Are Seminal Feminist Books Relevant Anymore?
DAME does the heavy lifting to determine which once-revolutionary works of feminism deserve a place on your bookshelf today.
This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members. During our Spring Member Drive, we urgently need your help to keep publishing. Will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?
The feminist canon is badass, groundbreaking, history changing, and all that. That’s why you should read all of these books once. Or should you? Here’s a cheat sheet of five famous feminist manifestos, plus a look at how they’ve held up over time.
by Virginia Woolf (1929)
In a Nutshell Female writers need £500 a year and their own space to optimize their productivity.
Sample Quote “It is remarkable…what a change in temper a fixed income will bring about.”
Time-Warp Factor Use of the phrase “fine negress,” the eating of boiled beef.
Modern Take Despite some old-timey meandering before getting to her point, Woolf explores exactly how crappy it had been for women writers and academics for centuries. And the basic message that women need a decent income and freedom remains timeless.
by Betty Friedan (1963)
In a Nutshell An educated woman who is a good little hausfrau can suffer from an unspoken feeling of loneliness and guilt because she “didn’t have an orgasm waxing the family-room floor.”
Sample Quote “A baked potato is not as big as the world, and vacuuming the living room floor—with or without makeup—is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman’s full capacity.”
Time-Warp Factor Way non-PC remarks about homosexuality
Modern Take Aside from its pukey peek into the stifling Mad Men era (women work only to “fill a hope chest” or buy a new home freezer), it provides good historical background on the mutation of media’s ideal woman from the plucky dame of the 1930s and ’40s (Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich) to the non-threatening perky girls of the ’50s (Debbie Reynolds, Sandra Dee). While an interesting capsule, Mystique is stuck in time.
by Germaine Greer (1970)
In a Nutshell Cut off from their true sexuality and power, women must spark a revolution by living boldly—and unmarried.
Sample Quote “I’m sick of belying my own intelligence, my own will, my own sex.”
Time-Warp Factor Mention of tasting one’s own menstrual blood; Marxist talk like, “women must…reject their roles as principal consumers in the capitalist state.”
Modern Take Greer is so ballsy and smart. On vaginal modesty: “No woman wants to find out that she has a twat like a horse-collar.” I mean, who wouldn’t want to hang out with this chick?
by Naomi Wolf (1991)
In a Nutshell Even as women grow more powerful, they are oppressed by ideals of beauty.
Sample Quote “To live in a culture in which women are routinely naked where men aren’t is to learn inequality in little ways all day long.”
Time-Warp Factor A reference to glasnost
Modern Take Even though it is our own choice, we have now reached the point where we will do anything for beauty. It is normal, and often expected in this era of Botox and boob jobs, that women will eat inadequate amounts of food, put possibly poisonous stuff under our skin, and hack off or enhance perfectly healthy body parts.
by Susan Faludi (1991)
In a Nutshell Perceived advancements for women are followed by backlashes against feminism and women in general.
Sample Quote “In place of equal respect, the nation offered women the Miss America beauty pageant, established in 1920—the same year women won the vote.”
Time-Warp Factor Extensive analysis of thirtysomething
Modern Take Dear, God, this work is so depressing, but it’s important. Faludi meticulously details the many tentacles of backlashes against women throughout time. This includes trumping up the highly questionable “man shortage” study, which doubled as a way to get ladies back under control. And it’s still happening today. See also, oh, this from today’s news: Saudi cleric warning women that driving could damage ovaries.
Now that we’ve revisited key feminist books past, what are some modern-day texts women should read? Tina Fey’s Bossypants, for one, and Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman. (Moran’s method for determining if something’s sexist: “Calmly enquire, ‘And are the men doing this, as well?’ Genius!) We also recommend Roseanne Barr’s Roseannearchy: Dispatches From the Nut Farm, Margaret Cho’s I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight, bell hook’s Feminism is for Everybody, and anything by Jezebel’s Lindy West or Dodai Stewart.
Jill Hamilton writes In Bed With Married Women, a blog about sex. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, Rolling Stone, and the Los Angeles Times. Follow @Jill_Hamilton.
Before you go, we hope you’ll consider supporting DAME’s journalism.
Today, just tiny number of corporations and billionaire owners are in control the news we watch and read. That influence shapes our culture and our understanding of the world. But at DAME, we serve as a counterbalance by doing things differently. We’re reader funded, which means our only agenda is to serve our readers. No both sides, no false equivalencies, no billionaire interests. Just our mission to publish the information and reporting that help you navigate the most complex issues we face.
But to keep publishing, stay independent and paywall free for all, we urgently need more support. During our Spring Membership drive, we hope you’ll join the community helping to build a more equitable media landscape with a monthly membership of just $5.00 per month or one-time gift in any amount.