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10 Feminist Literary Works Everyone Should Read

Updated on April 20, 2016

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Below is my analysis of ten works that have occurred in the history of English literature that impress upon the minds of those who read them that women are, after all, human beings.

1. Aunt Jennifer's Tigers - Adrienne Rich

Published in 1951, Aunt Jennifer's Tigers embodies truly the attributes that characterize a literary piece on feminism. A woman called Aunt Jennifer embroiders tigers on materials she knits and sews. That "Aunt Jennifer's tigers prance across a screen" is an apparent symbolism of the freedom and power strong women radiate against oppressive men. The tigers (symbolically her strength and freedom) "do not fear the men beneath the tree; they pace in sleek chivalric certainty". The poem mentions also that "the massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand”, indicating that her marriage is not getting her to bloom or flourish like a sweet bud in May, but is slowly, with the immense burden of its weight, smothering her to everlasting sleep. While Aunt Jennifer never confronts her husband personally for making her unhappy, she demonstrates a desperate longing to do so by knitting tigers, who she believes even after she has died, will "go on prancing, proud and unafraid".

Aunt Jennifer's Tigers is a remarkable expression of a woman's developed sense of individuality and freedom, and her desire to project the same into her personality by attempting to refuse submission to a man's wishes and longings.

2. The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir

Published in 1949, The Second Sex is considered one of the most major contributions to modern feminist philosophy. An essay, this book confronts men for labeling women as "the other sex", which means something "other than the normal sex", which in turn implies deviation from normality - or, more straightforwardly, abnormality.

She seeks to show that women are "feminine" because they are perceived by men to be feminine, that the gender roles assigned to men and women in society are distinct, so much so that masculinity is considered worthy of praise and femininity petty and insignificant. The more important fact, that men and women both are human beings, is ignored in a patriarchal society, which insists on celebrating ‘the great sex’ that is ‘male’, while ‘female’ is merely a subsidiary denomination.

The Second Sex proposes that only in working and showing herself capable of fending for herself can a woman develop her individuality, without which no woman can operate among other women - and men.

3. Breaking Out - Marge Piercy

Piercy's poem Breaking Out, published in 1984, tells of a young girl child who is oppressed in her own home in a typical patriarchal society. She views two options as being open to her as the poem begins: to either suffer silently in the exclusive man's world like every other woman, or to "break out" of all those norms that reduced a woman's existence to functioning like a mere machine to serve the all-powerful and superior being, the man. Obviously feminist in approach, Marge employs the use of imagery in her poem to paint out the injustices of patriarchy, and we know by the phrases "to see my mother removing daily the sludge the air lay down like a snail's track", "housewife scrubbing on raw knees as the factory rained ash" and "beaten as I bellowed like a locomotive" what she was trying to paint out before our eyes.

Breaking Out is considered one of the most powerful feminist poems of the twentieth century. Comparing her mother's endless household chores to the punishment hurled by Zeus upon Greek King Sisyphus (that required Sisyphus to roll a huge rock up a hill. The rock always rolled down before reaching the top.) , the girl child vows to herself she will not be "another Sisyphus" like her mother, and by doing this we know which option of the two presented to her she has chosen.

4. Woman Work - Maya Angelou

Published in 1978, Angelou's poem Woman Work reflects that a woman's life is confined only to domestic chores and housewifely attributes, she has her "children to tend", "clothes to mend", "floor to mop", "shirts to press", "chicken to fry", "tots to dress" and, as our women can very well attest, the list is unending. Her life is dreary as she is obliged to take upon herself the duty of looking after the family and the house single-handedly. By the end of the poem, she looks to nature for comfort, considering "you're [it is] all that I [she] can call my [her] own", demonstrating that nothing in her immediate environment gives her contentment save the "sun, rain, curving sky, mountain, oceans, leaf and stone, star shine, moon glow". This is literally true, as well, for when Angelou wrote this poem women had no property rights whatsoever, and men were the possessors and holders of all authority and power.

Woman Work represents the status of women as mere domestic creatures with no great cares but "household cares and things like that".

5. The Feminine Mystique - Betty Friedan

Published in 1963, Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique explores "the problem that has no name"- omnipresent unhappiness of women in the 1950s-60s. A woman does not need material comforts in order to fulfill herself, it conveys, that she looks for spiritual and personal growth in order to form a sense of integrity, a sense of meaning and purpose. Friedan, through the medium of her book, strongly rejects the male-oriented ideas of flawed genius, Sigmund Freud, dismissing him on grounds of his evaluation of women as "childlike" and "destined to be housewives". Women in The Feminine Mystique go about doing domestic chores, and unconsciously spend the available time they have doing the same, for in their minds is branded the stereotypical role of the housewife. Friedan wrote this literary masterpiece with a view to address and eliminate the causes of frustration herself and women like her felt, all over the world.

6. Phenomenal Woman - Maya Angelou

Published in 1995, Angelou's Phenomenal Woman is another of her feminist works to receive critical acclaim. She redefines beauty, presenting her own definition of beauty in terms of personal attractiveness instead of physical attractiveness. Angelou opines that a woman has the ability to radiate confidence and power, not by the virtue of her physical attributes, but by the virtue of her personal attractiveness. According to Maya, any woman has the ability to make a place for herself in this world who prides herself on "the fire in my [her] eyes", "the flash of my [her] teeth", "the swing in my [her] waist", "the joy in my [her] feet". The feminist theme of the poem is reflected again in the claim that "men themselves have wondered what they see in me [her], they try so much, but they can't touch my [her] inner mystery". Men, here, are shown as vulnerable to the seductive power a "personally attractive" woman may exude over them.

The poem's message is clear: confidence is the key for women to attain dignity, appreciation and equality.

7. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë's feminist novel Jane Eyre made its mark soon after its publication in 1847. A woman in Victorian England, it reveals, had either to be a housewife or a governess, nothing else. The titular character, the protagonist, has fought hard against adversities, seen injustices, been manipulated and controlled by different men throughout, but Jane ultimately sees through everything to realize she is not a man's plaything, that she is not obliged to allow herself to be dictated my any man living, and these values she boldly asserts in her famous monologue : "Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automation?-a machine without feelings? and can you bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soul and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart … I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; — it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, — as we are!”

8. Much Ado About Nothing - William Shakespeare

Published in 1623, Shakespeare's classic comedy Much Ado About Nothing has apparent feminist elements. This play gives to literature in English Shakespeare's best loved heroine, Beatrice, the personification of feminism. Exceedingly witty, outspoken and displaying considerable intellectual faculty, Beatrice is gifted with individuality and independence. In Elizabethan England where man was superior, Beatrice expressed an aversion to marry "unless God make men of some other metal than earth". Further, Beatrice explains that she is not obliged to give an account of her doings to "a piece of valiant dust", which reworded means, comically,that she thinks man is dirt. She turns down a marriage proposal from Don Pedro, the most politically powerful character in the play, and encourages her cousin to refuse to marry a suitor matched to her by her father if the fellow is not handsome. Unsurprisingly, a bold feminism has emerged under the name of Beatrice and her characterization in Much Ado About Nothing.

9. The Creation of Patriarchy - Gerda Lerner

Published in 1986, Lerner's book The Creation of Patriarchy makes a bold attempt to argue that superiority of men over women is not justifiable, because it is not natural, it is man-made. According to Lerner, biological makeup does not render men omnipotent; it is, in fact, gender roles associated with being male or female that determine social treatment. The Creation of Patriarchy explores how men have come to be the holders of all authority and power, and why consciousness of their own rights among women has been a slow and inhibited process. She emphasizes that the sociological perspective on stereotypical gender roles must be changed in order that we may live equally in society as people, not as men and women.

Lerner conveys through her book the message that male dominance has been a reality owing to history, and it is through revolutionary changes in history, only, that another history, i.e. of feminism, can be created.

10. A Doll's House - Henrik Ibsen

This play, written by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, sparked controversy when it was first published in 1879 for its criticism of nineteenth century marriage norms, where the husband essentially is the dominant partner in the union. It is not until the last five minutes of the script that Nora, the protagonist, goes through a personal awakening that makes her see with blinding sight the truth about her role in her own home, which is only ornamental. This is the story of a woman who has made "nothing of my [her] life" because she was treated like a doll, firs by her father, then by her husband, each of who thought her silly and childish, incapable of serious thought or work. It tells of a woman who was not given the chance to form opinions of her own, to look at things with her own eyes, just because she was a woman and the men in her life thought it important to impose their ideas upon her. As a result, she is a mere puppet, an individual who has had no intellectual development because she is a mother and a wife, what her husband calls her "sacred duties". Leaving the house as Nora slams the door behind her at the end of the play, we come to see her as one who has recognized her suppression by her husband in "a doll's house", and who is now leaving him behind to be able to do "my [her] most sacred duty - my [her] duty to myself [herself]".


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