Reading while also being a feminist can be a demoralising endeavor. It feels like for every brilliant piece of feminist writing, there’s an unassailable mountain of misogynistic nonsense (I’m looking at you, Ernest Hemingway). So much of what we read in secondary school literature, for example, is written by white men, about white men, and for white men, and it starts to get exhausting. Can we only read books of essays on feminist theory for the rest of time? Are any other books safe? Well, these books might not change your entire gender-based worldview, but they certainly all have feminist messages buried in there somewhere. Here are a few books that turn out to be more feminist than you’d think.
I mean sure, we can all enjoy the occasional story about hunting lions in Africa with your shrewish wife, but over half of the planet’s population is made up of genders other than men. It’s tempting to give up on male authors entirely and go live underground and/or only read Ella Enchanted on repeat for the rest of your life. But if that’s sounding a little unrealistic, here are a few books that have more to say on women’s rights than you might have guessed:
1. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by William Shakespeare
Sappy romance between hormonal teens…or secret feminist manifesto? Romeo and Juliet has quite the reputation for being a classic love story, but the way it deals with gender is very nearly revolutionary. Despite being a teen boy, Romeo is the emotional, romantic, sensitive character, who kills himself using poison, which is traditionally a “woman’s weapon.” Juliet, on the other hand, is a thoughtful, logical teenage girl, who has a whole monologue about how excited she is to have sex with her boyfriend, and who stabs herself to death in a very traditionally masculine form of violence.
2. ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce
Yes, James Joyce writes a lot about dudes staring at women and yes, a lot of his fans are lit bros who’ll make you read their screenplay and then ghost you. But if you can make it through Ulysses, you just might find that Joyce is more complex than that. The book is all about Leopold Bloom, but Molly Bloom, his wife, gets the final chapter all to herself. The last few pages are a stream of consciousness monologue from Molly as she masturbates, and it’s presented as a beautiful, empowering, life-affirming event (that got the book repeatedly banned for obscenity).
3. ‘The Suffragette Scandal’ by Courtney Milan
A lot of people write off the romance genre as trashy or backwards, but there are many well-written feminist love stories out there. The Suffragette Scandal, for one, is a nuanced and sexy romance between an outspoken suffragette and a man who actually appreciates her for her wit, tenacity, and bold opinions.
4. ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ by Hanan Al-Shaykh
Like most classic folklore collections, the original One Thousand and One Nights isn’t exactly up to date on gender politics. But Hanan Al-Shaykh’s beautiful, witty re-telling of these stories manages to highlight complex women throughout. The stories are equally funny and gruesome, and at the center of all of them is young Shahrazad, spinning tales to save her life, and to protect other women from the king’s wrath.
5. ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen
People seem to be split on Jane Austen: either they think she’s a brilliant proto-feminist, or they dismiss her books as classic chick lit. Those “chick lit” people need to take a long hard look in the mirror and then read Persuasion. It may not have as much of a feminist following as Pride and Prejudice, but Persuasion is the most mature of Austen’s novels: the story of an old-ish young woman looking for a second chance with a man she once spurned. But more than that, our heroine is forced to deal with the existential question of her own place in society as a woman who never married (she’s a dried up old maid of 27!).
6. ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ by Lemony Snicket
I don’t know that anyone would call Lemony Snicket’s darkly humorous children’s series sexist, but it’s certainly not the book that comes to mind first in a discussion of feminist kids’ books. That’s too bad, because the Baudelaire siblings eschew traditional gender roles and deal with a lot of sexist creeps. Violet, the mechanically minded inventor, is a great example of a young women who can enjoy hair ribbons and machinery.
7. ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Brontë
When it comes to the Brontës and feminism, Jane Eyre gets most of the attention. After all, Jane Eyre is very clearly the story of one woman growing into her own independence, while Wuthering Heights is… more of a story about two awful people who love/hate each other until they angrily die. But, I’d argue that Wuthering Heights is important in part because it has an unlikable female protagonist. So many great books star antihero men, so why can’t Cathy be an antihero woman? Wuthering Heights challenges us to invest in the story of a young woman who is not particularly pleasant or nice, but who is still a fully realised individual with passions and thoughts.