CULTURE

18 Essential Feminist Reads, According to 6 Feminist Authors

by Salomé Gómez-Upegui

Collage by Ashley Peña

As the great bell hooks stated, “feminism is for everybody.” Indeed, every person on earth is affected by the patriarchy in some way—though certainly, some more so than others. Thanks to the work of renowned professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, society has begun to understand the myriad ways in which race, class, sexual orientation, and other individual characteristics intersect to aggravate oppression. But the point is, we are all tasked with the responsibility of creating a new, just reality in which sexism and oppression have no place.

So where to begin when seeking to learn the ins and outs of the feminist movement? And what books can someone turn to when yearning to go deeper into its implications? To help us chart a way forward, we asked six feminist authors—across a wide array of backgrounds and literary genres—to share a few of the books they regard as essential reading for understanding both the myriad manifestations of the female experience and the sustained importance of feminism. Here are their suggested must-reads —in their own words.

Kate Baer, Author of What Kind of Woman and I Hope This Finds You Well

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: By now, most have heard of writer, feminist, and cultural critic Roxane Gay. Known for her funny, insightful, and moving essays, her reach is ever expanding and necessary. This book in particular has become my go-to recommendation for anyone searching for memoir, humor, or essays on intersectional feminism. Gay also stands out for her acceptance of imperfection, noting, “I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.” [It’s a] phenomenal read.

Feminism Is for Everybody by bell hooks: This book should be required reading for every high school student, every first-time mother and father, every woman, and every man. Pair it with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, and you’ll find the perfect place to start if you’re interested in feminist studies and [desire to be] well-read on the subject. This book is literally for everyone.

Diving Into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 by Adrienne Rich: Reading any Adrienne Rich is like taking a shot of feminine rage—it leaves a burning in your belly and a face flushed with indignation. This collection in particular calls the reader to examine how both men and women contribute to a harmful patriarchy. “You worship the blood you call it hysterical bleeding / you want to drink it like milk / you dip your finger into it and write / you faint at the smell of it / you dream of dumping me into the sea.” To know Rich’s poetry is to know the power of language.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou: Angelou’s 1969 autobiography turned American classic is perhaps one of our country’s most important reads on racism, sexism, and identity. Not only is this book a master class on prose, it gives readers a poignant and nuanced look into the upbringing of a remarkable American woman. Incredible and worth a reread if it’s been a decade or two.

Leah Thomas, Author of The Intersectional Environmentalist

All About Love by bell hooks: This is one of the most transformational books I’ve read, which explores the question “What is love?,”—love for ourselves, for others, for society. For Black women living in a patriarchal society built on racism, learning to love ourselves is a revolutionary act. Taking the time to assess generational trauma and unhealthy relational dynamics, [working toward] receiving healthy love between ourselves, our communities, and others is crucial to promoting a society rooted in love vs. oppression. bell hooks is a feminist icon, and this book demonstrates how love can be a healing tool for not only ourselves, but society as a whole.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: Black feminism flows throughout this book, even though it’s not explicitly stated. But the experiences of the main character, Janie, demonstrate the struggles of Black women navigating both gender-based and racial discrimination and their ongoing quest for respect, rights, and dignity in the U.S. It also touches on colorism and lateral oppression, dynamics that occur within a minority group; through Janie’s struggles and experiences, she gets closer and closer to expressing her independence and finding empowerment in a patriarchal and racist society.

Rebecca Solnit, Author of Men Explain Things to Me and Recollections of My Nonexistence

Women and Power by Mary Beard: Mary Beard’s “The Public Voice of Women” [from] her small volume Women and Power is a great summary of the history of the problem of unequal voices—unequal in who is allowed to speak, who is listened to, who is believed and respected—all central to questions of inequality.

Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her by Susan Griffin: Susan Griffin’s furious, lyrical Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her still gives us valuable ways to think about gender in relationship to speed, technology, violence, domestic animals, to all the metaphors and analogies that stitch our world together in often-constricting ways.

How to Raise a Feminist Son by Sonora Jha: I love Sonora Jha’s How to Raise a Feminist Son because it addresses something really important, that how we raise children to see themselves, others, and the world is a central act in making a better world, and so feminism is taking place in a billion tiny acts every day, everywhere.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller: Chanel Miller’s memoir Know My Name describes how an act of violence and violation against an individual can ripple through dozens of lives, how the legal system often serves as a long episode of punishment and degradation following the original attack, and how a young woman can find her voice and use it to define herself, reach out to others, and claim the power she deserves.

Gabriela García, Author of Of Women and Salt

The Selected Works of Audre Lorde edited by Roxane Gay: I first encountered Audre Lorde’s essays and speeches as a young woman coming into my own feminist politic, particularly Sister Outsider, often quoted but sometimes divorced of its radical underpinnings. But I’d never read her essays alongside her poetry as in this new collection, and I was struck by the resonances between them—how theory grounded in the communal makes way for poetics of yearning, seething, loving that is painstakingly personal yet grounded in collaborative liberation and care.

Diving Into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich: I turn to Adrienne Rich’s poems often, and almost half a century after its publication, Diving Into the Wreck still strikes me as an utterly relevant exploration of both patriarchal power and mythology, and the complicated contours of feminine interiority. Rich explored varied territory–motherhood, the figure of daughter-in-law, the mechanical processing of a sexual assault by a cop–with language that was precise, incisive, and nuanced; the poems in this collection yield new insights each time I revisit.

Angela Garbes, Author of Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy and Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change (Forthcoming May 2022)

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong: Reading Minor Feelings in early 2020, just after it was published, I experienced the rare, intense pleasure of realizing, with each page, that it would be canonical to me. Here was the confusion, hypervigilance, desire, and pride and painful self-awareness that defines my (I thought) illegible, private journey into consciousness excised and biopsied with microscopic precision. Each essay is specific to Hong's experience as a Korean American woman, but as a Filipina American I am equally included and implicated. Here too, is anger—anger Asian women are not publicly entitled to, that increasingly threatens to consume us—finally directed outward, sublimated into powerful, destabilizing art.

“Welfare is a Women’s Issue,” essay by Johnnie Tillmon: Since the 1960s, mainstream American feminism has preached satisfaction and self-expression through work outside the home, a “lean-in” approach that values personal growth and gain. The beneficiaries have primarily been white women, as this empowerment has relied on outsourcing domestic labor to women of color at low wages. We hear a lot about Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique but far less about women such as Johnnie Tillmon and the National Welfare Rights Organization who, working at the same time, developed a platform for a Guaranteed Adequate Income to benefit all Americans. This essay, published in Ms. Magazine in 1972, shows that true feminism—inclusive and aimed at capitalist patriarchy’s root—can change everything. That, in Tillmon’s words, “Maybe it is we poor welfare women who will really liberate women in this country.”

“Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” from Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde: “As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge,” Lorde writes. “Uses of the Erotic” instantly clarified something I had always suspected as a young woman: that the feeling of being “too much,” too emotional, too dark, too big, too sensitive, was not actually a problem. That it may actually be my great power. This essay is a loving, sensual invitation for all of us to see that we are not in conflict with ourselves, but with a culture that insists we'd be better off without our bodies. It’s true that all of Sister Outsider is essential reading, but I recommend doubling down and going deep on “Uses of the Erotic,” a short essay so densely packed with provocations and dares to live a full, embodied, and pleasurable physical life that I still marvel at it—and Lorde’s power—with every reading.

Zaina Arafat, Author of You Exist Too Much

Master of the Eclipse, Etel Adnan: The stories in Lebanese poet Etel Adnan’s Master of the Eclipse subversively resist an ingrained patriarchy through romantic relationships and female friendships. What results is a cauldron of displacement, nostalgia, love, and loss, all manifested in the trajectories of empowered female characters.

Meaty: Essays by Samantha Irby: This book, like so much of Irby’s work, delves into the unruly and at times uncooperative female body, along with love of food. By unabashedly displaying societally deemed “shameful” acts and realities, Irby empowers us to do the same, and to embrace our own bodily chaos and appetites.

Chloe Caldwell, The Red Zone: A Love Story (forthcoming April 2022): The necessity and urgency of The Red Zone made me wonder how I—or any woman—had lived so long without it. Through the lens of PMDD [premenstrual dysphoric disorder] and the female body, Caldwell refracts every issue imaginable, from relationships to hormones to queerness to stepmotherhood to blended families, all with hilarity, intimacy, and depth. Feeling seen by this book is an understatement; it’s a survival guide.