Many people will talk about influential feminist works without actually reading them. These books are usually by “uncool” (read: “feminist”) women who are seen as too radical, too strident, and who don’t do enough to make the reader feel comfortable. Scary stuff indeed.
Of course, you can only engage in dialogue and critiques of these works after reading them. These writers caused a stir for a reason, and you do yourself a disservice by relying only on other people’s opinions and summaries.
Before I get to the list, none of these books are perfect, since nothing is. The white authors have crucial problems considering race, and the straight authors barely address LGBTQ* issues. But one of the biggest criticisms I came across for all of them was that the authors took issues personally and included personal anecdotes. I want to head this off right here. One of the most radical things about these works is that the authors gave weight to their own experiences as they understood them. I do not consider this a flaw.
Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt
Abortion has become something we avoid talking about to keep the peace at family functions. When it comes up, even pro-choice people talk about extreme circumstances and personal tragedies to justify their stance. Pollitt chooses a different path by re-centering women in the discussion of abortion rights and deconstructing the myths that abound. She posits that only by fully embracing abortion for what it is can we successfully defend our right to it.
Now, this book is specifically aimed at those on the fence, meaning it may not go far enough for some and way too far for others. However, I believe a meaningful discussion that incorporates abortion with the topics of gender and class equality and motherhood is both valuable and necessary.
Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts
Our understanding of reproductive rights is fundamentally flawed when we do not account for the U.S.’s reproductive coercion of black women. Dorothy Roberts does a masterful job of tying together past injustices with the present (as far the 1997 publication date, at least) as she illustrates and analyzes how society’s pathologizing of black womanhood, specifically black motherhood, impacts law, public policy, and even science. Roberts shows how liberty is tangibly limited through institutional racism.
I know many will find the people she writes about insufficiently sympathetic because they are not “perfect” victims. And some people may object to Roberts’s suggested solutions of government action to dismantle racism. However, Roberts makes the case that the policies that would help black women would help everyone. In light of the disintegration of the U.S.’s social safety net, I believe her ideas are well worth considering.
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
Originally published in 1990, Naomi Wolf breaks down the cause and effects of the rise of beauty culture in the U.S. and how it hurts women in both public and private spheres of their lives. Wolf is incisive while also highlighting the emotional toll beauty culture can take. Even today, this book provides useful analytical tools for explaining why we react to beauty expectations the way we do.
Her data regarding eating disorders have been criticized as significantly exaggerated, which could very well be true. But considering her premonition about the rise of Fitbit-like devices and the surge of plastic surgery, she generally has a solid grasp on the situation.
I recommend the latest edition with an introduction by the author reflecting on how the beauty myth has changed since the initial publication.
Right-Wing Women by Andrea Dworkin
Dworkin’s more (in)famous work is Intercourse, and I recommend that one, too. But considering the current political climate in the U.S., Right-Wing Women is a must read for progressives, and perhaps even for conservatives. Instead of condescending to conservative women and assuming that they’re too dumb to know what they want, Dworkin takes them at their word and analyzes the appeal of the right-wing for women. She illustrates the myriad failures of the left in regards to gender equality that lead to the intense loyalty of certain women to conservative values. Although published in 1983, Dworkin remains unsettlingly accurate.
A typical critique of Dworkin’s work is that she’s an angry (I would say with good reason) feminist. It is true though, that she does not trust men and makes it obvious. She also has a tendency to generalize. However, I suspect that some of the hatred for Dworkin stems from her uncanny ability to be right about ugly things without apology.