Several years ago, I began reading about women. This did not start as reading about feminism, but rather I began to read books by women about women. I read a random assortment, from The Bell Jar to Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me?. In time, what started as reading about women became reading about feminism. As I picked up well-known titles, from The Second Sex to pop favorites like Eat, Pray, Love, I was slowly educating myself in the complexities of modern feminism and female life. Not that I am some sort of scholar now, but over the last eight years or so I have read books by different sorts of women who hold different points of view, and I’ve built my own identity as a feminist through that.
A man might say he is a feminist, believe he is a feminist, and act like one, but be completely unfamiliar with much of the vocabulary and history of the movement. And the more feminist texts I read, the more unsurprised I am by this. As feminism grows more complex, the literature becomes more specific. I definitely believe men in general could benefit from reading more books by and about women, but not just any book on feminism would be beneficial. Some are too specific, speaking to a pre-selected audience, using vocabulary that might be unfamiliar to some women, let alone men. Bitchfest and Why I’m Not a Feminist come to mind as great books that are simply not written to a general audience and need context to be appreciated. The way that many books about feminism are discussed and even marketed makes them very unaccessible to a man who might be interested in learning more about it. Women want men on our side, but we don’t always do a good job of inviting them in.
My boyfriend was interested in some of the books I was reading – so I made a short list of modern books about feminism (or womanhood in general). After much thought I have put together this list of five very different books by very different women. These are not feminist manifestos. They are five books about women, sexism, feminism, art, culture, literature, history, politics, and sex that I think men could benefit from reading. This is the order of exposure I might recommend, and why I think a young 21st century man could benefit from reading them. For a woman who is interested in easy-to-read books about modern women’s issues, this list remains the same.
We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2014)
This is square one. To anyone who has been interested in women’s history for a long time, this book seems redundant, but to a feminist-newbie, it might be groundbreaking. When I first read it, I found Adichie’s arguments to be overly simple and not very compelling, but when I looked outside of my American bubble, I realized that what Adichie put forth is actually very important. She’s a Nigerian author who came to the U.S. to study as a young adult. As an American, it’s easy to forget the fundamentals of feminism as we fight about the issues that have arisen from years of fractional debate. Adichie’s essay-length book was born from her experiences in different cultures, and the product is a simple, passionate, cross-cultural introduction to the heart of feminism.
Some of her examples of the sexism in Nigeria shocked me, and an American male audience may react by thinking, “well I’m not like that” or “we’re not like that.” But although our culture might not openly admit to cultural sexism, it still exists in the actions of people, in the media and music we consume. Adichie’s essay helped me realize the small struggles that I (and other women) face daily, and hopefully this essay will help men realize the same thing. The essay breaks down the simplest points of feminism, willingly ignores damaging stereotypes of the movement, and highlights the way that feminism can help women be themselves, whoever that is. By staying clear of controversial feminist rhetoric, Adichie makes simple arguments for those outside of the movement, as well as for those who might have abandoned it along the way. It’s the perfect intro – straight forward and cross-cultural.
“My own definition is a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better.”
All the Rebel Women: The Rise of the Fourth Wave of Feminism, Kira Cochrane (2013)
This next book is similarly short. Published by the British Guardian Books, Cochrane gives a concise and well-researched update on fourth wave feminism. The first section of the book is a brief history of the four waves thus far, with a disclaimer that the waves are of course culturally different depending on what country you are looking at. Cochrane focuses on Great Britain, though an American can easily follow a history that involves Margaret Thatcher and The Spice Girls. This introduction is a great follow-up to Adichie’s argument for why feminism is important. Once the history is established, Cochrane covers a few topics relevant to fourth wave.
Her first topic “Rape Culture” is a detailed and well-researched account of the rise and use of the term, what it means, and how it can affect women on a daily basis. I think some of the stats and info here will be surprising to men, which is why it’s so important to read. Cochrane follows that up with a section on “Internet Feminism,” which is especially relevant to our generation. Since the growth of online feminism communities, gender theory and feminist rhetoric has only gotten more complex. Cochrane highlights some of the great things that have come out of it, like a way to share microaggression, and bring together women across cultures. But there have also been a set of drawbacks – more internal debate than ever among the online communities. This short book goes on to cover other topics, including feminist comedians, but it is all straight-forward and fact heavy, including interviews and statistics. All the Rebel Women is a great way to learn the history and vocab that comes along with feminist texts.
“It’s no surprise that a generation of women who were brought up being told that they were equal to men, that sexism, and therefore feminism, was dead, are starting to see through this.”
Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay (2014)
Now that we’ve covered the basics of feminism, it’s time to have some fun. Bad Feminist is a collection of essays that is as insightful as it is sobering as it is hilarious. Gay introduces herself as a bad feminist, a flawed woman who tries her best to live well, as a woman. She begins by chastising culture (and women) for holding female celebrities, a la Lena Dunham, to unrealistic expectations as feminist heroes. In her hard-hitting introduction, she addresses some of the most prevalent issues with modern feminism, and convinces you why you should still be a feminist despite it all. The following essays cover a wide variety of relevant topics, from slave narrative films to Robin Thicke to the The Hunger Games. She writes about some of the biggest news stories of the 21st century, giving her perspective as a 21st century woman. Any man could find something of interest in this collection. It’s diverse and smart, and it’s as much about feminism as it is not, if that makes sense. Any pop culture nerd would love this collection.
Some of the essays covered topics I was unfamiliar with – for example, I’ve never seen a Tyler Perry movie – but I can still enjoy Gay’s perspective and learn from it. So I think if a guy is unfamiliar with the cultural impact of Fifty Shades of Grey or Sweet Valley High, he will still get something out reading all the essays. Bad Feminist is chatty, but still uncompromisingly honest and therefore can be difficult at times. Despite her conversational writing style, Gay covers rape, racism, the privilege spectrum, assault, and abortion. She examines the good along with the bad, scrutinizing all the casual sexism and racism that modern American pop culture has to offer. Men should read this because they probably won’t agree with all of it, and that’s ok, but it will be challenging and (hopefully) fascinating for them.
“When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.”
How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran (2011)
This might be the oddball of the list. How to Be a Woman is a little myopic, especially compared to Gay’s. This is much more of a memoir, written from the heart. It is not a “feminist text,” but rather dispatches from the daily life of a woman. There’s a lot of it that I don’t agree with, yet an equal amount that I identify with. Moran is a middle-aged English woman, a writer and radio broadcaster, a wife and mother. If you’re American, you’ve probably never heard of her. In her memoir-style essays, she shares stories from all areas of her life. She writes about abortion and motherhood, but also about whether women should get Brazilian waxes and what we should call our own breasts. One reviewer called How to Be a Woman “problematically narrow,” but I think that it is in this narrowness that the power of the book is found. The book’s title is purposefully ridiculous. Moran is not telling anyone how to be a woman – she’s just sharing how she is herself, and some of the conundrums that have arisen through that being.
I think most women worry and talk about things amongst themselves that would surprise the average man. In this book, Moran exposes some of the most intimate and ridiculous thoughts and fears that modern women have (though of course, not representative of all women). Much of what Moran says will probably be interesting, surprising, or even a little uncomfortable for men to read, which is why I have How to Be a Woman on the list.
“We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29% of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42% of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans?”
A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, Siri Hustvedt (2016)
It is one of the most fascinating things I have ever read by a woman, so I thought it belonged on this list. It is inherently a feminist book, as it is written by a woman, and covering many of the same topics that Gay and Moran do, but A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women does not advertise itself as a feminist work. Hustvedt intertwines neuroscience with psychoanalysis in a gorgeous and unique way, writing something that is very hard to explain. The first section is a collections of essays on gender bias, including a psychoanalytic analysis of Rapunzel, wrapped up in a biological/physiological examination of how we can feel that our hair is part of our body when it is on us, but stop thinking of it as so the minute it’s left our head. The second section, entitled “Delusions of Certainty,” questions the functions of the brain, how we perceive the world through it, and where the “I” is stored within it. The final section examines neurological disorders, hysteria, and suicide.
It’s hard not be be a feminist in the face of Hustvedt’s knowledge and curiosity. Like most works of philosophy, you’re not going to agree with every word. But the questions and commentary on both womanhood and general human perception are thoughtful and creative. By approaching each one of her topics from both a hard science and humanities point of view, she creates a little conflict in each essay, letting the reader find the compromise between art and science. Clearly the most challenging book on this list, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women is an incredible look at gender bias in the arts and sciences, as well as just a stunning piece of work by a woman. All men could use more of those in their lives, I think.
“The genius of women has always been easy to discount, suppress, or attribute to the nearest man.”
These books vary in difficulty, length, and point of view. These are books that I have enjoyed and found educational rather than preachy. They’re diverse and funny for the most part. If you read a few of these and are ready for more, then maybe you can read further into intersectional, cross-cultural feminism. Or not. Might not be your thing. Not everyone needs to be a feminist scholar, but to live in modern America and be engaged in what’s happening, I think everyone should be at least familiar with what’s being thought and said. And it’s not just men who could benefit from these. I think any woman who is overwhelmed by the criticism and misconceptions of 21st century American feminism, especially after The Women’s March, should give some time to go back and read all the different perspectives and opinions that make up this very flawed but extremely important thing called “feminism.”
And a note to the men who might read this – if you read these books, do not take criticism of men and sexism personally. Remember you are as entrapped in our world as women are. We’re stuck here together and the only way out of misogyny is together. Remember you have an incredible chance to not only stand up for women en masse, but to better understand and love the ones in your lives.
Sarah V Diehl