27 Books Everyone In America Should Read
These novels, essay collections, memoirs, histories, and more will help you understand why there is no feminism without intersectionality, why we should remember our history before we repeat it, and why Roe v. Wade is a lot more tenuous than you might think.
1. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The novelist, poet, and essayist's 2012 TEDx talk of the same name was adapted into this excellent 64-page book, in which she deftly does away with the canard that using the word "feminism" isn't necessary: "Some people ask: 'Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?' Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general - but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women."
2. I'm Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi
This book by the writer behind the popular AwesomelyLuvvie.com blog is both hilarious and incisive about how to behave towards our fellow humans. In a world where it can seem like common decency has gone out the window, Luvvie is here to bring it back. She's also seriously smart about the shortcomings of feminism, which feels especially urgent right now: "The feminist movement has sucked at being truly intersectional. It has neglected to address the struggles of women who are not straight, white, Christian (or sometimes Jewish), and cisgender... A woman who is Black, trans, or Muslim won't be represented fairly and completely in the fight for equality. Yet even with all these glaring issues, white women have claimed themselves the authority on feminism, and that is insulting."
3. The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt
The classic 1951 text by one of the leading political theorists of her era that analyzes how the Nazis rose to power in Germany and how Stalin rose to power in the Soviet Union, tracing their origins to 19th-century political and anti-Semitic movements. If you're pressed for time and don't want to tackle the entire 500-plus page book, part three focuses on the period from 1930 onwards — which is probably the most relevant.
4. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
First published in 1985, Atwood's book is about a near-future U.S. that has turned into a totalitarian state where women have nearly all their rights stripped from them. If this is sounding a little too close to home, you're not alone. It has also been turned into a forthcoming (April!) Hulu show starring Elisabeth Moss.
5. The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey by Toi Derricotte
The poet Toi Derricotte is a light-skinned black woman whose book, written in journal form, is a vital treatise on what it's like not just to "pass" as white, but also the complicated dance of "choosing" your own racial identity. As a New York Times review written around the book's release in 1997 noted, Derricotte shows how whiteness is "privilege utterly and ruinously unacquainted with itself."
6. Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin
Predating The Handmaid's Tale by a year, Elgin's science fiction novel also imagines a future where women have lost most of their rights and have been banned from public life, save a small clan of women linguists who serve as interplanetary translators. Meanwhile, women who live in "Barren House" — where any woman past childbearing age essentially waits to die — are fomenting revolution.
8. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Gay's 2014 book explored her relationship with feminism while also offering a trenchant cultural critique. As she explains in the introduction: "I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human." Her words are worth remembering as the debates around what feminism is continue to swirl.
9. The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen
Gessen's meticulously researched and compellingly told 2012 book is a must-read for understanding the current political climate in Russia — and why the notion that Putin himself orchestrated the Russian hacking of the presidential election is not far-fetched at all. Also check out Gessen's chilling New York Review of Books essay, "Autocracy: Rules for Survival."
10. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa Harris-Perry
Author, professor, and TV personality Harris-Perry's 2011 book is a necessary treatise about the prejudices black women encounter in their daily lives, and how the struggle for self-determination is especially difficult in light of persistently negative imagery and stereotypes about gender and race. Harris-Perry is deliberately not prescriptive; as she writes, "This is less a book about what black women do to become first-class American citizens than one about how they feel while they are in that struggle."
11. Feminist, Queer, Crip by Alison Kafer
Kafer's 2013 book was the first to weave together discussions of feminism, queerness, and disability — and she makes the case that people with disabilities should have agency over their lives and bodies. As she writes, "Decisions about the future of disability and disabled people are political decisions and should be recognized and treated as such. Rather than assume that a 'good' future naturally and obviously depends on the eradication of disability, we must recognize this perspective as colored by histories of ableism and disability oppression."
12. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
All of Lorde's books are essential reading, but Sister Outsider — first published in 1984 — presents 15 beautifully written speeches and essays by the black lesbian feminist poet that will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about feminism, race, sex, ageism, homophobia, and power. It will leave you inspired — and ready to take on the hegemony.
13. Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
Janet Mock is one of the most visible trans women in America, but she overcame huge odds to get there. Her story is at times heart-wrenching, but ultimately inspiring — and an important read particularly as trans women continue to suffer in this country, and trans girls seek role models who look and feel like them, as Mock writes: "My story has shown that more is possible for girls growing up like I did."
14. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa
Now in its fourth edition, this groundbreaking anthology — featuring the essays, art, poems, and other writing of more than a dozen feminists of color — was originally published in 1981. But as Moraga writes in her introduction to the new edition, the issues that were raised when the book was originally published are just as urgent now as they were in 198, if not more so, given the pitfalls of corporate feminism. As she writes, "Social change does not occur through tokenism or exceptions to the rule of discrimination, but through the systemic abolishment of the rule itself."
15. Inferno by Eileen Myles
This semi-autobiographical poetic novel, published in September, tells the story of a young lesbian writer named Eileen Myles coming of age in New York, as well as the challenges of being a working writer. Myles shows that good art is always political — and how making good art has only become harder in America. As Myles writes: "The cultural wars in the United States started with poetry. I just think people should know."
16. More Than Medicine: A History of the Feminist Women’s Health Movement by Jennifer Nelson
In the 1960s and '70s, a group of feminists began agitating not just for equality in healthcare, but for women to be allowed autonomy over their bodies and their medical choices, particularly regarding reproductive health. This book is a stark reminder of how far we've come — but also how tenuous the rights that women fought for 50 years ago still are.
17. A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Nielsen
This book retells the history of the U.S. through the eyes of people with disabilities — including slavery, immigration, and civil rights, areas where the lens of disability has rarely if ever been applied. It also shows the ways in which disability rights activists have been able to effect real change, not just in the ways people with disability are perceived, but in the laws that apply to them.
LULAC — the League of United Latin-American Citizens — was an organization founded in 1929 by Mexican-American men that was has long been considered to be an assimilationist, bourgeois group by Latinx activists. But Orozco argues that the group was in fact much more revolutionary at the time than it seems today, and she argues that it was a significant player in the civil rights movement.
19. Citizen by Claudia Rankine
This book-length poetic essay might be the most powerful piece of writing of the last 10 years. Maybe more. It's almost downplaying it to call it "relevant" or "timely," because part of Rankine's point is that much of what she talks about with regards to race and racism — and the violence against black people in this country — has been going on for centuries and has not changed significantly in that time. And the toll that it takes on black people is immeasurable.
“Nobody notices, only you've known,
you're not sick, not crazy,
not angry, not sad--
It's just this, you're injured.”
20. Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire by Sonia Shah
In this pioneering 1997 anthology, Sonia Shah shows the role that Asian-American women have played in the women's rights movement, restoring their place in a feminist narrative that has been dominated by white women (and continues to be). "Neither the feminist movement nor the Asian American movement have taken Asian American women’s interests into consideration on their agendas," Shah writes, and 20 years after her book was originally published, her words are still all too relevant.
21. Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit
Solnit is the writer who essentially defined mansplaining, and this collection of essays shows how detrimental it can be to women's well-being and sense of self: "Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about." Solnit's writing is trenchant but also hilarious, and anyone who has fumed at being spoken at — in person, on social media, over email or text — will find lots here to relate to, and get angry about.
22. Black Wave by Michelle Tea
Tea's novel, which came out last year, is a wonderfully wild and weird tale about love, drugs, queerness, and the end of the world. What at first seems like an autobiographical novel of the '90s in San Francisco soon turns into something much more bizarre, and ultimately thought-provoking, once the protagonist (also named Michelle) moves to LA. Read it and reconsider everything you thought you knew about queer narratives.
23. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts
In this groundbreaking book published in 1998, Dorothy Roberts shows how stereotypes about black women — particularly the "Welfare Queen" — have had a pernicious and persistent impact on black women's reproductive health, both through regulation and substandard levels of care. As Roberts argues: "The systematic, institutionalized denial of reproductive freedom has uniquely marked Black women's history in America."
24. Sex Object by Jessica Valenti
"I started to ask myself: Who would I be if I didn't live in a world that hated women?" Out of this question came Valenti's compelling memoir about being sexually objectified as a young woman in New York. Valenti puts words to many of the emotions that young women have felt trying to navigate the treacherous world of dating, hookups, and relationships — and shows how horrible so many men can be towards women.
25. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens by Alice Walker
This collection of Walker's work — including essays, speeches, and reviews — spans the period between ages 22 and 48, a hugely prolific time when she also wrote The Color Purple. This vital anthology focuses on what Walker calls "womanist prose," writing about topics ranging from Zora Neale Hurston to Martin Luther King Jr. to the oppression of black women.
26. Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman by Lindy West
This collection of essays by West — many previously published in Jezebel, The Stranger, and The Guardian, among other places — explore, through her own experiences, the ways in which the expectations around women's bodies and sexuality have kept them oppressed. She also tackles online trolls, particularly the ways in which women are unsafe on social media — an issue that has only been exacerbated by the election.
27. We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler
In some circles, feminism has become cool. And Zeisler — the co-founder of Bitch Media — is here to show exactly how nefarious "cool" and corporate feminism can be in that it hardly ever effects real change, particularly when it comes to issues like the wage gap, reproductive health, and attacks on women on social media. She shows how feminism was co-opted almost from its inception, and what we can do to fight its corporatization.