The Books That Changed Feminism Forever

by Charlotte Ahlin
Warner Bros.

Unless you've been living in a distant cave, studiously avoiding all libraries and bookstores, you probably know by now that books can change the world. Books like Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species completely revolutionized science as we know it. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was cited by Lincoln as the tipping point that led to the American Civil War. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle totally grossed everyone out with its descriptions of the meat packing industry, and led to the founding of the FDA (he'd meant for the book to make people care about workers' rights, but... close enough, I guess). And we wouldn't have modern feminism without some brilliant women writers who got fed up with their lot in life. Here are a few of the books that changed feminism forever.

Long before Beyoncé was sampling Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED Talks in her songs, the concept of women being people was pretty outlandish. It took several centuries of books, activism, and female rage to get us here—and if the 2016 election was any indication, we still have a long way to go. So here is just a brief overview of some of the books that have helped to shape gender equality as we know it:


'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' by Mary Wollstonecraft

There were women writers before Mary Wollstonecraft, and some of them even tried to explain this whole "women's rights" concept. But it's Vindication of the Rights of Woman that laid the groundwork for first wave feminism in 1792. Wollstonecraft attacked the notion that women should be docile and subservient. She made a strong case for why women should have the same rights and education as men, shocking many thinkers of her day. Mary kicked off modern feminism and her daughter, Mary Shelley, started the whole sci-fi thing with Frankenstein, for good measure.

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'The Second Sex' by Simone de Beauvoir

Jumping ahead to the second wave of feminism, we have Beauvoir's The Second Sex in 1949. Early feminist writing demanded equal rights and suffrage, but Beauvoir went further, analyzing the entire Western concept of a "woman." Beauvoir wanted to know how we got into this whole sexist mess in the first place. This text was one of the first to differentiate sex and gender, and to explore gender as a social construct rather than a fact of nature.

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'The Feminine Mystique' by Betty Friedan

In 1957, Betty Friedan was conducting a survey of former classmates for a college reunion. Cute, right? Except that it wasn't, because Friedan quickly realized that most of her female colleagues were wildly unhappy with their lives as housewives. Friedan was heavily influenced by Beauvoir in writing The Feminine Mystique, which exposed the everyday sexism of 1950s America. Friedan was mostly focused on bored, white, middle class housewives, but her book still made a huge impact, selling over a million copies after being published in 1964.

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'The Color Purple' by Alice Walker

Alice Walker became the first woman of color to win a Pulitzer Prize with The Color Purple in 1983. The novel was considered very controversial, because of Walker's graphic depictions of violence, sexuality, and racism. It's still one of the most frequently challenged books today, and it forced readers to confront the realities of sexism for African-American women in the 1930s.

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'A Room of One's Own' by Virginia Woolf

Woolf's famous essay argues that women have been systematically prevented from succeeding over the course of history. As an example she uses Judith Shakespeare, a fictional sister to William, who might have had all the same artistic gifts as him — but who would never have been permitted to make her living as a writer.

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'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou basically invented the memoir. I mean, sure, there were other memoirs before her I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but this is the book that introduced the idea of the personal also being political (and beautifully, lyrically written) to a wide audience. Before this book, the classic autobiography was a straight narrative, without so much reflection on systems of oppression. Angelou opened the door for more women to explore the way that politics shape our identities.

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'Fear of Flying' by Erica Jong

Are you afraid of flying? What about aggressive, no strings attached sex? Erica Jong's novel, Fear of Flying, might be best remembered for giving us the phrase "zipless fuck." But, while a lot of it is dated or not so shocking now, 40 years ago it was instrumental in defining the sexual liberation of second wave feminism (it turns out that women can also have sexual desire, who knew?).

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'Women, Race, and Class' by Angela Y. Davis

Remember Betty Friedan? And how she only really wrote about feminism for bored, white housewives? Angela Davis showed up in the '80s to complicate that whole viewpoint. Women, Race, and Class explores how feminism has always been hampered by biases of race and class. Feminism that only serves a few women at the top isn't very feminist. Author and feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw is the one who actually coined the term "intersectionality" to describe a feminism that supports all identities.

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