Public Domain photo courtesy, William J. Clinton Presidential Library
As you put together your reading lists, considering female-identifying authors from different eras, of different backgrounds, and with unique voices and perspectives should be a top priority. We know the importance of hearing from women leaders at work and seeing women role models for our careers. Similarly, women writers often tell the stories and share the perspectives that are otherwise missing or under-represented and handicap our full understanding of the world.
Feminist literature covers the canon of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, essays (and more) that relates to women's equality in all arenas, including social, political, and domestic. The category includes classics, such as the essays and books written in the 1960's and 1970's during the second wave of feminism. In the UK as well as the U.S., feminist presses were established as the interest in contemporary as well as historic feminist literature was rekindled.
Essentially, feminist literature covers a wide range of written expression, but what they all have in common is a focus on the female experience and how it changes, expands, and evolves.
While many aspects of feminist theory date back to ancient times, the person widely acknowledged as the first feminist philosopher and author is Mary Wollstonecraft, a former governess and lady’s maid (and the mother of fellow author Mary Shelley) who became an innovative political and social writer in England during the late 18th century. One of the first women to openly publish under her own name, Wollstonecraft is most famous for 1792’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a philosophical text advocating for the education of women.
The 24 other writers- both classic and current- on this list admirably continued the work started by Wollstonecraft, cementing feminist literature as a genre not only significant, but essential.
While French-American (with Cuban heritage) author Anaïs Nin didn’t personally identify with the rise of the feminist movement in the 20th century during her lifetime, her erotic novels contain undeniably feminist themes.
When she began publishing her work, erotica written by women (or, at least, openly written by women) was rare, and Nin’s story collections like Delta of Venus and Little Birds have since been lauded as early and excellent examples of sex-positive feminist fiction.
Probably the most famous female English novelist of all time (except maybe J.K. Rowling), Jane Austen published her celebrated sextet of novels (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion) in the early 19th century, although her name never appeared on any of her books during her lifetime; Sense and Sensibility was credited to “A Lady”, and all of her subsequent novels were attributed to “The Author of Sense and Sensibility”.
Nevertheless, Austen’s identity became public knowledge a decade following her death, and her name could finally be attached to the iconic heroines she created, from Sense and Sensibility’s Elinor Dashwood to Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet to Emma’s Emma Woodhouse.
Maya Angelou is currently most famous for her autobiographies, particularly I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This seminal text tells the story of Angelou’s youth, including past traumas like sexual abuse, her own experiences with racism, and her ultimate triumph over these dark forces. Published in 1969, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings changed the face of feminist literature and remains a staple on educational curriculums and nationwide reading lists.
A French novelist and memoirist who began her writing career in the mid 19th century, George Sand (née Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin) wrote under a male pseudonym, but the literary community in Paris at the time were well aware of her true gender, and she became quite a celebrity within those circles during her life.
By the age of 27, she was the best-selling author in Europe of any gender, eclipsing even major figures like Victor Hugo. In her debut novel, Indiana, Sand wrote about an unhappily-married noblewoman who takes daring and often tragic steps to regain control of her own fate, a feminist theme that recurs throughout Sand’s literary repertoire.
Rather than identifying as a “feminist”, novelist Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple) calls herself a “womanist”. “‘Womanist’ is to ‘feminist’ as ‘purple’ is to ‘lavender’,” Walker explains, meaning that ‘womanist’ takes a more inclusive approach to women’s rights, rather than perpetuating only the model of feminism advocated by white women during the 20th century and beyond. Walker embodies this ethos both in her own life and through the sharply-drawn and profoundly moving female characters she creates.
Born Mary Anne Evans, George Eliot wrote under her pseudonym during the Victorian era in England, penning seven highly-acclaimed novels and also dabbling in poetry, journalism, and translation. Her most famous novel Middlemarch remains a staple of literary education, and its heroine, the clever and enterprising orphan Dorothea Brooke, is still celebrated as one of the best-developed female characters in the canon.
Like Alice Walker, author Toni Morrison seeks to bring “Black feminism” to the forefront through her speeches, essays, and novels. In books like her acclaimed Beloved and The Bluest Eye, Morrison features black female protagonists with complicated relationships to their own identities and determinations to assert their own power.
Louisa May Alcott penned one of the most classic childhood novels ever written: Little Women. When the book went to press in the late 19th century, a character like Jo March- youthful, willful, determined to chart her own course, but still devoted to her sisters and the very notion of sisterhood- was wholly unprecedented. There’s a reason why so many 20th and 21st-century girls fell in love with Little Women as pre-teens; Jo and her sisters reveal deep and profound truths about familial and platonic relationships between young girls, and it’s a feminist triumph for that very reason.
Nearly 30 years ago, novelist Amy Tan released her debut book, The Joy Luck Club. This story, focused on the familial bonds between a group of Chinese-American women, spawned a blockbuster film and brought its interlocking stories about mother-daughter relationships into every book club in the nation. Tan’s commitment to sharing tales centered around women and their connections with each other does the Bechdel test proud and cements her feminist status, although she personally rejects that label.
The legendary Virginia Woolf became a staple of the early 20th century arts scene in London thanks to her well-received novels and essays like Orlando, Mrs. Dalloway, and "A Room of One’s Own."
During the feminist movement of the 1970s, Woolf’s complex and multi-layered female characters became critical touchstones, credited with launching proto-feminism. While much of Woolf’s modern-day fame comes from her struggles with mental health and her suicide by drowning, her excellently-crafted works- particularly the call-to-arms that is A Room of One’s Own- admirably demand equal consideration and esteem for female writers.
Sci-fi is historically a very male-centric fiction genre...but author Octavia E. Butler refused to take that lying down. She published dozens of futuristic tales, the vast majority of which featured powerful female protagonists, frequently women of color. In 1995, Butler became the first-ever sci-fi writer to win the MacArthur Genius Grant, effectively smashing down the walls barring women from this particular genre.
American novelist, poet, playwright, and LGBTQ trailblazer Gertrude Stein was most famous during her life for her artist “salons” in Paris, convivial cocktail parties she hosted with guest lists including the most elite artists, writers, composers, and performers of the time. The Radcliffe grad also wrote plenty of her own content, much of which included references to same-sex relationships between women (most notably, her pseudo-autobiography The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written from the perspective of her eponymous life partner).
Unlike Alice Walker, who dislikes the term “feminist” because of its exclusionary implications, writer bell hooks embraces it, asserting that “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression,” and that anyone who believes in these principles can identify as a feminist. hooks weaves her own personal life experiences into her pieces, turning texts like All About Love: New Visions into candid, revealing, and intensely thoughtful works.
An outspoken and proud mid-century feminist, Simone de Beauvoir could include everything from “philosopher” to “existentialist” to “activist” to “published author” on her resume. This revolutionary Parisian thinker penned The Second Sex, a hugely influential treatise on gender differences, religious discrimination against women, a case in favor of abortion, and a discussion of female agency and pleasure during sex. This book informed fellow feminist thinkers like Betty Friedan and led to the rise of second-wave feminism in the early 1960s.
A Mexican-American novelist and poet famous for her stylistic flair and genre-bending prose, Sandra Cisneros seeks to make Chicana voices heard through her writing. Latin-American women take center stage in her pieces, like Esperanza, the teenage heroine of her most famous book, The House on Mango Street.
As with Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath’s legacy is heavily influenced by the tragic circumstances surrounding her death. However, Plath’s poetry and novels count among the most emotionally-raw, exquisitely-phrased, and unapologetically feminist in American literature. Educated at Smith and Cambridge, Plath’s confessional poetry tackled dark subjects like anger, physical pain, and mental illness, also a major motif of her most famous novel, The Bell Jar. Her willingness to confront these topics from the perspectives of female characters set her apart from her contemporaries and make her a continuing literary force.
A celebrated poet and essayist during her lifetime, Audre Lorde wrote numerous philosophical texts on feminism as a theory and on how it relates to the real-life experiences of women of color. In her works, she cautioned against non-intersectional feminism, famously stating that:
“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support."
Long before the Hulu series based on this text swept the Emmys, The Handmaid’s Tale, author Margaret Atwood’s magnum opus, was firmly established as a landmark text for the feminist movement. The post-apocalyptic drama centers around Offred, a woman stripped of her rights in a totalitarian society who nevertheless resists the forces fighting to dehumanize her. It’s a powerful, sadly timely story that continues to propel feminists into action.
Multidisciplinary artist Kate Bornstein frequently chronicles her experiences as a transgender woman and as a gender-nonconforming individual in her writings, notably in My New Gender Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarchy and Sex Positivity. She also prioritizes live audiences with readers, participating in regular talks, lectures, discussions, and performance-art showings to address her perspectives on gender theory, particularly as it applies to younger generations.
MacArthur Genius Grant winner and Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie may be most known for her sampling on Beyonce’s “***Flawless”, but her work transcends her recent celebrity. A regular fixture on TED Talks, Adichie discusses her pieces on feminist theory and her fictional works through the lens of feminism, even titling a novel-length 2014 essay “We Should All Be Feminists”.
A UK-based novelist and journalist, Caitlin Moran uses her incisive wit and brassy humor to skewer the literary canon, as when she controversially declared that female students should avoid reading male authors altogether. Her highly-feminist debut novel, How to Build A Girl, centers around Johanna, an insecure teen who decides to reinvent herself with a bold, irreverent, risk-taking alter ego.
Essayist, short story scribe, and academic lecturer Roxane Gay hit it big with her first collection of autobiographical essays, incisively entitled Bad Feminist. In an interview with Time Magazine, Gay said of Bad Feminist: “In each of these essays, I’m very much trying to show how feminism influences my life for better or worse. It just shows what it’s like to move through the world as a woman. It’s not even about feminism per se, it’s about humanity and empathy."
Both a comedian and a writer, Lindy West uses humor to make sharp and honest commentary on the state of feminism in today’s world. Her critically acclaimed memoir, Shrill: Notes from an Loud Woman, uses moments from West’s own life to detail the experience of growing up as an opinionated woman who doesn’t fit the rigid beauty standards to which women are expected to adhere.
A courageous young Pakistani activist and writer, Malala Yousafzai used her experiences speaking out against the Taliban as a student and her subsequent gunshot wound by a Taliban operative at the age of 15 to inspire her best-selling memoir, I Am Malala. The book details Malala’s crusade to push for female education in her home country and the remarkable steps she was willing to take to make her voice heard.
No feminist list would be complete without the author of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan. Her 1963, ground-breaking nonfiction book is credited for launching second-wave feminism.
Co-founder of Ms. magazine and New York Magazine, Gloria Steinem has been a powerhouse for political action, journalism, and for serving as a feminist organizer. She's written multiple bestselling books, and has advised numerous organizations on feminist causes. The New York-based writer was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.
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