It was only the late 19th century that saw feminist approaches attempted inside mainstream works. Today, there is a plethora of influential books with a sharp focus on the women’s movement available. From fully-fledged novels, collections of stories, and social studies, here is an essential list of groundbreaking feminist texts to familiarize yourself with.
Published in 1963, this influential text is praised with triggering the beginning of second-wave feminism in the United States, as well as around the world. Focusing on the lives of American housewives in the 50s, The Feminine Mystique dissects the unhappiness that lies at the crux of their domestic lives. Beginning with an introduction to “the problem that has no name,” the text discusses the issues and frustrations that lie beneath the surface of middle-class suburbia. According to futurist Alvin Toffler, the work “pulled the trigger on history”. This is definitely worth your time.
Sylvia Plath’s only published text was actually released under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas a month prior to her suicide in 1963. A semi-autobiographical piece of writing, it highlights the narrators struggles with adhering to rigid societal structure in a male-dominated society. A prisoner of her own domesticity, Plath’s Esther introduces readers to the limiting female rites of passage, all the while continuing to break contemporary stereotypes of mental instability. In fact, The Bell Jar was one of the first novels to dive into the topic of female depression that was written by a woman.
Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth is a seminal work of non-fiction that discusses the pattern of social power within women; as it rises, it urges them into maintaining unrealistic and detrimental standards of beauty. An in-depth study of the effects of commercialism and mass media on the female psyche, the text sets out to redefine our relationship with beauty and thus, our own identity. For Wolf, the ultimate threat lies in our own obsession with the aesthetic ideals of ‘flawlessness’ and that is certainly something crucial to think about.
Written as an extended essay put together from a series of lectures that Virginia Woolf conducted at the University of Cambridge, A Room of One’s Own remains an essential work of feminist literature in the 20th century. As well as combating the status of women within fiction, exploring their access to education and touching on the then-taboo subject of homosexuality, the text is ultimately a powerful critique of the restrictive nature of patriarchal society in the late 1920s. For those looking for an essential introduction to feminine discourse in literature, this is the text to delve into.
Published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women follows the lives of four sisters, focusing on their progression into adulthood, their contemplations of womanhood, marriage, child-birth and perhaps above all, personal independence. Although intrinsically a period family drama set at the time of the American Civil War, many have argued that the novel represents the first vision of the “all-American girl.” Themes of female empowerment and self-determination lie at the crux of the text.
Written in 1985, Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale is many things. As well as being a pivotal dystopian novel, it also explores the politics of religion, power and gender. Inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, it casts a glimpse into how women make up mainstream society, and what it means to be valued as “illegitimate.” A bold satirical view of social trends in 1980s America, it also hints at, and warns against, the aggressive anti-feminist waves rippling through the country.
Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel explores the psychological and social processes at the heart of society. With a focus on the story of Anna Wulf and the four notebooks in which she records the stand-out events of her life, The Golden Notebook raises questions of female consciousness and their sexuality in relation to men. Although the authoress has rejected the novel’s status as a feminist work of fiction, the literary masterpiece has gone on to influence many forward-thinking women throughout the 60s — something that has continued into our present day.
For a short introduction to one of the essential gems of feminist literature, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s work is a must. Initially published in 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper is written as a secret diary of woman who is deemed too fragile by her husband and is thus confined to her bed in the countryside. Unable to do anything, work or engage with her personal interests, she begins a slow descent into psychosis as she becomes obsessed with the fading yellow wallpaper in her room. A troubling illustration of damaging attitudes towards women’s health in the 19th century, the text is considered to be one of the most important works of early American feminist literature.
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple was published in 1982 and went on to win the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction — these days, you can also stumble across film and musical adaptations of this essential text. Set in rural Georgia, the epistolary novel follows the lives of African-American women in the 1930s, providing an insight into a myriad of social issues restricting them at the time. Alongside this, the novel lends a sharp focus on the breaking of boundaries within conventional male and female gender roles. A must-read.
Despite perhaps better known for her internationally acclaimed novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? should not be underestimated as one of her most influential texts. A memoir about the quest to find happiness, the novel follows a young woman growing up in England’s industrial north, all the while being confronted with a difficult past and the search for her biological mother. A fierce contribution to the feminist genre for its dissection of female identity, Winterson’s part-autobiographical text throws the reader headlong into how our close relationships with others mould our very being.