The term "feminism" is widely thrown around with impressive nonchalance, especially by the increasingly 'woke' generation of this century, when the fact of the matter is, most of us don't even really understand what feminism is, or how it has grown over decades. Declaring yourself a feminist is the easy bit, because taking the time to understand the overarching values or aims of the feminist movement and the fundamental causes of its inception is where most of us dwindle and lack.
Understandably, we simply lack the time to go down a three-hour internet-search rabbit hole replete with cumbersome feminist theory or the history of feminist uprisings. This is why this article will take you through 5 books that will aid you in comprehending feminism as a range of socio-political movements and ideologies that aim to define and establish the political, economic, personal, and social equality of the sexes.
1. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
(GoodReads rating: 4.16)
Today, The Second Sex is hailed as the nucleus of feminist philosophy. “One is not born, but rather becomes (a) woman,” muses De Beauvoir. Exploring topics like sex and work, family and prostitution, abortion and the history of female subordination, De Beauvoir challenges the notion of men as the default and ideal, and women as “other”. For many, The Second Sex is not just essential feminist reading, but rather essential feminist thinking and being.
2. Sexual Politics by Kate Millett
(GoodReads rating: 3.97)
Sexual Politics introduced the glamour of heterodoxy to gender and sensual politics, tackling how women were routinely diminished and over-sexualised in literature and wider pop culture. Calling out the likes of Norman Mailer, Henry Miller and DH Lawrence, for what might be reasonably termed patriarchal bias, Millett set the benchmark for in-depth, raw feminist critique. Her book remains relevant today because it encourages readers to question everything around them and to understand better how sexism can be systematically ingrained, culturally as well as politically.
3. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
(GoodReads rating: 3.94)
In the age of challenging favourites, cultural critic Roxane Gay embraces and advocates the idea of imperfect and flawed feminism in her collection of funny, honest essays by combining confessional with observational. Highlighting the situational irony of holding our icons up to nonsensically high standards of thought and behaviour, Gay takes on trigger warnings, the complications of loving catchy songs despite their degrading lyrics and the colour pink, and the ways in which tokenism in the media negatively impacts women and people of colour.
This is a must-read book for fourth-wave feminists.
4. Women of Myth by Genn McMenemy and Jenny Williamson
(GoodReads rating: 4.40)
The depiction of women as monsters or wicked plotters is evident across global mythology, while the males were widely accepted. These villains, wrote classicist, Debbie Felton in a 2013 essay, “all spoke to men’s fear of women’s destructive potential. The myths then, to a certain extent, fulfil a male fantasy of conquering and controlling the female.” Ancient male authors inscribed their fear of and desire for women into tales about monstrous females: In his first-century A.D. epic Metamorphoses, for example, the Roman poet Ovid wrote about Medusa, a terrifying Gorgon whose serpentine tresses turned anyone who met her gaze into stone.
Earlier, in Homer’s Odyssey, composed near the seventh or eighth century B.C., the Greek hero Odysseus had to choose between fighting Scylla, a six-headed, twelve-legged barking creature, and Charybdis, a sea monster of doom. Both have been described as unambiguously female. McMenemy and Williamson's book helps debunk such archetypal stereotypes while shedding crucial light on the glory of women in mythology.
5. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
(GoodReads rating: 4.20)
Virginia Woolf’s essay, published in 1929, bared the brunt of the designated literary criticism of the time, which claimed women were inherently lesser writers and creators because of their gender. Rather, Woolf pointed out the expansive systemic educational and economic failures that suppressed women writers of the time. As one of the rudimentary pieces of feminist literary critique, one might envision Woolf’s observations losing their force over the years, but her ingenious, penetrating viewpoint remains just as illuminating today as it was when it was published.
These books will undoubtedly be a great help in your journey of understanding the feminist movement and the ideas it has been developed on, through various perspectives such as cultural, political, economic and literary. The authors mentioned here have developed some splendid ideas, and tried to tackle the age-old question: "What is feminism?". While it is not guaranteed that you will find your answer within the pages of their works, it will certainly help you along the way in developing an answer for yourself.