My comrades on my journey toward gender equality pose the question, “What is your favorite piece of feminist literature?”
I have always been a reader of classic literature. My bookshelf is full of Kate Chopin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Shakespeare. My love for classic literature meshes into my activism.
I always tell my peers that my favorite pieces of feminist literature, or books that have climbed mountains for feminism are The Awakening by Kate Chopin, The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and All My Pretty Ones by Anne Sexton.
As I recommend these titles, I am told these books are outdated or do not explore contemporary feminist themes. Though these books were published 50 years ago or more, they explore troubling issues women face in a timeless and beautiful manner. I can relate to the characters. Even in a Victorian woman from New Orleans, I can see parts of myself.
The Awakening is a powerful story in which a woman discovers a passion for existence inside herself, which once seemed so unattainable. Victorian New Orleans woman Edna Ponteiller experiences this as she hears the beautiful sound of a piano. She finds in herself a desire to explore, love and embrace her sensuality. Throughout Edna’s journey, she feels a deep connection with the ocean.
Chopin’s ability to capture beautiful liberation inspired me, a 20-year-old college girl, to have my own kind of awakening after a debilitating breakup. I found myself exploring facets of my personality that I did not know existed—a passion for the arts, adventure and sensuality.
The Awakening not only enriched the lives of Victorian women, it also caused a primordial wave, which immerses women centuries later. I hope for women everywhere to experience an awakening.
De Beauvoir, existentialist philosopher and writer of the groundbreaking book The Second Sex, encourages women to experience an awakening as well. De Beauvoir explores the effect of women remaining in a subordinate position, which is that they lose their sense of selves. She advocates the regaining of the self through what she calls “the art of living.”
De Beauvoir asks women to explore literature, art and philosophy, but most importantly, to transcend high above the role of “The Other.”
De Beauvoir exposes how women’s role as “The Other” causes nonreciprocal and violent sexuality. De Beauvoir explains how vocabulary in sexuality is oppressive. Men describe a sexual experience with a woman as war or the pillaging of a city. Men seek to conquer women as pieces of territory. In regard to virginity, a woman who engages in sexuality becomes polluted, therefore less desirable.
This notion of women’s sexuality is still present in our culture. Women are shamed for being sexual, and the pressure to remain pure hurts young women. De Beauvoir’s themes in The Second Sex are still aspects of contemporary feminism.
Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique awakened the country in 1963. Written during a time when women’s issues were not accessible and women could not google reproductive justice, Friedan brought feminism into the kitchen.
The most poignant aspect of The Feminine Mystique is Friedan’s ability to name the problem, which had no name for much too long. Housewives described feelings of unfulfillment, boredom and depression, but the worst part was that they could not explain why.
Friedan is a brave revolutionary. She inspired a multitude of women to fight for their own sense of self. The Feminine Mystique outlines women’s struggle to fight patriarchy with research. Over the past 50 years, we have progressed to the point in which women are able to hold jobs that do not include baking pies or cleaning a house, but The Feminine Mystique must continue to be acknowledged for its vast historical impact.
This book has touched the lives of many women in a profound manner and contributed to social and political progress. Labeling Friedan’s revolutionary masterpiece as irrelevant is offensive.
Anne Sexton, a poet and former housewife, expresses similar angst. In her collection of poems, All My Pretty Ones, she explores not only the cultural oppression of women, but also the struggle she experienced in the 20th century as a woman suffering with mental illness. Though it has been 50 years since Sexton’s poems were published, the issues described in her poetry are still relevant to 21st century women.
The issues presented in Sexton’s poetry are communicated in an abstract and artistic manner, which impacts women in different ways. One of her poems in All My Pretty Ones describes her experience of having an abortion and the culturally imposed guilt that she felt as she drove home through the mountains. Sexton’s feminism is lyrical, captivating and heartrending.
I encourage women everywhere to explore these beautiful books. I believe each one of them has made a home in my heart and resonates with me every day. I have faith that these pieces of literature will remain powerful and continue to inspire women, just like they inspired me and countless women before me.