Recent political developments have tested — and taught me more about — my feminism than most other experiences in my life so far. And a big part of that journey has included reflecting on the feminist influences from my childhood and teen years; including the feminist books I read in school. Or, more often than not, the feminist books I should have read in school, but that somehow never made their way into the library or onto my English class syllabus.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I was afforded the privilege of great education when I was growing up — lucky enough to go to one of those rare public schools where students could take Intro to Journalism in addition to English Lit, and Modern Dance instead of P.E. (saving me from four years of dodgeball misery.) So really, no complaints there. All I’m saying is that there could have probably been a few (or, you know, many) more feminist titles included on my school’s required reading lists when I was growing up. Less Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, more Alice Walker and Sylvia Plath, if you catch my drift.
Here are 11 feminist books I wish had made my required reading list in school.
1. ‘The Women's Room’ by Marilyn French
I hadn’t even heard of this book until recently — and although I definitely wish it had been included on my required reading lists in school, I’m glad I found it eventually. Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room follows the personal and political transformation of Mira Ward, a woman who has spent her life immersed in a patriarchal culture (1950s and ‘60s America) where misogynistic social norms are so ingrained and accepted that Mira and her friends don’t even know they’ve been subscribing to an unjust system. But when the Women’s Rights Movement begins to grow across the country, the social changes start to transform Mira’s understanding of herself and her place in the world.
2. ‘The Handmaid's Tale’ by Margaret Atwood
I’m kind of surprised The Handmaid’s Tale was never required reading at my high school, given that Margaret Atwood is an icon of contemporary fiction. This bestselling and award-winning novel introduces readers to Offred, a woman who lives in a world where women are valued only for their reproductive capabilities, are forbidden to read, and are allowed outside their homes only once a day to do the shopping. Offred knows there was a time before such repression — but in her current totalitarian theocracy, equal rights, privileges, and personal freedoms are a thing of the past. Then Offred discovers the Mayday resistance, an underground network working to restore life as Offred once knew it.
3. ‘Matilda’ by Roald Dahl
In elementary school, my Roald Dahl titles were limited to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and James and the Giant Peach — aka: all male protagonists. Not that I didn’t love Charlie, James, and Mr. Fox, but a little Matilda would have definitely helped balance things out. Maybe my teachers were just afraid of us mini-feminists rising up against them, à la Matilda versus Mrs. Trunchbull.
4. ‘Meridian’ by Alice Walker
I have read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple several times — and don’t get me wrong, it’s an exceptional novel. But only exposing young readers to The Color Purple does Alice Walker (and readers) something of a disservice. Especially since, IMO, a novel like Meridian is just as powerful. For any readers who aren’t familiar, Meridian follows the story of a young woman named Meridian Hill who is beginning to find her voice — both feminist and political — within the American Civil Rights Movement.
5. ‘Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us’ by Kate Bornstein
Confession: I wasn’t familiar with Kate Bornstein until I was introduced to her on E!’s I Am Cait — which is a shame, because my classmates and I could have learned a lot from her when we were growing into our own sexual and gender identities. Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us is the writer, artist, and gender theorist’s coming-of-age story and manifesto, describing her life as a transgender woman. School reading lists not only need to include more explicitly feminist titles, they should include more narratives from all across the spectrum of gender and sexuality.
6. ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin
In my experience, school reading lists are pretty heavy on the violence and war stories, and notably less interested in the complexities of sex and relationships — which is kind of lame, since I was far more likely to have sex in high school than I was to go to war. Kate Chopin’s novel about female sexual awakening and infidelity was definitely not on my English class syllabus, but it probably should have been. Ahead of its literary time when it was published in 1899, The Awakening shocked and challenged readers with its discussion of female marital infidelity and all kinds of uninhibited womanhood.
7. ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath
My issue with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar isn’t that it wasn’t required reading — it definitely was. But, as far as I recall, the in-class discussions never addressed Plath’s feminist themes, nor the sexual double-standards Esther Greenwood faced, nor the difficulties Esther and her female peers encountered while trying to form their own identities in a world that wasn’t entirely hospitable to them. Mostly I just remember wondering what made Esther break down so completely, and hoping I wasn’t destined to suffer the same fate. Which kinda misses the point.
8. ‘Speak’ by Laurie Halse Anderson
I read this book many times during high school, although it never appeared on any reading lists. I wish it had, because it’s the kind of book I think some of my male peers might have benefited from reading as well. Speak beings when teenager Melinda Sordino calls the police after being raped at a high school party over the summer. Her friends don't understand the trauma of Melinda's experience and begin to ostracize her. She becomes increasingly silent and isolated, until her only form of self-expression is through a series of trees she is producing in art class. But when she is confronted by her rapist again, Melinda finds the power to save herself, also speaking up for the numerous girls who have suffered silently at the hands of this same young man.
9. 'Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems' by Fatema Mernissi
Fatema Mernissi was a writer recognized as one of the leading Islamic feminists in the world, who dedicated her life and her literature to broadening the conversation about the lives of Middle Eastern women and taking readers behind the stereotypes. In Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems, Mernissi tells her own story as a liberated, independent Moroccan woman who witnessed the lives and cultural attitudes toward women around the world.
10. 'The Ladies of Managua' by Eleni N. Gage
Eleni N. Gage's novel The Ladies of Managua takes readers to New York, New Orleans, and Nicaragua, where three generations of women from the Vazquez family gather together over the funeral of the family patriarch. Grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter each live in places where the roles and rights of women are different — and these differences are manifested in their relationships with each other. This novel takes a close look at the cultural expectations placed on women across both time and place, demonstrating the importance of defying and rebelling against misogynistic cultural norms.
11. 'Three Sisters' by Bi Feiyu
First published in 2003 and winner of the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize. Bi Feiyu's novel Three Sisters begins during the Cultural Revolution in China, when three very different young women take their lives and destinies into their own hands, refusing to submit to what traditional Communist Chinese culture expects of women and fighting against social norms, scandal, and sexism in order to build lives for themselves that are both dignified and inspiring.