Explore a rich collection of early feminist classics with our list of the top ten essential feminist books in literary history.
Throughout history, women have faced systematic oppression in all aspects of their lives, including education, politics, and wider society. Long before the term ‘feminist’ came into popular use, writers were using their work as a platform to demand change and equality.
The following list of essential feminist books is in publication order, highlighting the evolution of literature’s contribution to the wider feminist movement.
10 Essential Feminist Books: Early Classics of the Movement
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. This text is a powerfully fierce rebuttal against eighteenth-century educational and political theorists who maintained that women should not be granted the right to education. In this classic work, Mary Wollstonecraft posits the essential nature of women’s education to the strength of a nation and argues that they are human beings who deserve similar rights to those afforded to men.
Establishing Wollstonecraft as the mother of feminist literature early on, this essential feminist book echoes down generations of literary and political movements, remaining relevant in the modern age.
‘I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.’
The Scarlet Letter (1850)
This early historical fiction novel is a powerful tale of female agency and a woman’s unwavering strength. After conceiving a daughter out of wedlock, Hester Prynne is forced to wear a scarlet ‘A’ for the rest of her life as punishment. As her child grows up, Hester makes a new life for them both, earning a living with her needlework and performing charitable acts for those less fortunate than herself.
Hawthorne’s classic work highlights long-established discrimination against women in a presentation of feminine resistance in the face of prejudice. Set in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony between 1642 and 1649, The Scarlet Letter presents free-thinking female characters that challenge nineteenth-century societal norms.
A Doll’s House (1879)
Ibsen’s 1879 play, ‘A Doll’s House’, frames nineteenth-century confines for women in the literal borders of a family home. Nora is married with three children and is living out the male-dictated ideal for women at the time. As the play progresses, Ibsen challenges this notion by gradually suggesting that Nora is trapped in a role that will never grant her self-fulfilment.
Isben gave a speech at the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights in 1898, in which he stated that he hadn’t intended to write the play as propaganda for the women’s rights movement. Despite this, ‘A Doll’s House’ is now considered a crucial feminist text due to its radical portrayal of female identity and traditional marriage roles.
‘Our home has never been anything other than a play-house. I’ve been your doll-wife here, just as at home I was Daddy’s doll-child.’
Ten Days in a Mad-House (1887)
Pioneering journalist Nellie Bly feigned insanity to be admitted to a mental institution with the intent of exposing its awful conditions first-hand. Her account reveals the institution’s inhumane treatment, abuse of power, and unsanitary environment, demonstrating the unnerving ease with which a sane woman is admitted to the hospital and the struggles she faced trying to escape.
Ten Days in a Mad-House not only launched an entirely new journalistic approach, establishing the ‘stunt girl reporting’ era, but also led to a grand jury investigation into a system that allowed women to be contained and controlled. In a period where women were often contained to conventional gender roles, Bly’s dangerous and unflinching work paved the way for women in journalism, leaving a vast legacy in her wake.
The Yellow Wallpaper (1892)
In this semi-autobiographical short story, an unnamed woman regales a horrifying account through diary entries as she suffers enforced isolation. Following a bout of postpartum psychosis, the woman is prescribed bed rest by her physician husband. The couple rent an old mansion in the countryside, and the woman is trapped in an upstairs room with loathsome yellow wallpaper that slowly takes over her mind. She’s banned from working or writing and does so secretly while commenting on society’s complex patriarchal oppression.
This essential feminist book is an important piece of classic American literature, illustrating nineteenth-century attitudes towards women’s mental and physical health.
‘John is a physician, and perhaps (…) that is the one reason I do not get well faster. You see, he does not believe I am sick!’
The Awakening (1899)
In this early example of feminist writing, Edna Pontellier, a young wife and mother, rejects the strict societal confines for women in late 1800s America and expresses a rare and powerful form of freedom. Set in New Orleans at the turn of the century, The Awakening navigates the moral, emotional, and intellectual journey of Edna as she balances self-discovery and her growing independence with married life and societal expectations.
Now recognised as a feminist masterpiece, this incredible exploration of femininity, freedom, and sexual desire was rejected upon initial publication in 1899 due to its unorthodox messages regarding social attitudes towards women and motherhood.
My Own Story (1914)
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928) was an English political activist and the architect of the British suffragette movement. She founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 and helped women attain the right to vote. In 1914, she collated her memoirs into this volume, detailing her childhood and revolutionary actions.
Offering a fascinating insight into the life and mind of one of the most important women in Britain’s societal and political history, My Own Story is an essential feminist book that remains relevant to this day.
‘It is obvious to you that the struggle will be an unequal one, but I shall make it – I shall make it as long as I have an ounce of strength left in me, or any life left in me.’
My Battles with Vice (1915)
My Battles with Vice is a biographical account of social crusader Virginia Brooks, who spent the 1910s fighting for the rights of women with various political reformation groups. She was known as the ‘Joan of Arc’ of West Hammond for her efforts against crime and corruption. This important feminist classic details her work with women in prostitution and her endeavours to free them and find them safe and stable jobs.
This is the story shared by countless women and girls in the early 1900s who were forced to battle a system that was set up against them. My Battles with Vice remains as poignant and relevant today as it did on its first publication over a century ago.
A Room of One’s Own (1929)
One of the most groundbreaking essays of the twentieth century, this essential feminist book explores the limits women face as writers in a male-dominated society. Virginia Woolf draws on female writers of the past, including Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, while also considering fictional characters and lesser-known women in literary history.
Noting women’s struggles, including their lack of intellectual freedom and financial independence, Woolf discusses the necessity for equal rights in the workplace and beyond. She states that in order for women to succeed creatively, they must have both a literal and figural space in the workplace.
Woolf’s work is rooted in the feminist perspective, and A Room of One’s Own remains one of the very best examples of her pioneering contributions to literary history.
‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’
Sweat is an early feminist short story by Harlem Renaissance writer, Zora Neale Hurston. This tale presents the contrasting lives of a married couple. Delia works incredibly long hours as a washerwoman, making sure that she earns enough to pay rent for her and her husband’s home, while also ensuring the house is clean and there is food on the table. Her husband, Sykes, is unemployed, abusive, and lives a life of leisure in comparison.
Flipping the traditional binary within the marriage roles, this classic text is one of the earliest intersectional feminist books in literary history. While exploring feminist issues within the home, it also grapples with the African American experience at the beginning of the twentieth century.
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