Shelf Improvement: 10 Must-Reads From The Wing
The curator behind the thoughtfully assembled all-female library at The Wing, R.H. Lossin knows a thing or three about building a girls-only lit collection. Here, she shares her favorite 10 books for starting your own—from Wollstonecraft to de Beauvoir.
Published Dec 14, 2016 8:00 AM
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Anne Carson, Glass, Irony and God
(1995) I originally bought this book because it includes an essay called “The Gender of Sound” that considers the ancient and abiding distaste for female voices. We do a lot of shrieking in ancient mythology. It’s a fantastic essay, but “The Glass Essay,” the long poem at the beginning of the volume, was an invaluable and unexpected gift: 38 pages of proof in meticulous verse that being heartbroken doesn’t mean you’re an idiot.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
(1949) De Beauvoir recognized early on that something more than liberal demands for the franchise and fair pay was needed to undo women’s oppression. By doing so, she laid the groundwork for more radical gender critiques that have recently begun to bear fruit in a tenuous but growing acceptance of gender non-conformity. Thus the oft-quoted line: “One is not born, yet rather becomes a woman.”
Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America
(2001) In 1996, the Clinton Administration passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act and drastically cut welfare benefits in the name of empowering the poor to work. Rightly suspicious of this neoliberal language, Ehrenreich went “undercover” for six months as a minimum-wage employee. She more or less proves that you can work as hard as you want and never get ahead. In fact, with no outside support, you will probably just keep getting behind. Women often constitute a disproportionately large percentage of low-wage workers. This—combined with the fact that they tend to do far more of the necessary unpaid labor as mothers and caregivers—means that expanding welfare entitlements and raising the minimum wage should be the primary short-term goal of any feminist worth her salt.
Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle
(2012) Revolution at Point Zero brings together over 30 years of Federici’s writing on the nature of housework and reproductive labor under capitalism and provides an extremely readable introduction to radical and Marxist feminism and the wages for housework movement. The facially unjust demand that women do constant, intense, unpaid labor is reason enough to revive this movement. But as most jobs move towards the service sector, demanding compensation for emotional labor becomes increasingly relevant, reinvigorating the argument that feminism is essential to any fight against the exploitation of anyone.
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
(1985) This just gets more relevant every year. A terrorist attack that is blamed on Islamic extremists results in the assassination of the president and most members of congress. In the ensuing chaos, a hard-right group of Christian zealots launches a revolution and restores order through repressive measures cloaked in biblical rhetoric. Whole libraries are erased because they have been digitized, and women are immediately and efficiently subjugated by denying them access to their bank accounts. If this sounds far-fetched, we might recall that the state of Louisiana didn’t repeal its coverture laws—whereby married women are prevented from owning and controlling real property—until 1979.
Elena Ferrante, The Neapolitan Novels (
2011-2014) I found it so baffling that a series of novels about a poor woman-turned-feminist intellectual could be so popular that my expectations were really low. There had to be something nasty embedded in all of this for it to gain such a wide popular readership. The covers looking like wedding cakes didn’t boost my confidence. But I was wrong. They are really good. Sure, you could fault an American readership for fetishizing Italians as a sort of safe “other” and the narrator’s life trajectory could be mapped onto any Horatio Alger novel, but for all of this the novels offer a withering critique of heterosexuality and a serious look at the limitations of class mobility. Also, they are impossible to put down.
Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for a Feminist Revolution
(1970) Firestone is perhaps best known for her assertion that reproduction can now be overcome with technology, thus liberating women from their biological oppression. This makes her seem silly or even insane—a diagnosis that she anticipates and eloquently dismisses in the opening of her book: “Sex class is so deep as to be invisible. Or it may appear as a superficial inequality…But the reaction of the common man, woman, and child—‘That? Why you can’t change that! You must be out of your mind!’—is the closest to the truth. We are talking about something every bit as deep as that.” The feminist revolution, she argues, is the revolution par excellence. No other fundamental changes can be made to social organization until we eliminate sex oppression—which explains why, technically emancipated as we are, nuclear families and make-up continue to organize our lives and our thoughts.
Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
(1940) Set in the Jim Crowe South, the novel revolves around a deaf-mute who, upon moving into a room in a boarding house, becomes a sort of repository for the inner-lives of the novel’s other four protagonists—a young girl, a labor organizer, an idealistic black doctor, and the owner of a diner. This happens to be one of my favorite novels for reasons that I can’t quite name, but in terms of nameable virtues I cannot think of a better demonstration of the compatibility of art and politics. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is compelling and well crafted fiction as much as it is a rigorously honest depiction of political and economic circumstances. Indeed the one cannot be extracted from the other, and so while “feminist” is perhaps not the first adjective to assign to McCullers’s masterpiece, the book brings to mind one of the feminist movement’s most famous slogans: The personal is political.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
(1792) Reading a book about women, socialization, and inequality published in 1792 and thinking “yes, precisely!” produces an ambivalent sort of pleasure. Wollstonecraft’s polemic is indeed vindicating for the abiding resonance of its critique. It is also a depressing but necessary reminder of how toxic the expectations of femininity are and how little those time-consuming expectations have changed over the past 200-plus years. It’s great that we get to vote and go to college, now maybe we can begin to work towards creating a society that rewards us for reading instead of the unwinnable and expensive game of perfect skin and toned abs.
Chavisa Woods, Things to Do When You are Goth in the Country
(2017) The girls and women in these eight stories don’t do what you expect them to—nor does the landscape or the language for that matter. Woods gives us something more than liberal narratives of triumph over adversity—a radically different context for considering subjects. Think feminist world, not feminist individual. And they are fun to read. Samantha Hunt called the book “Murakami meets the meth heads.” Among the characters are a “zombie” woman who resides in a local cemetery, a queer girl facing ostracism from her evangelical church, and a woman who comes back home to find that her younger brothers have developed a strange relationship to the UFOs that trouble meth-labs in the abandoned shacks of the rural Midwest.