A Comprehensive Guide to Feminist Theory: 20 Essential Reads

  1. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Simone de Beauvoir is the first to distinguish the difference between gender and sex. In The Second Sex, she explains that sex is biological while gender is socially constructed. By regarding femininity as a construction, de Beauvoir reveals that a woman’s social surroundings shapes her “inferior” identity, not biology. A woman is not born passive or as an “Other” to the man-Subject. It is society that constructs her as “Othered” and inferior. In specifying a difference between being a woman and being feminine, de Beauvoir reveals that every individual has their own subjectivity, despite their sex. It is the constructions of society, such as women needing to be pure, submissive, passive and so forth, that have stolen the woman’s right to her own individuality. In this way, the text’s introduction of constructivism sparks the beginnings of the Second Wave of feminism, making it a primary go-to text for later feminists, including Betty Friedan and Kate Millet.

  1. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963)

“The key to the trap is, of course, education. The feminine mystique has made higher education for women seem suspect, unnecessary and even dangerous. But I think that education, and only education, has saved, and can continue to save, American women from the greater dangers of the feminine mystique.”

Like Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan is also credited for founding the ideas that surrounded Second Wave feminism. While her work echoes Wollstonecraft and Woolf’s call for educating women, it takes the argument a bit further. Her invention of the term “the feminine mystique,” the false idea that the woman is to only be a mother and housewife, follows de Beauvoir’s belief in constructivism. As Friedan argues, the mystique is an artificial idea that the woman must maintain her motherhood in order to fulfill her pre-ordained identity. It follows that “masculine” women, those who want education or a career, go against their ‘natural’, essentialist role. Through an analysis of the ‘unhappy housewife syndrome’, Friedan calls for women to reject the mystique to pursue their innate potential.

  1. Kate Millet, Sexual Politics (1970)

“Patriarchy, reformed or unreformed, is patriarchy still: its worst abuses purged or forsworn, it might actually be more stable and secure than before.”

Written as Millet’s PhD dissertation, Sexual Politics is the first theoretical approach to feminism. She confronts the role of patriarchy in sexual relations through the use of Freud and other key academics. Millet ultimately argues that the literary canon, such as the works of D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, are sexist. Male literature uses sex to degrade women. Reviewing ideas that were often glossed over by previous critics, Millet exposes the prejudices against women that are deeply ingrained in the literary canon.

  1. Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of Medusa (1975)

“Be-cause no woman stockpiles as many defenses for countering the drives as does a man. You don’t build walls around yourself, you don’t forego  pleasure as “wisely” as he. Even if phallic mystification has generally  contaminated good relationships, a woman is never far from “mother” (I mean outside her role functions: the “mother” as nonname and as source of goods). There is always within her at least a little of that good mother’s milk. She writes in white ink.

The “white ink,” signifying the mother’s milk, embraces the woman. Cixous challenges gender normativity and the embedded patriarchy in language, sparking the beginnings of écriture féminine, “women’s writing,” the embodiment of the female body and her difference in language. The “white ink” calls on writers of both sexes to find a new language for women beyond the Lacanian symbolic order (the patriarchal structure of language that others the woman). Cixous embraces the woman’s sexuality, speaking of motherhood, orgasm and myth. In her address of the myth of Medusa, she suggests that male fear is a convenience in literature and that women must change history’s meaning. That “you only have to look at Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and laughing.” The laugh, being a semiotic, beyond-language experience, reveals the task to portray women outside of conventional language so that they may be free Subjects, rather than Others to the patriarchal, written word.

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