In honor of International Women’s Day, we’ve compiled a list of 50 books to help you celebrate the lives and achievements of women around the world. While we don’t agree with the opinions expressed in each and every one of these books, we are advocates for reading work that forces you to ruminate on your own thinking. Besides, isn’t it far more fun to debate with a well-researched book than with that not-so-researched-but-very-drunk person at the bar?
We’ve tried to gather books that you haven’t read before, so while we’re big fans of The Feminine Mystique, you won’t find it anywhere this list. Instead, you’ll find 50 books ranging in focus, but all related to the celebration and study of women.
1. Heroines by Kate Zambreno
Zambreno has created a truly unique project with Heroines: Party literary criticism, part memoir, she looks at the traditionally pathologized biographies of Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, Zelda Fitzgerald and Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot. She critically examines how each was silenced and argues for an alternative canon including these “erased” women.
2. Art and Sexual Politics Edited by Thomas B. Hess and Elizabeth C. Baker
This difficult-to-find-but-worth-hunting-down 1973 anthology provides great essays from artists and writers, including the title piece from art historian Linda Nochlin. And don’t let the dated cover fool you: The ideas expressed here are just as relevant today as they were 41 years ago.
3. The Women by Hilton Als
This is just about everything. We don’t mean that in the colloquial “This cookie is, like, everything” way, either. Als’s book is a memoir, a sociopolitical manifesto, a piece of literary criticism and a psychological study. Like we said: just about everything. Als explores both racial and sexual stereotypes in this stunning series of essays, analyzing the women who would define his life, from his own mother to the mother of Malcolm X.
4. Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks
Well the title just about says it all, doesn’t it? hooks has created a short, easily digestible masterpiece with this collection of essays. In it, she demonstrates how feminism affects everyone, regardless of gender, race or class. This book should be required reading for humanity.
5. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
This collection gathers and celebrates the essential writings of black lesbian poet and feminist author Lorde. These 15 landmark essays and speeches tackle sexism, ageism and homophobia. Lorde’s voice is so impassioned, but her message is ultimately one of hope.
6. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
De Beauvoir’s work was published in 1959, but the ideas expressed in it continue to ring true. Her analyses the Western notion of “woman” is in a way more comprehensive than anyone before or after her. If you’re going to read only one book on this list, make it The Second Sex.
7. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
In this memoir, Hong Kingston writes about the two worlds in which she grew up: the “solid America” that her parents emigrated to and the China of her mother’s “talk-stories,” in which she sees women as warriors. The book details her struggle to find an identity through the Chinese myths and family stories that she’s told.
8. A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft
Here we have one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy, dating back to the 18th century, a super fun time when most educational and political theorists believed that women should not be schooled. Wollstonecraft did not agree, to say the very least. She argues in A Vindication of the Rights of Women that the education of women plays a vital role in society and asserts that women are human beings who deserve the same rights as men. Awful that that was once considered a “radical notion,” but high-five to Wollstonecraft for publishing this classic piece of gender theory.
9. Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? by Susan Moller Okin
Okin’s collection dives head first into a pretty controversial issue. She opens the book by arguing that certain group rights can actually endanger women, rather than empower them, going on to argue that we should not accept group rights that might permit oppression of women. Okin provides unsettling, provocative questions, and her book is worth a read no matter which side of the debate you fall on.
10. Women, Race and Class by Angela Y. Davis
There’s a reason certain books are classics, and here’s a chief example: Davis tracks the women’s movement in the U.S. from abolitionist days to the present and illustrates how the movement has been limited by the racist and classist opinions of its leaders It was published in 1983, so admittedly there are certain arguments that read as dated, but the vast majority of the facts and arguments still provide for an engaging read.
11. The Book of Jezebel
Think back to 2007. This was a time before The Hairpin, a time before xoJane, a time before Rookie. Websites targeted specifically for women were saturated with “news” about shopping and getting the perfect red lipstick, and, well, it was bullshit. And then Jezebel launched in the late spring of 2007, and it was like a 24-hour, one-stop shop for pop culture, fashion, sex and feminism. They released this coffee-table-style book this past winter, and though it’s definitely not something you’ll spend weeks reading, it is fun to flip through. It’s an encyclopedia of everything from The Baby-Sitters Club to yogurt to Gloria Steinem — so basically everything that a modern woman’s gotta know about.
12. Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg
Feinberg is one of the greatest leaders of the transgender rights movement, speaking out about the cause long before a movement even existed. Transgender Warriors blurs the line between the personal and the political; Feinberg speaks candidly about her own experiences as a surgically and hormonally transgendered female-to-male, and looks at the history of transgendered men and women.
13. Whipping Girl by Julia Serano
Serano, a transsexual woman, shares her powerful story in Whipping Girl. She paints a vivid narrative, writing both about her time pre and post transition. The ballast of Serano’s book is her personal experience, but she does have a larger argument, as well: She uses her own stories to explore society’s stigmas and attitudes toward trans women, and ultimately makes a powerful call to action, saying that it is the responsibility of feminists and transgender activists to fight against oppressive societal attitudes.
14. Nevada by Imogen Binnie
Binnie’s novel tells the story of Maria Griffiths, a 20-something transwoman living in Brooklyn. Maria’s world falls apart when she learns that her girlfriend has cheated on her, and so she begins a journey that will serve to define her life. Despite the pithy dialogue (lots of “whatevers”), the books is anchored in real political themes.
15. King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes
In just 137 pages, Despentes delivers a vivid depiction of women’s lives today. She explores multiple facets of sex and gender, showing how modern beauty myths limit women. Her own stories about working in the porn industry act as a jumping-off point for the bold, engaging claims she makes.
16. Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia
There is perhaps no author on this list that stirs impassioned opinions the way Paglia does. A self-described “dissident feminist,” Paglia is known for her critical and controversial point of view, which has gotten her called everything from “an anti-feminist feminist” to “a rape apologist,” neither of which do justice the Paglia’s nuanced intelligence. We don’t always agree with Paglia, but we do always find her interesting, which, frankly, is preferable. Do you just want to read books by people you agree with? Of course not. Boring, right? So, no, you probably won’t agree with everything in Sexual Personae, a book that Paglia wrote, in her own words, “to please no one and offend everyone.” In it, she argues that pronography is everywhere in contemporary art and that to ignore sex in art history is puritanical. It’s her first book, and a great place to start if you’re a Paglia virgin.
17. From Reverence to Rape by Molly Haskell
Haskell’s book was originally published in 1974, but like so many other titles on this list, much of it still rings true today. Haskell writes about the ways in which producers, directors and critics have treated women in cinema, starting in the 1920s and continuing forward to 1987, when the book was revised and reissued. Though it misses out on all that has happened in the past 27 years, From Reverence to Rape provides a nearly comprehensive history of women’s treatment in film.
18. Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
In 2011, People.com Editor Mock was written about in a 2,300-word profile in Marie Claire magazine, but it merely skimmed the surface of her poweful and engaging story as a transwoman. Her memoir paints the whole picture, explaining her quest for identity and the hurdles she faced along the way, from finding a loving, healthy relationship to tackling her career goals. This is not simply a book about being a trans woman; it’s a memoir about what it means to be a woman today, and the struggles we face when searching for happiness on our own terms.
19. Unbearable Weight by Susan Bordo
It’s difficult to discuss both issues of weight and issues of feminism, but Bordo manages to do so with Unbearable Weight. In it, she analyzes a multitude of weight-related issues, from weight loss, to exercise, to the media’s portrayal of the woman’s body, to eating disorders. The whole thing is far more analytical than it is Lifetime movie.
20. Feminism at the Movies Edited by Hilary Radner and Rebecca Stringer
This essay collection doesn’t just cover what we see on the screens; it speaks to a wide range of topics, such as the female director as auteur, depictions of professional women in cinema and gendered violence on the screen. It’s an absolute must-read for any movie buff.
21. Speculum of the Other Woman by Lucy Irigaray
This is one of the major texts in post-1968 women’s studies in France. Irigaray rereads Plato and Freud to explore women’s essential differences from men.
22. Feminism Without Borders by Chandra Talpade Mohanty
This is a series of essays from Mohanty’s meditation on the lives of women workers on the global assembly line. She looks at women in India, the United States and the United Kingdom, producing an insightful book that will expand your perspective of women’s rights to a truly international level.
23. My New Gender Workbook by Kate Bornstein
Full disclosure: This book would probably be best for your little sister — but don’t you want to help teach a brand new generation about the wonderful world of feminism? Of course you do! Bornstein’s text provides a hands-on, accessible take on gender theory. It’s a great gift for anyone who’s expressing interest in gender studies but isn’t quite sure where to start.
24. Globalization & Militarism by Cynthia Enloe
This brilliant book maps out how and why militarism is being globalized, arguing that women want to be patriotic while remaining feminine and men fear being feminized. Enloe is one of the world’s leading feminist scholars and her masterful skill is seen in this compelling and provocative text.
25. Young, White, and Miserable by Wini Breines
If you watch movies from the ‘50s and think, “Hey, now, that looks nice,” then you have got to read this book because you have got it all twisted! You see, growing up female in the ‘50s was actually, as the title states, miserable. Breines argues that the mixed messages sent to girls during this period created for an awful time for young women — but, and here’s the silver lining, it also made it possible for the feminist movement to be born in the next decade. We spend so much time focusing on the feminist movement of the ‘60s (as we should), but Breines provides a less-discussed perspective about the decade that allowed for that revolution to take place.
26. Ain’t I a Woman by bell hooks
Why yes, this is another bell hooks book. She’s just that good. In this one, hooks pases the relationship between oppression and feminism. She is notable for — and this is hardly an exaggeration — a million reasons and not the least of which are this book. It helped to expose the ‘70s feminist movement as an exclusive white club blissfully unaware about the concerns and issues of women of color.
27. Colonize This! Edited by Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman
Ms. magazine’s Hernandez has collected a diverse book, filled with essays from young women about their experience being a woman of color in the 21st century. No two stories are alike, but each one is equally engaging.
28. Does Feminism Discriminate Against Men? by Warren Farrell and James P. Sterba
This books provides two sides of the same issue: Farrell argues that feminism demonizes men and undervalues the family; Sterba provides counterpoints, arguing that the feminist movement gave a voice to women and that men are not and have never been oppressed. The book provides no conclusive answer, but does force you to question your own opinions on the issue.
29. He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut, and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know by Jessica Valenti
Valenti takes a look at the double standards that women are forced to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Some of the disparities she brings up are obvious, but she also places plenty of new issues on the table, such as stereotypes about which hobbies are “girl hobbies” and which ones are “boy hobbies,” and gender biases in the courtroom.
30. The Lolita Effect by MG Durham
How did you raise healthy and stable young women in an environment where lip gloss and thongs are targeted at 12-year-olds? That’s the question that Durham, a university professor and journalist, offers up in her book. If you’ve ever been creeped out by a tween who looks sexier than any adult you’ve met, read it.
31. Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine
Fine has an issue with people saying that gender-based differences go back to biology. Instead, she argues that it has to do with things like gender-based clothing and toys and education. Delusions of Gender will make you take a second look at all that we mindlessly consume on a day-to-day basis.
32. Transforming a Rape Culture Edited by Emilie Buchwald, Pamela Fletcher and Martha Ross
This collection brings together 34 essays from figures such as Gloria Steinem, Michael Kimmel and Louise Erdrich, all looking at how rape culture tacitly and overtly supports violence against women. The book is extremely political, ultimately arguing that rape should be a presidential election issue. It’s an expansive look at a dark subject.
33. Female Masculinity by Judith Halberstam
The term “female masculinity” might not be one you’re familiar with, but you will be after you finish this book. Halberstam is concerned, not with male masculinity, but with the alternative to it. She argues that female masculinity dates back to the 19th century and looks at a wide array of topics tied to it, from women in sports, to male impersonators, to transsexuality.
34. Working Women in America by Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Gregg Lee Carter
In the second edition of Working Women in America, Hesse-Biber and Carter examine the issues that affect women in today’s global workforce. The most interesting part of the book is the discussion of “split dreams”: women who are juggling both their work and family life. The points they bring up are a bit more realistic than just telling women to “lean in.”
35. No Regrets Edited by Dayna Tortorici
n+1’s fifth “small book,” No Regrets is a series of three transcribed conversations about what female writers and editors regret: the things they missed out on, the books they read earlier, the books they read later, the classes they wish they took, the career moves they wish they had made. It is, in its own words, “a book of women talking about the process of becoming themselves.” Why only women in the dialogue? Tortorici writes in her introduction: “Women speak to one another differently in rooms without men. Not better, not more honestly, not more or less intelligently — just different, and in a way one doesn’t see portrayed as often as one might like.” We cannot over-exaggerate how great this 140-page gem is.
36. Forsaken Females by Andrea Parrot and Nina Cummings
This is anything but a light read. It details the violence that women face throughout the world, narrowing in on how those experiences affect the physical, emotional and economic lives of the women violated. The book does not shy away from details about beatings, rape and torture, and as a result, is difficult to get through. However, it is these points where you’re tempted to turn away and put the book down that are the most important to keep reading.
37. Outsourcing the Womb by France Winddance Twine
This investigation looks into the global surrogacy market, specifically the “surrogate baby boom.” It’s a women’s issue that is rarely discussed, and when it is, it’s not with the detail and research that Twine brings to the table.
38. Flat Broke with Children by Sharon Hays
Hays doesn’t tell the story of welfare reform by talking to just politicians. Instead, she speaks directly to welfare mothers about the challenges they and their families face. The author spent three years writing this book, and her dedication to the project shows. Flat Broke with Children is an intimate portrait as to how welfare reform affects motherhood, marriage and the lives of women across the U.S.
39. Promises I Can Keep by Kathryn Edin
Here’s a solid example of a book that you should read to challenge your own opinions: Though you might not agree with Edin’s argument as to why women put children before marriage, it’s beneficial to read a new perspective, especially when it’s as expertly researched as Promises I Can Keep.
40. Holding the Line by Barbara Kingsolver
Even if you’re not obsessed with the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (though, come on, who isn’t?), Kingsolver’s book is worth reading. So much attention was given to the men of the strike, and rightfully so; however, few realize that when men were barred for picketing, it was their wives and daughters who took to the picket lines. One of the most inspiring quotes of the book comes from Diane McCormick of the Morenci Miners Women’s Auxiliary: “Nothing can ever be the same as it was before. Look at us. At the beginning of this strike, we were just a bunch of ladies.”
41. The Problem with Work by Kathi Weeks
Weeks uses Marxist and feminist critiques to challenge the idea that work is inherently a social good. She argues for a postwork society that would demolish the current work model and instead allow people to be productive and creative in their careers. It sounds a bit like a pipedream, but Weeks weaves an intricate and solid argument about women’s relationship to work that’ll get you thinking.
42. America + the Pill by Elaine Tyler May
May argues that, although the FDA approved “the pill,” it was women’s embrace and acceptance of the pill that actually created change. May demonstrates how the pill offered women a new experience of control over their lives and bodies. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows and empowered women, though; May also touches upon what the pill has not been able to achieve since its approval in 1960. America + the Pill is a comprehensive look as to how one teeny-tiny pill changed everything.
43. Woman by Natalie Angier
If what you know about the female body is from your high school health class and copies of Cosmo that you flipped through in a waiting room, pick up this book from Pulitzer Prize-winner Angier. She takes a detailed tour of the female anatomy and physiology, touching on everything from orgasms to menopause.
44. Witches, Midwives, and Nurses by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English
The title before the colon sounds a bit like an ABC drama starring Ellen Pompeo and Kate Hudson. Alas, it is not. Witches, Midwives, and Nurses was first published by The Feminist Press in 1973 and tracks the history of the medical establishment’s roots in witch hunters. The book explores changing societal perceptions about childbirth, alternative medicine and, yes, modern-day witches. It’s a bit more highbrow than Charmed.
45. Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
Ah, another book that falls into the classic-for-a-reason category! Butler’s chief argument: The masculine and feminine are not biologically fixed terms, but rather are culturally presupposed ones. In a just a little under 200 pages, she manages to pack a lot into a little package.
46. Feminine Sexuality by Jacques Lacan
Lacan’s classic provides a rereading of Freud and explores the nature of both male and female sexual identity. It’s a dense but important read, arguing that women are limited by the words that define them, but have been crossing those limitations for decades.
47. How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ
This sarcastic guidebook explains the myriad ways by which women are prevented from producing written work or receiving credit for the work they produce. It’s a must-read for any woman who has felt that her work has been belittled simply on the grounds that it’s coming from a woman.
48. Woman Rebel by Peter Bagge
Why yes, we did include a graphic novel on this list. If you’re rolling your eyes, then, hi, you have a bit of an elitist complex — and also, you’re wrong. Woman Rebel might be illustrated, but it offers up just as much as any book on this list. The graphic biography tells the story of Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood and all-around badass, inspiring woman.
49. The Newly Born Woman by Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément
This is an essential part of any feminist’s bookshelf. Published in France in 1975, it was a landmark text in the modern feminist movement. The book explores the ways in which a woman’s sexuality defines her language and writing.
50. Women’s Work by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
What women are accomplishing in 2014 is such a large part of our day-to-day dialogue. We’re aware when a woman creates or does something incredible; mediums like Twitter and Facebook and the 24-hour news cycle makes it near impossible not to. There’s also a great deal of attention focused on the women’s revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but little is commonly known about all that women were conquering 20,000 years ago. Barber has created a fascinating and original book, showing how our descriptions of prehistoric and early historic cultures have left out half the picture: how women used their crafts to make civilization possible. It’ll make you want to call up your middle school history teacher and yell, “You lied!”
There are, of course, more than 50 books about feminism and gender studies out there. Did we miss your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!
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