50 essential feminist books

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Today, Simone de Beauvoir would have turned 106. The feminist icon is famed for her work, which influenced both feminist theory and existentialism, as well as her book The Second Sex, which is considered to be the beginning of second wave feminism.

Below, we've selected 50 essential feminist reads, including de Beauvoir's work, spanning the first, second and third waves of feminism.

Click on an image below to launch the gallery and let us know your thoughts about the selection in the comments section, below.

  • Antigone

    Sophocles tragedy, written in or before 442 BC, shows Antigone as a woman of agency, willing to stand up to Creon and challenge patriarchal authority.

  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

    Mary Wollstonecraft is widely regarded as the first feminist. A single, financially independent mother at a time when this was entirely unheard of, she wrote a densely packed text calling for women to be educated so that they could be more than mere wives. The 1792 tome indicts men for encouraging excessive emotion in women.

  • Jane Eyre

    Although every male character who comes into contact with the protagonist of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel tries to dominate her, Jane never fully succumbs to them. In a move virtually unheard of in that era, she continues to work after getting married, wanting to be financially independent from Rochester.

  • Little Women

    Louisa May Alcott's novel, set at the time of the American Civil War, focuses heavily on the issue of women's independence, and many of the female characters are self-determined, some with the support of men.

  • Middlemarch

    Dorothea Brooke, the protagonist of George Eliot's 1869 novel, aims to achieve more in her life than what society tells her she is capable of.

  • A Room Of One's Own

    In the prelude to the 1929 book, Virginia Woolf explains that Shakespeare might have had an equally talented sister, but that we'll never know of her talents because she was never afforded the same education and acknowledgement he, as a man, was. The entire book explains the need for a feminine discourse in literature.

  • The Second Sex

    Simone De Beauvoir pioneered gender studies in this 1947 text, introducing the difference between sex (our physiological state) and gender (something society tells us to do).

  • The Golden Notebook

    Doris Lessing's 1962 novel raised consciousness of women, and deals with women's sexuality and questions assumptions about their relationships with men. Lessing wishes for it to be a humanist, rather than a feminist text, and was surprised that, for years women had been saying what she said, but had never written it down.

  • The Bell Jar

    Poet Sylvia Plath's only book, released under a pseudonym of Victoria Lucas in 1963, is a story of female rites of passage. It also broke stereotypes of female mental instability, simply in that this was one of the first novels written about female depression written by a woman.

  • The Feminine Mystique

    This 1963 book launched the second wave of feminism. Betty Friedan takes apart the myth of the postwar happy housewife that had been proliferated by the mass media. Everything that makes your life better than Betty Draper's started here.

  • Wide Sargasso Sea

    A prequel to Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys's 1966 novel tells the story of Rochester's first wife, humanising her and taking a sympathetic look at one of the Victorian period's most demonised characters.

  • SCUM Manifesto

    In 1967, the feminist movement had gained enough pace for radicals to appear. Valerie Solanas's indictment of men calls for the whole male sex to be eliminated. She is perhaps better known for her attempted murder of Andy Warhol.

  • I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

    Maya Angelou's autobiography mainly deals with how knowledge and strength of character can help one overcome racism and abuse. However, the 1969 tome also shows a woman overcoming much adversity to become self-possessed and dignified.

  • Sexual Politics

    Kate Millett's 1970 book was the first text of academic feminist literary criticism. Millett critiques DH Lawrence, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer's fictional representations of relationships, complaining that they discuss sex in a patriarchal way. The book caused much ire amongst men.

  • The Dialectic of Sex

    Shulamith Firestone's 1970 academic text bases all of women's troubles in childbirth and childrearing. Radically, she calls for all human reproduction to be carried out in laboratories so that women can be liberated. She predicts various reproductive technologies, including sex selection and IVF.

  • The Female Eunuch

    In Germaine Greer's 1970 book, she says that women don't know how much men hate them, and that women are encouraged by men to hate themselves. She also encouraged women to learn to love their bodies and taste their own menstrual blood.

  • Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape

    Susan Brownmiller's 1971 text proved controversial. After four years of researching rape, she posited that rape "is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear".

  • My Mother My Self

    Nancy Friday's book discussed how, in order for women of the 1970s to become fully independent, to find work that engaged them and to discover their full sexuality, they had to identify that they were separate and different from their mothers.

  • Fear of Flying

    In this liberating book, published in 1973, Erica Jong takes a journey around Europe in search of the 'zipless f***', with a view that women can and should be just as promiscuous as men.

  • Our Bodies Ourselves

    In 1971, the Boston Women's Health Book Collective's women's health manual was produced by women, for women. Using a friendly, familiar approach, the book includes first-person anecdotes from women who have had all sorts of health situations. The text also caused some controversy by addressing then-taboo issues such as abortion and transgenderism.

  • The Sex Which Is Not One

    Luce Irigaray's 1977 academic text addresses issues of linguistics and the lack of female discourse in literary history.

  • Fat is a Feminist Issue

    Susie Orbach's 1978 book examines women's eating disorders and how a focus on weight is used as a way of subjugating women. A must-read for anyone caught in a cycle of dieting and binge-eating.

  • The Color Purple

    Alice Walker's 1982 book, which was later adapted by Stephen Spielberg into an Oscar-winning film, tells the story of a black woman in 1930s Georgia. It deals with the struggle, both in America and in Africa, of women to gain recognition as individuals who deserve fair and equal treatment.

  • Sister Outsider

    A selection of poet Audre Lorne's work is a hopeful look at racism, sexism, eroticism and lesbianism.

  • The Cider House Rules

    John Irving's story of two abortionists presents women's reproductive rights as a necessity.

  • The Handmaid's Tale

    Written in 1985, in the midst of Reagan's presidency, Margaret Atwood's Booker Prize shortlisted book is a warning against the anti-feminist extremism that was seeping through from the Right following the second wave of feminism.

  • Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistlestop Cafe

    Fannie Fligg's 1987 novel, which was adapted into a film starring Kathy Bates, is a celebration of the strength of the Southern female storytelling traditions, and shows Evelyn Couch awaken to feminism by way of a mid-life identity crisis.

  • Intercourse

    In this polemic, Andrea Dworkin extends on her earlier argument that all porn is rape because it represents a subjugation of women. Her theory is that all heterosexual sex is rape because it relies on women being submissive and men aggressive.

  • Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women

    Susan Faludi, picking up on the same Reaganite conservatism that cause Margaret Atwood's ire, wrote in 1987 about the ways in which women were being lashed out at following the 70's second wave of feminism

  • The Beauty Myth

    In 1991, Naomi Wolf wrote a riposte to the newly-burgeoning plastic surgery industry and the already huge cosmetics market. This is an intriguing analysis of just how much time, money and health is sacrificed by women to stay in step with whatever the cosmetics industry is peddling as the norm.

  • Gender Trouble

    Following on from Simone De Beauvoir, Judith Butler extrapolated gender studies in 1994, with an academic text stating that women are not born to wear skirts, men are not born to wear boots, and that all gender is a performance as affected as a drag queen's stage show.

  • The Red Tent

    Anita Diamant's story focuses on Dinah, Jacob's daughter and Joseph's sister in the Bible. Breathing life into a character who is so sidelined in the Old Testament, Diamant speaks up for all of the women forgotten by history's tendency to focus on male achievements.

  • The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art

    A (much funnier) precursor to Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, The Guerilla Girls' guide to Western art exposes its misogyny and feminine symbolism.

  • Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women

    Elizabeth Wurtzel shot to fame with her memoir, Prozac Nation. In this 1999 book, she takes her hat off to 'difficult women' such as Princess Diana, Hillary Clinton and Yoko Ono.

  • The Bust Guide To The New Girl Order

    A collection of the riot grrrl zine's best work features an interview with Judy Blume and a feature by Courtney Love.

  • Women

    Annie Liebovitz and Susan Sontag's photobook is a celebration of women from all walks of life. Shot in Liebovitz's classic style, it captures miners, domestic abuse victims, athletes, politicians and celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Jerry Hall, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ellen DeGeneres.

  • C***: A Declaration of Independence

    Inga Musco's 1998 extensive analysis of the etymology of the c-word starts with its use as a high form of respect to its present status as a gutter-worthy pejorative. She aims to reclaim the word from its misogynistic appropriation.

  • Feminism Is For Everybody

    bell hooks' 2000 book introduces a popular, male-friendly theory of feminism rooted in common sense and the wisdom of experience. She wishes everyone to unite in equality and tackles issues like reproductive rights, violence, race, class, and work with humour and honesty. She calls for a feminism free from divisive barriers.

  • Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future

    Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richard's 2001 manifesto introduced a third wave of feminism where women are encouraged to identify themselves and feminism as they see fit.

  • A Life's Work

    Rachel Cusk's 2001 autobiographical book about the struggles of motherhood was greeted with much opprobrium from mothers, as she didn't follow parenting guides to the t, and referred to her daughter as a "tetchy monarch"

  • Riding In Cars With Boys

    Beverley Donofrio's autobiography, later adapted into a film starring Drew Barrymore and Brittany Murphy, tells the story of becoming a single mother in the early 60s and overcoming adversity to gain a masters' degree.

  • Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerilla Girls' Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes

    The Guerrilla Girls' 2003 book describes and challenges the stereotypical representations of women in the media.

  • Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide

    Maureen Dowd's 2005 book is a collation of her New York Times Columns. Asking if women really need men to complete themselves or help form their identity, the text has received many a bad review - mainly from men.

  • Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture

    This witty academic analysis, published in 2005, shows the drawbacks of feminism's third wave and neatly explains why poledancing, strip clubs and the encouragement of female laddishness isn't going to further women very much.

  • Full Frontal Feminism

    In this 2007 book, Jessica Valenti gives a sharp, pop-culture-riddled insight into contemporary feminism, telling young women that there is no need to be blamed for not living up to everything the second wave sisterhood expected of the next generation.

  • Strangeland

    This collection of all of the scrawlings in Tracey Emin's artwork is a poignant and sensitive look at many feminist concerns such as sex, desire, abuse, and abortion.

  • Yes Means Yes

    Delivered Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, this 2008 collection of essays argue that rape shouldn't be framed as an absence of consent, but that sex should be viewed as a very positive presence of consent.

  • Bossypants

    In her memoir, Tina Fey provides further proof that women can and will be as funny, if not funnier than men, and don't give a damn if men don't agree. She also discusses the difficulties of managing a balance between her career and her family.

  • The Future of Feminism

    Sylvia Walby's 2011 academic text neatly responds to all suggestions that feminism is dead, and provides a succinct yet comprehensive critical review of recent treatments of feminism, explaining why they have got it wrong.

  • How To Be A Woman

    The part-memoir, part-tirade against 'The Man' presents a modern outlook on feminism, repackaging it to remove the stigma attached to the f word. It also tells you a lot about one of Britain's most revered columnists.


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