5 Must-Read Intersectional Feminist Books for Beginners
Audre Lorde proclaimed in her speech at Harvard University in 1982 that:
… there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.
Lorde articulated then what would years later come to be called ‘intersectionality’. She understood that sexism is inextricably linked with racism, colorism, classism, casteism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. We cannot understand one form of oppression without understanding how it’s inextricably linked to the others.
We are living at a time where the rich history of intersectional feminist thought and activism is seeing a resurgence. But the sheer volume of writings on intersectionality can feel overwhelming. When you open up a book or article on intersectional feminism, you never know if you’ll find a helpful explainer, a esoteric philosophical debate, or complete misinformed nonsense.
This post breaks down five absolute essential books on intersectional feminism. I have curated them in order of what I think is best for a beginner, but you can pick and choose whichever speaks to you.
Whether you’re an emerging activist looking to get started or you’re an elder of the movement seeking intellectual nourishment, this collection of books will inspire.
1. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (2000) by bell hooks
Imagine living in a world where there is no domination, where females and males are not alike or even always equal, but where a vision of mutuality is the ethos shaping our interaction. Imagine living in a world where we can all be who we are, a world of peace and possibility. Feminist revolution alone will not create such a world; we need to end racism, class elitism, imperialism. But it will make it possible for us to be fully self-actualized females and males able to create beloved community, to live together, realizing our dreams of freedom and justice, living the truth that we are all “created equal”.
‘Feminism is for Everybody’ is a classic handbook by bell hooks from 2000 and a vital text for anyone new to intersectionality and feminism. hooks conveys complex ideas in the most accessible and lucid ways, packaged in this short primer.
You’d want two copies of this book — one for yourself and one to give that person in your life who is resistant to intersectional feminism. hooks reviews anti-feminist arguments and calmly, patiently, systematically breaks down their ignorance and irrationality.
A few years back I gave a copy of this book to my non-academic partner. We would read each chapter independently, and come back together to discuss what we learned over a long, leisurely Sunday morning breakfast.
Short, digestible chapters cover topics such as reproductive rights, body image, class inequality, domestic violence, feminist marriage and partnership, feminist parenting, and spirituality.
2. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1983) edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa
Blackfoot amiga Nisei hermana Down Home Up Souf Sistuh sister El Barrio suburbia Korean The Bronx Lakota Menominee Cubana Chinese Puertoriquena reservation Chicana campanera and letters testimonials poems interviews essays journal entries sharing Sisters of the yam Sisters of the rice Sisters of the corn Sisters of the plantain putting in telecalls to each other. And we’re all on the line.
I cried the first time I read This Bridge Called My Back. Even now, I cannot read those words above from Toni Cade Bambara’s exquisite foreword to the original edition without tearing up.
This anthology of radical women of color was published before I was born, but the ideas expressed in these pages are excruciatingly relevant now.
Poetry and illustrations weave through courageous essays. Powerful manifestos remind you that incredible women have fought for a better world for our communities long before we got here.
Mitsuye Yamada’s ‘Invisibility is an unnatural disaster’ reflects on white people’s shock and defensiveness at her anger as an Asian American woman. ‘And when you leave, take your pictures with you’ calls out racism in the women’s movement. Rosario Morales offers one of my favorite prose pieces on solidarity, reminding us that “we are all in the same boat”. ‘On culture, class, and homophobia’, is a humbling reminder of how long women of color activists have been having woke ‘intersectional’ discussions.
The volume also includes indispensable classics: Audre Lorde’s ’The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ and the Combahee River Collective’s ‘A Black feminist statement’. If I could only take one book with me to a deserted island, This Bridge Called My Back would be my pick.
3. The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in the Times of Explicit Racial Violence (2019) edited by Azeezat Johnson, Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Beth Kamunge
The UK government’s quest to make Britain — in the words of Theresa May — an increasingly ‘hostile environment’ (Lewis et al., 2017); Donald Trump’s Muslim bans and continuous silence in the face of public white supremacist movements; inhumane immigration policies and detention centers; racist criminal (in)justice systems; these are just some of the marks of the virulent explicit racial violence that characterize contemporary societies. This book is born out of our sense that we (as anti-racist scholars and activists) must bear witness to these times of explicit racial violence: we must work towards changing our fates within the fire now.
The first two books in this list showcase perspectives and experiences of intersectional feminism from the United States. From across the pond, The Fire Now speaks to the contemporary climate of racial violence in the United Kingdom and beyond.
From the foreword by Christina Sharpe (author of In The Wake), the book ignites a sense of urgency. I blazed through each chapter gasping and muttering “oh my god, yes” throughout.
The book is split into four parts: 1) transforming academia; 2) intersectional identities, intersectional struggles; 3) lessons from history, connections across spaces (which plainly calls out the dumpster fires of Trump and Brexit); and 4) understanding and reframing oppression.
The section on intersectionality includes Viji Kuppan’s contribution, ‘Crippin’ Blackness: Narratives of disabled people of color from slavery to Trump’, which challenges the ableism in anti-racist movements and the whiteness in disability politics. Leon Sealy-Huggins offers a vital chapter about the structural racial inequality embedded within climate change. But really, there are no bad chapters in this exceptional volume.
4. Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory (2019) by Patricia Hill Collins
In Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory, I take the position that intersectionality is far broader than what most people, including many of its practitioners, imagine it to be. We have yet to fully understand the potential of the constellation of ideas that fall under the umbrella term intersectionality as a tool for social change. As a discourse, intersectionality bundles together ideas from disparate places, times, and perspectives, enabling people to share points of view that formerly were forbidden, outlawed, or simply obscured. Yet because ideas in and of themselves do not foster social change, intersectionality is not just a set of ideas. Instead, because they inform social action, intersectionality’s ideas have consequences in the social world.
No education on intersectionality is complete without a visit into Patricia Hill Collins’ brilliant mind. As a sociologist, Collins has written about interlocking systems of power and the matrix of domination long before these ideas came to be known as ‘intersectionality’.
This is an academic book and it is not a light read. The book is mostly concerned with analyzing how intersectionality measures up as a critical theory compared with traditions such as the Frankfurt school, British cultural studies, and Francophone social theory.
If you have no idea what I just said then skip this one. I’m leaving this recommendation in here mostly for doctoral students and academics. Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory is an authoritative piece that will undoubtedly shape the future of intersectional theorizing.
5. Women, Race & Class (1981) by Angela Y. Davis
Black women were equal to their men in the oppression they suffered; they were their men’s social equals within the slave community; and they resisted slavery with a passion equal to their men’s. This was one of the greatest ironies of the slave system, for in subjecting women to the most ruthless exploitation conceivable, exploitation which knew no sex distinctions, the groundwork was created not only for Black women to assert their equality through their social relations, but also to express it through their acts of resistance.
Women, Race & Class is fiercely intellectual, but it’s not restricted to academic concerns. The book is structured around a series of essays, primarily historical accounts of feminist, anti-racist, and socialist resistance from slavery to suffrage.
Chapters explore Black women’s perspectives on liberation and the rise of racism within the suffrage movement. They also dive deep into concerns like reproductive rights, the myth of the Black rapist, and the gendered and racial division of housework.
Davis’ book is difficult to read. Not so much in the language itself, but in the unrelenting account of injustice. She presents narratives and statistics that hit you like a hard brick wall of pain. I would find myself holding my breath, shoulders tense with anger. I would suggest reading one chapter at a time, taking moments to breathe and decompress in between.
Angela Davis speaks with passion and power about the need for intersectionality to challenge white bourgeois feminism in the lecture below.
6. On Intersectionality: Essential Writings (2023) by Kimberlé Crenshaw (Bonus)
After coining the term ‘intersectionality’ through two academic journal articles in 1989 and 1991, Kimberlé Crenshaw will be publishing her own book. I’m including it here in this list as a sixth recommendation.
So far, there is conflicting information about when this book will be released. A very limited number of copies seem to be available at libraries, but in most bookstores, it’s available for preorder for late 2023.
From the title, it appears it’ll likely be a collection of essays. It’ll no doubt include the two original articles ‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex’ and ‘Mapping the margins’. It may also include some reflections on how intersectionality has been misunderstood and misappropriated through the academy and beyond.
As soon as the book is released, I’ll be reading it and updating this post with my review.
One thing you’ll notice is that none of these books refer to their vision of social justice as ‘intersectional feminism’. This term is a remix of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality among digital activists that quickly proliferated along protest signs like, “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit” (originally proclaimed by Flavia Dzodan).
Crenshaw herself doesn’t use “intersectional feminism” in either of the two articles in which intersectionality is developed. Rather, she refers to the tradition that influenced her theory as Black feminism, as do many of the contributing writers in The Fire Now.
Some years later Crenshaw does begin to use the phrase “intersectional feminism” as seen here in her 2007 speech at The Omega Women’s Leadership Center.
bell hooks advances her own project that she calls visionary feminism.
“Third World feminism” was the term à la mode of the 1980s that you’ll see in This Bridge Called My Back.
Angela Davis has rejected the label of ‘feminist’ in the past, calling herself a communist and Black revolutionary instead.
Intersectional feminism is not some club with established rules and regulations. It’s a creative mixture of ideas and practices drawn from the rich and complex history of women of color activism.
Intersectional feminism is what we make of it when we choose to stand together and resist the interlocking systems of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, cis-heteronormative, patriarchal power.
Related: What is Intersectional Feminism? A Definitive Guide
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