Maybe something happened. Something that made you realize that “way things are” isn’t necessarily the way things have to be. Look for your invite to the bra bonfire (sometimes it goes to spam). And in the meantime, you might have some questions. E.g., “What is feminism really about?”
Well, it’s the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities.
But what does that look like?
The answer is as diverse as the women and men who ascribe to that core belief. And you can learn a lot from their stories. Especially if those stories are different from your own. And I can promise you that you will feel those goosebumps up your arm as you learn about women speaking truth to power, challenging the status quo, and changing the world for the better.
None of the resources I’m about to throw at you are perfect. There’re mistakes and privilege and racism and oversights in all of them (kind of like humans, WEIRD). But don’t let that stop you from learning. Or from claiming your own brand of feminism that’s as unique as you are. There’s room for all of us here. Come as you are, be willing to grow, and know that you’re in good company with me and Roxane Gay, who says: “I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human.”
1. The Feminine Mystique (Betty Friedan)
I avoided this book for a good long time. First of all, it was written in the 1950s—how relevant could it be? Second, it was LONG.
I promise you: It will blow your mind (particularly if you grew up in a very conservative community). And the fact that it was written in the 1950s while still reading as a relevant and scathing analysis of women’s position in society will scare you:
“It is perhaps beside the point to remark that bowling alleys and supermarkets have nursery facilities, while schools and colleges and scientific laboratories and government offices do not.”
“If a woman had a problem in the 1950’s and 1960’s, she knew that something must be wrong with her marriage, or with herself. Other women were satisfied with their lives, she thought. What kind of a woman was she if she did not feel this mysterious fulfillment waxing the kitchen floor? She was so ashamed to admit her dissatisfaction that she never knew how many other women shared it.”
2. We Should All Be Feminists (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
Adichie’s book is down-to-earth, short (you can read it in one sitting), and powerful. I’ll go so far as to say, if you read one book about feminism, make it this one. It’s part manifesto, part letter from the heart, part declaration of why feminism matters in the first place:
“Some people ask: ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women.”
“Instead of teaching [your daughter] to be likeable, teach her to be honest. And kind. And brave. Encourage her to speak her mind, to say what she really thinks, to speak truthfully….Tell her that kindness matters. Praise her when she is kind to other people. But teach her that her kindness must never be taken for granted. Tell her that she, too, deserves the kindness of others. Teach her to stand up for what is hers. If another child takes her toy without her permission, ask her to take it back, because her consent is important. Tell her that if anything ever makes her uncomfortable, to speak up, to say it, to shout.”
3. Feminism Is for Everybody (Bell Hooks)
If you think feminism excludes men; if you think feminism might be dead; if you think feminism is just about “women’s rights,” Hooks’ book is a great go-to. It’s an accessible, vulnerable, engaging, eye-opening look about why feminism matters, how feminism should intersect with the larger world and problems in society like racism and homophobia, and a vision for a more equitable future for all of us.
“Imagine living in a world where there is no domination, where females and males are not alike or even always equal, but where a vision of mutuality is the ethos shaping our interaction.”
“To understand feminism it implies one has to necessarily understand sexism.”
4. Bad Feminist (Roxane Gay)
If you haven’t “met” Roxane Gay yet (she also has an incredible book called Hunger), it’s time you made her acquaintance. Her essays are full of humor, insight, and commentary on modern feminism and society at large. Gay isn’t about lofty standards. She’s about flawed, imperfect people rising to their best selves and dealing with big issues with both eyes open.
“When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.”
“I believe women not just in the United States but throughout the world deserve equality and freedom but know I am in no position to tell women of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like.”
5. Half the Sky (Nicholas Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn)
If you wonder why feminism matters globally (and that includes your own backyard), this book is for you. Fair warning: Critiques of the book calling it “poverty porn” shouldn’t be ignored. In other words, if this book serves as nothing more than a tour through the violence and suffering women endure worldwide, it has failed (and you have failed too). But if it can (like it did for me and has done for many people comfortably ensconced in their own privilege and ignorance) create compassion, awareness, and connection with the plight women face because of poverty, sexism, and racism, worldwide, it’s a must-read. I also found new heros in this book, like Ruchira Gupta, who is working to end human trafficking and sexual slavery in India (her own backyard).
Ruchira Gupta. Photo credit: India Today
“More girls were killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men killed in all the wars in the 20th century. More girls are killed in this routine gendercide in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.”
“One of the great failings of the American education system (in our view) is that young people can graduate from university without any understanding of poverty at home or abroad.”
6. Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud (Anne Helen Petersen)
If you’ve ever felt like the wrong kind of woman, this book is for you (and who hasn’t, with all the impossible double-standards women are required to meet?). Petersen dives into the contradictions—and the impossibility—that make up what it means to be a woman.
“She should be assertive but not bossy, feminine but not prissy, experienced but not condescending, fashionable but not superficial, forceful but not shrill. Put simply: she should be masculine, but not too masculine; feminine, but not too feminine. She should be everything, which means she should be nothing.”
7. The Makers (PBS Documentary)
How much do you really know about women’s history? This series is an eye-opening look at the inspiring, messy, fascinating saga of women’s rights and women’s achievements. I dare you not to get choked up while you watch Kathrine Switzer, flanked by her allies, become the first woman to run the Boston Marathon—as the enraged owner of the race literally tries to grab her and pull her to the sidelines.
These are the women who made America. And I’m willing to bet you don’t know most of their names (I didn’t.)
Switzer is grabbed by Jock Semple who tried to stop her from participating in the 1967 Boston Marathon. UPI Photo, Boston Herald.
8. Miss Representation (Documentary, The Representation Project)
We all hear about the problematic portrayal of women in media. But is it really that bad? Miss Representation does a pretty great job of crystallizing the problems of women’s representation in media and greater society, and illustrating just how damaging that misrepresentation is:
“Women respond to advertisers’ messages of never being good enough: American women spend more money on the pursuit of beauty than on their own education.”
“53% of 12 year old girls feel unhappy with their bodies, 78% of 17 year old girls feel unhappy with their bodies and 65% of women and girls have an eating disorder.”
“Only 16% of protagonists in film are female. Only 7% of film directors and 10% of writers are female.”
9. The Mask You Live In (Documentary, The Representation Project)
Made by the same folks who created “Miss Representation,” this documentary takes a look at our society’s narrow definition of masculinity—and how that negatively impacts men and boys. If you have lingering questions about whether there’s room for men and boys in the fight for gender equity, this film is for you.
Photo credit: The Representation Project.
“Research shows that compared to girls, boys in the U.S. are more likely to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, prescribed stimulant medications, fail out of school, binge drink, commit a violent crime, and/or take their own lives.”
10. The Red Pill (Cassie Jaye)
The title of this documentary comes from The Matrix. And it’s apt. This film follows Cassie Jaye, a feminist documentarian who explores, in depth, some of the big issues men face in society (issues that are either ignored or written off by some feminists). The men’s rights activists in the film tend to paint feminists with a broad and unflattering brush, insisting that they are to blame for the issues men face in society (issues also highlighted in The Mask You Live In). So much so, in fact, that by the end of the film, Cassie Jaye disowns the word “feminism.” But if you can look past this red herring and the caricature it creates of feminism (along with some fair points), the film does an incredible job of illustrating the issues facing men in society. Issues that must intersect with feminism.
11. How to Be a Woman (Caitlin Moran)
I love this book with all my heart. It’s funny and relatable. It’s also irreverent and unapologetic. It calls out the impossibilities and the absurdity of many aspects of modern culture while giving women permission to celebrate and own their femaleness, in all its forms. Is it perfect? No. Roxane Gay hates it (and I understand why. There’s unexamined white privilege and racism lurking throughout these pages, there’s some contradicting ideas within the book, and it might not be mind-blowing information for seasoned feminists). But I love it despite its problems. And I recommend it if you’re new on the block.
“We need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29% of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42% of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?”
“It’s difficult to see the glass ceiling because it’s made of glass. Virtually invisible. What we need is for more birds to fly above it and shit all over it, so we can see it properly.”
12. The Power (Naomi Alderman)
You’ve heard about “the patriarchy.” And if you’ve been part of many feminist conversations, you know it doesn’t mean “the men.” Rather, it’s a system that values men’s accomplishments, voices, and lives more than women’s. Still, you’ll hear no shortage of wishful “if women ran the world, then…”
But really. What would happen if our social system valued women’s accomplishments, voices, and lives more than men’s? Hint: Not a utopian matriarchy. Naomi Alderman explores the idea of what might happen if the balance of power shifted, and it isn’t pretty. But it is fascinating. And a reminder that power and corruption is not inextricably tied to gender. (Bonus: This was one of Barack Obama’s favorite books in 2017!)
“Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there.”
“Have you thought about the evolutionary psychology of it? Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women—with babies to protect from harm—have had to become aggressive and violent.”
13. Full Frontal Feminism (Jessica Valenti)
As the title suggests, this book is irreverent and bold and gets right to the point about why we need feminism. It's a great introduction to feminism since Valenti is speaking directly to new feminists and defines the term over and over, adding a new dimension of the movement each time.
Need someone to clarify feminism? To put it in perspective? Valenti does exactly this in Full Frontal Feminism.
"There's an awful lot of effort beig put into discrediting the f-word [feminism]. But if folks didn't see feminism as a threat--and a powerful one--they wouldn't spend so much time putting it down."
"Feminism isn't simply about being a woman in a position of power. It's battling systemic inequities; it's a social justice movement that believes sexism, racism and classism exist and interconnect, and that they should be consistently challenged."
Got your library list? Have a book or documentary recommendation of your own? Share it in the comments below!
Main Image Photo credit: Book Riot.So you think you might be a feminist.