, a tool of resistance against the patriarchy and the dominant white Anglo culture of the United States, which sought to subdue her bilingualism and discount her multiracial identity.
This language of defiance shines through in the poetry half of “Borderlands / La Frontera,” written in both Spanish and English. You have to be bilingual to appreciate every aspect of Anzaldúa’s work, but non-Spanish-speakers like me should give it a try anyway; it may open your eyes to a wholly original way of thinking about the borders between places and people.