The definition of feminism isn’t really unknown to the general public: “Feminist, a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of sexes.” (Thanks, Chmimanda Ngozi Adichie, as heard on Beyoncé’s “***Flawless.”)
Despite that, however, gender has been a constant topic of debate and study throughout history. How it affects the human experience, how it positions a person in society, what it objectively means — sociology, philosophy, politics and, most of all, literature have delved into gender over decades to investigate its repercussions.
Ever since the first wave of feminism (which was back in the 1900s, when women were fighting for equal suffrage), however, feminism has evolved to better address 21st-century concerns. With the resistance against racism and homophobia especially, queer and WOC voices have also been included in the feminist debate, sharing experiences and highlighting how intersectionality and subjectivity also play into gender roles.
With this plurality — and amplification — of voices in mind, here are 12 books, from fiction to autobiographies, that discuss the experiences of being a woman. And I’m not going syllabus mode on you: Whether or not you’re a women’s studies or humanities major (or even a woman at all), these are all must-reads that will change your perspective.
- Feminism Is For Everybody: Passionate Politics by bell hooks
With Feminism Is For Everybody: Passionate Politics ($23), bell hooks offers an open-hearted, clear introduction to the debate on gender, sexuality and society. Introducing feminist theory based on historical events and personal experiences, hooks uses her thought-provoking writing to challenge controversial issues like violence, race, class, work and reproductive rights while she analyzes critically how those elements can be sources of oppression.
Falling under 150 pages, the book aims to convey feminism as a debate that is accessible to every reader, through easy language and optimistic ideas.
- Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
In a collection of 15 essays penned between 1976 to 1984, Audre Lorde dives into her own experience as a Black lesbian feminist to acknowledge and empower marginalized groups, highlighting how the notion of difference — in terms of gender, race, and economic status — can impact a person’s position in society.
Considered one of the main works of intersectional feminism, Sister Outsider ($14) discusses imperialism, social justice, and oppression, while it celebrates Blackness and womanhood. Throughout the novel, Lorde calls out how white women have upheld racism and the patriarchy; men, the misogyny; and ourselves, prejudice.
She writes, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of Color remains chained. Nor is any one of you.”
- Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
By acclaimed Japanese writer Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs ($15) explores feminism through fiction. The novel follows the journey of three women as they navigate their way against oppressive societal norms and their own personal struggles.
Challenging patriarchy with passion and complex characters, Kawakami taps into themes like reproductive laws, beauty standards, and the stigma that Japanese women are subservient to engage a political debate with an entertaining, fleshed-out novel.
- Women, Culture & Politics by Angela Davis
Women, Culture & Politics ($16) consists mainly of speeches delivered by activist and politician Angela Davis in the late 1980s. Overlapping subjects like race, gender, sexual orientation, and financial issues, Davis discusses the political changes of past decades, with some commentaries that stand relevant today.
By connecting the experiences of marginalized communities, the author also carves out a moment of historical importance in the U.S.’ history.
- We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In We Should All Be Feminists ($9), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie presents an essay that dives into the definition of feminism and womanhood in the 21st century. Also known for her novel Americanah, Adichie explores her personal experiences in Nigeria, the United States, and other parts of the world as a way to write a nuanced picture of why gender inequality affects everyone.
With witty, observant prose, the book is drawn from her well-known TEDx Talk of the same name, and invites everyone to embrace feminism as a way to dismantle gender labels and embrace individuality.
- Know My Name: A Memoir by Chanel Miller
When Chanel Miller wrote a letter as Emily Doe — the victim to the People v. Turner case — describing how she was sexually assaulted on Stanford University’s campus and how little action was taken, it led to changes in California law and the judge in the case being recalled.
In the memoir Know My Name ($17), Miller recalls her journey of healing and dealing with trauma, especially under the public eye. Exposing a culture that protects perpetrators and a criminal justice system that fails women and the most vulnerable, the author webs in her personal experience and shares a story of vulnerability, loss and courage to move on from one of the most covered and high-profile trials of the 2010s.
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou’s first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings ($14), is a celebrated, poignant American classic. Portraying the early life of Angelou and the complexities of childhood, loneliness, and racism, the author depicts her life from the small Southern town in which she was born to her path toward self-love, resilience in the face of abuse, the power of literature, and the support of her community.
Raw and complex, the book is beyond an account of oppression as a Black woman in the 20th century. It is written to inspire, give companionship, and put her later works into context.
- Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Namjoo
The point of Cho Namjoo’s titular character in Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 ($13) is to be ordinary. Born in 1982 and given the most common name for Korean girls that year, the protagonist embodies the standards that all girls her age tend submit to in South Korea — forsaking her career to take care of her husband and child, putting family first, being blamed for her own assault, and following the etiquette for a woman.
However, Jiyoung’s generic life is brought to a halt when she starts to act out and impersonate the voices of other women, both known and unknown to her, until she is sent to a male psychiatrist.
With minimalist prose, the novel reflects on gender-based stigmas still prevalent in South Korean culture.
- Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton
Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton ($17) debates the roles of gender when it comes to love.
Describing how, throughout her life, most of what she learned about love has been through her friendships with women, Alderton meditates on how having the support of a female group can be important in your earlier years, with heartwarming, autobiographical moments of a woman who, above all, wants to be loved when growing up.
- Loving In The War Years by Cherríe Moraga
Loving in the War Years ($19) is a feminist and Chicano classic. Originally published in 1983, it fluctuates between poetry, prose, Spanish, and English to share Cherríe Moraga’s personal journey as a Chicana and a lesbian, and society’s disapproval of the combination of these identities.
Taking the figure of the symbolic mother of the first mestizo peoples, Malinche, the author writes about the sexual and cultural traumas experienced by women. She delves into her own difficulties in accepting her heritage, assimilating into white culture or conforming to the patriarchal standards she was raised in.
- A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own ($12) is an essay that was, at first, a series of lectures given at Newnham College and Girton College in October 1928.
Shedding light on how the symbolic space for women writers in literature is dominated by the patriarchy, the book is recognized as a feminist work and debates how men have used their privilege to produce more works of literature than women. Illustrating the difference between men and women’s opportunities, Woolf also explores how, from an early age, masculine and patriarchal ideals are imposed on society.
- The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
The Second Sex ($17) is outdated and might be filled with contemporary shortcomings. Nonetheless, Simone de Beauvoir’s masterwork was one of the first pieces on the Western idea of what it means to be a woman.
Coining one of the most famous feminist quotes of all time — “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” — the French existentialist author pioneers the concept of gender as she details how, historically, women have been defined in relation to men, never as an independent concept or person. Published in 1949, de Beauvoir’s book is also considered one of the inspirations behind second-wave feminism.