10 Books Every Young Feminist Should Read


If you ask me how I arrived at the conclusion that I was a feminist, I’d cite a number of factors: personal experiences with sexism, classroom discussions, sexuality workshops, role models — but the top one would probably be reading. And while a lot of this reading has been in the form of blogs, magazines, and social media, there’s something to be said for reading 300 pages on a topic instead of three.

Books don’t have to be dry or academic to be educational. Writers’ personal experiences and journalistic investigations can be just as enlightening as gender theory (though I do highly recommend Judith Butler). And education aside, reading can help connect young women to others who understand their struggles and let them know they’re not alone. Roxane Gay (whom you’ll see further down) described this benefit of books:

“I learned a long time ago that life introduces young people to situations they are in no way prepared for, even good girls, lucky girls who want for nothing. Sometimes, when you least expect it, you become the girl in the woods. You lose your name because another one is forced on you. You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you. Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.”

So if you’re trying to figure out what feminism is about, learn how to navigate a world that is not on your side, or just find some good reads that appeal to your passion for gender equality, here are some books I’d recommend to young feminists, or really anyone of any age. And in case the word “book” sets you off in search of a “tl;dr” section, I’ve pulled out some quotable highlights to inspire you (and let you impress people at parties).

1. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Between her books and her writing all over the Internet (at The Butter and The Rumpus, to name a few), Roxane Gay is easily one of the most iconic feminists of our time. In Bad Feminist, Gay tackles Black Entertainment Television, “Blurred Lines,” Girls, and other pop culture phenomena that beg feminist commentary in a fun, lighthearted tone that squashes any stereotypes the reader may have had about humorless feminists.

Quotable moments:

I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.

I believe women not just in the United States but throughout the world deserve equality and freedom but know I am in no position to tell women of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like.

2. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

You may have seen Adichie’s TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” or heard it sampled in Beyonce’s song “Flawless.” In Americanah, Adichie tells the story of a woman who emigrates from Nigeria to the United States. The concept of race is as foreign to her as the country, and by witnessing her assume a black identity for the first time, the reader realizes how culturally specific race is.

Quotable moments:

Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.

If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism. Otherwise you get no sympathy. This applies only for white liberals, by the way. Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.

3. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldua

Writing as both a scholar and a Chicana lesbian, Anzaldua’s poetry and essays address the literal border where she grew up between Mexico and Texas along with the conceptual borders we draw between people based on gender, race, and sexuality.

Quotable moments:

Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.

Like all people, we perceive the version of reality that our culture communicates. Like others having or living in more than one culture, we get multiple, often opposing messages. The coming together of two self-consistent but habitually incomparable frames of reference causes un choque, a cultural collision.

4. Communion: The Female Search for Love by bell hooks

In this deeply personal work of the famous author, speaker, and race and gender scholar, hooks asks one big question in several ways: How can women find love in a society that teaches people not to love them? Her answers will inspire young women to stay true to their feminist beliefs and respect their need for equal treatment as they encounter others who all too often don’t share their values.

Quotable moments:

As long as we live in a patriarchal culture, strife between women and men will be the norm.

When we are self-loving, our growing contentment and personal power sustains us when we are rejected or punished for refusing to follow conventional sexist rules.

5. The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

Body image is one of the most common feminist struggles in the western world. In the U.S., 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies, and 81% of ten-year-olds are afraid of being fat. In this classic work of feminist nonfiction from 1991, Naomi Wolf helped make body image and eating disorders feminist issues by discussing not just the unrealistic standards our culture places on women’s appearances but also how it defines women by these appearances and uses this objectification to lesson women’s power.

Quotable moments:

A woman who is self-conscious can’t relax to let her sensuality come into play. If she is hungry she will be tense. If she is “done up” she will be on the alert for her reflection in his eyes. If she is ashamed of her body, its movement will be stilled. If she does not feel entitled to claim attention, she will not demand that airspace to shine in.

Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history.

6. Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit

Women, especially young women, often get accustomed to being interrupted, ignored, and talked over, but Rebecca Solnit’s term “mansplaining” brought to light the gendered nature of this treatment. What many women previously chalked up to the arrogance of the explainer or their own inadequacy became a larger societal problem. Men Explain Things to Me started off as an opinion piece about a man trying to explain a book to its female author and has spawned a popular hashtag, a tumblr about mansplaining in academia, and an ongoing conversation about how women’s ideas are overlooked.

Quotable moments:

Yes, people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.

Women are an eternal subject, which is a lot like being subjected, or subjugated, or a subject nation, even. There are comparatively few articles about whether men are happy or why their marriages also fail or how nice or not their bodies are, even the movie-star bodies.

7. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

Even if you just read this book for the reason you read Freud in your psychology classes — to understand what people have been criticizing — it’s hard to partake in modern conversations about women in the workplace without a working (no pun intended) knowledge of Lean In. The two words that constitute this title have become a common household phrase and are now also the name of an organization to help women realize their career goals (you might have heard of its “ban bossy” campaign). However, read this with a critical eye: Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, has been accused of promoting an elitist brand of feminism that ignores women of different socioeconomic backgrounds, holding women responsible for solving problems they didn’t create, and encouraging women to prioritize work above all else.

Quotable moments:

Women need to shift from thinking ‘I’m not ready to do that’ to thinking ‘I want to do that- and I’ll learn by doing it.’

Many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are — impostors with limited skills or abilities.

8. Cold Magic, Cold Fire, and Cold Steel by Kate Elliott

For all the fantasy fans out there, this series centers on female characters more multidimensional than the generic “strong woman” often formulaically inserted to appease feminist fantasy readers. The plot revolves around two women who are both powerful in their own ways and also have flaws, as opposed to the archetypal “strong woman,” who has to be good at everything because she stands in for all women. The setting also deviates from the typical medieval-Europe-based settings in the genre in several ways: It borrows from African, Celtic, and Native American cultures, and people of color play central roles.

Quotable moments:

A strong man does not need a silent wife.

We dispute the arbitrary distribution of power and wealth, which is claimed as the natural order, but which is in fact not natural at all but rather artificially created and sustained by ancient privileges.

9. He, She, and It by Marge Piercy

You didn’t think I’d leave out Sci Fi, did you? In the process of narrating a relationship between a human and an android, Piercy explores what it means to be male, female, and human, as the title suggests. He, She, and It has been considered part of the cyber-feminist movement, which you can read about in Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. And as an aside, Marge Piercy’s poetry is also worth checking out.

Quotable moments:

I believe we should explain to her that referring to me as ‘him’ is correct. I am not a robot … I’m a fusion of machine and lab-created biological components, much as humans frequently are fusions of flesh and machine.

Yod, we’re all unnatural now. I have retinal implants. I have a plug set into my skull to interface with a computer. Malkah has a subcutaneous unit that monitors and corrects blood pressure … Avram has an artificial heart and Gadi a kidney .. We can’t go unaided into what we haven’t yet destroyed of ‘nature.’ Without a wrap, without sec skins and filters, we’d perish. We’re all cyborgs, Yod. You’re just a purer form of what we’re all tending toward.

10. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel introduced the “Bechdel test” for determining how sexist a movie is in the comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For: “One, it has to have at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.” Bechdel also wrote the graphic memoir Fun Home about growing up with a repressed family and coming to terms with her lesbianism soon after her closeted father committed suicide. The result is a poignant coming-of-age story about a young woman who finds solace in feminist and lesbian communities.

Quotable moments:

It’s imprecise and insufficient, defining the homosexual as a person whose gender expression is at odds with his or her sex.

I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death.

If you make it through this list and need more feminist books to read, try joining a feminist book club — surprisingly, they exist in most major cities. Happy reading!