In honor of V-Day this year, the Feminist Review is doing a favorite feminist book photo contest. I was tempted to contribute, but since my number-one, all-time favorite feminist read is Our Bodies, Ourselves, I figured the picture would really best be done as a calender girls shot. And I will not be getting naked on the internet, even discreetly naked, until I have 1) a heck of a lot more job security — like, permanent feminist-friendly job security 😉 — and, 2) someone like Willy Ronis offers to do the photo shoot.
So as a second-best offer, here is a top five list. I say “a” top five list, since there are probably others I could have composed. I picked these for diversity of period, genre, and sentimental value. And they’re not in hierarchical best-worst/worst-best order: I’ve taken a page from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, and arranged them autobiographically.
1) Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren (1945). There are many other children’s books I could have named here, with similarly awesome girl characters in them. But Pippi will always hold a special place in my heart. Maybe it was the fact that she, like I, never seemed to see the point of attending school — even if it meant you got summer vacation! She was bold, imaginative, physically daring, generous to her neighbors, and never let older people push her around simply because they were bigger or older than she. I also hold Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraimsdaughter Longstocking responsible for my childhood desire (which still occasionally manifests itself) to be a redhead.
2) Our Bodies, Ourselves, by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (1970, and many subsequent editions). As promised above, a little about why I’d choose this book as my favorite feminist read: I think of this book as my introduction to modern political feminism. I first read my mother’s copy as a young adolescent, and I can’t think of a better way to learn about the possibilities of my (nascent) adult body than through the lens of the women’s health movement. This book was my introduction to my anatomy; to the experience of pregnancy and feminist parenting; to options for abortion and contraception; to masturbation; to the ways in which adults negotiate sexual relationships (both hetero and same-sex); to the concept of collective political action for social change. Out Bodies, Ourselves endures — from my perspective — as a feminist text because it foregrounds women’s voices in all their complexity. The book collective discovered, even in its earliest incarnations, that the best way to gather intelligence about how women experienced their bodies was to ask them. This remains, to me, the central tenant of any feminist practice: begin with the premise that each woman (and, yes, each human being) is the best authority on her own subjective experience.
3) The Seneca Falls Declaration, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1848). No, this is not really, strictly speaking, a book. But it’s one of the first primary source documents I read during my college-era women’s studies experience, and at seventeen I remember being absolutely blown away by how current it felt. How simple its demands seemed to be, and how little the goals of feminist activists had changed since 1848. Of course now, a decade further in my historical studies and feminist consciousness, I can add layers of critical awareness to this reaction — but I won’t ever forget the mix of awe and anger I felt when I read the Declaration for the first time and realized the long legacy of activism I could choose to claim as my own.
4) In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, by Susan Brownmiller (2000). From the heady days of consciousness-raising groups in the New Left, to the divisive, bitter turmoil surrounding anti-pornography campaigns in the early 1980s, Brownmiller’s deeply personal chronicle of the Women’s Movement came out just as I was struggling to find my voice, politically, as a feminist, on a conservative midwestern college campus. I devoured In Our Time with a passionate nostalgia for the political daring ideological radicalism, the daily intensity of Movement relationships, and the sense of possibility for revolutionary change Brownmiller describes. Even with a more circumspect, historical perspective, this first-person account of mid-century feminist activism remains a great read and a valuable resource.
5) Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, by Julia Serano (2007). There have been some great recent works on feminism in the past ten years, many of which grace my shelves. However, few of them have rocked my world as brilliantly as Whipping Girl, Julia Serano’s collection of essays on sex and gender from both a trans and feminist perspective. I am absolutely blown away by her ability to take dense ideas about the biological and cultural experiences of sex and gender and make them understandable and politically compelling. Even though much of the book is an argument for awareness of trans issues within feminism, it is also the best nuts-and-bolts articulation of how sexism works — and harms people of all sexes and genders — that I have read in recent years.