8 Must-Read Feminist Nonfiction Books

8 Must-Read Feminist Nonfiction Books

by Margaret Kingsbury

Trigger warning: this post discusses sexual abuse as well as other types of violence against women.

Feminism is essential. 90% of women inmates in the United States have been sexually abused (Waldman and Levi). 700 million women alive today have been married under the age of 18 and  14% of Arab girls marry under the age of 18 (UN Women). The President of the United States groped women without their permission and yet was still elected. These are horrific facts, and I could easily find dozens more. Much work needs to be done to confront misogynistic culture and politics. And even though I’m a woman and a feminist, I still need to remain aware and conscious about the struggles of all women, not just the ones like me.

As a reader, I seek out books that will help me deepen my understanding of the ways in which women across the world and of all different socio-economic backgrounds are affected by misogyny. From manifestos to history to memoir to sociological studies, I consider these eight nonfiction books to be must-reads in feminist literature.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This slim book based on one of Adichie’s TED Talks makes an excellent introduction to feminism. But even if you’re well versed in feminist ideals, you should read it. It takes about an hour to read cover to cover and outlines all the basic principles of feminism. The book makes it obvious why we really should all be feminists. Her more recently published companion book Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions is also a must-read and was written as a response to a letter Adichie received from a friend about how to raise her new baby girl as a feminist.

Headscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahawy

This book of Middle Eastern activism calls for a feminist revolution in the Middle East. Eltahawy relates stories of horrible misogynistic practices and their effects on women’s lives by sharing women’s stories, her own observations as a Middle Eastern woman, and research. Some of her arguments are controversial; for example, she calls for a ban on the niqāb. But all her arguments are steeped in clear and moving writing. I especially enjoyed her use of religious theology. I’ve yet to read her most recent book–The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls–but it looks like an equally incendiary examination of the #metoo movement and how women and girls can harness their power.

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons edited by Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi

With only 49 Goodreads reviews, this book is decidedly underread. It’s a harrowing look inside women’s prisons in the United States, from the voices of the imprisoned women themselves. On an emotional level, it’s the most difficult book I’ve ever read. I could not possibly imagine how bad things are in women’s prisons, from inmates having their uteruses removed without their consent to the frequent sexual abuse from guards. Women also relate their stories of how they came to be in prison, and so many of these stories begin with childhood abuses and lack of resources. I can’t help but feel frustrated by how many of these stories stem from a patriarchal and misogynist political system that fails to take care of women and children and especially those in marginalized communities. These were all preventable crimes, and these women need to be rehabilitated, not imprisoned.

The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West

In this collection of essays about sexism and pop culture, Lindy West combines humor and biting social commentary. From Adam Sandler movies to Twitter cats to Ted Bundy, her essays meander from the personal to the random, but always provide keen insights that make me want to scream YES! I also recommend reading Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, her first essay collection. I enjoyed The Witches Are Coming a bit more, but both are excellent.

Good Talk by Mira Jacob

I’m really happy to see Good Talk on a number of Best Comics of the Year lists. It’s a graphic memoir about parenting, about growing up as an Indian immigrant in the United States, and about trying to make sense of Trump’s presidency. It’s told through a frame of Mira Jacob’s six-year-old son’s incessant questions, which are at times innocuous (“Who taught Michael Jackson to dance?”) and at times painful (“Is it bad to be brown?”). The art is a uniquely layered collage that I loved and that pairs perfectly with this layered memoir. Despite its length, I read it in a single sitting. It’s a graphic memoir very much in the present moment.

When They Call You A Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele

Patrisse Khan-Cullors co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi after Trayvon Martin’s killer went free. This is her memoir of how she became an activist, from being raised by a single mom to trying to protect her brother as he struggled with a mental illness and all the ways she, her brother, and her friends have been targeted by a racist judicial system. It’s a very close and personal examination of Khan-Cullors’s life, and how the personal is always political and the political is always personal. 

Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper

This is a great book to read back to back with When They Call You a Terrorist. A professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, Cooper combines memoir, research, and sociology to write a feminist manifesto for black women. This book is intelligent and powerful, and while black women are the audience, it’s a must-read for all intersectional feminists. 

The Woman’s Hour by Elaine F. Weiss

A very different book than the rest on this list, The Woman’s Hour chronicles the tense final moments to ratify the 19th Amendment of the United States, which allows women the right to vote. It happened in my city–Nashville, TN, August 18, 1920. It was a close call. Weiss’s recounting honestly reads like a political thriller, with blackmail, sabotage, and unforeseen twists. It will always make me angry that men had to make the decision as to whether I vote or not. And reading the story of these women desperately trying to push back against this misogyny for basic rights as a human being is even more angering. Weiss also addresses the racism of the movement, which is often given tertiary treatment in coverage of this movement, if at all. I’ve read several books about the US Women’s Suffrage Movement, and this one is the best by far. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

If you’re interested in finding feminist children’s books, I have many recommendations. I also have several recommendations for feminist fantasy and fairytale reads

What nonfiction feminist books would you add to this list?

Margaret Kingsbury writes about fantasy, science fiction, and fairy tales for Book Riot, Star Trek, and other websites, and she’s co-creator of Baby Librarians where she, a friend, and their children write about the children’s books they love. Her fairytale fiction has been published in Nonbinary Review, Devilfish Review, and Expanded Horizons, among other places. She lives in Nashville, TN with her husband, daughter, and their many, many books. Find out more on her website and follow her on Instagram @babylibrarians or Twitter @areaderlymom

Margaret Kingsbury Contents Page