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Reading Feminism What to Read on Feminism

In this reading list, the ‘x’ in womxn is used in an inclusive way to indicate gender fluidity and inclusivity. Read more on it here and here. However, the spelling ‘women’ is also used in this reading list to be consistent with the way in which it was used in the selected texts.

For generations, womxn have been dedicated to pursuing an agenda opposed to patriarchy—simply defined as a social system in which men primarily hold the power and benefit from it, while womxn are largely excluded from it. This fight does not exclude African womxn with their own experiences, writings, activism and scholarship.

It is important to be clear that feminism—which includes opposing ‘the patriarchy’—on the African contintent is not a new concept or phenomena imported from Western regions. See, for example, Ali Mari Tripp’s piece on this reading list—How African Feminism Changed the World—which discusses how African women, such as Egyptian novelist, Nawal El Saadawi, and Moroccan sociologist, Fatema Mernissi, challenged efforts by Western feminists to define global feminism at the 1976 international conference on Women and Development at Wellesley College.

As this reading list shows, feminism is complex—particularly African feminism, which has contributed a lot both to African development arenas and broader global feminisms. At the same time, there is a lot of resistance and, at times, overt hostility to feminist work—particularly across the African region, where it is largely seen as ‘un-African’. One thing that cannot be denied though is that, in 2018, everyone has an opinion on feminism. So, what better time to start to engage—or re-engage—with feminism.

There are a huge number of classic feminist texts, as well as more contemporary ones out there—this list covers merely a drop in the wealth of feminist literature out there. On this list, you will find fiction and nonfiction mostly by African womxn, Black womxn and womxn of colour; all from a wide range of fields and all engaging with feminism, directly or indirectly. This list also does not claim to be essential reading; instead, see it as a starting point on feminism, including African feminism.

For ease of access, texts in this list have been categorized into:

  1. Understanding African Feminism
  2. Non-Fiction/Essays on Feminism
  3. Intersectionality
  4. Edited Collections
  5. Memoirs
  6. Fiction
Understanding African Feminism
JOSEPHINE AHIKIRE
AFRICAN FEMINISM IN CONTEXT: REFLECTIONS ON THE LEGITIMATION ON BATTES, VICTORIES AND REVERSALS.
FEMINIST AFRICA. 2014. (Available here.)

A reflective article on African feminism, “African Feminism in Context” strides the movement’s victories and pitfalls. It recounts African feminism’s diverse experiences, some of the movement’s key features that are most pertinent in an African content, and the various points of departure in thinking about the movement today.

CHIKA ODUAH
THE STATE OF FEMINISM IN AFRICA TODAY.
CHIKA ODUAH BLOG. 2013. (Available here.)

This blog post takes a look at the enormous impact feminism has had “on the consciousness of African women”, while also arguing against the exclusion of centuries of women by women in Africa—and other non-Western regions. Oduah takes a close look at the “heart of feminist agency and expression”—personhood and integrity—and ends with a compelling reading list on gender.

AWINO OKECH
CITE AFRICAN FEMINISTS: SOME READINGS.
MEDIUM. 2018. (Available here.)

I came across this reading list as I was about to finish mine. It is an excellent list with 56 texts and 8 links focused solely “on African feminist scholarship and intellectual contribution”. 

MINNA SALAMI
A BRIEF HISTORY OF AFRICAN FEMINISM.
MS. AFROPOLITAN. 2013. (Available here.); and
WHAT IS AFRICAN FEMINISM, ACTUALLY?
MS. AFROPOLITAN. 2017. (Available here.)

For readers interested in a brief history of African Feminism, Salami’s “A Brief History…” is a good starting point. It highlights African Victorian Feminists, such as: Adelaide Casely-Hayford, who contributed to pan-African and feminist goals; Huda Sharaawi, who established the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923; and the women liberation fighters in Algeria, Angola, Guinea, Kenya and Mozambique.

In “What is African Feminism, Actually?”, Salami addresses the question of African Feminism and “how is it different from western feminism?” by exploring the different types of African feminism that exist today and how they have been shaped. The article divides African feminism into three broad categories: pre-colonial African feminism, post-colonial African feminism and African feminism today.

ALI MARI TRIPP
HOW AFRICAN FEMINISM CHANGED THE WORLD.
AFRICAN ARGUMENTS. 2017. (Available here.)

This piece challenges the assumption that feminism started in the West and made its way down to the Global South by highlighting the reality of “feminism in the Global South”: its trajectories, inspirations, demands and significant contribution to current understandings of women’s rights globally.

NON-FICTION/ESSAYS ON FEMINISM
IFI AMADIUME
MALE DAUGHTERS, FEMALE HUSBANDS: GENDER AND SEX IN AFRICAN SOCIETY.
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. 2015. (Available here.)

First published in 1987, this book argues that gender—as constructed within Western feminist discourse—did not exist in pre-colonial Africa. The book also examines the societal structures in Africa that “enabled people to achieve power within fluid masculine and feminine roles”.

ROXANE GAY
BAD FEMINIST: ESSAYS.
LITTLE BROWN BOOK GROUP. 2014. (Available here.)

‘I’m human, full of contradictions, and a feminist.’ With almost 40 essays, Roxane Gay sets out to unpack the extremely polarizing term that is ‘feminism’, and to track her own journey and tumultuous relationship with feminism. The collection touches on topics such as popular culture, race, domestic violence, child sexual abuse, food, social media, the Sweet Valley High series and even a Scrabble obsession. While not a perfect book, Bad Feminist is accessible text that reveals the contradictions, complexities and nuances present within feminism.

bell hooks
AIN’T I A WOMAN: BLACK WOMEN AND FEMINISM.
ROUTLEDGE. 2014. (AVAILABLE HERE.); and
FEMINISM IS FOR EVERYBODY: PASSIONATE POLITICS.
PLUTO PRESS. 2000. (AVAILABLE HERE.)

First published in 1981, Ain’t I a Woman is a classic feminist text that uniquely speaks to the black female experience. In the book, hooks explores the oppression black women have experienced from white men, black men and white women. She also reveals the interconnections between the struggles to end racism and sexism.

A short, accessible introduction to feminist theory, Feminism is for Everybody addresses the question ‘what is feminism?’. It provides a broad survey of feminism’s most important themes and concerns, and an argument for the enduring importance of the feminist movement.

FATIMAH KELLEHER
WOMEN’S VOICES IN NORTHERN NIGERIA: HEARING THE BROADER NARRATIVES.
OPEN DEMOCRACY. 2014. (Available here.)

This article explores the importance of understanding the voices and the agency of northern Nigerian women in their own activism for change.

AUDRE LORDE
SISTER OUTSIDER: ESSAYS AND SPEECHES.
CROSSING PRESS FEMINIST SERIES. 2007. (Available here.)

This is a collection of 15 essays and speeches by Audre Lorde written between 1976 and 1984. It explores prominent issues such as sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class that affect women, with powerful thoughts like: ‘Nothing I accept about myself can be used against me to diminish me.’

FATIMA MERNISSI
THE FORGOTTEN QUEENS OF ISLAM. TRANSLATED BY MARY JO LAKELAND.
UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA PRESS. 1997. (Available here.); and
BEYOND THE VEIL: MALE-FEMALE DYNAMICS IN A MUSLIM SOCIETY.
SAQI BOOKS. 2011. (Available here.)

Originally written in French, The Forgotten Queens… examines 15 centuries of Islamic history, and documents the lives of 15 Islamic women who ruled during these periods. In the book, Mernissi explores how these women ascended the throne, governed and exercised their power, and how their forgotten reigns influence the ways in which politics interacts with Islam today.

In Beyond the Veil, Mernissi wonders whether Islam oppresses women. Eventually, she argues that women’s oppression in Islam is not due to the religion itself, but due to political manipulation of religion by power-seeking, archaic, male Muslim elites.

CHANDRA MOHANTY
FEMINISM WITHOUT BORDERS: DECOLONIZING THEORY, PRACTICING SOLIDARITY.
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. 2003. (Available here.)

This essay collection, which includes Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s influential critique of western feminism (“Under Western Eyes”), brings together classic and new writings to highlight the conditions affecting women in a global context. Drawing on two decades of feminist engagement, the collection moves beyond a dichotomy of Western and non-Western women to highlight “the politics of difference and solidarity, decolonising and democratising feminist practice, the crossing of borders, and the relation of feminist knowledge and scholarship to organising and social movements.”

OYERONKE OYEWUMI
THE INVENTION OF WOMEN: MAKING AN AFRICAN SENSE OF WESTERN GENDER DISCOURSES.
UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA PRESS. 1997. (Available here.)

In this collection of essays, Oyewumi rethinks gender as a Western construction, and offers a new way of understanding both Yoruba and Western cultures. Oyewumi does this by tracing the misapplication of Western, body-oriented concepts of gender through the history of gender discourses in Yoruba studies.

INTERSECTIONALITY
COMBAHEE RIVER COLLECTIVE
A BLACK FEMINIST STATEMENT.
1977. (Available Here and Here)

“We are a collective of Black feminists who have been meeting together since 1974.” So begins the statement from the Combahee River Collective, an organization founded by black feminists and lesbians in Boston, Massachusetts in 1974. The collective’s famous statement was one of the earliest explorations of the intersection of multiple oppressions, including racism and heterosexism. For the first time in history, black women openly and unapologetically communicated their sexual orientations in the midst of their social justice work, no longer trading their silence for permission to engage in political struggle.

KIMBERELE CRENSHAW
MAPPING THE MARGINS: INTERSECTIONALITY, IDENTITY POLITICS AND VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN OF COLOUR.
STANFORD LAW REVIEW 43:6, 1241- 1299. 1991. (Available here.)

In this article, Crenshaw explores “various ways in which gender and race intersect in shaping the structural, political and representational aspects of violence against women of color.” The article has three parts: structural intersectionality, political intersectionality and representational intersectionality. Crenshaw focuses on “battering and rape” to discuss how race and gender intersect in the lives of women of colour.

SHARON SMITH
BLACK FEMINISM AND INTERSECTIONALITY.
INTERNATIONAL SOCIALIST REVIEW. ISSUE 91. 2013 (Available here.)

This is an in-depth, but accessible overview of the concept of intersectionality within the Black feminist tradition. It draws on the works of, among others, Sojourner Truth, Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins.

KORY STAMPER
A BRIEF, CONVOLUTED HISTORY OF THE WORD ‘INTERSECTIONALITY’.
THE CUT. (Available here.)

In this essay, Kory Stamper tells the story of how an academic term morphed into a mainstream buzzword.

EDITED COLLECTIONS
SOKARI EKINE AND HAKIMA ABBAS – EDITORS
QUEER AFRICAN READER.
PAMBAZUKA PRESS. 2013. (Available here.)

This collection brings together academic writings, political analyses, life testimonies, conversations, and artistic works by Africans that engage with the struggle for LGBTI liberation. The book aims to engage the audience from the perspective that various traits of identity—such as gender, race, and class—interact to contribute to social inequality.

JENIFER BROWDY DE HERNANDEZ, PAULINE DONGALA, OMOTAYO JOLAOSHO AND ANNE SERAFIN – EDITORS
AFRICAN WOMEN WRITING RESISTANCE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY VOICES.
THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN PRESS. 2010. (Available here.)

Said to be the first transnational anthology to focus on women’s strategies of resistance to the challenges they face in Africa today. This anthology brings together personal narratives, testimony, interviews, short stories, poetry, performance scripts, folktales, and lyrics to explore issues such as interethnic conflicts, the degradation of the environment, polygamy, domestic abuse, female genital cutting, Sharia law, and emigration and exile.

CHERRIE MORAGA AND GLORIA ANZALDUA – EDITORS
THIS BRIDGE CALLED MY BACK: WRITINGS BY RADICAL WOMEN OF COLOUR.
SUNY PRESS. 2015. (Available here.)

Originally published in 1981, This Bridge Called My Back draws on personal essays, criticism, interviews, testimonials, poetry, and visual art to explore, as co-editor Cherríe Moraga writes, “the complex confluence of identities—race, class, gender, and sexuality—systemic to women of colour oppression and liberation.”

SYLVIA TAMALE
AFRICAN SEXUALITIES: A READER.
PAMBAZUKA PRESS. 2011. (Available here.)

African Sexualities… is a groundbreaking book by African activists using research, life stories, and artistic expression—including essays, case studies, poetry, news clips, songs, fiction, memoirs, letters, interviews, short film scripts, and photographs—to examine sexualities and investigate the intersections between sex, power, masculinities and femininities. It also opens a space, particularly for young people, to think about African sexualities in different ways.

JEN THORPE – EDITOR
FEMINISM IS: SOUTH AFRICANS SPEAK THEIR TRUTH.
KWELA BOOKS. 2018. (Available here.)

In this collection, South African feminists explore their often vastly different experiences and perspectives in accessible and engaging language. Feminism Is touches on issues such as motherhood, anger, sex, race, inclusions and exclusions, while reaffirming the urgent necessity of feminism in South Africa today.

MEMOIRS
NAWAL EL SAADAWI
MEMOIRS FROM THE WOMEN PRISON.
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS. 1994. (Available here.); and
A DAUGHTER OF ISIS: THE EARLY LIFE OF NAWAL EL SAADAWI IN HER OWN WORDS.
ZED BOOKS. 2018. (Available here.)

In 1981, Nawal El Saadawi was imprisoned by Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, for alleged ‘crimes against the state’, and was not released until after his assassination—this memoir offers both firsthand witness to women’s resistance to state violence and provides fascinating insight into the formation of female community.

A Daughter of Isis is the first part of Nawal El Saadawi’s extraordinary autobiography. It spans the trauma of female genital mutilation, which she experienced at seven years old, to her qualifying, against the odds, as doctor, and the ways in which El Saadawi used words to fight against the social injustices she faced.

PUMLA DINEO GQOLA
REFLECTING ROGUE: INSIDE THE MIND OF A FEMINIST.
JACANA MEDIA. 2017. (Available here.)

A collection of experimental autobiographical essays on power, pleasure and South African culture. It delivers 20 essays including on ‘Disappearing Women’, where Gqola spends time exploring what it means to live in a country where women can simply disappear. It also features ‘Mothering while feminist’, in which Gqola explores raising boys as a feminist—a lesson in humour, humility and patience from the inside.

DAISY HERNANDEZ
A CUP OF WATER UNDER MY BED.
BEACON PRESS. 2014. (Available here.)

A coming-of-age memoir by a Colombian-Cuban woman who chronicles what the women in her family taught her about love, money and race. These lessons define in evocative detail what it means to grow up female in an immigrant home, while also highlighting Hernandez’s experience in finding her own identity.

WINNIE MANDELA
PART OF MY SOUL WENT WITH HIM.
W. W NORTON & COMPANY. 1985. (Available here.)

Winnie Mandela spent many years as a “banned” person in her own country, South Africa. She lived under virtual house arrest and was forbidden to address public gatherings or meet with more than one person at a time. She endured a forced separation of 27 years from her husband, Nelson Mandela. Here, in interviews and letters, she tells the story of her life and political development.

WANGARI MATHAI
UNBOWED.
ANCHOR. 2007. (Available here.)

In Unbowed, Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, recounts her extraordinary journey from her childhood in rural Kenya to the world stage. When Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, she began a vital poor people’s environmental movement, focused on the empowerment of women, that soon spread across Africa. Persevering through run-ins with the Kenyan government and personal losses, and jailed and beaten on numerous occasions, Maathai continued to fight tirelessly to save Kenya’s forests and to restore democracy to her beloved country.

FICTION
MARGARET BUSBY
DAUGHTERS OF AFRICA: AN INTERNATIONAL ANTHOLOGY OF WORDS AND WRITING BY WOMEN OF AFRICAN DESCENT.
BALLANTINE BOOKS. 1994. (Available here.)

The most comprehensive international anthology of oral and written literature by women of African descent ever attempted. The anthology is exhaustive in scope and expansive in voice because it encompasses authors from the Caribbean, North America, Latin America, Europe, and Asia and translations from African, French, German, Dutch, Russian, and Turkish languages. Each story, whether fiction, nonfiction, memoir, or poem, is a singular experience. The collection illustrates why all women of African descent are connected by showing how closely related the obstacles, the chasms of cultural indifference, and the disheartening racial and sexual dilemmas they face, are. In so doing, the collection captures the range of their singular and combined accomplishments.

In 2019, a New Daughters of Africa is set to be published, with more than 200 contributors.

TSITSI DANGAREMBGA
NERVOUS CONDITIONS.
1988. (Available here.)

A modern classic in the African literary canon which brings to the politics of decolonization theory the energy of women’s rights.

BUCHI EMECHETA
SECOND CLASS CITIZEN.
1974.
(Available here.); and
THE JOYS OF MOTHERHOOD.
1979.
(Available here.)

Second Class Citizen is a novel about the struggle of Adah and the survival, not only of herself but also of her dreams, as she grows into a woman, and moves from a high class position in her Nigeria to a very poor class in a predominantly white European society. She struggles with motherhood and with being a wife and supporting her entire family along with being her own independent person. Part of her struggle also deals with the issues of race and being black in the face of English racism.

First published in 1979, The Joys of Motherhood is the story of Nnu Ego, a Nigerian woman struggling in a patriarchal society. Unable to conceive in her first marriage, Nnu Ego is banished to Lagos where she succeeds in becoming a mother. Then, against the backdrop of World War II, Nnu Ego must fiercely protect herself and her children when she is abandoned by her husband and her people.

TONI MORRISON
SULA.
1973.
(Available here.)

Sula tells the story of two best friends, Nel and Sula, raised in the fictional town of Medallion in the post-World War era. The two girls come from different histories: Nel raised by the proud and respectable Helene Wright, while Sula lives with her scandalous grandmother, Eva, and mother, Hannah. As they grow, the girls’ lives are intertwined through many emotional and devastating incidents.

LOLA SHONEYIN
THE SECRET LIVES OF BABA SEGI’S WIVES.
2013. (Available here.)

On polygamy, patriarchy, and things left unsaid, this contemporary Nigerian novel weaves the voices of Baba Segi and his four competing wives into a portrait of a clamorous household of twelve.

MIRIAM TLALI
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS.
BROADVIEW PRESS.
2014. (Available here.)

Set in Soweto outside Johannesburg, Between Two Worlds—originally published under the title Muriel at Metropolitan, was for some years banned in South Africa (on the grounds of language derogatory to Afrikaners). It is an important illustration of apartheid in 1960s South Africa. By telling the story of Muriel, a bookkeeper at an electronics and furniture store in Johannesburg, Tlali comments on the injustice of the Pass Laws, the Land Act, and other discriminatory legislation. The novel also traces the ethical dilemmas of someone employed in a system she loathes.

This reading list shows the different ways that feminists—African, Black and Womxn of Colour Feminists, in particular—have used the written word to address social injustice and inequalities. I would like to end briefly by adding a qualifier. I do so, because one of the first things to learn in feminist theory is that “The personal is political”. The qualifier is that this list is subjective, personal, deliberate and intentional in its nature.

Subjective—as lists, by their very nature, are defined and shaped by those who put them together. Personal—as these are texts that have informed and shaped my understanding of feminism over the last 15 years. Deliberate—in its selection of texts written mostly by African womxn, Black womxn and Womxn of colour who advocate against social inequality by recognizing their unique standpoint at the intersection of race and gender and class—among other social identities. Intentional—in choosing a selection of texts that give the reader the necessary tools to begin to grasp—and to begin to make their own sense of—what feminism is (and is not)