For your bookshelves: noteworthy feminist writing from bell hooks to Roxane Gay, from essays to fiction.
Read an autobiography by a famous feminist celebrity comedian
'Bossypants' by Tina Fey (2011)
We can judge this book, at least, by its cover: Tina Fey smiling pretty, with big, hairy man-hands, almost accurately reflecting and representing herself as a woman who has forced and fought her way to the top of the male-dominated world of comedy. Along the way, she dishes out self-deprecating introspection on photoshoots, discusses that Sarah Palin sketch, and dedicates a scene from her book to Amy Poehler, who was at the writers’ room of ‘Saturday Night Live’ ‘doing something dirty, loud and “unladylike”’ when Jimmy Fallon interrupted with “Stop that! I don’t like it”’. Fey continues, ‘Amy … wheeled around on him: “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”’ That, friends, defines Fey’s thoughts on feminism: ‘I don’t care if you like it’, for ‘she was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it’.
Read a book of essays
'Bad Feminist' by Roxane Gay (2014)
Roxane Gay explores, then embraces, what it means to be a failing feminist: to like the colour pink, for example, to ‘read Vogue’ (she once ‘live-tweeted the September issue’), to support the aims of feminism, such as affordable healthcare, equal opportunities and reproductive freedom while rejecting feminism in its traditional sense that has ‘historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of all others’. ‘Bad Feminist’ is a collection of essays by the culture critic first published in magazines and websites such as Jezebel and Salon; it’s a sharp, spot-on read commenting on the culture of feminism today, equal parts addressing abortion and the cult of beauty as well as ‘Girls’ and her love for offensive thug rap lyrics.
Read the book before you see the film
'Suffragette: My Own Story' by Emmeline Pankhurst (First published in 1914)
Until quite recently, chances were slim that one could locate a copy of this book at a good local bookstore. Now, of course, there’s a film based on the subject starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep, which has placed it back in the public eye. The woman is Emmeline Pankhurst, the setting is the 1900s, the issue is the right for women to vote, ie suffrage. It’s her fascinating first-hand account of her campaign in leading the movement to win the right for women to vote in Britain; it chronicles her founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which soon became known for increasingly militant activism – arrests and arson, vandalism and violence in fighting against a patriarchal political system.
Read a cult classic
'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath (First published in 1963 under a pseudonym)
Faber & Faber
A cult favourite, a classic text, and in some schools, even a classroom staple. Slyvia Plath’s only novel, which she described as being ‘an autobiographical apprentice work’, was originally published under a pseudonym in 1963. ‘The Bell Jar’s Esther Greenwood is a beautiful, brilliant young poet and writer who arrives at New York City to start her summer internship at a glamourous, prominent women’s magazine; this, juxtaposed with the same summer of the Rosenbergs’ execution, set against a time of stifling social constructs. As the prose moves along, Esther sinks into a downward spiral of madness and mental illness: madness, to her, is described as ‘sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in (her) sour air’.
Read a primer book
'Feminism Is For Everybody: Passionate Politics' by bell hooks (2000)
bell hooks breaks down everything first-timers and fresh faces need to know about feminism in this provocative primer of sorts – including offering up a theory on feminism, formulated for the modern age during the dawn of the new millennium: ‘Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression’. With vision and wisdom – after all, she’s a leading light in marginal feminist movements – hooks examines and explains feminism for the masses, making it not only digestible, but also inclusive and relatable. ‘There can be no love without justice,’ she says, issuing an invitation to break barriers, to imagine a world with equality that is, indeed, for everybody.
Read a gothic short story
'The Yellow Wall-paper' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (First published in 1892)
‘The Yellow Wall-paper’ stands not only as a classic in feminist literature, but also as a conventional example of the gothic genre. It’s a collection of journal entries written by a woman who descends into madness when her dominating physician husband diagnoses her with a ‘nervous depression’ – a common diagnosis in 19th-century Victorian patriarchy – and locks her in a physical and psychological prison of passive inactivity. Central to the short story is the wallpaper, which she becomes obsessed over for lack of anything else to do; she sees ‘a woman stooping down and creeping about’ behind the wallpaper, an image of herself indicative of a struggle against a suffocating domestic home, still reflective of today’s contemporary ideologies of female silence and submission.
Read a book by a woman of colour
'We Should All Be Feminists' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2014)
If you haven’t watched the Nigerian novelist’s TEDx talk in 2012 – portions of the speech, by the way, were sampled in Beyoncé’s ‘Flawless’ – then no matter, now you can read it. ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ is adapted from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s much-talked about, much-viewed delivery at TEDx: ‘We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: “You can have ambition, but not too much.” … Why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage, and we don’t teach boys the same?’ In 52 pages, the 38-year-old award-winning author artfully, eloquently confronts the questions of what it means to be a feminist and why gender bias is harmful for men and women alike, drawing extensively from her personal experience of growing up in Nigeria.
Read a dystopian novel
'The Handmaid’s Tale' by Margaret Atwood (1985)
In the Republic of Gilead, women have no rights. Women are forbidden to read; their right to property is dissolved; the few who are still fertile are forcibly sent away to bear the children of their Commanders and are kept as concubines, who are the class of women called the Handmaids. Offred, one of the Handmaids – so named literally ‘Of Fred’ for the Commander she belongs to – describes her life under a regime of military, male-dominated dictatorship, ruled by religious fundamentalists and right-wingers; one in which women’s only reproductive choice is death or pregnancy. Margaret Atwood’s genius is that the dystopian society ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ portrays is one that is foreign and yet familiar, and fiercely bleak. Women in many parts of the world today still live lives dictated and defined by the sum total of their biological parts.
Read foreign literature (yes, translated)
'The Second Sex' by Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’, she famously wrote. Simone de Beauvoir, French philosopher and writer, laid the groundwork for second-wave feminism with her book ‘The Second Sex’; it summarises the many ways in which a woman struggles with being the second, and hence other, sex as opposed to man, being the first sex. Today, we accept the idea of gender being a civil and social construct, sex being biological. But in 1949, this was a radical argument, one that de Beauvoir raised by exploring central existentialist ideas: namely, flaws in notions of femininity, self-definition as related to societal influences, and the supposed disadvantages of the female flesh.
Read a children’s book about Malaysian folktales featuring female central characters
'Timeless Tales of Malaysia' by Tutu Dutta (2009)
Where are the women writers of Malaysia, you ask? What and where is feminist writing in Malaysian literature, concerning and commenting on the construction of female identity? There are, of course, Anis Sabirin, Fatimah Busu and Salmi Manja, but these works have been largely forgotten, or are too few and far in between. Still, until we overcome the lack and loss of feminist representation in local literature, there’s always ‘Timeless Tales of Malaysia’. Our female feminist figures exist in folklore fairytales; Cik Siti Wan Kembang and Puteri Gunung Ledang come to mind. Tutu Dutta’s collection of didactic, enigmatic and, truth be told, romantic – steeped as they are in colourful illustrations and collective consciousness – children’s short stories is sourced from all over Malaysia, including Sabah and Sarawak. There are princesses and fairies, nenek kebayans and villagers, and feature mostly female protagonists.