Your Ultimate Feminist Back-to-School Reading List

Do your homework. Read these women writers.

By Maddie Crum
August 7th, 2017

Required-reading lists have been under fire recently, with the Common Core diminishing classroom emphasis on literature without real-world relevancy. Fiction with no clear connection to current events ― so, say, Albert Camus’s The Stranger or even The Great Gatsby ― are eschewed in favor of more topical titles.

On the one hand, this presents a curriculum quandary; those books inspired much of today’s writing, and should arguably be read as a foundation for further literary exploration.  REAL LIFE. REAL NEWS. REAL VOICES. Help us tell more of the stories that matter from voices that too often remain unheard. Support HuffPost

On the other hand, deviating from the canon makes room for writers whose work, despite being both lyrical and influential, is typically ignored. Earlier this year, Yale students protested the white male canon, which loomed large over syllabi, writing that, “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity.”

We tend to agree. Which is why we put together an alternative back-to-school reading list ― one that feminist readers can get behind. We’re not suggesting that you ditch Shakespeare, only that you pick up a few books by women and people of color, too. 

Sex Object by Jessica Valenti

Most women can recall, sprinkled amongst the childhood memories of family road trips and sleepover parties, the first time they looked in the mirror and hated what they saw, the first time a man whispered in their ear the things he wished he could do, the first time someone refused to take them seriously because of what they wore. In her memoir, blogger and Feministing co-founder Jessica Valenti retraces her life moving through the world as a sex object first, human being second. Now raising a daughter of her own, Valenti creates a deeply frustrating and moving portrait of a culture that objectifies, belittles and abuses women and then expects them to laugh about it. ― Priscilla Frank

The Greatest of Marlys by Lynda Barry

If you have yet to discover cartoonist Lynda Barry’s vibrant and emotional comics, let this be your introduction. Marlys is a smart preteen outcast — a character who’s likely to churn up your own mixed feelings about childhood and adolescence that seem to burn brighter each fall. Barry’s vivid depictions of Marlys’ life, and the life of those closest to her, are spot on. You’ll cheer for Marlys and empathize with her embarrassments, just like the supportive adult figure you wished you had when you were her age. ― Jill Capewell

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

Ever read a think piece about how cavalierly “Game of Thrones” uses rape as a plot device and wonder, Well, so what? The showrunners aren’t raping real women to satisfy the audience’s thirst for violent entertainment. In this reality-bending tale, a successful writer, Mr. Fox, keeps killing off the women in his novels. But when his fictional muse, Mary, somehow gains consciousness and turns the lens back onto Mr. Fox, transforming him into story fodder himself, the stakes change. Meanwhile, his real-life wife, Daphne, has become convinced he’s cheating on her and, in a way, he is, as he’s become torn between his fantasy romance with his imaginary muse and his real marriage. In a magical narrative that enacts feminist critical constructs in literal terms, Mr. Fox picks apart what can lie beneath the male obsession with women as objects in art ― both as idealized dream girls and as brutalized bodies. ― Claire Fallon

Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman

Many of Kleeman’s stories will make you feel like you’re suffocating. Her heroines ― mostly women ― get caught in houses with uni-directional doors or windows that don’t open. Often, they’re pursued by aggressive male suitors whose language is obfuscated or manipulative. On the face of them, the stories are absurd. But the feelings evoked by reading them are so similar to the claustrophobia of dating norms that they’re at once strange and way too familiar. Kleeman is also skilled at writing more overtly feminist observations; in one story, a woman runs into an old classmate who mistakes her for another girl, a girl whose sex tape he discovered and distributed under the guise of art. ― Maddie Crum

Read our review of Intimations.

Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

From sci-fi to fantasy to horror, this collection of short stories and excerpts explores the ways authors have used speculative fiction to talk about the issues women face. Including stories by Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Nnedi Okorafor, James Tiptree Jr. and so many more, this is your primer of all things feminist, futuristic and fantastical. Pieces like “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” by L. Timmel Duchamp will haunt you ― in the best ways possible. ― Katherine Brooks

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Korean author Han Kang’s visceral and gruesome novel begins, simply enough, when a woman named Yeong-hy decides to become a vegetarian. Her choice is made abruptly and conclusively after a disturbing dream awakens her to the violent nature of eating animals and, more broadly, of being a human. From this choice, a hallucinatory downward spiral begins, as Yeong-hy’s husband, father, sister and brother-in-law each attempt to force their beliefs, and at times bodies, upon her in an attempt to regain order. Yeong-hy slips further and further away, into a space that looks both like innocence and madness. To an extent, the novel explores the various conventions, desires and violence women are forced to endure under the pretense of civilized life. Yet the story goes deep into the woods outside of gender and society to follow one woman’s escape from her nightmare of being alive. ― PF

Read our review of The Vegetarian. 

Ball by Tara Ison

Tara Ison’s stories are not here to make you feel comfortable. Forget the debate over “likable” characters: Ison takes her subjects into downright disturbing territory, whether it’s a woman exacting revenge on her cancer-stricken friend or, within the titular story, a dark twist to a “It’s me or the dog!” ultimatum. Here, both sexes have an equal opportunity to be reprehensible. Ison’s writing is taut and unsettling — even scarier is how much you’ll be pulled in by her words. ― JC

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids ed. by Meghan Daum

The choice not to be a parent can be fraught, given that any species depends on propagation. For the human race, as others, the default aim of adulthood is reproduction. But should those who choose otherwise have to defend themselves from condescending head waggles, you’ll-regret-its, and the label “selfish”? Despite decades of feminist work to uncouple women from the specific identity of “wife and mother,” women typically face the bulk of such scrutiny even now. A woman who doesn’t want to have a child might be seen as lacking something essential to her feminine identity: warmth, selflessness, a desire to nurture. All this is to say that this collection of essays, edited by the sharp essayist Meghan Daum and compiled from several male writers and many more female writers ― including Sigrid Nunez, Anna Holmes, Laura Kipnis, Danielle Henderson and Lionel Shriver ― offers necessary perspectives on why some might choose paths that don’t include motherhood or fatherhood. Can we treat women’s choices not to devote their lives to children with respect, or, on some level, do we still perceive motherhood as the right and proper identity for a woman? It’s a question that is difficult not to ponder while reading this thought-provoking, opinionated collection. ― CF

Read our interview with Meghan Daum.

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein

There’s a paradox at the heart of female sexuality, one that merits at least one thoroughly reported, book-length analysis. On one hand, we’re taught to glean our self-worth from our looks, and that can be super-damaging. On the other hand, if our appearances really can make us feel powerful, is there real harm in acknowledging that fact and living in accordance with it? Orenstein’s book dives head-first into that question. She interviewed enough young women to get a thorough look at contemporary views on sexuality, including the intimacy of oral sex and the images put forth by celebs like Miley Cyrus. Orenstein’s take may seem old-school to younger readers, but, to her credit, she’s intersectional in her analysis of feminism and girlhood today. ― MC

Read our interview with Peggy Orenstein.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The title says enough. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay attempts to define a term dissenters associate with exclusivity and white privilege, but that 21st-century women recognize as an umbrella for intersectionality, inclusion and real change. “Some people ask: ‘Why the word feminist?’” she writes. “Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?” Because that would be dishonest. […] It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women.” At 64 pages, this is a manifesto you can keep in your backpack. –– KB

Black Wave by Michelle Tea

Is the shape and tone of a narrative inherently white, male and middle class? In Black Wave, Michelle Tea splits the genre at the seams, not only telling a story about queer artists and poets in 1990s California but doing so in a way that creates new modes of storytelling that are queer in themselves. The autobiography on hallucinogens tells the story of drug-addled writer Michelle who, after losing control of her life due to an overload of sex, drugs and partying in San Francisco’s gentrifying Mission district, moves to Los Angeles to start her screenplay. We only wish Jack Kerouac were alive to read about how much cooler Michelle and her crew are compared to those Beat dudes. ― PF

Action: A Book About Sex by Amy Rose Spiegel

Ladies having sex however they’d like isn’t a revolutionary idea in Action — it’s a given, and author Amy Rose is a well-suited shepherd to guide readers into the world of sexuality and self-love (both manual and not). She’s the verbose, wise friend our unsure teenage selves probably all needed, but anyone from a beginner to a self-proclaimed love machine will find value in her words. ― JC

Read our interview with Amy Rose Spiegel.

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. by Eve Babitz

Way before blogging helped legitimize confessional writing, Eve Babitz made a career out of relating her dating exploits, her wry beauty tips and her complicated relationships with “just friends.” The connected writings in Slow Days, Fast Company are technically fiction, but most are semi-autobiographical, so they read more like Jezebel articles than forgotten classics ― and that’s a good thing. Babitz was unabashed in her attempt to make traditionally “feminine” topics serious fodder for serious writing, and, in many ways, she succeeds. She writes wittily and insightfully about baseball as an American pastime and Los Angeles as a city that’s only deceptively shallow. It seems that Babitz empathized with her hometown; she, too, had to combat the idea that her pretty appearance belied an empty interior. ― MC

Read our review of Slow Days, Fast Company.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s collection of essays is, in total, a tribute to counterculture and those individuals living away from the American center. She touches on her childhood and what it was like to grow up as a girl in California, she addresses the various ways friends and strangers have chosen to carry themselves into adulthood, and she deftly explores the ways social issues bubbled to the surface in the ‘60s. Feminist themes weave subtly throughout her stories, underscored by her perpetual desire to understand and empathize with the people around her. ― KB

Goodnight, Beautiful Women by Anna Noyes

Anna Noyes’ stories could accurately be described as quiet, but the themes they address are big, loud issues worth shouting about. Many of them are set in rural Maine, where young women come of age and struggle to define themselves in a world that values their bodies more than their smarts. Frightening first forays into sexuality are often violent, but almost always brushed under the rug ― or buried in the watery depths of a neighborhood quarry. Her perspective on womanhood steps outside of the privileged, upper-class ennui that’s come to define so-called “women’s literature” ― and that alone is a reason to read Noyes. ― MC

Read our review of Goodnight, Beautiful Women.

Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, but the flip side of a society dismissing women who don’t choose to have children as “selfish” and “cold” is that the same society expects moms to be supernaturally devoted to the task. To be worthy of praise, you can’t just have happy, healthy kids ― you should be an attachment mom who had a natural, tub birth and who hands out truckloads of gift baggies every time she bring her toddler on public transit. Between this social pressure and the arms race of mommy blogging and social media posting, it can be hard to get a real sense of how difficult and scary and not-at-all-perfect motherhood can be. In Eleven Hours, Pamela Erens focuses on one particularly under-discussed aspect: labor. After a mother-to-be arrives at the hospital alone, a nurse (who just learned she is also in the early stages of a much-wanted pregnancy) takes the lonely woman under her wing. During the hours of painful, overwhelming contractions ― dilating, pushing, waiting, the necessary trashing of the woman’s carefully detailed birth plan, and pushing again ― Erens shows an intimate portrait of the two women in the midst of a common female experience rarely portrayed with honest detail. To look at labor this way, as an emotional moment but also a medical event ― often a tremendously painful and physically damaging one ― restores a touch of the humanity to the characters, whose own experiences don’t need to be glossed over as part of some romantic, soft-focus Madonna-and-child tableaux. ― CF

Read our review of Eleven Hours .

Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante manages to tell a story packed with cultural history and political discourse ― and she does so by focusing on a lifelong friendship between two women. Born in Naples in 1944, Lena and Lila survive childhood, marriage, divorce, careers and a panoply of tumult, bending and breaking their identities as they burrow further into the complexities of adulthood. It’s the kind of story (spanning four novels) that prefers to show you how gender plays a role in women’s lives rather than tell you. When it comes to feminist-leaning fiction, it’s hard not to fall in love with these books. ― KB

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