Ben Ponton | Creative Commons
The beauty of feminist literature is that it comes in all shapes and sizes. One of my best friends mainly reads academic and nonfiction essays as a gender studies major. I personally lean towards feminist literature in the fiction genre, especially novels. Another one of my best friends prefers short stories. The point is that feminist literature spans all kinds of genres including short stories, essays, novels, poetry, and nonfiction, and they all present ideas about gender that are interesting and important, just in different ways. I tried to make this list like one of those giant cheese platters—with something for everyone. Regardless of your reading preference, there’s bound to be something that satisfies everyone’s fix of feminism for the day.
“When I showed a photograph of a supermom to the working mothers I talked to…many responded with an outright laugh.”
I’m starting out with nonfiction, but honestly, this stuff is just as interesting as the fiction stuff. I had to read The Second Shift for a sociology class. This book follows various couples and explores the power relations of their marriages, especially focusing on conflicts that arise from women having to take a “second shift,” aka getting home from a full-time job and having to do the housework and childcare. It’s a really important, personal glance into the detrimental effects of gender roles and expectations. Hochschild’s writing isn’t the kind of dry, academic writing you’d expect either, making this book a really good read.
“The worst thing you can call a girl is a girl. The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult.”
This was on my freshman year roommate’s bookshelf (or really, it was just her side of the windowsill). I told her I was borrowing it to read and by the time I was finished, I didn’t want to give it back. It’s funny, it’s vulgar, it’s candid. Valenti doesn’t hold back. She explores how gender inequality pervades every aspect of life for everybody—from media to legislation to the workplace to love to beauty and more. You’re probably going to be angry at some point, but you’re probably also going to be hopeful by the end.
“The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are.”
First off, the cover of this book is just beautiful. Adichie explores the idea that gender and culture have evolved, but our ideas about gender have not evolved with them. Archaic gender expectations restrict not only women, but also men just as much. What I love the most about this essay is the personal experience that Adichie has as a Nigerian woman, and the stories she incorporates into her thesis are vividly unique and interesting. Her essay is actually adapted from her viral TEDx Talk, which can be watched here as well.
“‘Has she,’ asked the Doctor, with a smile, ‘has she been associating of late with a circle of pseudo-intellectual women–super-spiritual superior beings?’”
Let’s dive into some fiction with a classic feminist novella. The Awakening was first published in 1899, and the story follows Edna Pontellier’s journey of self-discovery and well, “awakening” from her suffocating marriage. You can absolutely bet that its themes of female sexual desire and liberation were controversial at the time it was published. In fact, Chopin’s writing was censored and her next book was canceled by male “gatekeepers” in the publishing world who believed she was too radical. All the more reason to read it, of course.
“‘Why,’ he asks, ‘don’t you want to go to dinner with me?’”
This one’s a short story and God, is it cinematic. Gaitskill’s a detailed writer, and she’s captured the essence of persistent pursuers perfectly in this short story. Even the title itself fits the overall ambiance and anxiety of the story. It plays out like a movie that every woman has seen before. It’s not over-the-top either, and leaves you with this lingering feeling of jitteriness.
“A wife should have no secrets.”
This is another short story and I just couldn’t decide between which one should be included on the list out of the two, so I’ve included both. This one’s got some sexual themes, so reader discretion is advised. It’s haunting, really. Machado’s an even more detailed writer, and the way she captures loneliness is an all-encompassing feeling that doesn’t go away even when you’re done reading. This is a really important and strong piece about female autonomy.
“I’d rather answer “No” to fifty Johns
Than answer “Yes” to you.”
I’m finishing off with some poetry by Christina Rossetti, a poet who has a special place in my heart. I’ve read a lot of her poems for an essay that I had to write about her. Though she wasn’t a real “feminist,” her poetry still presented ideas about gender and femininity that were controversial during the 19th Century. The quote above is from her poem titled, “No, Thank You John,” which is quite honestly, a hilarious poem. Some other favorites of mine that explore gender include “In an Artist’s Studio,” “Maude Clare,” and her iconic, “Goblin Market.”