Reading lists

The ultimate feminist books reading list

Looking for an empowering read? Whether you’re new to feminism or can quote bell hooks at length, we have rounded up the best feminist books to add to your TBR pile.

Katie Russell, Rachel Deeley, Stephen Carlick, and Lucy Hall
Image credit: Klawe Rzeczy for Penguin

How can you be a better feminist? The first step is to simply show up, ready to learn. That's why we've created the following list of the most influential feminist books – perfect for those who are either new to the movement or looking to further enrich their understanding.

The authors on this list address the vital topics of the first, second and third waves of feminism, including the intersectionality between gender, race and class; the necessary fight for transgender rights; why the nuclear family doesn’t work for women; and where men fit into the movement.

With a flurry of new feminist books being published this year, there has never been a better time to start reading – and taking action.

Intersectional feminist books about race and gender 

Feminism has come a long way since (certain) women won the right to vote in 1918. But there’s still a long way to go; as Rafia Zakaria reminds us in her book, a truly intersectional feminism must also campaign for poor women, immigrants and women of colour. 

Key quote: "There is a division within feminism that is not spoken of but that has remained seething beneath the surface for years. It is the division between the women who write and speak feminism and the women who live it."

Audre Lorde described herself as a "Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, mother, warrior, poet." Sister Outsider is a collection of her most influential speeches, essays, letters and interviews, considering the intersections of race, sexuality and gender. 

Key quote: "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change."

When Zeba Blay coined #carefreeblackgirls on Twitter in 2013, she carved out a space to celebrate Black women online. In her book of the same name, Blay examines influential Black women in popular culture and the lasting contributions they have made through their work.

Key quote: "So much of the narrative surrounding Lizzo is about her body and her bravery [...] Never mind that there are women all over the country and indeed the planet who look like Lizzo." 

In this passionate call to action, four of the world's leading feminist activists and academics make the case that abolishing the police goes hand-in-hand with the fight for gender equality. A powerful read that will change the way you view feminism.

Key quote: "Abolition is unthinkable without feminism and our feminism is unimaginable without abolition."

In this series of essays, Emma Dabiri charts the importance of Black hair through history. But Don’t Touch My Hair is about more than “just” hair; Dabiri makes a compelling argument that Black hairstyling culture is an allegory for Black oppression – and liberation.

Key quote: "The deeply entrenched idea of ‘managing’ Black women’s hair operates as a powerful metaphor for societal control over our bodies at both micro and macro levels."

Feminist books about gender and class

In this groundbreaking book, Angela Y. Davis traces the origins of feminism and explains why racism and class prejudice are so embedded in the movement. She also shines a light on unsung heroes, including field slaves and mill workers, who fought for better lives.

Key quote: "The leaders of the women's rights movement did not suspect that the enslavement of Black people in the South, the economic exploitation of Northern workers and the social oppression of women might be systematically related."

Kristen Ghodsee argues it is impossible for women to ‘have it all’ within a system that is rigged against them. If socialism were done properly, she writes, it would lead to women having more financial independence, a better work/life balance, and even better sex.

Key quote: "Unregulated capitalism is bad for women, and if we adopt some ideas from socialism, women will have better lives."

Did you know that 70% of Britain’s homeless are women? In this stark exposé, financial journalist Annabelle Williams explains why women make up the majority of those in poverty – and what we can do about it.   

Key quote: "We all know about the gender pay gap, but what isn't discussed enough is the wealth gap this creates."

Silvia Federici's core feminist text traces human history from feudalism to capitalism, tackling peasant revolts, witch hunts, and colonisation along the way. In doing so, Federici analyses how capitalism has shaped family structures and women’s place within them.

Key quote: "There has been the desire to rethink the development of capitalism from a feminist viewpoint."

Feminist books about sex and relationships 

For years, the task of not getting pregnant has fallen to women – despite men being 50 times more fertile. In this revolutionary new book, Gabrielle Blair makes the compelling argument that it's time for men to take responsibility.

Key quote: "Men cause all unwanted pregnancies. We’ve put the burden of pregnancy prevention on the person who is fertile for 24 hours a month, instead of the person who is fertile 24 hours a day, every day of their life."

Why do people get married? That’s the question at the heart of Devorah Baum’s latest work. Drawing on philosophy and popular culture, Baum analyses the meaning of marriage, its many contradictions, and whether it’s something to be optimistic or anxious about.

Key quote: "Marriage may be one of the only things most people do that they vow, on point of entry, not to get out of alive."

Sexual violence does not exist in a vacuum. That is journalist Rachel Thompson’s core argument in Rough, an intersectional, sex-positive book that draws on real experiences to analyse what is shaping problematic practices in the bedroom.

Key quote: "A lot of people favour absolute, rigid definitions of what constitutes sexual violence. But who benefits from such binary concepts?" 

The nuclear family structure puts huge pressure on couples – and primarily women – to somehow juggle their jobs and caring responsibilities. This timely book traces different communities throughout history, offering potential alternatives to the traditional family home.

Key quote: "We accept the way things are because we've never known them to be different."

Is sex work feminist? It’s a question that has puzzled feminists for decades, but not the one we should be asking, according to authors and sex workers Juno Mac and Molly Smith. In their book, they detail how the law harms sex workers – and how we can support sex workers’ rights.

Key quote: “We are not waiting to be invited into the feminist movement. We have always been here.”

Books about gender and LGBTQ+ rights  

Shon Faye’s brilliant treatise on trans rights, and its importance to the wider struggle for social justice and progress, is a must-read for any ally. It is especially timely in light of the toxic transphobia that has permeated feminist discourse and media headlines in recent years. 

Key quote: "The demand for true trans liberation echoes and overlaps with the demands of workers, socialists, feminists, anti-racists and queer people."

We Can Do Better Than This edited by Amelia Abraham (2022) 

In this collection of essays, 35 celebrated queer figures share their stories and visions for the future, putting forward new arguments around safety, visibility, dating and gender. This is essential reading at a time of continual attacks on queer identity.

Key quote: "I am glad I can be in drag on the cover of a magazine, but what’s the point of that if I can’t even stand on the street looking the way I feel?"

Judith Butler is a pioneering gender studies scholar whose work has helped reshape feminist discourse and challenge commonly-held conceptions of sex, sexuality, and the gender binary. In this timely and incisive book, Butler lends their intellect to the question of how – and why – attacks on ‘gender’ have become central to reactionary social and political movements around the world.

Key quote: “The targeting of sexual and gender minorities as dangers to society, as exemplifying the most destructive force in the world, in order to strip them of their fundamental rights, protections, and freedoms, implicates the anti-gender ideology in fascism."

This vast anthology on lesbian history – covering social history, political history, and even memoir – was long overdue. As radically political as it is gentle and nuanced, Lesbian Love Story is a must-read about a vital part of women’s history.

Key quote: "Lesbians, in my eyes, are defined as the ones who invent their own systems of love: Romantic love. Family love. Friend love. A love for community, and for strangers too."

The Stonewall Reader edited by Jason Baumann (2019)

From the New York Public Library archives, this collection of first-hand accounts, diary entries and articles gives a full picture of the Stonewall uprising and the forgotten figures who were pivotal to the movement, including African American lesbian activist Ernestine Eckstein.

Key quote: "I have been continually humbled and awed by their visionary courage. These are people who have literally changed our world."

First wave feminism texts 

Mary Wollstonecraft was something of a proto-feminist, advocating for women’s equality and education decades before the first-wave movement began in earnest. Her influential treatise considered the Enlightenment values of reason, individualism and self-determination through the lens of women’s experiences. 

Key quote: "I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves."

Suffragette Manifestos by various authors (2020) 

This small but mighty book compiles speeches, pamphlets, letters and articles from leading suffragettes, painting a detailed portrait of both a moment in time and a movement that would shape the following century.

Key quote: "Women can care about voting [...] I shall try to show why some care – and why those who do not, ought to be made to care."

Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst didn’t originally intend to write a memoir, but after being in and out of prison multiple times in her fight for women’s right to vote, she was persuaded to change her mind.

Key quote: "Often I have heard the taunt that suffragists are women who have failed to find any normal outlet for their emotions, and are therefore soured and disappointed beings. This is probably not true of any suffragist, and it is most certainly not true of me."

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction, according to Virginia Woolf. In her iconic text, born out of a lecture she delivered at Cambridge, Woolf dissects the barriers that women face when it comes to accessing education and finding their own voice.

Key quote: "Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind."

Second and third wave feminism texts 

This seminal text laid the groundwork for the second-wave feminist movement. The Second Sex interrogates the social constructs that define femininity, while also examining the material and economic constraints that disadvantage women, benefit men, and stand in the way of liberation for all. 

Key quote: "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman."

In this influential feminist text of the '60s, Betty Friedan examines the ennui she and her peers experienced as housewives and how it is shaped by the belief that women's identity and fulfilment should be solely defined by their relationship to their husband and children.

Key quote: "When she stopped conforming to the conventional picture of femininity, she finally began to enjoy being a woman."

The Vagina Monologues by V (formerly Eve Ensler) (1996)

This irreverent, taboo-busting play has faced feminist criticism on issues such as trans inclusivity, sex positivity and the white gaze. However, its unmistakable impact is still evident to this day, with thousands of homages performed each year in support of the fight to end violence against women. 

Key quote: "I'm worried about vaginas, what we call them and don't call them."

Books about feminism

Don't quite understand the different waves of feminism? They're not important, argues historian Lucy Delap. Feminism's history is more complex and diverse that we give it credit, and this book illuminates how we can learn from the movement's rich past.

Key quote: "Feminism has been repeatedly written off as a political movement that has achieved its aims – only to come back with renewed force as another generation of women angrily name their malaise."

Have you ever received an eye-roll in a meeting for calling out racism or sexism? Good news, you’re a feminist killjoy! Feminist theorist Sara Ahmed embraces this epithet, and her new book equips you with the tools you need to disturb the status quo and resist oppression.

Key quote: "To reclaim the feminist killjoy is not to agree with the negative judgement behind it [...] but to channel the negativity, pushing it in another direction."

This star-studded anthology features writing by Emma Watson, Jameela Jamil, Dolly Alderton and more. It's a powerful and varied collection of essays, prose and poetry that beautifully captures what it means to be a feminist today.

Key quote: "Despite allegations in the media that feminists are constantly angry and serious, 98% of feminists find joy in feminism."

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2014)

Based on her viral 2012 TED talk of the same name, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's treatise on what it means to be a feminist sparked a global conversation. Its cultural impact (including a sample in Beyoncé’s hit single ***Flawless) helped bring feminism into the mainstream.

Key quote: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, 'You can have ambition, but not too much.'"

Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks (2000)

This short, accessible book by pre-eminent feminist scholar and activist bell hooks disabuses readers of any notion that feminism is an exercise in excluding or vilifying men or the preserve of ivory-towered academics.

Key quote: "Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression [...] I liked this definition because it did not imply that men were the enemy."

Feminist memoirs and essays 

Whether to transcend racism, misogyny, or other structures of oppression, Rachel E. Cargle makes the case for boldly and bravely retelling your own story in a way that allows you live independently and seek only that which is of value to you.  

Key quote: "I am who I say I am. I shape my existence with curiosity and intention."

Judith Heumann, a wheelchair user, had to fight to be allowed to attend school – but she didn’t stop there. She became known as the “Mother of the Disability Rights Movement” for her tireless activism and shares her story in this extraordinary memoir.

Key quote: "I simply refused to accept what I was told about who I could be. And I was willing to make a fuss about it."

Caitlin Moran wrote her seminal book at a time when the topic of feminism was drifting out of fashion. Told in her signature irreverent style, this memoir-meets-manifesto muses on everything from abortion rights to the changing size of knickers.

Key quote: "The purpose of feminism isn’t to make a particular type of woman. The idea that there are inherently wrong and inherently right “types” of women is what’s screwed feminism for so long."

Natalie Lee writes candidly about the shame that surrounds sex in this honest and revealing memoir. By sharing her story, and how she learned to embrace sex and pleasure, Lee invites readers to meditate on their own sexual experiences – and find sexual freedom.

Key quote: "The only way we can truly break the silence of shame is to use our voices – and I'm about to raise mine."

Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates (2014) 

Laura Bates began the Everyday Sexism Project in 2012, setting up a website where women could catalogue the sexism they experienced. Stories poured in from around the world and, in 2014, Bates wrote this corresponding book, not just cataloguing experiences but galvanising women to take action.

Key quote: "People who shout at women in the street don’t do it because they think there’s a chance the woman will drop her shopping, willy-nilly, and leap into their arms! It isn’t a compliment. [...] It is an exertion of power, dominance and control."

The Guilty Feminist by Deborah Frances-White (2020) 

Ever feel like you're a "bad feminist"? Deborah Frances-White, author of The Guilty Feminist and host of the award-winning podcast of the same name, is here to reassure you that feminism isn't one-size-fits-all. You don't have to be perfect to overthrow the patriarchy. 

Key quote: "I desperately wanted to close the pay gap, but I also wanted to look good sitting down naked."

Books about men and masculinity 

In her new book, Caitlin Moran turns her characteristic wit and compassion to the subject of men. Why do so many men have body-image issues? What is their experience of fatherhood? How can we support men’s mental health? Moran covers these questions, and more.

Key quote: "Ultimately, the idea that men and women are at war with each other – battling for supremacy – is madness: like siblings fighting in the back seat, when we're all in the same car, going to the same place."

In this eye-opening examination of masculinity, social historian Ivan Jablonka looks into the history of patriarchy to unearth a new model of masculinity that aims to redistribute gender power.

Key quote: "Opposing patriarchy is much like fighting against climate change: it is important to do one’s part individually, but collective action and systemic reforms are absolutely required."

Men Who Hate Women by Laura Bates (2020) 

You've probably heard of "incels", but they are not an isolated group; extreme misogyny takes many forms, from pick-up artists to domestic abusers. Laura Bates investigates what they have in common.

Key quote: "What if our desensitisation to low-level, ubiquitous misogyny is preventing us from recognising a fully blown crisis?" 

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