The best gender studies books

3 authors have picked their favorite books about gender studies and why they recommend each book.

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Slut

By Katie Cappiello,

Book cover of Slut: The Play

This play, inspired by the experiences of a racially diverse group of New York City teenage girls, explores the intersection of slut-shaming and sexual violence. At its core, the play questions the wisdom of girls embracing the “slut” label for themselves. “Slut” may seem like a carefree term of endearment, and it is—until the moment Joey, a member of her school’s dance team, informally known as the Slut Squad, is sexually assaulted by two boys from school. She brings charges against them, and every sexually provocative thing she previously has done is used as evidence that she is lying. If you want to understand the pressures teenage girls face today, this play breaks it down for you.


Who am I?

I coined the term “slut-bashing,” the precursor to “slut-shaming,” and am passionate about exploring the ways that girls and young women behave and cope in a culture of slut-shaming. I also am curious about how they face other unique challenges—such as the risk of harassment and assault, the pressures to achieve an impossible beauty ideal, and others. All girls and women experience sexism, while many girls of colorand lesbian, queer, and trans girlsface numerous intersecting pressures. The works I recommend here are aching, powerful, and unforgettable.


I wrote...

I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet

By Leora Tanenbaum,

Book cover of I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet

What is my book about?

Young women today are encouraged to express themselves sexually. Yet when they do, they are derided as “sluts” or “hos.” They are caught in a double bind of mixed sexual messages. To fulfill the contradictory roles of being sexy but not slutty, they create a sexually sophisticated identity on social media—even if they are not sexually active—while ironically referring to themselves and their friends as “sluts” or “hos.”

But this strategy can become a weapon in the hands of peers who circulate rumors and innuendo—elevating slut-shaming to harmful and even deadly levels, with sexual assault and suicide common among those who are targeted. In I Am Not a Slut, I share my research on the experiences of a wide range of teenage girls and young women from a variety of backgrounds and point them in a new direction to eradicate slut-shaming for good.

Introducing Teddy

By Jessica Walton, Dougal MacPherson (illustrator),

Book cover of Introducing Teddy: A Gentle Story about Gender and Friendship

Errol and Thomas (his teddy bear), are best friends. But Errol starts noticing that Thomas doesn’t seem to enjoy all the things they do together and seems to be sad. Eventually, Thomas admits to Errol that they had always felt like a girl bear and would like to be called Tilly. Errol doesn’t care about the bear’s gender—just that they are best friends. It’s a lovely story about unconditional love and acceptance.

Who am I?

I am a lyrical writer and have a passion for quiet, thoughtful books. I wrote A Home Again when I became an empty nester. When my husband and I were discussing downsizing our home, I was surprised by the reactions of my grown children. They absolutely did not want us to sell their family home. That led me to think about how our house would feel if we left. A new book was born. My friends, a gay couple, had just bought a new home and I thought it would be wonderful to make the second family in the story two dads. We need to show children there is a diverse array of families in the world—but what connects them all is love.


I wrote...

A Home Again

By Colleen Rowan Kosinski, Valeria Docampo (illustrator),

Book cover of A Home Again

What is my book about?

Home is where the heart is. While that phrase usually speaks to human feelings, in this lovely picture book, the sentiment takes on new meaning as a house reveals its own heart to the reader. By turns, the house feels joy, tenderness, and sorrow as its first family moves in, grows, and moves away. But the heart is a funny thing, and hope—and eventually love—prevail as a brand-new family arrives.

The house experiences a gamut of emotions, and I love the way the text and art gently evoke these and that a couple of different types of families are represented—one with a mother and father and their children and one with two dads and their daughter. I hope you enjoy this tale of a home’s heart.

Bananas, Beaches and Bases

By Cynthia Enloe,

Book cover of Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics

Enloe’s book, to my mind, started Feminist International Relations. Published in 1989, written during the waning years of the Cold War, Enloe exploded our minds by asking questions we had never heard in our IR classes before, like how do women feel about nuclear-tipped cruise missiles being emplaced in their country?  How do they feel about NATO bases and American soldiers in their city? In other words, Enloe pressed us to ask whether “security” from a male perspective is the same as “security” from a female perspective. And if those conceptions differ, as Enloe argues, then is it possible that “security” as defined from a male perspective actually makes us all less secure?


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. 

Inferior

By Angela Saini,

Book cover of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-And the New Research That's Rewriting the Story

If scientists wanted to exclude women, a powerful approach would be to use science itself to demonstrate that female skills would not be fit for science’s purpose, to prop up the idea of female weakness and vulnerability, that there was some kind of evolutionarily determined biological inevitability about women’s status as inferior. Saini’s forensic filleting of the science behind such arguments is a must-read for those wishing to arm themselves against ‘gotcha’ culture, where someone will triumphantly cherry-pick research findings from any branch of science in favour of their own argument. Of course, this works both ways. We are taught to challenge research rather than just accept that it must be true because it is published. Another ire-inducing and thought-provoking read.


Who am I?

I’m a myth-busting feminist neuroscientist waging a campaign against the rigid gender stereotypes that govern so much of our lives and set so many onto unfulfilling paths. Seeing how often the brain gets dragged into explanations for gender gaps, I put my neuroscience hat on to check back through science and through history to find the truth behind the idea that female brains were different (aka inferior) and that their owners were therefore incompetent and incapable. What a myth! Nowhere does this play out more clearly than in the history of women in science, as shown by the books on this list. 


I wrote...

Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds

By Gina Rippon,

Book cover of Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds

What is my book about?

Do you have a female brain or a male brain? Or are we asking the wrong question? 

On a daily basis we face deeply ingrained beliefs that our sex determines what kind of brain we have, and that these brains will determine our abilities and aptitudes, our preferences and personalities. No women scientists? Blame the Brain! But just how different are females and males? Can brain scientists tell the differences between female and male brains? Are females and males really distinguished by their levels of empathy or their map-reading skills? Drawing on cutting-edge neuroscience, this book revisits these old questions and provides surprising answers. Rigorous, timely, and liberating, The Gendered Brain has huge repercussions for women and men, for parents and children, and for how we identify ourselves.

The Horned Man

By James Lasdun,

Book cover of The Horned Man

Such a peculiar book. The Horned Man is not for those who want answers or resolutions. By the time the final page is turned you'll find yourself with more questions than you had at any other point in the book. It takes the Unreliable Narrator device to the extreme, to the point where you don’t really believe anything from the get-go, a unique way to tell a story, but it works here. This book is dark, smart, uncomfortable, and it is unlike anything you'll ever read. Lasdun’s prose is also exceptional, and I’ve often found myself getting lost in his paragraphs, enjoying how I can stop and really take the time to re-read how the author has crafted his story, and lead you exactly where he wanted to.


Who am I?

When I start a new book, my aim is to write something completely different from what I’ve written before. It’s challenging, but also important to keep things fresh. To me, a blank slate before each story is thrilling. To start with nothing, and end with something wholly original. This Never Happened, my third book, began with a feeling we’ve all had before: the feeling of not belonging. I asked myself, “What if I really didn't belong here, but was meant for somewhere else entirely?” From there, I created a character who grows increasingly unsure of his own identity and reality, themes that are also present in my selection of books below.


I wrote...

This Never Happened

By Ryan Tim Morris,

Book cover of This Never Happened

What is my book about?

Around Coney Island, Cepik Small is known as “Epic” but his life could not be less so. And no matter how hard he tries, he can’t shake the feeling that he was born in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The cocktail of drugs he takes daily doesn’t help and the face-blindness from which he suffers only adds to his feeling of isolation.

Just as he begins seeing a new and unorthodox therapist, Epic also meets the bold and blithe Abigail Ayr. And when a novel found on the subway begins to strangely mirror events in his own life, the mysteries of Epic Small’s dreams quickly and uncontrollably begin to unravel.

The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature

By Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert (editor), Martin S. Jaffee (editor),

Book cover of The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature

The collection of essay on the Talmud and early rabbinic literature is part of the immense “Companion” series that Cambridge University Press has been bringing out for some time.  I have read their volume on baseball and the Beatles and one or two more.  Each one of the essays in the Talmud volume is astonishingly insightful and, not always concomitant, a delight to read.  These are not the usual words associated with the Talmud.  In short, I enjoyed it immensely.


Who am I?

I’m a historian of China and Japan whose work has hewed close to the cultural interactions between Chinese and Japanese over recent centuries. I’m now working on the history of the Esperanto movement in China and Japan from the first years of the twentieth century through the early 1930s. The topic brings together my interests in Sino-Japanese historical relations, linguistic scholarship, and Jewish history (the creator of Esperanto was a Polish-Jewish eye doctor). Over the last couple of decades, I have become increasingly interested in Jewish history. I think by now I know what counts as good history, but I’m still an amateur in Jewish history. Nonetheless, these books all struck me as extraordinary.


I wrote...

Maiden Voyage: The Senzaimaru and the Creation of Modern Sino-Japanese Relations

By Joshua A. Fogel,

Book cover of Maiden Voyage: The Senzaimaru and the Creation of Modern Sino-Japanese Relations

What is my book about?

After centuries of virtual isolation, during which time international sea travel was forbidden outside of Japan’s immediate fishing shores, Japanese shogunal authorities in 1862 made the unprecedented decision to launch an official delegation to China by sea. Concerned by the fast-changing global environment, they had witnessed the ever-increasing number of incursions into Asia by European powers―not the least of which was Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan in 1853–54 and the forced opening of a handful of Japanese ports at the end of the decade. 

This was the first official meeting of Chinese and Japanese in several centuries. Although the Chinese authorities agreed to few of the Japanese requests for trade relations and a consulate, nine years later China and Japan would sign the first bilateral treaty of amity in their history, a completely equal treaty. East Asia―and the diplomatic and trade relations between the region’s two major players in the modern era―would never be the same.

Bad Mother

By Ayelet Waldman,

Book cover of Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace

As a mother and a Women’s and Gender Studies educator, I was enthralled by Ayelet Waldman’s Modern Love scandal of 2005 in which she confessed to loving her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, more than their four children, after which she landed a spot on the Oprah Winfrey stage to defend her position. Bad Mother picks up where that controversy left off, exploring the double standard for mothers, who are expected to see and treat children as the centers of their universe. This book is irreverent and refreshing. Perfect mothers – so-called “good moms” – are for Mother’s Day portraits only. This is a book to read on any other day of the year.


Who am I?

I wear many aprons. I am a writer; a professor of creative writing and literature; a mother to five children – daughters and sons; the wife of a criminal defense attorney; and the daughter of therapists. I read and write at the intersection of these influences: crime, motherhood, and psychology. When I teach children’s literature, I lean toward the Brothers Grimm. Childhood is grittier – more suspenseful – when we darken the stories. The same is true of motherhood. Nobody wants to read about a perfect mother, especially when mothers spend so much of our psychic energy worried about our children in the forms of violence, illness, and death. I prefer to seek out books that complicate the otherwise pristine stories of our lives we pretend to tell.


I wrote...

The Motherhood Affidavits: A Memoir

By Laura Jean Baker,

Book cover of The Motherhood Affidavits: A Memoir

What is my book about?

With the birth of her first child, soon-to-be professor Laura Jean Baker finds herself electrified by oxytocin, the “love hormone”—the first effective antidote to her lifelong depression. Over the next eight years, her “oxy” cravings, and her family, only grow—to the dismay of her husband, Ryan, a freelance public defender. As her reckless baby-making threatens her family’s middle–class existence, Baker identifies more and more with Ryan’s legal clients, often drug-addled fellow citizens of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Is she any less desperate for her next fix?

Baker is in an impossible bind: The same drive that sustains her endangers her family; the cure is also the disease. She explores this all–too–human paradox by threading her story through those of her local counterparts who’ve run afoul of the law—like Rob McNally, the lovable junkie who keeps resurfacing in Ryan’s life.

Sex in Antiquity

By Mark Masterson (editor), Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz (editor), James Robson (editor)

Book cover of Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World

This volume contains essays on sexuality in all corners of the ancient world, from the Near East to Athens and Israel. But Part III is dedicated to Rome and offers a smorgasbord of discussions on everything from ‘The bisexuality of Orpheus’ to erectile dysfunction. The perfect book for dipping in and out of.


Who am I?

I have always been fascinated by the ancient world. Some of my happiest childhood memories involve trips to Roman villas in Britain, theatres in Sicily, and museums across Europe. After studying Classics at Oxford, I completed a Masters and then a Ph.D., eager to gain as strong a grounding in the ancient world as I could before pursuing a career as an author. Ancient history has a reputation for being complicated. When I write books, I strive not to simplify the past, but rather to provide an engaging, memorable, and above all enjoyable path into it. 


I wrote...

Catullus' Bedspread: The Life of Rome's Most Erotic Poet

By Daisy Dunn,

Book cover of Catullus' Bedspread: The Life of Rome's Most Erotic Poet

What is my book about?

A vivid narrative that recreates the life of Gaius Valerius Catullus, Rome’s first “modern” poet, and follows the young man’s journey through a world filled with all the indulgences and sexual excesses of the time, from doomed love affairs to shrewd political maneuvering and backstabbing—an accessible, appealing look at one of history’s greatest poets.

Born to one of Verona’s leading families, Catullus spent most of his young adulthood in Rome, mingling with the likes of Caesar and Cicero and chronicling his life through his poetry. Famed for his lyrical and subversive voice, his poems about his friends were jocular, often obscenely funny, while those who crossed him found themselves skewered in raunchy verse, sudden objects of hilarity and ridicule. These bawdy poems were disseminated widely throughout Rome. Many of his poems recall his secret longstanding affair with the seductive ‘Lesbia’.

Masculinities

By R.W. Connell,

Book cover of Masculinities

The author, R. W. Connell, is a fascinating person, originally a man, who became a woman, in the midst of a very successful career as a student of masculinity. Her work was among the earliest I’ve encountered to deal with that subject. And what a fascinating perspective! In this work, she posits four power-related configurations of masculinity: Hegemonic, complicit, subordinated, and marginalized. Although originally among those who emphasized mainly negative and unitary features of manhood – something I categorically reject her views have broadened over the years, recognizing considerable diversity in values. This work remains a classic in the field and provides readers with some excellent insights into one influential form of masculinity.


Who am I?

I began studying women’s lives in college (1960s), but recently realized that I (like others) passed myself off as a gender specialist, but had been ignoring men’s roles, beliefs, and behaviour in gender dynamics. I was put off by the studies that too consistently showed men as always violent and controlling. Many studies emphasized men at war, men abusing women, and gay men with HIV/AIDS; there seemed no recognition of positive masculine traits. Recognizing also that men had different ideals about their own masculinity in different places, I examined men’s lives among international elites and in communities in the US, Sumatra, and Indonesia, where I’d done ethnographic research. 


I wrote...

Masculinities in Forests: Representations of Diversity

By Carol J. Pierce Colfer,

Book cover of Masculinities in Forests: Representations of Diversity

What is my book about?

This book captures elements of my half-century studying gender from an ethnographic perspective. I have re-analyzed my own gender research, focusing in this book on the varying masculinities I have observed. Specifically, the book looks at men’s lives in the Olympic Peninsula logging community of Bushler Bay in the 1970s (and again in 2017); the multi-ethnic (Javanese, Sundanese, and Minangkabau) transmigration communities of Sitiung in West Sumatra in the 1980s; the Kenyah Dayak communities of Long Segar and Long Anai in East Kalimantan between 1979 and the early 2000s (and again in 2019); and the world of international forestry research between 1995 and 2010. The book describes the variations in gender relations and in habitat from place to place and from time to time.

Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe

By John A. Lynn II,

Book cover of Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe

This is one of the first scholarly studies of women in and around the battlefield. It is notable for its depiction of women who were active in warfare who were not queens or larger-than-life heroines. It also includes what I think is hands-down the best discussion of the uncomfortable relationship between military history and gender studies that plagues all attempts to write about women in war.


Who am I?

I've been fascinated by the concept of women warriors ever since I was a nerdy kid who read every biography of famous women I could get my hands—and I've been collecting their stories almost as long. Today I write historical non-fiction that puts women back into the story, whether it's women warriors, civil war nurses, or groundbreaking journalists. The impact of this can be profound. When we re-introduce overlooked populations into history, we get a very different story.


I wrote...

Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

By Pamela D. Toler,

Book cover of Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

What is my book about?

In Women Warriors: An Unexpected History, historian Pamela Toler tells the stories of historical women for whom battle was not a metaphor, using both well-known and obscure examples, drawn from the ancient world through the twentieth century and from Asia and Africa as well as from the West. Looking at specific examples of historical women warriors, she considers why they went to war, the ways in which their presence on the ramparts or the battlefield has been erased from history, and the patterns and parallels that emerge when we look at similar stories across historical periods and geographical boundaries.

Women warriors are often assumed to be historical anomalies—Joan of Arc, not G.I. Jane. By comparing the stories of individual women across historical periods and geographical boundaries, Toler uncovers a different story. Women have always fought, not in spite of being women but because they are women.

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