Feminist Literature pg. 1
“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” Virginia Woolf
Feminist literature, as distinct from works written by female authors, and distinct again from feminist literary criticism, is preoccupied with narratives exploring gender, race and the impacts that can occur where these intersect.
Feminist literature can explore the experiences of marginalised persons; it can also demonstrate the unfolding of universes not subject to these stereotypes, allowing it to serve the dual purposes of sharing experience across barriers of privilege, race and gender, and to generate possible ways forward in a more egalitarian manner. It can also function to explore ways in which the marginalisation of people may be increased in dystopian ways, as in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Most importantly, feminist literature recognises women and men as self-determining agents able to question their status and gender roles, as opposed to the passive recipients of patriarchal thought processes and decision-making.
…Where have you been all my life?
You may not have read many of the works listed here, nor even heard of them, and the reasons for this are threefold: firstly, across most cultures, men have largely been the ones penning the historical record, and they reported mainly on things which were of interest to them. Women’s experiences were largely not a part of this, and a recorded history which focuses on men and men’s deeds alone helps to maintain an unequal society, creating the impression that, prior to the present day, women did nothing of worth. Secondly, efforts to formally create the study of women’s history (that is, the totality of female experience, not just a shopping list of dates and a few famous names) only really commenced in the 1970’s, during the second wave of the feminist movement. And, thirdly, we still live in a society where positions of power, from manager to editor to CEO to the academics judging what constitutes literary merit, are largely filled by men, for whom acknowledging and investigating the female experience is not a priority. Disagree? No book written solely from the perspective of a female character has won the Pulitzer Prize in the last fifteen years [ ], as Nicola Griffith discovered. And whilst high-end literary competitions are by no mean the sole measure of what matters, what results like this tell us is that women’s voices are not being heard.
Feminist literature, and literature written by and about women, therefore, lack the sheer cultural momentum of popular (patriarchal) opinion - and lazy writing by many authors reinforces these notions, as explored in detail in Tansy Rayner Roberts article ‘Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That.’ [
(Wo)manifesto of the feminist literature resource
What we are addressing in this section of the Sydney Feminists Resources is a world that doesn’t want to hear women’s voices, or the voices of gender-oriented and culturally diverse minorities.
And in response to that, we have delved back into the furthest reaches of the written record to present you with women whose writings have endured: feminist women, everyday women, women whose genius was so great that they could not be ignored.
We have organized the literature below chronologically, from least to most recent, with reference to the historic three waves of the feminist movement, which have both shaped and been shaped by the writings of the time.
Feminist literature prior to 1800
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon - Sei Shonagon (1102)
Sei Shonagon, gentlewoman and court lady to the Empress Consort Teishi in Heian Japan. The personal diary was compiled into a book consisting of her observations of life in court, vivified by her writing style and poetry.
The Ladies' Defence, Or, a Dialogue Between Sir John Brute, Sir William Loveall, Melissa, and a Parson - Lady Mary Chudleigh (1701)
An essay in verse advocating for the education of woman, and questioning the psychological smothering often occurring as a result of women being treated as near-servants in marriage in the 17th century.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman - Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)
One of the earliest works of feminist literature, advocating for the education of woman and moral equality as human beings.
Hymns to Inanna - Enheduanna (circa 2285 - 2250 BC)
Relatively little is known of Enheduanna, but she is the world’s first author known by name, a priestess who lived from 2285 - 2250 BC. Credited with creating the genres of poetry, psalms and prayer, her work was used throughout the ancient world and has led to the development of these genres in the present.
First Wave Feminism (1800 − 1928)
Primarily concerned with legal issues, such as the right to vote (suffrage). At times closely linked with the abolitionist and temperance movements.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written By Herself - Harriet Ann Jacobs (1861)
The autobiography of fugitive slave and young mother Harriet Ann Jacobs, chronicling her life as a slave, and exploring the struggles and sexual abuse faced by female slaves, including herself. Jacobs spent seven years hiding in an attic near her owner’s home before she could flee North to find freedom and her two children.
“The Subjection of Women” (essay) - John Stuart Mill & Harriet Taylor Mill (disputed authorship) (1869)
The Mill’s’ argument in favour of equality between the sexes was based on the premise that the intellectual and moral advancement of humanity would result in a net increase in happiness, allowing everyone to experience the pleasures of developing their intellect and defending their rights through voting (though this bore the exceptions of foreigners, and the uneducated).
Pioneering reporter Nellie Bly had herself admitted to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island in an undercover assignment to report on the brutal and neglectful treatment of its female inmates (something which held a very real risk to her well-being), resulting in a grand jury investigation and budgetary increases. She also raced solo around the world for her newspaper, later collected into a book entitled Around the World in Seventy-Two Days.
“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”
My Own Story - Emmeline Pankhurst (1914)
The leader of the British suffragette movement, Pankhurst’s eventual adoption of militant protest tactics was critical in achieving women’s suffrage in Britain. In her autobiography, she traces the development of her ideology alongside the brutal suppression of the suffragettes, from mass police mobilisations, to solitary confinement in prison and being bodily thrown out of government meetings.
A Room of One’s Own - Virginia Woolf (1929)
An extended essay arguing the need for both figurative and literal spaces for women to write within the patriarchy-dominated literary tradition, based on lectures Woolf delivered to the women’s colleges of Newnham and Girton in Cambridge.
The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
With a background in phenomenology (the study of how things appear to our experience), philosopher de Beauvoir argued that throughout much of human history, most of those writing about human nature and experience have been men. This has resulted in the experience of maleness being considered the standard against which human nature is judged, and women have historically been defined by how they deviate from this standard. “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female.”
Second Wave Feminism (1960’s − 1990’s)
Unfolding in the era of civil rights movements, sexuality and reproductive rights became dominant issues alongside equality. Becoming theoretical, second wave feminism began to develop broad critiques of capitalism, the patriarchy, normative heterosexuality and gender roles.
The Feminine Mystique - Betty Friedan (1963)
Helping spark the second wave of feminism in the USA, Friedan’s work expanded upon first wave issues of suffrage to focus upon issues as diverse as reproductive rights, sexuality and the workplace.
The Female Eunuch - Germaine Greer (1970)
An international bestseller and one of the most well known feminist texts, The Female Eunuch explores how traditional family structures repress and neuter women. A critique of historic, female conceptions of the self, and of modern consumerist society. “The World has lost its soul, and I my sex.”
Sorties - Helene Cixous (1975)
An influential exploration of the tendency to create hierarchical oppositions which often define how we think (them/us; female/male; culture/nature; night/day), Cixous proposes that the authority behind this pattern of thought is being delegitimised by the new growth of feminist thought and questioning, and questions what the changes might be.
Available in the collection French Feminists on Religion, Morny Joy (Ed.), Kathleen O’Grady (Ed.), Judith Poxon (Ed.), Joy Morny (Ed.)
The Woman’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets - Barbara G. Walker (1983)
A browser’s delight, this feminist encyclopaedia focuses on mythology, anthropology, religion and sexuality to propose pre-patriarchal origins of key concepts. While the idea of a matriarchal prehistory is one that lacks many claims to historical legitimacy, it possesses some value as a form of empowerment, as discussed by Cynthia Eller in ‘The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory’
SCUM Manifesto - Valeri Solanas (1968)
A polarising, radical feminist manifesto published in 1968, here fore-worded by Avita Ronell, who considers Solanas in the context of her social milieu prior to her shooting (non-fatally) Andy Warhol and being confined to a mental institution. A radical feminist analysis, it opens with the following: “"Life" in this "society" being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of "society" being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.”
Extracts from SCUM: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/architecture/ockman/pdfs/feminism/solanis.pdf
Fat is a Feminist Issue - Susie Orbach (1978)
A pioneering anti-diet book, examining a more complex theory about weight gain than it simply being the outcome of excess eating: that fat is the rebellion of women against their powerlessness, as a way to avoid being seen as an ideal object.
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour - Cherrie Moraga & Gloria E. Anzaldúa (Eds) (1981)
A feminist anthology by women of colour contributors, This Bridge Called My Back explores intersectionality within multiple identities, and challenging white-centric notions of sisterhood.
How to Suppress Women’s Writing - Joanna Russ (1983)
A satirical guide to the suppression and marginalisation of women’s writing through being prevented from producing works, not being credited with their creation, and being critically dismissed for their contributions.
Sex Work: Writings by women in the sex industry - Frédérique Delacoste & Priscilla Alexander (1987)
Integral in popularising the term “sex work”, Sex Work changed how people talk about sex and money in this collection of writings by women who worked in the sex industry. The second edition was updated to include responses to AIDS, the legal status of sex work in different countries, and the growth of international rights movements for prostitutes.
The Beauty Myth - Naomi Wolf (1991)
Wolf’s work explores the idea that as women have made gains in social, economic and political power and prominence, we have also had to combat growing expectations that we compulsorily adhere to rigorous standards of physical beauty. It also discusses the areas in which women are most constantly scrutinized: hunger, religion, sex, violence and work.
Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype - Clarissa Pinkola Estes (1992)
Unfolding a rich tapestry of intercultural myths and stories, Estes works to encourage and enable women to reconnect with their instinctual, wild power.
Sexes and Genealogies - Luce Iriguay (1993)
Political philosopher Luce Iriguay’s work focusses upon her struggle to discover authentically female forms of value, speech, dreams and desires, independent from male-centric modes of thought.
Whores in History - Nickie Roberts (1993)
A blending of social history with sexual politics, Roberts explores the changing social perspectives on prostitutes over time with liberal quotations from contemporary sources, and describes the ways in which societies attempted to both exploit and control the lives of prostitutes. The author also discusses feminist approaches to the subject, arguing in favour of decriminalization of the profession, and the protection of the sexual and financial autonomy of sex workers.
Third Wave Feminism (mid-1990’s - present)
The latest wave of feminism is informed by post-modern and post-colonial thought, celebrating ambiguity and recognising the ability of individuals to define themselves.
To Write Like A Woman - Joanna Russ (1995)
Hugo and Nebula award winning author Joanna Russ published a collection of essays delving into science fiction, horror, feminist utopias and feminist ideology.
For Men, Too: a grateful critique of feminism - Helmut Barz (1998)
A critique of gender and oppression, Barz’s work is also a celebration of the feminist movement, and its importance for all people.
Men Doing Feminism - Tom Digby (ed) (1998)
A collection of essays on men’s ongoing and increasing involvement in the feminist movements.
A Daughter of Isis - Nawal El Saadawi (1999)
An autobiography of El Saadawi, from her childhood in a 1930s Egyptian village, to her ongoing journey to qualify as a medical doctor and publish Women and Sex, which led to her dismissal. Eventually imprisoned in 1981 following her fight for Egyptian women’s intellectual and social rights, she went into exile in 1992, after her name appeared on a fundamentalist group’s death list.
No Turning Back: the history of feminism and the future of women - Estelle Freedman (2002)
Arguing against the statements of the media that feminism is dead, Freedman makes a compelling case for the fact that feminism has attained critical momentum. An examination of the historic forces shaping the feminist movement, and its vibrance today across the planet.
Colonize This!: Young Women of Colour on Today’s Feminism - Daisy Hernandez, Bushra Rehman & Cherrie Moraga (Eds) (2002)
A diverse group of emerging writers discuss their experiences as feminist women within their communities and religions, to address barriers and challenges to change, and what it means for them to identify and fight as feminist.
Feminism Without Borders: decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity - Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2003)
Building upon over two decades of feminism thought and activism, Talpade Mohanty begins with a critique of western feminism, and develops on her concerns with the politics of difference & solidarity, border crossing, democratising and decolonising feminist practice, and the relationship of scholarship to organising social movements.
Global Woman: nannies, maids and sex workers in the new economy - Barbara Ehrenreich (2003)
An examination of the effects of global capitalism on women’s lives all over the world, where a constant stream of migrant nannies, cleaners, carers, sex workers and maids travel to developed nations to ease the ‘care deficit’ existing in these countries, at the cost of deepening care deficits and impacting their families in their own countries.
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love - bell hooks (2004)
Everyone needs to love and be loved, and in her book, hooks explores maleness and masculinity through the expression of fundamental emotions and liberating themselves from fear of losing their place in the patriarchy.
Full Frontal Feminism: a young woman's guide to why feminism matters - Jessica Valenti (2007)
An accessible guide to why feminism matters, and amazing feminist women of the past and their achievements.
Yes Means Yes!: visions of female sexual power and a world without rape - Jaclyn Friedman & Jessica Valenti (2008)
A collection of 27 essays themed on preventing rape by addressing the cultural viewpoints which are complicit in enabling rape, victim blame, and rape apologists.
How Does It Feel to Be A Problem?: being young and Arab in America - Moustafa Bayoumi (2008)
An examination of how young Arab- and Muslim-Americans experience life in a country which often targets them as the enemy, from ongoing government surveillance to workplace discrimination.
He's a Stud, She's a Slut and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman should Know - Jessica Valenti (2008)
A self-explanatory title, Valenti’s book accompanies each double standard with tools needed to combat sexist comments and stereotypes.
Guyland: the perilous world where boys become men - Michael Kimmel (2008)
An examination of the transition of young men from adoolescence to adulthood, and their retreat into a homosocial world which perpetuates the demands of toxic masculinity and a sense of thwarted entitlement.
Women of Colour & Feminism - Maythee Rojas (2009)
Examining the intersection of being both a woman of colour and a feminist, professor Rojas profiles historic women of colour, discusses the arts, and describes her vision for developing a feminist movement which is founded on love and community healing.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? - Jeanette Winterson (2011)
Winterson’s memoir reexamines the childhood explored in her novel Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit, the forging of her character and motivations in childhood abuse and adult, queer relationships, and an ongoing quest for love, and for her biological mother.
The Vagina Monologues - Eve Ensler (1996)
Premiering in New York, Ensler delivered a series of monologues from a feminist perspective on topics ranging from birth to menstruation, sex to female genital mutilation and more.
Desert Flower - Waris Dirie & Cathleen Miller (1998)
The autobiography of Waris Dirie, who fled an arranged marriage at age 12 to become a world-renowned fashion model and UN ambassador advocating against FGM, is a reflection upon her life.
Sex and Social Justice - Martha Nussbaum (1999)
A series of essays which argue for an account of universal human capacities and needs, particularly as applicable to women living in conditions of deprivation (such as starvation, illiteracy and unequal legal recognition), whilst maintaining the end goals of agency and choice of all individuals. Nussbaum also argues for radical changes in the spheres of family and gender relations.
The End of Equality - Anne Summers (2003)
Exploring the diversity of Australian women’s lives today, Summers demonstrates how our economic, political and social wellbeing has been steadily undermined.
The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices - Xinran, trans. Esther Tyldesley (2003)
Xinran presented a Chinese radio program for eight years, in which she invited women to call in and talk about their heartbreaking experiences. Her broadcast, Words on the Night Breeze, became famous for its unflinching portrayals of modern Chinese womanhood. In The Good Women of China, Xinran recounts how she negotiated restrictions imposed on Chinese journalists to establish communication with these women, and tells their stories.
Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy (2006)
A critique of the increasingly sexualised objectification of women, and the ways in which they are encouraged to objectify one another, and themselves, in contemporary American culture. Levy argues that this commodification of women is no indicator of progress towards equality, despite the active participation of women in this raunch culture.
Infidel: My Life - Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2007)
A controversial political figure, Ayaan Hirsi Ali survived civil war, female genital mutilation, brutal beatings and life in four countries under dictatorship, before fleeing a forced marriage and seeking asylum in the Netherlands, where she fought for the reform of Islam and the rights of Muslim women, spending time under armed guard after her fellow collaborator Theo van Gogh was assassinated by a Dutch Muslim.
Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences - Cordelia Fine (2010)
Fine’s work is dedicated to attacking the old myths of sexism that have been hidden beneath pseudo-scientific claims. Fine demonstrates through cutting-edge research the plasticity of the brain, the influence of culture upon identity, and the ultimate malleability of so many of the things we consider to be hardwired. Men and women are made - not born.
The Equality Illusion - Kat Banyard (2010)
Feminism: considered irrelevant, out-dated and even embarrassing. So how do we explain the fact that women working full-time in the UK are paid 17% less per hour? That worldwide, 1 in 3 women have been coerced into sex or sexually abused? The disparity between the genders in those filling positions of power? Banyard presents a passionate argument for the urgent need for feminist social justice campaigns today, discussing the major issues for 21st century feminism.
Women of Consequence - Xaviere Gauthier (2010)
A book dedicated to recognising women of consequence who have made scientific, artistic, sporting, political and social justice breakthroughs since 1901. Gauthier brings a trove of obscure and sometimes forgotten historical figures to light, evaluating their impacts upon fields of specialisation.
Reclaiming the F Word - Katherine Redfern & Kristin Aune (2010)
Based on a survey of over 1,000 feminists, Reclaiming the F Word challenges assumptions that feminism is out-dated and irrelevant, exploring conceptions of what, how and why for feminism today, with subjects ranging from cosmetic surgery to singleness, celebrity culture to the effects of the Global Financial Crisis.
How to Be a Woman - Caitlin Moran (2011)
Recognising the advances we have made in the last century, Moran asks questions about the issues which remain: Botox, Brazilians, misogyny and social pressure to give birth, amongst others. A witty and insightful part-autobiography.
Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism - Natasha Walters (2011)
A critique of the social subversion that has taken place around the watchwords of feminism: empowerment, liberation and choice, channelling them into an increasingly narrow vision of sexualised femininity.