Favorite Books: A Chronology of My Feminist Education

booksReminding me why A Practical Wedding remains one of my favorite blogs, this entire month is devoted to feminism over there. (Infusing popular wedding narratives with active discussions of feminism? Talk about shifting our discourse.) This week the staff shared a round-up of some of their favorite feminist books. It’s brilliant list! In looking through, I was reminded of some old favorites (Undercover, lady-knight, people!) and discovered some books to add to my to-read list.

I’ve been trying to read a lot more lately, and I thought this was a good opportunity to do my own round up and hope that you share some of your favorites in return. This is not an exhaustive list, or even what I consider the “best” feminist titles. But these are books that had a the most formative influence when I was just a wee, budding feminist through graduate school, so they have a special place in my heart.

Ellaenchanted Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

I still remember the day I found this book. My family used to make regular trips to Barnes & Nobel when I was a child, and I would make a bee-line away into the YA stacks. I had discovered that if I found a book quickly and read enough of it before it was time to leave, I could almost always convince my parents to buy it for me. Ella Enchanted was one of these books, and it set the wheels in motion for something much bigger for me. It’s a re-imagining of Cinderella, in which she puts up with all that housework and drudgery because she’s cursed to always be obedient, so she runs away and has adventures and eventually breaks the curse. I think it should be mandatory reading for all pre-teen girls; personally I was so intoxicated by the idea of flipping these traditional tales so that the woman was active, was the hero and in charge of her own destiny. It opened up so much possibility for me: we didn’t necessarily need to start over to look for female heroes; we could apply a different lens to the stories we’ve always known. To some extent, this idea of applying a lens that shifts women and gender issues into a different focus is still at the heart of my brand of feminism.

House of Mirth by Edith Whartonthe house of mirth

In high school, I went through a classic-novels-about-romance phase, which involved a lot of Jane Austen. I picked up House of Mirth, expecting it to fall into the same vein. Oops. This might be the first book that broke my heart. (My one and only foray into fanfic was a rewrite, giving House of Mirth a happy ending.) I suspect any literary-minded feminist has a book that drove home the particular struggles of being a woman, the role of femininity, and the crushing, absurd weight of societal rules and expectations for women, and it was Lily Bart who brought that message home for me.

why_are_all_the_black_kids_sitting_together_in_the_cafeteria1  Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum

I read this book my freshman year of college, and it was the first time I studied contemporary race issues. I spent a lot of time learning about slavery and Jim Crow laws in high school, and I had a vague sense that racism was still a problem, but I didn’t know anything about it and I definitely didn’t know how to engage with it. This is the book that taught me about institutional racism. We can all claim to be (and want to be) “not racist” but are, in fact, products of a racist society so, in truth we probably each have some ugly ideas floating around in our subconscious. We are each responsible to adjust our behavior and question our assumptions, accordingly. This is not a book about feminism, but it was an essential read in making me a better feminist.

Bodies that Matter by Judith Butlerbodies that matter

This book is like hiking through a really dense jungle, up a mountain, following a seemingly overgrown path all the way up. Reading Judith Butler is hard and exhausting work, and you will likely find yourself profoundly uncomfortable at times (because it is complicated, because her ideas challenge fundamental assumptions you may have, because even when you think you get what she’s trying to say, you still have to wrestle with those ideas so they make sense to you).   And then, after struggling through the dense jungle, you get to the top of the mountain and all the hard work has finally paid off: the view (aka whatever insight you have from reading) is so incredible that it rearranges your entire way of seeing, thinking about, and interacting with the world.

Bonus Book: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

As a young reader, I hated this book with a fiery passion. I would indignantly stomp around, complaining about the flat female characters and the ways they were being used as props in the novel to advance the male characters’ narrative. I think that kind of feminist rage was really import to experience; it felt liberating to hate a book on the grounds that the author wrote lame female characters. It was important to realize that I could demand more from my books.

How about you: What are your favorite feminist books? What titles formed your current social consciousness? What should I read next?


2 thoughts on “Favorite Books: A Chronology of My Feminist Education

  1. Katie says:

    I do that program through work where I go to read to a kid at an elementary school, and that’s where I first read Ella Enchanted. My kid loved it and so did I, although trying to say the gnome words out loud was a bit challenging. :) I love The House of Mirth, too, depressing as it is.

    I haven’t read Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, but my best friend read it in college and hated it- it made her really angry. I can’t remember specifically why, but now I want to ask her about it.

    Two of my favorites specifically on feminism are Backlash and The Mommy Myth (although I’ve read other books by Susan Douglas that I didn’t like as much). Some I like that are more subtle in their feminism are Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, Tina Fey’s book Bossypants, and everything by J. Courtney Sullivan.

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