These 15 Feminist Books Will Inspire, Enrage, and Educate You
"Women who lead, read," said Laura Bates, the feminist writer and the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, an online resource inviting women to share the sexist encounters they've experienced. Bates' words speak to a powerful truth about not just feminism, but about activism more broadly: to be an activist leader, first you'll need to get educated. Perhaps you've already explored the rich world of feminist writing, or perhaps you're adrift in the sheer surfeit of excellent choices, unsure of where to start. Wherever you're calling from, we've curated a list of exceptional feminist books both old and new.
In these fifteen books, feminist thinkers interrogate everything from intersections of racism and misogyny to Pepe the Frog's deeper meaning to online enclaves of sexist men. A feminist thinker needn't be an academic, of course—these writers range from feminist scholars to novelists, poets to producers of feminist pornography. Whatever their trade or their topic, their work is bound to inspire you, enrage you, and galvanize you to take part in the feminist movement, whether that's marching in the streets or producing powerful changes in your own workplace or home life.
1| This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa
The fourth edition of this venerable anthology, first published in 1981, remains an enduring trove of foundational thought from women of color. Before the term “intersectionality” entered academic discourse, This Bridge Called My Back put in the radical work of developing intersectional feminism, challenging the hollow “sisterhood” of white feminists while drawing connections between race, class, gender, and sexuality. Forty years later, the panoply of perspectives contained in this anthology continues to undergird third-wave feminism and emerging activist coalitions. May future generations of radical women fall just as hard for This Bridge Called My Back as their forebears did; after all, the future of feminism remains forever indebted to this groundbreaking anthology.
2| Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot, by Mikki Kendall
In Hood Feminism: Notes From the Women That a Movement Forgot, writer and feminist scholar Mikki Kendall writes, “We rarely talk about basic needs as a feminist issue… Instead of a framework that focuses on helping women get basic needs met, all too often the focus is not on survival, but on increasing privilege.” This is the thesis of Hood Feminism, an urgent and essential text about the failure of modern feminism to address the needs of all but a few privileged women. Hood Feminism is a searing indictment of whitewashed, Lean In feminism, with Kendall calling for the movement to embrace inclusivity, intersectionality, and anti-racism. In powerful, eloquent essays, Kendall highlights how the movement’s myopia has failed Black women, Indigenous women, and trans women, among others, and how feminism must shift its focus away from increasing privilege in favor of solving issues that shape the daily lives of women everywhere.
3| Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit
From one of our most imaginative and incisive writers comes a contemporary classic: seven sharp essays, each one an exceptionally hewn gem, beginning with the rousing title essay about how conversations between men and women are often driven off-course by mansplaining. In the ensuing essays, Solnit peers through politics, history, art, and media as lenses on cultural misogyny, arguing that seemingly isolated acts of sexism, like mansplaining, exist on a dangerous continuum of gendered exploitation and abuse, leading perilously to sexual violence. Solnit writes, “It’s a slippery slope. That’s why we need to address the slope, rather than compartmentalizing the varieties of misogyny and dealing with them separately.” Candid, courageous, and unflinchingly honest, Men Explain Things to Me is a powerful polemic for a future where women can enjoy equal power and respect.
4| The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
To choose a single work from Toni Morrison’s prolific and peerless oeuvre is a daunting task, but when in doubt, begin at the beginning. Morrison’s visionary first novel is the painful and poignant story of Pecola Breedlove, an abused and unloved Black girl, pregnant by her own father, who suffers relentless oppression and cruelty in her rural Ohio town. Pecola wishes desperately for blue eyes, convinced that conventional white beauty is the ticket to a better life, but soon finds her mind colonized to the brink of madness. In 1970, The Bluest Eye put Morrison on the map as a once-in-a-century writer of preternatural gifts; in the decades since, it has remained a mainstay on banned books lists, with states citing “offensive language” and “sexually explicit material” as justification for excluding it from academic curriculum. Oprah Winfrey once said of Morrison, “She is our conscience, she is our seer, she is our truth-teller.” May the lightning rod of Morrison’s truth strike these states, as The Bluest Eye is a groundbreaking text with an important place in the American canon. Saturated with sorrow and charged with wonder, it remains an indelible study of trauma, shame, and internalized racism.
5| Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger, by Rebecca Traister
Released just five days after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s historic congressional testimony and four days before Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, Good and Mad is the rare book published exactly when the culture needed it. Through exhaustive and compelling historical research, Traister illuminates female fury as a powerful political tool—one that’s long been ignored and suppressed, to the great detriment of American society. Traister traces women’s rage to the roots of the abolition and labor movements, exploring the forces that have sought to curb and marginalize women’s voices, while also emphasizing the ways in which Black women have long laid the foundation for the activism of American women. Powered by Traister’s own anger and laced through with compelling anecdotes from women about wielding righteous rage for constructive purposes, Good and Mad is galvanizing proof that hell hath no fury like half a nation’s population silenced.
6| Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, by Julia Serano
In this twenty-first century cornerstone of transfeminism, Serano, a transgender woman, exposes the myriad ways in which trans women have been stereotyped and disregarded in popular culture. Serano challenges the hyper-sexualization of trans women and connects transphobia to misogyny, while also debunking dangerous and deeply-rooted cultural mistruths about femininity as weakness and passivity. Her acute analysis builds to a rousing manifesto for a new framework of gender and sexuality: one rooted in inclusivity and empowerment, designed to embrace femininity in all its many varied forms.
7| Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese's, by Tiffany Midge
"What’s the Lakota word for intersectional feminism? Is it just an emoji of a knife?" asks prolific humorist Tiffany Midge in this uproarious, truth-telling collection of satirical essays skewering everything from white feminism to “Pretendians” to pumpkin spice. Midge, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, muses bitingly on life as a Native woman in America, staring colonialism and racism in the face wherever she finds them, from offensive Halloween costumes to exploitative language. This collection’s deliciously sharp edges draw laughter and blood alike.
8| The Witches Are Coming, by Lindy West
Only Lindy West, one of our foremost thinkers on gender, could capture the agony and the ecstasy of 21st century life in one slim volume. In this searing collection of seventeen laser-focused essays, she unveils her unifying theory of America: that our steady diet of pop culture created by and for embittered, entitled white men is directly responsible for our sociopolitical moment. Adam Sandler, South Park, and Pepe the Frog all come under her withering scrutiny in this uproarious, hyper-literate analysis of the link between meme culture and male mediocrity. West crafts a blistering indictment of the systems that oppress us—the government that denies our rights, the media that denies our stories, and the society that denies our dignity.
9| Girl Decoded: A Scientist's Quest to Reclaim Our Humanity by Bringing Emotional Intelligence to Technology, by Rana el Kaliouby
At once a moving memoir of one woman’s becoming and a fast-paced story set on the bleeding edge of artificial intelligence, Girl Decoded traces el Kaliouby’s personal and professional journey as a Muslim woman in the overwhelmingly white and male world of technology. Raised by conservative parents in Egypt, el Kaliouby broke with obedient daughterhood to earn a PhD at Cambridge, then moved to the United States to pursue her dream of humanizing the tech industry. As she recounts her quest to bring emotional intelligence to emerging technologies, el Kaliouby writes beautifully about the personal challenge of learning to “decode” her own feelings. Her efforts led her to found Affectiva, a software company pioneering artificial intelligence that can understand human emotions. As women in STEM continue to fight misogyny, racism, and countless other challenges, Girl Decoded is a rousing reminder that women can and should be able to succeed without sacrificing any part of their wholeness.
10| The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, by Bell Hooks
In this seminal excavation of patriarchy’s devastating effect on the male psyche, hooks describes an endemic pattern of “psychic self-mutilation,” which drives men to lead lives of spiritual barrenness when they lose touch with love, self-expression, self-knowledge. Hooks addresses common male fears of intimacy and loss of patriarchal status while encouraging men to enrich and share their inner lives. Although hooks wrote The Will to Change with an eye toward reforming the emotional and spiritual lives of male readers, it nonetheless contains troves of wisdom for women. After all, as hooks writes, “Anytime a single male dares to transgress patriarchal boundaries in order to love, the lives of women, men, and children are fundamentally changed for the better.”
11| Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women, by Kate Manne
The visionary author of Down Girl returns with a bracing and brilliant study of male entitlement, bound to become a cornerstone of contemporary feminist canon. In a far-ranging analysis, Manne explores the myriad manifestations of male entitlement in American society, from Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court appointment to the unequal division of domestic labor. So too does her scrutiny fall on incels, the medical undertreatment of female pain, and the myth of female politicians as “unelectable,” among other forces that police and punish women. Manne interrogates how entitlement gives rise to misogynist violence, making for a perceptive, precise, and gut-wrenching account of a social framework with devastating consequences.
12| Circe, by Madeline Miller
Disparaging tales of witches, harpies, and other female monsters are burned into our cultural imagination, but in the lush, luminous pages of Circe, a minor sorceress from Homer’s Odyssey receives a long-overdue feminist reimagining. Miller charts the lesser goddess Circe’s exile to the enchanted island of Aiaia, where Circe’s prison soon becomes her paradise. For centuries, she lives a free, feral life, honing her divine gifts of witchcraft and transfiguration while bedding down with lions and wolves. When Odysseus is shipwrecked on Aiaia, Miller reimagines the power dynamics of their entanglement, chipping away at Homer’s fabled myth of one man's greatness to expose a selfish man as flawed as any other. In Miller’s masterful hands, a long-overlooked goddess steps into the spotlight, giving rise to a powerful story of independence and self-determination in a man’s world.
13| I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems, by Eileen Myles
In the past decade, a new generation of feminists awakened to the work of Eileen Myles, whose lifetime of intimate and inimitable poetry is collected in I Must Be Living Twice. Spanning almost four decades of visionary work, this collection assembles an eclectic blend of Myles’ finest work, from their reminiscences on life as a young creative in New York City to more universal reflections on falling in love. Resisting heteronormative modes and subverting facile labels, Myles reminds us that poetry is a form of activism—one that can shift how we understand and empathize with the world around us.
14| The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure, edited by Tristan Taormino, Constance Penley, Celine Parrenas Shimizu, and Mireille Miller-Young
Can pornography and feminism coexist? At the heart of this informative and far-reaching volume is that thorny question, explored in a series of gripping and provocative essays authored by producers, actors, consumers, and scholars of feminist pornography. From plus-size porn to disability in porn to trans women’s fight to be included as frequently as trans men, these essays demand an inclusive new future for erotic representation—one where fantasies of power and pleasure are egalitarian, in front of and behind the camera.
15| The Feminist Utopia Project, edited by Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff
What would a feminist utopia look like? Just ask any one of the fifty-seven cutting edge feminists whose voices resound in this expansive collection, which invites us to imagine a radically different world of freedom, safety, and equality. With essays by Janet Mock, Sheila Heti, Melissa Harris-Perry, and more, The Feminist Utopia Project proposes vigorous and compelling thought experiments: how might birth control be different if it were designed by an abortion provider? What would our economy look like if it valued caregiving and domestic labor? What would “good sex” mean through a framework of female pleasure? Next time you feel the feminist project is doomed, dive into this galvanizing book for a curative and necessary dose of hope.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.