Wednesday, June 18, 2014

13 of the Most Essential Feminist Texts of the 20th Century

The past century saw monumental changes in the social conditions of women across the world, particularly in the West, and many of these political and social transformations can be traced to the extraordinary writing of feminists, articulating the struggle for liberation. Many of these books have had a huge impact on my own feminist politics and thinking. I'm not including any books that I have yet to read, so I'm not including either Susan Faludi's Backlash or Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex, both of which are perched on the teetering and ever-growing mountain of books that I plan on reading.

Herland - Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)
Gilman's challenging utopian novel tells of a group of young men exploring the remote wilderness who stumble upon an isolated and peaceful civilization of only women, perpetuated through parthenogenesis. The choice to narrate the story from the point of view of the male explorers is in fact a brilliant one, for in so doing, Gilman reveals the short-sightedness of patriarchal cultural assumptions, for the men are compelled to explicate their understanding of gender, violence, and sex, and to therefore grasp the limits of a patriarchal society. Though nearly a hundred years old, the novel still poses quandaries we are far from resolving.

A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf (1929)
Woolf's complex blend of essay and fictional framing device, based on a series of lectures on women and fiction, is one of the most influential feminist texts ever written. Woolf's thesis that a woman writer needs a room of her own, that is, a private enclosed space in which the duties of wifehood, motherhood, and household obligations cannot intrude, in order to produce literary work on a par with that of the great male writers, is as relevant today as it was in 1929. Whether one is a writer or not, the need for privacy and space (both literal and metaphorical) is as real as that for food or shelter, and the historical denial of this need for women remains a genuine feminist issue.

Last Flight - Amelia Earhart (1937)
After Earhart disappeared over the Pacific, her husband compiled this collection of diary entries, dispatches, and a poem written by Earhart, detailing her final flight. As one of the most famous and accomplished aviators of all time and a woman who defied social convention with her disregard for standards of femininity and her love for adventure above all else, Earhart is a charismatic feminist icon. The significance of this book lies in its expression of independence, curiosity, and enterprise, the revolutionary qualities that made its author such an extraordinary historical figure.

Three Guineas - Virginia Woolf (1938)
Pacifist and feminist Virginia Woolf penned this book-length essay, tying together her feminist politics with anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi polemics, on the eve of the second World War. Structured in the form of letters responding to inquiries for monetary donations, Woolf discusses the prevention of war, the need to support education, particularly at the university level, for women, and the integration of women into the paid labor force. Woolf aligns anti-militarism with the empowerment of women and the push towards warfare with the promotion of a patriarchal value system that is fundamentally hostile towards women.

The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
The definitive feminist text is undeniably de Beauvoir's treatise on the condition of being female in a world in which being female and being oppressed are synonymous states. In the first half, de Beauvoir surveys philosophy, history, religion, myth, literature, and science, rejecting many widely accepted theories and ideas grounded in misogynistic politics; in the second, she discusses the lived experience of girl- and womanhood. Reading this book was a life-changing experience for me and I cannot recommend it highly enough. A new translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier, released in 2009, finally offers us the possibility to read the unexpurgated text in English.

The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing (1962)
Lessing explores nearly every major feminist issue, from motherhood and sex to politics (in particular communism and Stalinism), in her greatest masterpiece. Protagonist Anna Wulf's attempt to conquer the fragmentation of her own psyche through the integration of her various notebooks, each filled with writing based around one aspect of her life, into one golden notebook is a fundamentally feminist enterprise, a battle against the culturally sanctioned mutilation of the female identity. The Golden Notebook is among the greatest literary works of the twentieth century.

The Feminine Mystique - Betty Friedan (1963)
Friedan's groundbreaking study of "the problem that has no name" was a major factor in setting into motion second-wave feminism. Originally meant to be a magazine article, but expanded into a full-length book after blanket refusals from magazine publishers, The Feminine Mystique cogently traces the unhappiness and boredom of the average housewife to her fettered condition in the home, reduced to her roles as wife, mother, and maid, and argues for her liberation, particularly professionally and artistically. Though often criticized for its focus on white middle-class women, it is impossible to overstate the impact of this book on feminist consciousness in the United States.

Women as Lovers - Elfriede Jelinek (1975)
Jelinek, winner of the Nobel Prize in 2004, writes viscerally brutal feminist novels that fearlessly examine sexuality, violence, and subjugation; Women as Lovers is a prime example. Brigitte and Paula work in an underwear factory and dream of happiness in a middle-class home with a loved and loving husband, but while Brigitte is willing to sacrifice her own desires to the practical demands of survival in a patriarchal society, Paula is too easily swayed by sexual passion and a yearning to be loved, failing to take into account the limitations imposed by her femaleness. Among Jelinek's other brilliant works are Lust and The Piano Teacher.

Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity - Judith Butler (1989)
Butler's pioneering work of feminist and queer theory, in which she sets forth the hugely influential concept of gender performativity, deconstructs the monolithic concepts of sex and gender and analyzes how these concepts intersect with political power, psychoanalytic theories, and the way in which we use language to establish and reinforce our beliefs about gender and sexual identity. Butler's brilliant analysis forces readers to scrutinize gender politics in ways that even the most radical feminists had not done before.

Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community - Faye Ginsburg (1989)
Few subjects elicit such passionate responses as abortion, particularly in the United States where it is a constantly contested and controversial right. Despite the inflammatory subject matter, Ginsburg is extraordinarily fair-minded and empathetic as she writes about the battle over an abortion clinic in Fargo, South Dakota, interrogating the complexities that complicate the politics of women's activism and political stances on the right to choose. There are a very finite number of books that deal with abortion in such an even-handed and unprejudiced way, making this particular volume all the more valuable.

Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus - Peggy Reeves Sanday (1990) 
Few books are so upsetting and infuriating as Sanday's expose on the sick culture of sexual violence, hazing, and institutionalized excuses ("boys will be boys") of American fraternities, a work that was inspired when Sanday discovered cases of gang rape being swept under the table at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches. I rarely feel that any book should be universally recommended, but I do feel that every college freshman, male and female, would benefit from reading this conscientious and fearless book.

The Beauty Myth - Naomi Wolf (1991)
Reading Wolf's analysis of female power and our culture's increasingly stringent standards of physical beauty completely changed my own thinking about how cultural ideals exert power on women. Wolf theorizes that as women have slowly accrued greater political and social power, the expectations laid upon them to maintain a particular standard of physical "beauty" have intensified and become more severe and inflexible. The Beauty Myth is essential reading for feminists, a text that has the capacity to forever change how we think about our bodies.

Lucky - Alice Sebold (1999)
Sebold's brutal memoir describes in excruciating detail her experience of being raped and her struggle to get her rapist apprehended and convicted. Both courageous and unsparing, this memoir is one of a surprisingly small number of books that confront sexual violence and its horrifying and wide-ranging effects. Lucky is both a powerful testimony and damning critique of our culture-wide tolerance for violence, particularly of a sexual nature, against women.

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