Feminist ideas have only become more and more accessible in recent years, with think pieces, literature and Twitter threads bringing feminist issues solidly into the mainstream. These ideas have been built upon decades of work by theorists and academics that have questioned our notions of sex, race and gender and pushed us to think more critically about where these ideas come from.
Feminist theory provides a foundation for the ideas that shape the feminist movement. The body of work that makes up feminist theory spans the entire history of feminism and all its waves, and it is always being updated and expanded by new work. Whether you're just getting started on your feminist theory education, updating your reading list, or expanding on your Intro to Gender Studies knowledge, this list outlines some must-read landmark works of theory that continues to shape today's feminist movement.
1. Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay (2014)
In this collection of essays, novelist and professor Roxanne Gay explores what makes the perfect feminist and wonders if such a feminist even exists. We all enjoy things and have habits that feel contradictory to feminist values, but we shouldn't punish ourselves too hard for them. Gay's essays are witty and relatable, and reveal the bad feminist in all of us — and that, maybe, she's not so bad after all.
2. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler (1990)
A famously dense, but profound, landmark text of queer feminist thought, "Gender Trouble" is a postmodernist deconstruction of gender as we know it. Butler's theory that gender is produced through a series of improvised performances has gone on to set the stage for modern queer theory and ideas about gender identity.
3. Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks (1981)
bell hooks, ever the black feminist icon, examines the experience of black womanhood in relation to feminism and civil rights, and the devaluing of black women within both movements. Published several years before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term "intersectionality" in 1989, "Ain't I a Woman?" has become a pillar of intersectional feminist thought that remains revolutionary.
4. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (2014)
As women in the workforce, and in the world at large, we have all fallen victim to mansplaining. The eponymous first essay in this collection is often credited with the introduction of the concept and details the phenomenon of everyday sexism that happens in the way men explain things to women. It's a cathartic, wearily relatable read that is satisfyingly snarky and personal.
5. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde (1984)
Another early intersectional feminist work that has monumentally shaped contemporary feminism, this collection of essays and speeches is written from the experience of all of Audre Lorde's identities: poet, feminist, black woman, lesbian, cancer survivor. Through her personal experiences, she covers the different experiences of racism, sexism, classism, ageism and homophobia and examines how all of these systems of oppression work together to keep people on the margins.
6. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (1981)
Women of color experience multi-faceted types of oppression in our society. This anthology of essays, poems, visual art and testimonials by women of color explores that complex experience and challenges the white-washed feminism of the second wave. It has laid the foundation for third-wave feminism and continues to speak truth to the trials and strength of women of color today.
7. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
What makes a woman a woman? In this classic feminist text, Simone de Beauvoir's explores the history of oppression women have faced at the hands of men. She examines religion and the history of societies, debunks common beliefs about women and the reason for their status, and introduces the idea that women are, fundamentally, classified as "other" in relation to men. Women are defined within a lack: the status of not being a man. This identity that is defined by a lack of identity then inhibits women's liberation.
A staple of feminist thought, widely believed to be one of the great works of twentieth-century philosophy overall, "The Second Sex" lays the groundwork for a lot of contemporary feminist theory today; it's a must-read for every modern feminist.
8. The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf (1990)
Are beauty standards holding us back? This revolutionary 1990s text argues that, though women continue to break down barriers in social and political spheres, the autonomy they gain is kept in check by increasing levels of pressure to adhere to western beauty standards. Women are inundated with unrealistic expectations of attractiveness and targeted by countless ad campaigns selling products designed to fix our inevitable flaws. "The Beauty Myth" is a revolutionary read that will make you re-examine all of the ideas we hold about beauty that we don't realize we have, and that are keeping patriarchy alive and well.
9. Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman by Michele Wallace (1978)
Notoriously controversial, this book challenged the patriarchy that controlled black politics in the 1960s and aimed to dispel myths of black womanhood that were defined by black men. It also notably called to attention the inability of black women to identify fully with black men or white women, as their needs were neglected by both the Black nationalist and feminist movements.
The latest version of this book, reprinted in 2015, includes a foreword that examines how this text continues to influence black feminist thought and how things have — and, more importantly, have not — changed over the past forty years.
10. Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers' Rights by Juno Mac and Molly Smith (2018)
Are rights for sex workers in opposition to feminist values? This intersectional look at the fight for sex workers' rights makes the argument that anyone aligned with justice and liberation should advocate for laws and regulations that protect, rather than prosecute, sex workers. Mac and Smith, sex workers themselves, take into account modern feminism, anti-capitalist values, resistance to white supremacy and labor rights to craft a compelling argument about a topic that has long been contentious.
11. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment
by Patricia Hill Collins (1990)
Collins examines the work of black feminist theorists and influential black women outside of academia to compile the first comprehensive summary and analysis of black feminist thought. Examining the common experience of black womanhood and how that experience relates to the (historically white) feminist movement in America, she articulates a framework through which to look at the work of prominent black feminists.
12. Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal by J. Jack Halberstam (2013)
"Gaga Feminism" provides a more contemporary, and arguably more accessible (read: less postmodernist philosophy jargon) complement to Butler's "Gender Trouble." In this "roadmap to sex and gender for the twenty-first century," Halberstam uses Lady Gaga to define the new kind of feminism we see taking shape, one of greater sexual and gender fluidity.
13. Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine (2010)
Sure, gender is a social construct, but there are concrete biological differences in the brains of men and women, that much we can agree on, right? Nope. In "Delusions of Gender," Fine uses the latest neuroscience and psychology to debunk the idea that male and female brains are inherently different enough to constitute any biological basis for the gender binary.
Our brains aren't hardwired to have different interests, strengths or weaknesses according to biological sex. Rather, our brains — and our beliefs about them — are shaped by the cultural biases about gender we already hold.
14. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa Harris-Perry (2013)
Taking into consideration how persistent racist stereotypes continue to shape the experience of black American women in the 21st century, "Sister Citizen" examines how black women view themselves as citizens in a country that consistently undermines and ignores their political issues.
15. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa (1987)
This is a semi-autobiographical collection of poems and essays that center around Anzaldúa's experiences as a Chicana lesbian feminist. In it, she challenges our understanding of borders, expanding the term beyond the physical realm to include the invisible cultural terrains we navigate that separate identities and are more fluid than we realize.