The Feminist Bookshelf

Sarah Brodie outlines five must-reads for the feminist bookworm

Building up a respectable feminist bookshelf is tricky. For all those slightly confused bookworms out there, here’s a selection of my favourites.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I recognise the lack of books focusing on LGBT/BME issues, but space limitations prevented me including some excellent books.

bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre

In my opinion, a trail-blazing one; it is undeniable that the second wave of feminism in the USA in the 1960s was great and pioneering, but also completely racist and homophobic (Betty Friedan referred to homophobia as ‘that murky smog’ which actively key lesbians out of the movement).

bell hooks’ From Margin to Centre is a masterpiece in confronting the role of black women in the movement. Written in 1984, but still very relevant today (far more so than The Feminine Mystique), it addresses the white-supremacist patriarchy in America, and how black women are chief victims of oppression and exploitation as a result.

The simmering anger in bell hooks’ writing and elegant fluidity with which she addresses issues of gender, race, and class makes this an essential one for feminists passionate about intersectionality (which should be ALL of us!).

Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue

A life-changing one, I promise. Especially if you have ever eaten a whole loaf of bread when you’re upset and not really known why. Orbach published Fat is a Feminist Issue in 1978, but it is still extremely relevant today. She argues that gender oppression is at the root of women’s relationship with food; women use fat, and binge eating, to rebel against the powerlessness they feel in society generally.

Technically, it is a self help book for binge eaters, but it has earned its place in the feminist canon for being far more than that. Her accounts of women’s groups, bingeing and dieting, and the tracing of eating habits to relationships (especially with mothers) and gendered oppression, will strike a chord with anyone who considers themselves an ‘abnormal eater’.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

A winner on two counts, both on being an excellent, gripping read, and a stark dystopia of an extreme misogynistic society. In Gilead, a military dictatorship, women act as handmaids, their only role to bear children for the military commanders they belong to. The protagonist’s name is Offred, literally Of-Fred; she is the handmaid of her commander, a high-up military official.

Atwood’s novel is beautifully written, fast moving and reveals details of the society it is set in at exactly the right pace. Its poignancy lies in the fact that while elements of the story are fantastical, others – Gilead’s homophobia, its banishment of sterile women, a painful portrayal of a woman being stoned for adultery – are rather close to the bone, and remind readers of the importance of the fight for equality.

Jung Chang, Wild Swans

Chang’s twist on an autobiography follows her female ancestors through the turbulent Chinese 20th century. If you want an idea of how much changed in these three generations, Chang’s grandmother had her feet bound, pre-revolution, while Chang herself flew to a British university as draconian Communist laws were liberalised following Chairman Mao’s death.

Wild Swans can be read as a history of communist China, but it is also the story of three fearless, inspirational women fighting for their values and families against the odds (forced concubinage, horrendous treatment by the Communist Party while pregnant, and the Cultural Revolution all feature). You don’t need to know anything about Chinese history to enjoy, and be affected by, these women’s remarkable stories.

Natasha Walters, The Living Dolls

Don’t be fooled by its frothy packaging: this is a fantastic study of two aspects of gendered oppression. The first half concentrates on the glamorisation of the sex industry, and questioning the celebration of women’s sexuality; while never judging women who work as lap dancers, glamour models or porn stars, Walters quietly queries how liberated they truly are.

The second attacks our current culture of assumed innate gender difference: girls like glittery pink dolls, boys like trucks and swords. It does an excellent job of attacking the media that writes from his sexist angle; the media which does young girls and women a disservice, turning them into the ‘Living Dolls’ of the title.

Illustration: Billie Gavurin

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