A Comprehensive Guide to Feminist Theory: 20 Essential Reads

By Elizabeth DiEmanuele

There is more to feminism than the, nowadays, simplistic “equal rights among the sexes,” or the inaccurate assumption that the feminist is a ‘man-hater’. While the latter is a product of the extremism that follows every significant civil rights movement, it is, unfortunately, the memorable argument that arises in the anti-feminist debate. However, contrary to much popular belief, feminist literature is much more complicated than the simple opposition of feminist (man-hater) or non-feminist (man-lover). Looking at society in all its complexity, the feminist theorist puts a magnifying glass to the economies of everyday action, voicing a need for awareness, and in some cases, a need for change.

Unfortunately, most feminist literature remains hidden from everyday society. Often tedious, feminist literary theory can be inaccessible and perhaps, elitist, in its complex use of language and analysis. As Gloria Steinem once said, “Nobody cares about feminist academic writing. That’s careerism. These poor women in academia have to talk this silly language that nobody can understand in order to be accepted.” With an absolute love and respect for the extremely accomplished and wonderful Gloria Steinem, it seems there is a need to repair the disconnect between the masses and academia. Feminist literary theory is important because, like any study of injustice, it exposes the illogical format of the arguments that support prejudice and discrimination. Furthermore, it provides a point of reason—and thus, understanding—for those who are unaffected. Here is a list of essential feminist theory reads, with some brief analysis for your awareness.

  1. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)

“Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for at least twenty years of their lives.”

The key word in the above quotation is “taught”; women are taught by society to act, speak and think they way they do. In this way, Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, one of the first works in feminist philosophy, takes a liberal stance on feminism. Challenging essentialism, the notion that women are inherently docile and weak, Wollstonecraft argues that it is patriarchal society’s limitation of women’s education that makes them inferior. While the man may be physically stronger, his soul and the woman’s soul are derived from the same Creator. Thus, his and her moral substance is equal.  It is the choice to deny women access to education that creates such a power imbalance. Using this argument, Wollstonecraft maintains the notion that men should view their wives as “companions” in their mutual equality. Although it is arguable that this work is not feminist, as the word never occurs, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication is the first step towards a feminist movement, voicing the injustices done to women in a logical and accessible way.

  1. Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?” (1851)

“Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.”

As an anti-slave speaker, Sojourner Truth’s speech garnered wide publicity in the early 1860s, during the American Civil War. Like Wollstonecraft, Truth stresses the need for equality among the sexes. She does so through valorizing the experience of the woman and asking questions that expose the flaws in the ‘man-superiority argument’. Truth’s strong use of rhetorical questions and sharp examples creates a compelling speech in favour of the innate equality of women.

  1. Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884)  

“The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.”

In his analysis of gender oppression, Friedrich Engels founds Marxist feminism. As he argues, a woman’s subordination is a sociological issue. Engels analyzes sexual morality, including the societal pressures on women to be pure and virginal in relation to the severe punishments they experience with adultery. He connects this pattern to the capitalist development of owning private property. In relation to the nuclear family, marriage to a pure, submissive woman is necessary for a man, as it ensures child legitimacy and later, inheritance. Engels further parallels this relationship to that of the proletariat and bourgeoisie. Considering this relation, a woman’s subordination is a struggle of class that is enforced because it secures capitalist desires.

  1. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)

“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross–roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to–night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.”

“A Room of One’s Own” is an extended essay that centers on the idea that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Using this argument, Woolf suggests that there are fewer works of literature by women because of their lack of property and finances. A woman requires financial independence in order to produce creatively. Reminiscent of Wollstonecraft, Woolf asserts the need for women to gain access to education to further their independence. Her famous fictional figure, Judith Shakespeare (Shakespeare’s sister), plays on the notion that a woman with Shakespeare’s talent could have existed, but her lack of education prevents society from ever knowing of it. In addition, Woolf also stresses the need for a gynocentric literature that embraces the woman’s perspective. She chronicles a list of accomplished women authors, such as Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and George Eliot. In doing so, Woolf creates a canon of women’s literature that embraces the woman’s voice in its truest form.

One thought on “A Comprehensive Guide to Feminist Theory: 20 Essential Reads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s