The best feminist theory books

Many authors have picked their favorite books about feminist theory and why they recommend each book.

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Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings

By Mari Ruti,

Book cover of Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings: The Emotional Costs of Everyday Life

Although Ruti’s book is not directly about capitalism, it includes perhaps the best psychoanalytic proposal of confronting the imperatives of capitalist society that I have ever read. Ruti discusses how sexism operates within capitalism primarily in the book, but her point is always about how concepts from psychoanalysis that seem retrograde—such as penis envy—can actually be the basis for a critique of capitalism and sexism. 

Who am I?

I have spent a great deal of time exploring how psychoanalytic theory might be the basis for a critique of capitalism. I had always heard the Marxist analysis of capitalist society, but what interested me was how psychoanalytic theory might offer a different line of thought about how capitalism works. The impulse that drives people to accumulate beyond what is enough for them always confused me since I was a small child. It seems to me that psychoanalytic theory gives us the tools to understand this strange phenomenon that somehow appears completely normal to us. 

I wrote...

Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets

By Todd McGowan,

Book cover of Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets

What is my book about?

Despite creating vast inequalities and propping up reactionary world regimes, capitalism has many passionate defenders—but not because of what it withholds from some and gives to others. Capitalism dominates, Todd McGowan argues, because it mimics the structure of our desire while hiding the trauma that the system inflicts upon it. Capitalism traps us through an incomplete satisfaction that compels us after the new, the better, and the more.

Capitalism's parasitic relationship to our desires gives it the illusion of corresponding to our natural impulses, which is how capitalism's defenders characterize it. By understanding this psychic strategy, McGowan hopes to divest us of our addiction to capitalist enrichment and help us rediscover enjoyment as we actually experienced it.

Gender in International Relations

By J. Ann Tickner,

Book cover of Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security

If Enloe’s book set the stage, Tickner’s 1992 book was the first to openly challenge the then-conventional verities of IR Theory in a systematic way. In her book, Tickner takes on the two major subdivisions of IR thought—Security/Conflict Studies and International Political Economy, and mounts a devastating critique of the major approaches in each. She lambasts how gendered our understandings of, say, deterrence are, and how the state is viewed in IR theory as a “masculine” entity, and how this has warped our understandings and even the very questions we ask in IR. Tickner does the same with the clearly male-focused world of microeconomic theory with its womanless world of rational utility maximizers. This book set IR back on its collective heels. 

Who am I?

Valerie M. Hudson is a University Distinguished Professor and holds the George H.W. Bush Chair in the Department of International Affairs at The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, where she directs the Program on Women, Peace, and Security. Hudson was named to the list of Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, and was recognized as Distinguished Scholar of Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA/ISA) and awarded an inaugural Andrew Carnegie Fellowship as well as an inaugural Fulbright Distinguished Chair in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Australian National University. She has been selected as the Distinguished Scholar Award recipient for 2022 by the Political Demography and Geography Section (PDG/ISA) of the International Studies Association. 

I wrote...

The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide

By Valerie M. Hudson, Donna Lee Bowen, Perpetua Lynne Nielsen

Book cover of The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide

What is my book about?

Incorporating research findings spanning a variety of social science disciplines and comprehensive empirical data detailing the status of women around the globe, the book shows that female subordination functions almost as a curse upon nations. A society’s choice to subjugate women has significant negative consequences: worse governance, worse conflict, worse stability, worse economic performance, worse food security, worse health, worse demographic problems, worse environmental protection, and worse social progress. Yet despite the pervasive power of social and political structures that subordinate women, history―and the data―reveal possibilities for progress.

The First Political Order shows that when steps are taken to reduce the hold of inequitable laws, customs, and practices, outcomes for all improve. It offers a new paradigm for understanding insecurity, instability, autocracy, and violence, explaining what the international community can do now to promote more equitable relations between men and women and, thereby, security and peace. 

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,

Book cover of Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

Like many people, I was really impressed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on the problem of a single story. So when I saw that she’d written a short chapbook of feminist advice for a friend who’d recently become a mother to a baby girl, I had to get my hands on a copy. My own daughter was still a preschooler when it came out, so I figured I had just enough time to make good on the fifteen pieces of advice she offers. Witty, wise, and supremely accessible, this is a book for mothers and daughters equally – as well as anyone with an interest in building a more just and equitable world for all.

Who am I?

My family moved around a lot when I was younger, which may explain why I’m fascinated by the experience of being an outsider. To me, it’s not a bad thing; being on the outside can sometimes help a person to see things more clearly, to think more critically and creatively. The year I spent living in a country where English wasn’t the main language was one of the most stimulating periods of my life, because I was so attuned to all the tiny details that other people took for granted. Plus, as teenagers, everyone feels like they’re on the outside looking in – which is probably why all of my books have contained some coming-of-age element. 

I wrote...

Once, in a Town Called Moth

By Trilby Kent,

Book cover of Once, in a Town Called Moth

What is my book about?

Anneli has lived in a small Mennonite colony in Bolivia her whole life—until now. She and her father have packed their bags, changed their names, and fled in search of her mother, who disappeared when Anneli was five. Arriving in Toronto, Anneli has to fend for herself in an alien environment, isolated in a big city with no idea how to navigate the unspoken codes that come with being fourteen and in high school. Torn between two worlds, she is troubled by the things she and her father have left behind—a vanished town, a long-ago crime—but determined to find her mother: the one person who might be able to tell her just what it is they’re running from.

Last Days at Hot Slit

By Andrea Dworkin,

Book cover of Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin

I didn’t read Last Days of Hot Slit in time to include it in my own book about sexual violence. In truth, I could have (barely; it was published just before I finished). But I felt comfortable with my aversion to Dworkin, a crusader against assault who had found common cause with conservative activists. And Dworkin was a self-defeating font of vituperation, wasn’t she? Well, no. She was in fact altogether brilliant. Fateman’s wonderfully lucid, deeply researched introduction and the careful selection she and Scholder made of Dworkin’s surprisingly wide-ranging work, demonstrate the force and courage not just of this radical feminist’s writing, but also of her character. She was dauntless.

Who am I?

I write about contemporary art, and much of the work I’ve been drawn to was made by women and by artists in other sidelined communities. Early on, I also focused on marginalized disciplines: artists’ books, performance, and art that responded directly to the vacant sites that abounded in New York City when I started out in the late 1970s. It was an enormously exciting time, but also a tough one. Violence was very hard to avoid. I didn’t focus on that at the time, but ultimately, I realized I needed to look more directly at trouble, and how artists respond to it.  

I wrote...

Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s

By Nancy Princenthal,

Book cover of Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s

What is my book about?

During the famously violent 1970s, the incidence of sexual assault spun out of control, with surprisingly little attention. The women’s movement of the time was great at challenging injustice in the workplace and at home, but initially tiptoed around rape. It was artists who first spoke out, quietly at first, soon with bullhorns. Yoko Ono was the moment’s magnetic if ambivalent herald; Nancy Spero its lacerating poet; Suzanne Lacy its fearless activist. Today sexual assault is routinely in the headlines, but confusion still abounds over whom it most affects, how best to confront it—and even how to define it. Along with illuminating these issues, Unspeakable Acts heeds younger artists who have looked at how rape is inseparably entwined with issues of race and class.  

Reversed Realities

By Naila Kabeer,

Book cover of Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought

Take a look at gender inequality from the perspective of the Global South. Naila Kabeer combines creative theorizing with insights from field research. She’s not afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom about sweatshops and insists that even factory jobs that are poorly paid by Western standards can increase women’s autonomy and bargaining power.

Who am I?

I grew up in a family exposed to great contrasts of poverty and wealth, in which women were always the ones expected to ‘make nice.” I’ve long been fascinated by the parallels among unfair inequalities based on gender, sexuality, age, race, ethnicity, citizenship, and class, and the ways in which these inequalities are disguised, justified, or just plain ignored. This fascination has driven my successful and very lucky career as a socialist feminist economist and public intellectual.

I wrote...

The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems

By Nancy Folbre,

Book cover of The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems

What is my book about?

Why do patriarchal systems survive? This book examines the contradictory effects of capitalist development, explaining why the work of caring for others is undervalued and under-rewarded in today's global economy. It upends conventional definitions of the economy based only on the market and emphasizes the production of human capabilities in families and communities. The social reproduction of group solidarities creates fractal inequalities that often stabilize hierarchical systems, but sometimes lead to the development of coalitions for progressive change.

The Death of Intimacy

By Philip M. Brown,

Book cover of The Death of Intimacy: Barriers to Meaningful Interpersonal Relationships

If you're looking for a book that captures the zeitgeist of contemporary relationships, here it is, well before the reign of Facebook. Calling upon social commentary, psychoanalysis, psychology, sociology, feminist theory, anthropology, family theory, and linguistics, the author presents a broad-based, scholarly, and sobering analysis of the toxic trends and processes in our society which are casting Americans adrift from their emotional and psychic moorings, and leaving them unable to initiate or sustain meaningful relationships.

Because of the ever-growing impersonal nature of our society, it has become more difficult to begin and sustain intimate relationships. Indeed, it seems as if modern life is represented by a series of relationships of convenience that often lack substance. These kinds of insights make this book very appealing. The author contends that we're losing our overall ability to be involved in meaningful relationships and instead are relegated to something less. Most important, the author…

Who am I?

I hold the registered trademark as "The Work-Life Balance Expert®," and work with organizations that seek to enhance their productivity by improving the effectiveness of their people. I've spoken to Fortune 50 companies such as IBM, Cardinal Health Group, Lockheed, American Express, the IRS, Wells Fargo, and Westinghouse. My books have been published in 19 languages and have been featured in 68 of the top 75 American newspapers, as well as Time Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. At heart, I'm a simpler living advocate. I believe in giving back to his community and am an active volunteer for Art Space in downtown Raleigh, and the North Carolina Museum of Art.

I wrote...

Breathing Space: Living and Working at a Comfortable Pace in a Sped-Up Society

By Jeff Davidson,

Book cover of Breathing Space: Living and Working at a Comfortable Pace in a Sped-Up Society

What is my book about?

Breathing Space is a big concept book on the topic of work-life balance that is easy to read and easy to understand. It explains why most people are drowning in the over-information age. If you face too many emails, too much to read, or simply too much to do, this book will change your life. It explores the socio-cultural roots of our rush-rush society, and then shows how, against all odds, you can craft a personal plan that will enable you to stay productive, competitive, happy, and balanced, most of the time.

Breathing Space is the breakthrough book for a time-pressed generation, with major features in USA TodayThe Washington PostBoston HeraldChicago Tribune, and 75 other newspapers, plus Executive FemaleOffice SystemsLeaders, and Men's Health. Get in control of your space, and control of your time and life will follow.

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