“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human.” In just one sentence Roxane Gay won me over, along with the rest of the world. Most of us haven’t even had the chance yet to read past this first sentence of Bad Feminist, Gay’s new collection of essays released on Tuesday, but it’s already being hailed by critics as a must-read manifesto on feminism and pop culture.
With her book, which covers everything from reading Sweet Valley High to “what it’s like to move through the world as a woman,” Gay joins a canon of writers whose work has mainstreamed and translated the various concepts of feminism for a wider audience.
Once you’ve devoured your copy of “Bad Feminist” (mine is staring at me from my Kindle as I type), consider adding the following 10 feminist books to your repertoire. Think of it as your Women’s Studies 101 reading list, or simply, as an awesome way to expand your mental library.
1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Anything by Margaret Atwood is pure gold, but this classic novel is particularly special. Offred is a handmaid in a dystopia where declining fertility rates have caused women to lose all control over their own bodies. The contrast between Offred’s horrifying condition and her memories of a happy past create an amazingly personal novel despite taking place in an alternate reality. I guarantee it will give you a unique perspective on all the bills in Congress about women’s reproductive health.
2. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
This graphic novel is a memoir of the author’s experience growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Tracing her life from six to 14, her childlike perspective makes her story relatable, regardless of your own cultural background. Persepolis manages to find joy despite the repression of war, and her coming-of-age story will challenge a strictly Western interpretation of feminism.
3. The Women’s Room by Marilyn French
This novel was the first to reveal the secret thoughts and resentments of women who had left their careers to settle down in the 1950s. Published in 1977, by this time, many of the women found themselves divorced with no way to support themselves independently. Through her characters’ shifting notions of what it means to be a woman, French explores the then burgeoning Women’s Liberation Movement, and the early feminist awakening happening in the corners of 1950s suburbia.
4. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
Lorde called this book a “Biomythography,” and traditional literature genres aren’t the only thing she challenges in this chronicle of her life. From her childhood memories in Harlem to her self-discovery as a sexual being, her rich descriptions reveal what it felt like to be an outsider in a world where being different required so much bravery and hope.
5. Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
This 1973 novel was groundbreaking because of its uninhibited heroine, Isadora Wing. Her desire to fly free leads to her unabashed sexual liberation even while tormented by a bad marriage. She inspired millions of women to let loose their sensual side and satisfy their desires, and in the process, redefined feminism as a foundation for self-discovery.
6. The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
Growing up in today’s world, it’s easy to overlook the necessity for feminism. After all, women have more power than ever before. Naomi Wolf pulls back the veil from this supposed equality and exposes a different kind of social control: how images of beauty are used against women. She argues that the societal focus on women’s physical flaws is directing our energy to an impossible beauty standard instead of using it to reach true equality. This book is like a cure for low self-esteem: Wolf reveals why the problem lies, not within ourselves, but within our media-saturated culture.
7. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics by bell hooks
bell hooks (intentionally lower-cased) is a feminist icon who has written more essays and books on feminist theory than you could count. But what makes this one special is that—as the title implies—it’s for everybody. Short and to the point, hooks quickly introduces readers to intersectional feminist politics and, yes, the flaws in the feminist movement.
8. The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti
Valenti masterfully breaks down the virgin-whore dichotomy in this merciless takedown of purity culture. She reveals the hypocrisy of both abstinence-only education and “Girls Gone Wild,” and exposes a world where young women are valued too much for their sexuality. She goes on to show how this hyper-focus on female sexuality is harmful to both men and women, all with a charmingly snarky style.
9. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Bechdel calls this graphic memoir a “family tragicomic,” a fitting description for the focus of the book: her relationship with her father. Her father was an English teacher and the director of the funeral home, and his duel occupations encapsulate both the humorous and heartbreaking tone of the story. When Alison goes to college and comes out as a lesbian, she starts to realize how her struggle to fit in with her family has affected her adult life.
10. How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
This book is Moran’s manifesto on feminism, and while you certainly shouldn’t take it as an actual how-to guide, her no-nonsense opinions will have you laughing out loud (so beware when you’re reading it while on public transportation). Her sense of humor and her personal stories blend together with politics to create a hilarious read that proves wrong anyone who thinks feminists aren’t funny.