10 Life-Changing Books Every 20-Something Feminist Needs to Read
Some declare patriarchy dead. Some take issue with the word "feminist" (and some with its suffix). But whether we're rejecting, supporting, or redefining it, what's clear is that feminism remains steadily and prominently in our vocabulary.
Below are 10 must-read books for every 20-something feminist (or human in general) exploring her or his worldview. This is, of course, not a comprehensive list. There are many more vital feminist works, so share your favorites in the comments!
1. 'Infidel' by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
In her controversial memoir, Hirsi Ali shares her journey as a young Somali Muslim in East Africa and Saudi Arabia, detailing the violence and hypocrisy she encountered within her culture and religion — including the archaic rituals of female genital mutilation and honor killings — and her struggle to reconcile these with her faith. Her ultimate renunciation of and provocative comments about Islam made her the target of much anger from the Muslim community, but Hirsi Ali's raw documentation of her move into atheism and activism against religious injustices makes this a poignant coming-of-age autobiography.
2. 'The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women' by Naomi Wolf
You will never look at yourself in the mirror the same way after reading Wolf's analysis of how beauty culture commodifies and dominates all aspects of women's lives. The bestseller depicts the social control the beauty industry wields, trapping women in a cycle of constant self-hatred and dissatisfaction as they chase an impossible standard of perfection. As women demand access to power, the beauty myth is used to undermine their advancement.
3. 'Feminism is For Everybody: Passionate Politics' by bell hooks
Most feminists will tell you anything by Gloria Jean Watkins, best known by her (distinctly lowercase) pen-name, bell hooks, is a must-read, but this short book is a particularly wonderful introduction to feminist politics. It's also a great introduction to hooks' emotionally evocative, purposeful writing style. Simple, but powerful and accessible, the text is not only a great entry point, but also a great tool in discussing with others what feminism really stands for.
4. 'The Second Sex' by Simone de Beauvoir
This impassioned work on women's status throughout history, originally published in 1949, explores why women, who make up half the world's population, have been made second-best. Though the French existentialist's criticisms reflect an era in which women had far fewer rights than they currently do, her work remains essential in understanding modern feminism. De Beauvoir's zeal will inspire ownership of womanhood and examination of any deep-seated sexism.
5. 'The Purity Myth' by Jessica Valenti
"What's the difference between venerating women for being fuckable and putting them on a purity pedestal? In both cases, women's worth is contingent upon their ability to please men and to shape their sexual identities around what men want," writes Valenti in this brutal and snarky look at our culture's dichotomous obsession with virginity and promiscuity. She dissects the danger and hypocrisy of both extremes, from purity rings and abstinence-only education to Girls Gone Wild, arguing that this hyper focus on women's sexuality is detrimental to both men and women. She challenges us to analyze the roots and validity of these perspectives.
6. 'Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood' by Marjane Satrapi
Another coming-of-age tale, this autobiographical graphic novel (adapted into a French animated film in 2007) takes readers through the author's experience as a child and young adult in Iran during the Islamic revolution. Both the format and the content of Persepolis make it remarkably relatable even as it explores a culture and a political climate foreign to many readers. Though Satrapi identifies as a humanist, not a feminist, her story tackles many universal themes key to both including modesty, family, relationships, liberation, and balance.
7. 'Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference' by Cordelia Fine
A thoroughly researched debunking of hardwired gender differences, Delusions is a scientific, clever, and playful examination of how neuroscience and psychology have led us to believe that girls like dolls and boys play with trucks because "we're born that way." Fine, who has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience, brings a critical eye to oft-cited reports of neurological differences, pointing out how their ignorance of influential cultural factors and attempt to explain away gender inequality perpetuate gender discrimination.
8. 'Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches' by Audre Lorde
Caribbean-American writer and activist Lorde, who self-identified as a "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet," wrote deeply personal, honest and emotional works addressing the injustices of racism, sexism, and homophobia. This collection from Lorde, the founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first independent publisher for women of color in the U.S., provides an important perspective on the depths of what feminism means and can be to those marginalized by society.
9. 'Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity' by Robert Jensen
Jensen, a feminist anti-pornography activist who identifies as a Christian ("sort of"), draws from personal experience and research to create a dialogue about the effect of mainstream pornography on men, showing how it reinforces social definitions of manhood, influences attitudes about and treatment of women, and is ultimately a devastating detriment to men's humanity. While Jensen's views may create polarizing reactions, his request that men who view porn assess why they consume it and become aware of the messages they're absorbing is an important one.
10. 'The Feminine Mystique' by Betty Friedan
No feminist book list would be complete without Friedan's 1963 manifesto that is widely considered the spark for second-wave feminism in the U.S. Like de Beauvoir's Second Sex, some of The Feminine Mystique's ideas and observations are outdated, but many remain relevant and relatable. It is important historical background for feminism's progression and spurs rumination on the current form that "the problem that has no name" (the widespread unhappiness of women) has taken.