Here’s a list of books I recommend on the subjects of gender, sexuality, and feminism.
The starred (*) listings are books that I reviewed in greater depth in the annotated bibliography of My Husband Betty.
You can read more about most of these books, find reviews and discussions of other books, or post your own book for discussion in our Reader’s Chair Forum.
Angier, Natalie. Woman: An Intimate Geography.
I’d call this a textbook on Women’s Anatomy except it’s too well-written to call it that. Still, it’s packed with information, every chapter focusing on one area of a woman’s body, from breasts to uteruses to how ovaries work. Angier also takes up debates like people like breasts so much, what we “know” about gender roles from anthropological biology, to why breast-feeding goes in and out of fashion. Really, this one is more than recommended, it’s required reading for anyone who wants to know how women’s bodies work.
Barnett, Rosalind and Caryl Rivers. Same Difference: How How Gender Myths are Hurting Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs.
This book has been a breath of fresh air (as well as excellent, documented ammunition for when I’m told ‘what women are like’). It not only documents the critical studies about innate gender difference (or lack thereof), but how those studies are interpreted and reinterpreted in our culture. Additionally, the authors talk about the influence of the media in promoting ‘sexy’ headlines about how girls are bad at math – since any more ambigous findings are often ignored.
That said, the writing gets a little dull, and there are a few examples used more than once (which makes it seem like the argument – or evidence for it – are weak.)
But overall, a good read, good facts, good argument.
Feel free to comment further or read discussion about this book in our Reader’s Chair forum.
DeBeauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex.
Simone DeBeauvoir’s The Second Sex was the first comprehensive book about women’s lives – as told by a woman. There is so much in this it’s impossible to describe: biology, history, politics, – you name it. She covers a remarkable breadth of information and a lot of it is in-depth as well.
You can’t really have a conversation about feminism without some point of DeBeauvoir’s coming into it – whether the speaker realizes it or not. It’s a seminal book.
It is of course also the birthplace of that famous trans-adopted quote: “One is not born a woman, one becomes one.” Unfortunately, it’s really being grossly misused in that context, but you won’t figure out how until you read its source.
DeBeauvoir is a gem and a scholar. They’re discovering now that a lot of Sartre’s work (Sartre was her companion for most of their lives) was probably influenced by her far more than he credited her. Not that I care: The Second Sex outweighs most of his work on its own. But of course, it doesn’t surprise.
Feel free to comment on this book in our Reader’s Chair Forum.
Dreger, Alice Domurat. Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex.
This one’s easy: 1) It’s a great introduction to Intersex issues; 2) in the trans community we talk a lot about the distinction between sex and gender, and often like to mention how gender is constructed but sex isn’t. This book, however, points out that sex, too, is constructed: in this case, by modern medicine; 3) it’s a little more academic, sometimes is repetitive, but it’s got a wealth of information.
Feel free to comment on or read more discussion about this book in our Reader’s Chair Forum.
Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.
In some ways, this is the book that came out to say, Why Feminism is Still Needed. Written in the early 1990s, it covers the way that – sometimes despite appearances – American culture’s deck is still well-stacked against women. If there is any book you can read that will fire you up about feminist issues, this is it.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality.
Sexing the Body is a thick book, and an important one. The section of footnotes is nearly as long as the text of the book (which can be complicated when reading; I ended up using two bookmarks). That said, it covers the part of the conversation that most of us don’t have when we talk about the difference between sex and gender. I have a friend who reads my stuff – she’s a feminist, and smart. But whenever I say that we don’t really know if there are only two sexes, she always writes “you mean genders here?” in the margin. But no, I mean sex. I mean XX or XY. Or “with penis” or “with clitoris.” And that’s exactly what Anne Fausto-Sterling covers in this book: how we came to decide that there are two sexes, how (through the times) science came to that standard, and why it’s wrong and when it’s wrong.
Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity.
Despite my huge frustration that Judith “Jack” Halberstam utterly dismisses the masculinity of heterosexual women (and so should be called Lesbian Female Masculinity if it were being honest), there’s a lot of good research and history here, including an interesting look at Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and interesting commentary on the boundary lines between butches and FTMs.
A feminist book on how women are oppressed by the cult of beauty.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own.
A Room of One’s Own
This piece “premiered” as a speech delivered to the London National Society for Women’s Service, and is basically an explanation of how any patriarchy is much like fascism – but only for women. It’s one of the strongest of Woolf’s pieces, far less appreciated than A Room of One’s Own because the politics expressed are more radical, more socialist, and far more reaching. For me it has always been one of the single best expressions of why feminism.
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas.
This could otherwise be called “In Defense of Women Artists, or, How to Support A Woman Artist.” It’s a great book, and still valid in terms of how horribly women’s centers & schools are underfunded, as well as women’s causes and organizations: it’s still true that many wives of Ivy Leaguers who went to an Ivy themselves tend to send the alumni funds to their husband’s school. Historically it makes a few wonderful, inestimable points: about who the infamous “Anonymous’ of so many uncredited works might have been, and of course about Judith Shakespeare, William’s mystical sister who was never afforded the freedom or education her brother received.