Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

30 Jan 2008, 9:20 a.m.

Idiosyncratic Feminist Book Recommendations

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2008 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Leigh Anne Wilson of the fabulous One Good Thing blog asked for recommendations of feminist books, especially history and fiction, for a college women's resource group's library. I love recommending books! So I made a little list.

Wilson had already recommended Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear so Leonard and I can just make oblique references instead. I think I lent my copy to Zack Weinberg five years ago and I don't know where it's gone. And others had already covered Atwood, Butler, Kingston, Tan, Ensler, bell hooks, and other well-known authors. I recommend:

A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, which I think Rachel gave me. Ulrich shows you and explains to you the cryptic diary of a New England farmhouse wife and midwife. Combines the most gripping bits of "Little House" with historical analysis.

Our Bodies, Ourselves. Just essential. The handbook to my body. Every girl should get a copy at puberty. The bits online are not enough -- she's gotta be able to flip through it and browse.

Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women's Changing Lives by Dr. Anna Fels. Points out that the childhood or adolescent desire for fame is often a precursor to a more nuanced ambition, combining the urge to master some domain or skill with the desire for the recognition of one's peers or community. She also notes that women, especially, feel the need to hide that wish for fame instead of developing it into a healthy passion to guide our careers. Just blew my mind in the best way, and massively helped me guide my career development.

Children of the River by Linda Crew. A moving young adults' novel about an Asian immigrant teenage girl and her conflicts with family and a suitor. Helped me a lot when I was a young teen.

Anjana Appachana's Incantations and Other Stories are short stories about Indians in India and abroad, stifled by or breaking through class and gender mores. When I was eleven, it gave me a new way to see Indian womanhood. Looking back I think the writing isn't as subtle as I'd like, but it was great for teen me.

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. The classic lesbian coming-of-age story, messy and sexy and all mixed up with class and race.

The She's Such A Geek anthology. Great mini-memoirs about the intersection of gender politics and a particular field's attractions and annoyances.

Ellen Ullman's work, such as her memoir Close To The Machine and her novel The Bug. Same attraction as above, with reliably deft writing. With "The Bug" it looks like Ullman has the Great American Girl Geek Novel title locked. Excellent, suspenseful, evocative, emotionally accurate.

Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves by Adam Hochschild. A really inspiring tale of the British abolition of the slave trade and slavery. Reminds us that social justice battles are winnable. And reminds us of the historical connection between civil rights and women's rights.

Everything by Diana Abu-Jaber. Frances loved Crescent and I think my sister rereads it every year. One of my better recommendations while working at Cody's.

Asra Nomani's Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle For The Heart of Islam, with reservations.

In Code: A Mathematical Journey by Sarah Flannery. An Irish girl discovers math with the help of her dad, and makes international headlines with a discovery about cryptography. A nice memoir partly because there's nearly nothing depressing in it. I wrote when I first read it:

She's the type who can confidently approach a hard task and try at it and try at it and count her failures as learning experiences and live with the humility and keep going until she succeeds, self-esteem intact. I'm the other type. I've met quite a lot of that Sarah Flannery type over the years, and I always envy them, and now, maybe if I can just accept that I'm not like that, my envy won't have to get in the way of being friends with these people.

Now I know that's bollocks and I can indeed attempt and achieve hard tasks. It just took a while to find out what working style works for me, and to recognize my own self-deprecating patterns and stop assuming anything I've done wasn't hard.

Alison Bechdel's Dykes To Watch Out For comic strip collections and Fun Home memoir. DTWOF is a deep and broad look at the left and LGBT culture in America from the last two decades, and a great story. Fun Home is Bechdel's personal history, artful and edifying about queerness. They're clear, funny, and poignant, and they address lots of LGBT/feminist/left ideas in easy-to-read cartoons.

An old Secrets of Loveliness by Kay Thomas or similar girl's manual from the fifties or sixties. The reader gapes at what we used to tell girls, and what we still do. I bring it out to shock guests sometimes.

Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher, Ph.D. Puts a name to the pressures American girls face, and does some old-fashioned feminist consciousness-raising. These stories made young women, like me, say "that's me." I read it in high school journalism class. Probably heavy-handed for a lot of women, though, and looking back I wonder about the research.

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness. I taught the latter. Classic feminist/political what-if sci-fi about understanding the other and power structures.

"The Phantom of Kansas" by John Varley. I read this gender-fluid murder mystery set on a lunar colony when I was twelve and it still stays with me as a musing on sex and identity.

Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan. When you've read all of DTWOF, here's the serialized graphic novel to try out. You can read the first issue for free. The last man on earth tries to figure out why all the men died, and why he's still alive. A Sorkin-esque dystopia. The last issue comes out soon.

The Diamond Age, or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson. What sort of education could transform any girl into a strong, independent woman? That what-if, among others, underlies this scary, funny, infuriating, and I think overlooked Stephenson.

Find some anthology that includes Connie Willis's short story "Even the Queen." Menstruation sci-fi. Hilarious. I taught that too.

Nancy Kress is a sci-fi author who thinks about genetic engineering and human relationships. Her main characters are often women.

Joanna Russ's sci-fi usually explores gender and power.

Others, such as my husband, tell me to tell you about Shari Tepper's science fiction, especially The Gate to Women's Country, and Lois McMaster Bujold, A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski, and Elizabeth Bear's Carnival. I haven't read them yet. Nor have I read nearly enough Alice Sheldon nor her celebrated biography, James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips. But people recommend it highly. A bunch of Sheldon's work is available online for free and "The Screwfly Solution" is just indispensable.

Comments are open for you to tell me things, but comment over at One Good Thing too.


Sumana Harihareswara
30 Jan 2008, 13:20 p.m.