1. A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
A Room of One's Own, published in 1929, was a groundbreaking book for its time. The short book is a semi-fictitious narrative of Woolf preparing to lecture on the topic of women and fiction. While pondering the task, she comes to the conclusion that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." This becomes her central thesis.
At the time of publishing, the established literary criticism held that women were inherently inferior writers simply because they were women. A Room of One's Own rejects this. In her essay, Woolf points to the institutional educational and economic failures that stifled female writers.
While the words ‘feminist’ or ‘empowerment’ are never once uttered, no one can deny this is a fiercely feminist text. I warn you though, this book may seem inviting by its teeny tiny size, but Woolf’s stream of consciousness, without chapters, page breaks or even paragraph indents can be difficult to follow. That said, it’s worth every attentive minute!
2. feminism is for everybody, bell hooks
In 2000, bell hooks created an educational text for the masses, bringing feminism from the halls of academia to ordinary homes. In an impassioned compact book written for the everyday person, hooks explains feminism and its many practical day-to-day applications. Written in the first person, hooks writes in a way that is both entertaining and relatable, rooting her analyses in common sense. At the same time, she keeps her content focused on important issues like reproductive rights, race, violence against women, and class.
feminism is for everybody is a must read for every feminist, and especially every feminist-in-the-making. If you know someone with an interest in examining feminist issues, but little patience for academic jargon, this is the perfect book.
3. We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
We Should All Be Feminists is the modern, sister book to hooks’ feminism is for everybody: both are refreshingly concise and straightforward accounts of feminism, making compelling arguments in support of the movement. Adichie tells us in laymen’s terms exactly why we, and everyone we know, should be feminists. This short essay, adapted from one of her famous TED talks, unpacks the definition of feminism in today's world and notes the importance of its awareness, understanding, inclusivity and challenging. This pocket-sized book packs a punch, making it absolutely clear why feminism should be supported by everyone.
If you’re looking for a primer on feminism, or wanting someone else to pick up what feminism is putting down, this should be your first pick.
4. A Vindication of The Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft
Published in 1792, A Vindication of The Rights of Woman is the oldest book on this list, though certainly no less relevant. Wollstonecraft, one of the mothers of feminist theory, did what no one had ever done before: she declared that women and men were intellectual equals and women deserved equal treatment and opportunities. Making this position nearly a hundred years before the term “feminist” even existed, Wollstonecraft was a Grade A badass.
If you’re look to see where it all began, you can’t miss A Vindication of The Rights of Woman.
5. Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, And the Foundations of a Movement, by Angela Davis
Davis’ latest book is a compilation of interviews done with human rights activist Frank Barat, and of recent speeches delivered to various universities. More than anything else, it is a call to action.
In these interviews and speeches, Davis posits that in order to successfully fight against one oppressive system, we must fight against all oppressive systems. Racism cannot be abolished if sexism survives, just as classism will persist if racism is not eliminated. The book hinges on Davis drawing parallels – both of tangible and theoretical connections – between the struggles for self-determination in Palestine and the fight against racist police brutality in Ferguson, illustrating the need for solidarity between movements around the world.
Freedom is a Constant Struggle doesn’t provide an in-depth analysis on the issues, but it’s a great place to start. Read this book, get angry, get inspired, read more, then go change the world. Davis would be proud.
6. Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay
In this series of entertaining and engaging essays, Gay touches on everything from trigger warnings, to Hunger Games, to representations of women in pop culture, to Trayvon Martin, to Woody Allen. While some are home run pieces that compel you to agree with her, others simply put an idea out into the universe for you to consider.
When I read Bad Feminist, a giant weight lifted off my shoulders. Someone was telling me that I could be imperfect and still be a feminist. In the age of people constantly proclaiming, “that’s not feminist,” it’s good to know that one’s feminist membership won’t be revoked simply because they don’t live up to a standard of perfection. And that’s a running theme in this book. Gay’s push back on the unreasonable demands we place upon feminists – people who make mistakes – is a refreshing take on a movement that has preoccupied itself with betterment (at the individual, community, and societal levels) for all these years.
If you’re looking for cogent and charming essays that hit on current topics, Gay is your gal.
7. Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
Written in 1949 by author and philosopher de Beauvoir, Second Sex begins as an autobiographical essay that explores why she thought of herself as a woman first and everything else second. In this groundbreaking study of women in society, de Beauvoir combines critical theory with personal observation. She interrogates the ways women think, feel, hope, and suffer.
Fair warning: this isn’t a poolside read – you’ll need to whip out your glasses and follow closely along with de Beauvoir’s sophisticated text. But this is an important read; essential for anyone studying gender, or anyone interested in understanding gender. Few would disagree that Second Sex is a fundamental work of the feminist canon.
8. Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde
Sister Outsider is a collection of speeches and essays that Lorde wrote in the 70s and 80s. The essays speak to, and are informed by, Lorde's identity as a woman, a person of colour, a lesbian, a parent, and a partner in an interracial relationship. Her essays challenge traditional perspectives towards race, gender and sexual orientation. Lorde consistently upholds that differences between people are not an obstacle, but a tool of empowerment; something to be celebrated. With this book, Lorde was a trailblazer in bringing an intersectional approach – Black, queer, critical – to feminism.
9. Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists, Margo Goodhand
This book isn’t very well known, but it’s one that should be in every (Canadian) feminist’s arsenal. This book examines the history of sexism in Canada and chronicles the incredible origins of the women’s shelter movement. Goodhand begins her book by discussing the roots of Canadian feminism. She touches on everything from the well kept secret of Chatelaine being a radical feminist reader cloaked in beauty ads, to the creative and progressive initiatives put into action through Trudeau’s Local Initiatives Program (LIP). This sets the stage for her terrific, personal and relatable story of how the young feminists of Canada created women’s shelters across the country, in a time when violence against women was ignored, silenced and denied.
As Canadians, we always hear so much about feminism from the US, but it’s important we make sure to know our own history and issues too.
10. The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
Often dubbed the ‘quintessential’ text for the second wave feminist movement, The Feminine Mystique came out in 1963 and rocked the gender socks off mainstream North America. With humble origins of conducting a 15th anniversary college classmate survey, Friedman discovered many of her former classmates were unhappy with their lives as housewives. After, she was inspired to write an entire book examining and debunking the popular belief of the 1950s that the only fulfillment for women was through the housewife-mother role.
In 2006, The New York Times said the book “ignited the contemporary women's movement in 1963 and as a result permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States and countries around the world.”
If you’re looking to understand the feminism of today, you need to understand the feminism of yesterday. And one of your best sources for that is The Feminine Mystique.