The Feminist Guide To Fiction: A Primer

Ah, yes, that tricky "F" word. The one at the start of some of the great academic discourse happening today.
We are talking, of course, about fiction. The fiction that helped generations formulate their own perceptions of self, the ones that relayed — through fantasy or imagination — stories of identity and power. While great essays and treaties have shaped our definitions of feminism, it is through fiction that many of our conceptions of what it means to be powerful and strong were formed.
With yesterday's passing of one of the great feminist authors of all time, we sat down to think about how her writings have affected us, and how each of us read Caged Bird in class and began to imagine what it would be like to be a woman in different circumstances, and how important that exercise is to a young woman. So, we came up with the feminist-fiction primer. Think of this as Women's Studies 101, the wondrous books that opened up our minds to the debate of the sexes.
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For clarification: To be considered feminist, it needs to have a strong female lead who has a strong female agenda and whose questions and concerns with womanhood take center stage and drive the story forward. For instance, a story like William Gibson's Neuromancer, which has a badass, incredible lead female character, wouldn't count because her being a woman is never a part of the conversation.
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Photo: Courtesy of Dover Publications.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin's novel is filled with all the caged-bird symbolism of the era. Edna Pontellier, the heroine of the story, is a 19th-century Kentucky transplant living in the Creole community of Louisiana. She struggles with her society's requirements that she must exclusively be a mother and abide by "feminine" practices. (Like, staying at home all day in case someone should stop by to visit.) Ultimately, she realizes she values her own independence more than anything, choosing to leave her husband (for another man, but think of how radical that was in 1899). She says, “I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn't give myself. I can't make it more clear; it's only something I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper & Brothers.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

If your eyes glazed over at the sight of this high-school reading-list pick, fear not. What may seem like an old-school tome is actually the perfect book when you're the kind of kid who prefers to spend summer holidays curled up with a great story. From the perspective of Francie Nolan, Tree tells the story of an immigrant family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, at the turn of the 20th century. Based on author Betty Smith's own life, the fictional Nolan bears witness to the minutiae of her changing neighborhood, the growing city, and the world on the brink of World War I. The story of Francie coming of age is made up of a million smaller stories, and never has a book quite captured the complexity and importance of those little dramas that make us who we are.

This book can be read at 10, 14, 22...it is ageless and endlessly enjoyable. This is a true bucket-list pick.
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Photo: Courtesy of Washington Square.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Feminist Fiction 101, Alice Walker's genre-defining novel about Southern women of color in the 1930s is both brutal and beautiful. The story of Celie, her abusive husband, and his gentler (though insecure) son and the powerful women that move throughout their lives is a slice of Southern life and also a testament to the power of strong women. With characters like Shug, Sofia, and the scrappy Squeak, the novel blurs boundaries, depicting problematic "alpha" masculinity and the power of female sexuality, ending with Celie finding true love in the arms of her husband's mistress.
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Photo: Courtesy of Thorndike Press.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

We can't share too many details of Code Name Verity's plot without giving away the twist — and it's such a satisfying read, so that would just be mean. But, at the heart of this novel about two British girls working as spies during World War II is the story of female friendship. It's this relationship that elevates the book to a whole new level and reminds us of the powerful way women can overcome their differences and support each other in the darkest of times. Read it, and then call your best friend. You wouldn't be the kick-ass chick you are without her support.
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Photo: Courtesy of Delacorte Books for Young Readers.
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

It's hard to imagine a time when little girls didn't grow up with Judy Blume in their back pocket. But, this is the book that changed everything about YA literature and the entire cultural conversation around female adolescence. It wasn't just that the characters talked openly about menstruation and breasts, but Margaret's inner life and conflict became a voice that resonated for generations. The book debuted in 1970, and it still holds up today. Spend a weekend rereading it, and see for yourself.

Give this book to your 8-year-old niece. She may seem young for it, but she's not.
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Photo: Courtesy of Anchor.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Despite being endlessly enjoyable and simple in structure, The Handmaid's Tale is not an easy read. The clinical, uncomfortable sex scenes and pervasive feeling of dread paint a picture of a future where reproduction is controlled by the state and fertile women become a commodity owned by wealthy men. The world Atwood creates is endlessly fascinating because it feels like bizarro-reality, with familiar touches but also with a whole eerie caste system of Wives, Mothers, and Marthas. This is quintessential Atwood, revealing her robust imagination and fascination with gender roles. A perfect read for someone about to head off to college or looking for a strong dose of reality with their sci-fi.
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Photo: Courtesy of Penguin.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Alcott's story was a real game changer when it was published in 1868. Point blank: These women aren't just married off. The tale of the March girls was initially written as one volume, but because they never ended up with a man, Alcott's publishers pressured her to write a second so they could get hitched. Spoiler alert: One dies, and the rest of the girls get the ending no one asked for. Plus, Alcott toyed with gender norms by naming one Jo. These were women with goals and aspirations outside of the domestic setting, and that's pretty damn powerful when you consider the time period Alcott was writing in.
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Photo: Courtesy of Del Rey.
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

This. This book, right here. Known as fantasy maven Marion Zimmer Bradley's most epic book, the magic and wonder of pre-Roman Britain meets Arthurian legacy, thoroughly unpacking the "true history" behind the "evil" witch Morgan Le Fay. Bradley's fascination with paganism plus her deep knowledge of Arthurian legend is political at times, sensual often, but always deeply concerned with the way history treats powerful women.

A hefty read, this books reminds one that at the center of almost all religion stands a feminine power, and no matter what your beliefs are, celebrate her. (Also, there are some pretty hot sex scenes. Just sayin'.) For those who argue that Game of Thrones is inherently feminist. (It is.)
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Photo: Courtesy of Penguin.
Lysistrata by Aristophanes

Sappho is far from the only feminist voice to emerge from antiquity. In Aristophanes' comedy, the titular character boldly addresses the struggles of womanhood imposed by men as well as the limitations of a patriarchal society. Then, she and her cohorts deftly find ways to subvert the same systems that would seek to bring them down. But, this is no Mars-versus-Venus tale — ultimately, the men, the women, and the entirety of Greece benefit from Lysistrata's fearless leadership. (Yes, we know this is a play, and it opens a giant can of worms regarding what we have determined as fiction, but its inclusion in the fictional pantheon meant we could let it slide.)
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Photo: Courtesy of Random House.
The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty

No feminist fiction roundup would be complete without an entry from Eudora Welty, who won a Pulitzer Prize for this book steeped in memory, family, and a sense of self. Though Southern American literature spent its earlier iterations populated by some (very substantial) male authors, Welty made her presence known with her brilliant colloquialism. Laurel's exploration of her father's lonely, empty house is one familiar to any woman looking backward on her life. What could be easily overwrought and nostalgic becomes an excruciatingly well-written book about discovery.
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Photo: Courtesy of Puffin.
The Hero and the Crown by Robyn McKinley

Before Katniss, before Tris, before those How To Train Your Dragons movies, existed Aerin Dragon-Killer, who killed her mother with disappointment by being a girl. Throughout the series, Aerin grows from a shy only child to a fierce queen and an incredible warrior. The best part of Aerin is that she isn't born blessed or special (bucking the trope of the YA female heroine who is the last person to notice how beautiful she is) but becomes that way via hard work and ingenuity. A great fantasy journey with a truly feminist subtext.
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Photo: Courtesy of Penguin.
Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen

Navigating Jane Austen with a feminist lens can be tricky because of the social mores of the time, but in the end, you always come out with a strong sense of the depth, nuance, and texture offered by a women-led cast of characters. Yes, Sense & Sensiblity is a story that ends in love and marriage with a male partner — but it's also a testament to the ways different types of women dream about and define love, to the importance of female friendship and the strength of women even in a time when their gender was marginalized and trivialized.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Teen.
Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

This is a kid's book. But, it's a kid's book for the coolest, most fascinating and forward-thinking kid out there. Weetzie's creative, bohemian world is filled with gay marriage, premarital sex, alternative lifestyles, and also the power of willing what you want into reality. Searching for a sense of belonging, Weetzie's honest look at life as a real, living (i.e., nonfantastical martyr character) teenage girl is both inspiring and whimsical. Sassy loved it, if that's any indication.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harvest.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf

A critical masterpiece and worth a deep read, Orlando is a "biography" of a timeless individual who, after a successful career as a man, falls into a deep sleep and awakens as a woman. Transgressive and gender-bending while also reflecting on the nature of creation, the absurd fantasy of Orlando's journey becomes true gender criticism from a real pioneer. As Woolf writes, “As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.”

A short read for a deep think, this belongs on nearly every shelf.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

With phonetic writing that comes across more as a lyrical epic than a novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a classic entry in American magical realism. Janie's narration and periods of her life all correspond with different men (one who wants her for domestic services, one who wants her for social status, and one who just wants her), but in each iteration, it is her unwavering belief in equality in a partnership — and, also, her own personal power — that keeps her moving. Though it is thoroughly a meditation on race and gender, it also is a true testament to love.
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Photo: Courtesy of Pocket Books.
She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb

Stephen King says sometimes you should read a book for the good writing and other books for the good story. When you find a book that has both qualities, treasure it. She's Come Undone is one of that rare breed.

Wally Lamb's '90s classic follows the journey of an ordinary American woman as she navigates trauma and depression, drags herself out of it, and finally claws her way to wholeness. It is both harrowing and un-put-downable, a unique story and universally relatable. Dolores Price is, at times, a terrified child, an outcast, and a woman lost in her own body. If it sounds vague that's because a story like this can't be blurbed. If you haven't read it — start. If you read it 10 years ago, start it again. This is your summer reading, now.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ballantine Books.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Angelou's first installment of her seven-part autobiographical series documents her adolescence in a racially segregated environment. After her mother's boyfriend dies because she revealed he had raped her, she begins to feel ashamed of speaking out, like her voice was the root of death. So, she mutes herself. But, this isn't a sad-sack story. The lesson Angelou conveys is the importance in women having a voice, strong character, and the drive to stand up for themselves.
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