Bookshelves. Photo: Flickr/ Stewart Butterfield. Creative Commons (CC by 2.0). Some rights reserved.
If you’re starting, or heading back to, college or university this month then hopefully whatever course you’re studying will include some key feminist texts on your syllabus. But there is more to feminist writing than Woolf and Wollstonecraft (as vital and needed as their work is). There are centuries of feminist texts, stretching across disciplines and around the world.
In medieval France, Christine de Pizan – frustrated at male writers composing screeds damning women – wrote her literary masterpiece The Book of the City of Ladies. In it, she takes an empowering shot at the cultural misogyny of the Middle Ages, celebrating the achievements of women throughout history.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Indian author Rokeya Sakhawet Hossain wrote poems, essays and short stories arguing that women and men should be treated as equals. A passionate advocate of women’s education, her 1905 story Sultana’s Dream imagines a world where women rule and men live in seclusion.
There is a rich tradition of Indian women writers including the Sangnam poets from 100 BC – 250 AD. This includes the work of Venmanipputi Kuruntokai celebrating women’s bodies and sexuality. In one poem she wrote: “when we made love my eyes saw him and my ears heard him; my arms grow beautiful in the coupling and grow lean as they come away”.
‘There are centuries of feminist texts, stretching across disciplines and around the world.’
The 20th century saw a rise in feminist publishing – including Marie Stopes’ texts on reproductive and sexual rights. In journalism, Martha Gellhorn – too often dismissed as “Hemingway’s third wife” – disrupted the male-dominated field with incisive and intelligent reporting from around the world.
Gellhorn reported on the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, World War Two’s “D-Day landings” (she sneaked onto a boat to witness the invasion), the Nuremberg Trials, Vietnam and much more.
Her novel A Stricken Field, based on her experiences in Praugue in the autumn of 1938, also resonates today. Its descriptions of columns of people fleeing Nazi occupation, trudging from country to country, their lives carried on their backs as their children cry, are chillingly familiar amid our contemporary refugee crises.
Fierce Attachments, the fiercely-written memoir of journalist Vivian Gornick, is also recommended reading. It explores growing up in an eastern European immigrant community in 1940s New York City and women’s relationships – with each other, with their husbands, and with the places in which they live.
“merciless as well as curious and sympathetic accounts of family, sex, gender, marriage, and class”
Katherine Angel, British author of Unmastered: a book on desire, most difficult to tell, told me over email that Gornick’s book is “merciless as well as curious and sympathetic in her accounts of family, sex, gender, marriage, and class” and that its “beautiful” writing “should put to rest any lazy dismissal of memoir-writing as not simultaneously political or literary”.
As a journalist for the New York City-based weekly The Village Voice in the 1970s, Gornick reported on a growing women’s liberation movement in the US campaigning for the rights of working women, against male violence, and for women’s sexual and reproductive rights.
At this time, writer, feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde was also publishing powerful political and sensual poetry that explored issues of women’s rights, race, sex and sexuality.
Audre Lorde (left) in 1980. Photo: Flickr/K Kendall. Creative Commons (CC by 2.0). Some rights reserved.
When a white, conservative senator declared Lorde’s work to be “obscene”, she responded: “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds… [his] objection to my work is not about obscenity… or even about sex. It is about revolution and change”.
Almost contemporary to Lorde was Senegalese writer Mariama Bâ, who explored the position of women in African Muslim societies and the impact of polygamy on women’s equality. Her novels include Une si longue lettre and Un Chant Ecarlate. Bâ also wrote non-fiction, including on the political function of African literature.
Born two years after Bâ (who died in 1981), is the Egyptian writer Nawal el Saadawi. At 85 she remains an outspoken critic of political and patriarchal oppression.
El Saadawi’s 2007 book The Hidden Face of Eve explores political struggles of women in the Arab world – and includes a devastating description of her own experience of female genital mutilation (a form of abuse against girls that she has campaigned to end).
Nawal el-Saadawi at a women's march in Cairo. Photo: Flickr/ Gigi Ibrahim. Creative Commons (CC by 2.0). Some rights reserved.
In 2015, another Egyptian writer Mona Eltahawy published her book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, which takes aim at religious fundamentalists of all faiths.
Eltahawy told me that she wrote this book “because as important as our revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa were, unless women's equality and liberation are centred and prioritised, all those revolutions will fail”.
She said: “I'm often told, when I say feminism is my top priority, that no one is free, including men. My reply is if the state – which was the target of those revolutions – oppresses everyone, then we must remember that the state, the street and the home together oppress women. That trifecta of misogyny, as I call it, is why I wrote my book”.
'we must remember that a trifecta of misogyny (the state, the street and the home) oppresses women'
In the field of “science and technology studies” there are also powerful feminist texts including the 2016 book Staying with the Trouble by Donna Haraway. It asks how, in the midst of ecological catastrophe, we can reconfigure our relationships to the planet and our fellow inhabitants.
For students of economics, often seen as a male-dominated field, why not pick up the 2015 book Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner?: A Story About Women and Economics, by Swedish writer and journalist Katrine Marcal.
The book challenges Smith’s model of “the economic man” arguing that it ignores all other motivations for our actions other than self-interest, and therefore also ignores the value that society does ascribe to women’s domestic and caring work.
Trans, by Juliet Jacques, is another recent title to add to this list. Published in 2015, it is a memoir of transition and sex reassignment surgery.
In her book, Jacques blends personal and political reflections to share her own journey, and tell her own story. The result sheds needed light on the often marginalised, unacknowledged and silenced experiences of transgender people.
Which feminist authors and books would you add to this list? Leave your recommendations in the comment thread below, or message Sian Norris on Twitter @sianushka.