9 Books to Expand Your Idea of What Feminism Looks Like

Whether you embrace or shy away from the “feminist” label, these books will challenge your expectations

I was hesitant to call myself a feminist for many years because of the archaic and conservative way my elders, and even my contemporaries, seemed to define the word. As with so many things in life, identifying oneself as feminist carries a lot of expectations: expectations on how to act, how to be, what solitary viewpoint should be held as the ideal for the pursuance of women’s rights. In my circles, feminism was a term thrown around as a diss or as an outmoded belief, connecting me with others in what sometimes felt like shallow ways. To some, it meant “ally”; to others it meant “scapegoat.”

In our continuing conversations about the problematic notions of the gender binary and the ongoing issues of the patriarchy, I believe more and more that we’re starting to comprehend that being for equality and equity means looking within as well as outside our lives. With this in mind, I considered more recently published books that speak to feminism in various ways—be it obliquely, directly, or symbolically — all necessary contexts when we consider the levels of expectation attached to the term. These titles by women explore the expectation of who we are to others. Yet they also interrogate expectation of the idea of “womanhood” in the realm of patriarchal structures, be they in our individual mindset and from society as a whole. How are women’s values upheld, if at all? And where do marginalized identities fit into these notions of feminism? Over time, I realized to be feminist is not a singular concept, and these titles expand on that.

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

What It Means When A Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Arimah’s story collection starts off with a literal bang in the first story “The Future Looks Good.” The 5 Under 35 notable’s debut weaves in elements of the fantastical and speculative with women of all ages at the helm. Women are witnesses to a world they do not understand, victims of a world that doesn’t understand or care about them, and they are consistent fighters through and through. As daughters try to understand and be loved by mothers; as parents’ aim to protect their youth; as communities weigh in, sometimes wrongly, on decisions without knowing the whole truth, each story centers issues women face head on when showing how the female body is undervalued and often taken. Arimah’s stories give readers a panoramic view of locales and people and at the same time reveals the issues of male dominance, which results in a disdain for the system, not necessarily the people.

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Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Dr. Gay’s first essay collection became a bestseller fairly quickly. Bad Feminist encourages an introspective conversation on the multitude of definitions of femininity through anecdotes, personal analyses, and cultural commentary. When it comes to feminism some folks have a stringent definition, and Gay speaks to that openly and honestly, with humor and consideration that is her trademark. What does it mean to be a feminist? Why do some, like I did, shy away from the word and others embrace it though vilify those who do not fulfill their expectations? Bad Feminist never loses sight of a desire to know how the world works, how it works against certain groups, and what is expected of them.

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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage is the latest bestselling Oprah Book Club pick and, at its heart, Jones’s latest holds a mirror up to readers of all backgrounds to push back our own expectations as we celebrate a woman putting herself and her work first. This is not to anyone’s detriment, but at her own necessity. For one of the main characters, Celestial, the “rightness” of her pursuit by not waiting, in the capacity of wife but available in all other ways, on her wrongly incarcerated husband Roy is called into question. What is interesting, and something I had to consider myself, is why we as readers may expect this from Celestial. Once again, expectation becomes a core theme for female identity. When we talk of feminism, or the pushback against feminism, falling in line to support men at the suffering of the self becomes a requirement of female bodies. Broaching that topic directly is why An American Marriage becomes a key tome in this larger discussion, not just for women but for Black women.

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Lorde’s Sister Outsider is a literal testament to the need for society and women, including white women, to bear witness and engage in a real exchange on the problems facing female communities. (This includes marginalized communities that are Black women/PoC and lesbian/queer identifying.) “Racist feminism” (aka white feminism) is a problem when the expectation is we are unified simply because we share the same organs that categorize us as female. As Lorde says, this assumption does not honor or even interrogate inherent oppression Black women face versus that of white women. As a Black queer woman, Lorde’s work is not simply a testament, but a truth one holds close and has become required reading to understand feminism at it’s core. It is not the sole tome on this topic, yet there’s a reason it’s so often referenced thanks to the blunt and compassionate way Lorde presents our humanity as a woman, as a mother, and as an artist.

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Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

National Book Award finalist Machado remains outspoken on the issues of the patriarchy and how patriarchal power invades much of our everyday consciousness. The stories in her bestselling debut collection showcase this in speculative ways and real ones—most notably in her first story “The Husband Stitch” and “Difficult at Parties.” In “Parties,” the invasion of the female body doesn’t focus on brutality, but on the inability for the male consciousness to understand the trials and put upon nature of expectation for the female body. There’s a consistency of women being beckoned to, and thus giving in, for “the common good” because this is what’s expected. Machado’s stories illuminate a truth of what may not always be sadistic, but remains inhumane.

Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women edited by Wilma Mankiller

As author Louise Erdrich says in her introduction, Every Day Is a Good Day “is a touchstone book… a companion book filled with the struggles of Native women… an honest book resonating with humor and survival strategy.” Each chapter compiles stories from Native women under various themes that don’t only center womanhood, though womanhood is never lost in the stories. Their vignettes showcase individual experience and the longing for us all to be better people in recognizing our uniqueness as well as our similarities. It’s in this vein that an ongoing advocacy for women, and Native women’s rights, are at the forefront of creating empathy for this path. Even in the chapter “Womanhood” women’s rights advocates mentioned they consider their work “human rights” because it betters us all to recognize the inherent discrimination facing those of other cultures and genders.

Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair

Whiting Award winner Sinclair’s poetry collection has so many wonderful and critical variations on the perception of the female body, the fear of it and the livelihood. In poems like “How to be a more interesting woman: A polite guide to the poetess,” Sinclair’s mastery of set-up and take-down recognizes expectation and shows what a woman can really do. From the biblical Eve to the literal considerations of “good hair,” the symbolism of culture, body, and faith interrogate so much of expectation and self you come away thinking hard on how we look at our bodies and others.

Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renée Watson

Betty Before X is one of the few titles that give a glimpse into the life of Betty Shabazz. This collaboration between Betty’s daughter Ilyasah and award-winning author Watson focuses on her childhood and the evolution of a notable figure in Civil Rights. Readers not only see the world through young Betty’s eyes, but through the work of Black women, which was pivotal. Betty Before X reflects the power of Black consumers through the Housewives League of Detroit (founded by Fannie Peck in 1930) that also became a national movement. The book centers Black women throughout as complicated characters and consistently loving. At the same time, Betty notes the ways communities, including the well-known Bethel AME Church, were crucial areas of sanctuary and service to the Black community.

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

This contemporary take on Austen’s Pride & Prejudice centers a younger, multi-ethnic cast. National Book Award finalist Zoboi tackles gentrification, romance, familial expectations, and the ongoing pursuit of happiness. Feminism, as it were, does not mean having to forgo love in the interest of other desires be they academic or creative or political. In Pride, the title holds sway in so many character’s actions, particularly protagonist Zuri Benitez who never loses sight of who she is and how she sees the world around her change as gentrification, and money take hold in Brooklyn. Zuri is outspoken, a fighter, Afro-Latinx, and desirable for all those reasons. Her femininity is not forsaken due to these characteristics—it’s sought after.

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