She coined the phrase “the problem that has no name” to describe the housewife’s lament. Friedan taught middle class women that marriage, children and a neat suburban home were not always the path to fulfillment.
Ariel, by Sylvia Plath (1965)
She might be best known for her roman à clef The Bell Jar, but Plath’s final, posthumously published book of poetry, Ariel, was far more transgressive in its way. It gave women permission to be deeply, irrevocably angry. If you want to get chills, listen to Plath reading the poem ” Daddy,” from Ariel.
The personal is political is a cliché of the second wave, but Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, which covers her youth and teenage years, embodies the phrase. She wrote about rape, teen pregnancy, and racism in gorgeous prose that raised consciousness and inspired so many women writers.
40 years after Jong introduced the term “zipless fuck” into the America lexicon, her novel still feels sexy, devious and true. She was exploring non-monogamy decades before it became even marginally acceptable.
Kingston mixed Chinese folk stories with memoir and her family’s stories to explore her experience as a Chinese-American woman. She grapples with assimilation and the expectations of her family, and bent genre in a way that’s still fresh.
Arguably the best female essayist of the modern era, Didion stuns with this collection. She catalogues her nervous breakdown in the titular essay, but she also takes on the women’s movement, Georgia O’Keefe, and Ronald Reagan. Her infamous packing list alone makes The White Album necessary reading.
Ain’t I a Woman is a foundational text of intersectional feminism, explaining how the feminist movement failed to speak to women of color and the working class. hooks continues to be instrumental in calling out mainstream feminism for its racism and classism.
Paula, by Isabel Allende (1995)
Allende is best known for her novel The House of the Spirits, but her memoir, Paula, is truly heartrending. It is in the form of a letter to her daughter Paula, who had fallen into a coma because she suffered from a rare disorder called porphyria. It is far reaching and revealing, and Allende discusses religion, politics, old lovers and her mother. The book begins thusly: “Listen Paula. I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost.”
The Conflict, by Elisabeth Badinter (2012)
Elisabeth Badinter believes that the trend of naturalism in motherhood-years of breastfeeding, co-sleeping and baby wearing-is just a stylish way to keep women down. You might not agree with Badinter that the ladies who started the La Leche League were ” ayatollahs of breast-feeding,” but you have to respect her willingness to start a fire.
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