A similar challenge was posed to me during a program meeting discussing Women’s Studies course proposals. As a feminist trained in literary theory, and as a woman whose first love is books (not boys), I have been trying to get a feminist literature course ran where I teach for several years now. When asked off the cuff to list feminist must reads, here are some of the books that came to mind:

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy

The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros

Woman at Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi

The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterston

The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko

To channel Charlotte Bronte, I ask: Dear readers, what are your top ten feminist novels?

31 thoughts on “What if you had to formulate ten must-read feminist novels in five minutes or less?

  1. i don’t know why the pundits were picking on The Golden Notebook from Obama’s reading list- I read it all and loved it

    Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Thurston

    Breathe, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

    The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

    Color purple, bluest eye,woman on edge, handmaids tale, oranges, and woman at point zero on your list

  2. In no particular order:

    Egalia’s Daughters by Gerd Brantenberg

    Deerskin by Robin McKinley

    The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

    The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

    The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds

    The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

    Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

    (and to round it out, some young adult fiction)

    Alanna: The First Adventure (et al) by Tamora Pierce

    Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

    The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

  3. Can’t think of ten without some major consultation of my bookshelf but Jane Eyre coupled with Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, plus anything by Octavia Butler.

  4. My top two authors would be Marion Zimmer Bradley and Tamora Pierce. I would recommend just about every book by these two authors (I haven’t managed to read EVERY book by these authors yet.)

  5. The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing.

    something by Zora Neale Hurston

    Definitely Jane Eyre

    Beloved by Toni Morrison

    And if we’re going to be talking about “literature,” surely we need some short stories – I’ll list some authors:

    Eudora Welty
    Katherine Anne Porter
    something by Mary Wollstonecraft
    George Eliot’s “The Lifted Veil”
    something by Mary Shelley (“The Old Nurse’s Story”)
    poems by Grace Nichols: I is a Long Memoried Woman
    Flannery O’Connor

    I’m kind of astounded your univ. doesn’t offer a feminist lit. course — you should see if profs in the English dept. are teaching feminist lit under the guise of survey or other course offerings 🙂

    — L

  6. Top Ten, Not in Order

    -Jane Eyre by C. Bronte
    -Beloved (or the Bluest Eye) by Toni Morrison
    -Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (not a novel, but I’ve read it in several feminist lit classes)
    -The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
    -Lucy (or Autobiography of my Mother) by Jamaica Kincaid
    -How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (or In the Time of Butterflies) by Julia Alvarez
    -The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
    -Oranges are not the only fruit (or Written on the Body) by Jeanette Winterson
    -Passing by Nella Larson
    -Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

  7. Tabatha,
    I have not read The Golden Compass but heard it was problematic in terms of the ways it presents indigenous cultures. This was certainly apparent in the film with the indigenous people being presented as dark and savage.

    Danticat is a great choice — as is Tan.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Ah, I love Atwood!
    And thanks for all the young fiction suggestions — I will get these for my kids! They have not read any of those you list yet.

    The Whatifgirl,
    Yes, I have a soft spot for Jane Eyre too, espcecially when read through the lens of Wide Sargasso Sea.
    Have not read any O Butler, but hear her praises sung often.

    I enjoyed Bradley’s reworking of Arthurian legend. Have never read Pierce…

    Actually, I teach for the lit dept as well and of course my classes are taught from a feminist lens. I would still like to get a bonafide Women’s Lit/Fem Lit course on the books though… I don’t like the way women’s studies and other progressive departments are rendered invisible by a “sneaking them in through the back door” type of set up.

    And thanks for the nod to all the great short story writers. I especially love O’Connor and Welty.

    Sarah Waters!!! I love her! The Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl is also a must read. Alas, it’s too hard to limit oneself to a list of ten.

    THANK YOU ALL for your great feminist must read suggestions. Makes me want to quit the day job so I could spend all my time reading. I wish…

  8. What a fun exercise!

    I would definitely second The Left Hand of Darkness, Jane Eyre, and The Color Purple.

    To those I would add:

    Orlando (Virgina Woolf), Stone Butch Blues (Leslie Feinberg), The Chelsea Whistle (Michelle Tea), The Red Tent (Anita Diamant), The Temple of My Familiar (Alice Walker), In the Time of Butterflies (Julia Alvarez), and The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver).

  9. I’m sitting here blushing that I can’t even *think* of 10 feminist novels without scrolling up.

    I do heartily recommend Willa Cather’s My Antonia though.

  10. Professor, believe me, once you read one Butler novel, you begin to wonder why you’re not reading all of them. 😉

    zooeyibz, really? I don’t consider My Antonia to be very feminist. …But maybe that’s because I read it in a non-feminist/women’s lit class and learned that Cather herself rejected feminism. I’m willing to rethink that.

  11. oh dear, thanks, there was a film?

    i work in a large mental health agency- multi generational work force- and i was surprised last week when christopher nolan died that no one had read Under the eye of the clock or heard of him or Christy Brown.

    the feminist novels that some had read were color purple, bluest eye and push by sapphire- all assigned in college.

  12. Jane Eyre


    Pride and Prejudice

    Property by Valerie Martin

    Fun Home by Allison Bechdel (graphic novel)

    Sabriya – Damascus Bitterweet

    That is, sadly, all I can come up with right now, although I know I’ve read more.

  13. Hmmm. People think *Jane Eyre* is feminist? I never got that from it, although possibly i ought to re-read it. The gist of its message seemed to be to me “if you are a woman who diesn’t fit social norms of femininity, you will get screwed over until you finally decide to be a dutiful and loving wife to “your” man”, with a side order of “disabled women are shameful monsters to be locked up and hidden away, whereas disabled men are virtuous and to be loved and pitied and need dutiful women to “take care of” them”.

    If we are talking about fiction from that era, tho, i found Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure” to be remarkably radical in its critiques of marriage, religion and sexuality. Although it’s probably not really justifiable to list a novel written by a 19th century white British man as a “feminist novel”.

    Many of my picks (Butler, Morrison, Walker, Le Guin, Piercy) have already been mentioned, but in addition to “The Left Hand of Darkness”, i’d like to recomment “The Dispossessed”, probably the best-realised non-hierarchical society in speculative fiction. May come back if i think of others.

    1. Shiva,
      Thanks for your comment. I think when we read Jane Eyre according to the context of the time when it was published, it is feminist. And even more so if we remember that even to get it publishes Bronte had to use a male pseudonym! I don’t see Bertha as a “shameful monster” but more as the “mad woman in the attic” ala Gilbert and Gubar’s argument — the side of femininity that must be locked away cuz it’s too dangerous (and sexual). I think Rochester’s blindness can be read in many ways — as taking his hypermasculinity down a notch, as a metaphor for his literal blindness to his own arrogance, as a way to “castrate” his more negative aspects…
      I don’t know Jude as well, only having read it once. But i do agree it offered a good critique of marriage especially. And I think anyone can write a feminist novel — they don’t have to be female!
      Have not heard The Dispossessed — thanks for adding it to the list.

  14. Does this have to be fiction? Drats. Well, these are books I read at least once a year if not more. They are all that fantabulous. So in no particular order…

    1) The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)

    2) Possessing the Secret of Joy (Alice Walker)

    3) The Edible Woman (Margaret Atwood)

    4) The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)

    5) The Way the Crow Flies (Ann Marie MacDonald)

    Hmmmm… Not a big novel reader. Just began “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry which I am told is AMAZING. But I literally just started.

    Since I don’t follow rules, I will share my other favourite books which aren’t novels but rock all the same

    6) Sister Outsider (Audre Lorde)

    7) People of the Pines: The Warriors and the Legacy of Oka (Geoffrey York)

    8) Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (Victoria Law)

    9) Neither Man Nor Beast (Carol Adams)

    10) The Sexual Politics of Meat (Carol Adams)

  15. Love this list! Herland and The Handmaid’s Tale are two of my all time favorite books. Glad someone mentioned The House on Mango Street, I had forgotten about that one but now it is all rushing back.

    I think it is great that people are listing authors and titles that may not be thought of as traditional feminist literature. Some of my favorite books addressing feminist topics are novels that most would not think of as strictly feminist and yet they are still important, at least to me:)

  16. Gone With the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
    Anne of Green Gables – Lucy Montgomery
    The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burgnett
    Murder Most Royal – Jean Plaidy (not the greatest of writers, but Plaidy has a knack of fleshing out women who have been historically vilified, in this case, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard).

    Sorry, only got four off the top of my head.

  17. In my fem lit class at Cornell, we read some of the greatest books. The list included:

    Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

    Jane Eyre by C. Bronte

    Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

    Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

    Regeneration by Pat Barker

    Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

    Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

    Running Fiercely toward a High Thin Sound by Judith Katz

    All amazing!!!

  18. I think one of the best feminist books I have ever read is actually an essay written by Simone de Beauvoir titled ” Le Deuxieme Sexe”. I would highly recommend this essay to anyone interested in feminism and philosophy.

  19. Actually, a question. I hope someone can give me the name and author of a book. I read it a number of years ago, and I believe it was published in the 70’s/early 80’s. It is a about a group of girls who are teenagers or in their early 20’s and they join a sorority and begin to become aware of the inequalities women face. I’ll give you some other things I remember from that book:
    -One character’s boyfriend’s mother dies and while comforting him, they have sex and she ends up pregnant and debates whether to have an abortion.
    -One character suffers from severe body-image issues and become anorexic and bulimic
    -One character’s father strongly objects to her participation in this group, because she neglects household duties, and is shocked when the mother suggests the brother help out
    -that same brother attempts to sexually assult the character with the body-image issues–in retaliation the girls shave his head. His is the only name I can remember–Peter.

    I hope I didn’t spoil it for people–I thought if I gave as many details as I could remember, it might make it easier for people to recognize the book.


  20. I took a feminist lit class 10 years ago & the 10 books we read were:

    Joanna Russ – THE FEMALE MAN
    Margaret Atwood- THE HANDMAIDS TALE
    Toni Morrison – SULA
    Kate Chopin – The AWAKENING
    Octavia Butler – PARABLE OF THE SOWER
    Sandra Cisneros – THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET
    A book of collected essays and poems of Cherrie Moraga
    Virginia Woolfe – ORLANDO

  21. ‘Unless’ by Carol Shields is fantastic in every way, a definite must-read.
    I also recommend ‘The Bell Jar’ by Cynthia Plath, although it is extremely bleak. I can’t say I enjoyed reading it, but I’m glad that I did.

  22. All of these suggestions for feminist literature are excellent. Jhumpa Lahiri is a good writer whose work is strongly feminist. Z.Z. Packer is also good and april sinclair.

  23. oh! also “when and where I enter” and mama by terry mcmillian as well anything by June Jordan her essays are excellent especially when chickenheads come home to roost ; ” more like wrestling ” and bell hooks writes interesting stuff on feminism. Check out sonja sanchez and nikki giovanni.

  24. I can’t think of ten off the top of my head, but I can definitely think of one: Dragon Song by Anne McCaffrey. It’s by no mean a Nobel Prize in Literature pioneering feminist novel, but it is an enticing story. Menolly wants to join the world of music, but is essentially seen as breeding stock. She rebels against both her society and her abusive father. Ultimately, it covers gender inequality in a simple readable format, with DRAGONS.

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