Five modern classics: Nonfiction feminist texts from the 1980’s and 90’s

As April is Women’s History Month, I’ll be sharing book lists with a focus on books considered classic feminist texts and other books by women authors.

Are you interested in learning more about the history of women’s movements and gaining tools to think critically about how society is shaped by the patriarchy?

Here are five nonfiction books considered classic feminist texts from the 80’s and 90’s. They each had a considerable impact on the women’s movement and continued to be both relevant and heavily studied. I’ve listed them in order of when they were published.

It’s important to note that these books are primarily focused on the women’s movements in Western societies (including North America and the UK).

Also, I’m always looking to diversify my reading. If you have any suggestions that discuss women’s rights and movements from other parts of the world, please share them below!

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Five modern classics: Feminist nonfiction

Here’s a list of five modern classic books with a focus on feminist nonfiction.

  1. Women, Race & Class by Angela Davis (1981)
  2. Ain’t I a Woman by bell hooks (1981)
  3. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde (1984)
  4. The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf (1990)
  5. Backlash by Susan Faludi (1991)

Keep reading to find out more about each one.

1. Women, Race & Class (1981)

by Angela Y. Class

  • Year Published: 1981
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, feminism, history, politics, race, sociology, challenging, informative, medium-paced
  • Importance:
    One of the first intersectional analyses of gender, race and class

This book discusses the interaction of gender, race and class, with an emphasis on the experiences of Black Women.

It clarifies aspects of US history that you may not have heard about, spanning the time period from the slave trade to modern women’s rights movements.

This book radically shifted how I understood the history of the women’s movements, especially the suffragette movement. I feel like it gave me so much more nuance to the history.

Summary (from Goodreads):

From one of our most important scholars and civil rights activist icon, a powerful study of the women’s liberation movement and the tangled knot of oppression facing Black women.

“Angela Davis is herself a woman of undeniable courage. She should be heard.” —The New York Times

Angela Davis provides a powerful history of the social and political influence of whiteness and elitism in feminism, from abolitionist days to the present, and demonstrates how the racist and classist biases of its leaders inevitably hampered any collective ambitions. While Black women were aided by some activists like Sarah and Angelina Grimke and the suffrage cause found unwavering support in Frederick Douglass, many women played on the fears of white supremacists for political gain rather than take an intersectional approach to liberation. Here, Davis not only contextualizes the legacy and pitfalls of civil and women’s rights activists, but also discusses Communist women, the murder of Emmitt Till, and Margaret Sanger’s racism. Davis shows readers how the inequalities between Black and white women influence the contemporary issues of rape, reproductive freedom, housework and child care in this bold and indispensable work.


2. Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981)

by bell hooks

  • Year Published: 1981
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, feminism, history, race, challenging, informative, inspiring, slow-paced
  • Importance:
    Highly influential in feminist theory

In this book, bell hooks discusses how stereotypes from slavery are still very influential in today’s world.

bell hooks is considered a feminist theory scholar, and this book has been considered groundbreaking in feminist theory as it discussed the longterm impacts from slavery that are still felt today.

This book has no footnotes in it. bell hooks said it was to make it more accessible and less scholarly, but it has also been criticized for not sharing her sources.

Summary (from Goodreads):

A groundbreaking work of feminist history and theory analyzing the complex relations between various forms of oppression. Ain’t I a Woman  examines the impact of sexism on black women during slavery, the historic devaluation of black womanhood, black male sexism, racism within the recent women’s movement, and black women’s involvement with feminism.


3. Sister Outsider (1984)

by Audre Lorde

  • Year Published: 1984
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, essays, feminism, lgbtqia+, sociology, challenging, informative, reflective, medium-paced
  • Importance:
    A groundbreaking impact on contemporary feminist theories, including intersectionality

This is a collection of essays, with “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” likely being the most well known.

The essays showcase Lorde’s philosophical thought and reasoning, especially highlighting oppressions as both complex and interconnected. Her essays are considered a significant contribution to critical social theory.

Summary (from Goodreads):

A collection of fifteen essays written between 1976 and 1984 gives clear voice to Audre Lorde’s literary and philosophical personae. These essays explore and illuminate the roots of Lorde’s intellectual development and her deep-seated and longstanding concerns about ways of increasing empowerment among minority women writers and the absolute necessity to explicate the concept of difference—difference according to sex, race, and economic status. The title Sister Outsider finds its source in her poetry collection The Black Unicorn (1978). These poems and the essays in Sister Outsider stress Lorde’s oft-stated theme of continuity, particularly of the geographical and intellectual link between Dahomey, Africa, and her emerging self.


4. The Beauty Myth (1990)

by Naomi Wolf

  • Year Published: 1990
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, feminism, informative, reflective, slow-paced
  • Importance:
    Redefined the relationship between beauty and female identity

The Beauty Myth focuses on how beauty is used as a distraction and continues the subjugation of women.

As women’s power in society has increased, so has the pressure from media to achieve unrealistic beauty standards.

Beauty is both a way to distract women from their desire for equal rights, while simultaneously providing a way for everyone (men and women) to judge women on their personal appearance.

Summary (from Goodreads):

The bestselling classic that redefined our view of the relationship between beauty and female identity. In today’s world, women have more power, legal recognition, and professional success than ever before. Alongside the evident progress of the women’s movement, however, writer and journalist Naomi Wolf is troubled by a different kind of social control, which, she argues, may prove just as restrictive as the traditional image of homemaker and wife. It’s the beauty myth, an obsession with physical perfection that traps the modern woman in an endless spiral of hope, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as she tries to fulfill society’s impossible definition of “the flawless beauty.”


5. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991)

by Susan Faludi

  • Year Published: 1991
  • Storygraph Categories: nonfiction, feminism, history, politics, informative, reflective, slow-paced
  • Importance:
    Disputed many commonly held myths

This book originated as an article that Faludi wrote in response to a 1986 Newsweek cover story about the so-called “man shortage” and the “statistic” that women over 30 were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than marry.

Newsweek reported that the “statistic” came from a Harvard-Yale marriage study. It got tremendous coverage and was widely believed to be true. You’ll even see it referenced (as a joke) in the movie Sleepless in Seattle! But the statistic didn’t hold up to be true and the Harvard-Yale team later retracted the statistics.

You can hear Susan Faludi talk more about it in an interview here.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Skillfully Probing the Attack on Women’s Rights

“Opting-out,” “security moms,” “desperate housewives,” “the new baby fever”—the trend stories of 2006 leave no doubt that American women are still being barraged by the same backlash messages that Susan Faludi brilliantly exposed in her 1991 bestselling book of revelations. Now, the book that reignited the feminist movement is back in a fifteenth anniversary edition, with a new preface by the author that brings backlash consciousness up to date.

When it was first published, Backlash made headlines for puncturing such favorite media myths as the “infertility epidemic” and the “man shortage,” myths that defied statistical realities. These willfully fictitious media campaigns added up to an antifeminist backlash. Whatever progress feminism has recently made, Faludi’s words today seem prophetic. The media still love stories about stay-at-home moms and the “dangers” of women’s career ambitions; the glass ceiling is still low; women are still punished for wanting to succeed; basic reproductive rights are still hanging by a thread. The backlash clearly exists.

With passion and precision, Faludi shows in her new preface how the creators of commercial culture distort feminist concepts to sell products while selling women downstream, how the feminist ethic of economic independence is twisted into the consumer ethic of buying power, and how the feminist quest for self-determination is warped into a self-centered quest for self-improvement.

Backlash is a classic of feminism, an alarm bell for women of every generation, reminding us of the dangers that we still face.


Final thoughts

Personally, I think these most, if not, all of these books are life changing. They can provide significant perspective shifts and can help you think more critically about your experiences.

You may not agree with everything in the books, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t gain something from them. For instance, Angela Davis was an ardent supporter of the communist party in the 80’s and part of the book focuses heavily on communism. Whatever your feelings about communism (and people tend to feel quite strongly about it – thanks Cold War!), that shouldn’t negate or affect what you can learn from the rest of the book.

If you’ve read any of these, I would love to know what you think of them! Please feel free to share a comment below with your thoughts.

If you have suggestions for books that focus on women’s movements from elsewhere around the world, please let me know in a comment below!

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