10 vital non-fiction books to get you into feminism

Petrol Girls’ Ren Aldridge guides us through her current top 10 must-read feminist books – whether you’re just starting out, or you’re learning where to take the fight from here…

10 vital non-fiction books to get you into feminism
Ren Aldridge
Header image:
Abolition. Feminism. Now.

If you were introducing a new friend to heavy music, you probably wouldn’t force them to trawl through the entire Iron Maiden back-catalogue – you’d probably show them a few all-time favourites, and then, over-excitedly, a bunch of albums that you’re loving right now, which will in some way have built on all the good shit that’s come before. And that’s basically what I’ve done here, except with feminist books.

Of course, you could literally just take your new friend to a gig, and feminism is also best experienced live: in meetings, conversations, relationships, demos and direct actions. I actually don’t think you need to read anything to get started. But books, like albums, are there for you when the action ends and you want to make sense of what you’ve experienced, or equally to give you an idea of what might be coming up. They guide us and hold us through difficult and formative parts of our lives, and are something we can keep coming back to when we need them.

That’s about where this increasingly tenuous comparison ends, because the stakes surrounding feminism are a hell of a lot higher than heavy music. Heavy music may well have saved your life but feminism is out to save – and arguably avenge – a hell of a lot more.

In the face of relentless gender-based violence and increasing attacks on our bodily autonomy, we need all hands on deck. My current top 10 will give you a bunch of ideas what to do once you’re there.

Lola OlufemiFeminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power

I can’t overstate the impact that this book has had on my understanding of feminism. In just 145 pages, Lola Olufemi blew apart my existing understandings of choice, consent and solidarity. Through the black feminist idea of reproductive justice she expands the conversation around abortion and parenthood beyond individual choices to fighting to change the actual conditions in which those choices are made. She follows a similar line of thought on consent, reframing it under capitalism, through her argument for decriminalising sex work. Her chapter defining solidarity as a ‘doing-word’ gives inspiring examples from all over the world, including, the Women’s Protection Units in Rojava, where an incredible feminist revolution has been taking place over the last ten years. Feminism, Interrupted also tackles gendered Islamophobia, food, abolitionist approaches to tackling gender-based violence and sets out how fundamental trans liberation is to our collective liberation. Throughout the book, Lola also carefully acknowledges the movements and thinkers that her ideas have developed from, especially in the first chapter, Know Your History. Whatever your level of knowledge about feminism, if you have to choose just one book from this list, make it this one – the perfect introduction and interruption to feminism today.

Shon FayeThe Transgender Issue

Trans liberation is a central part of feminist struggle – much as an at best embarrassing but often dangerous minority of ‘feminists’ might try and tell you otherwise. In this highly readable book, Shon Faye re-appropriates the clickbait phrase ‘the transgender issue’ – which usually translates as cis people debating their issues with trans people – to set out some of the key issues that trans people face today and the important part they play in wider movements for justice. Shon especially points out the myriad of ways that trans liberation is not only no threat to gay rights and feminism, but is literally fighting for the same goals. Her writing is nuanced, precise and often wry, and she assumes no prior knowledge of trans issues. If you haven’t actually read a trans person’s perspective on their own experience, then this is the perfect place to start.

bell hooksFeminism Is For Everybody

This short book is, as it was intended, an ideal introduction to feminism for anyone coming fresh to these ideas. bell hooks was politically committed to making feminism accessible outside of universities, and her writing style reflects this. She was central to developing forms of feminism that are meaningfully anti-racist and anti-capitalist, and railed hard at white middle class feminists who couldn’t see beyond their own experiences. She was also groundbreaking in her insistence on outlining the ways in which feminism also benefits men and the need for feminism to offer more liberatory visions of masculinity. The chapter Feminist Masculinity is a great overview, and she goes in to more depth in her book, The Will To Change – Men, Masculinity And Love. (There you go, lads.) Published in 2000, Feminism Is For Everybody does now come across quite dated in its absence of trans politics and interchanging of the words ‘woman’ and ‘female’, but bell’s critique of biological determinism (the idea that women are inherently one way and men another) clearly laid some of the ground work for the more trans inclusive forms of feminism we see today.

With further chapters on feminist partnerships, parenting, work, beauty, lesbian feminism, global feminism, ending violence, consciousness raising and more, this book is such a great introduction to feminism and its relevance to all of us.

Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners and Beth E. RichieAbolition. Feminism. Now.

Angela Davis is a legendary figure within feminist, Marxist, abolitionist and black liberation movements, and has written many classic texts including Are Prisons Obsolete? and Women, Race & Class. Here she joins forces with Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners and Beth E. Richie to collectively outline why abolition and feminism are each unimaginable without the other, and why both are needed, now. In the wake of murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, amongst so many others, that ignited the most recent Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the relentless examples of police misogyny coming to light, including PC Wayne Couzens’ murder of Sarah Everard, it has never been more necessary to understand that the police and prison system hold no answers for our feminist struggles, and to make our feminism not only intersectional, but abolitionist.

Silvia FedericiWitches, Witch-Hunting And Women

In just 88 pages, Silvia Federici manages to outline how the dawn of capitalism, with the enclosure of communal land and enforcing of the nuclear family, created the conditions for the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th century. She then applies this to arguing how modern forms of colonialism and globalisation are behind a surge in violence against women and marginalised genders in many countries around the world today, including in the form of witch-hunts. A hell of a lot of ground is covered, both historically and internationally, with an emphasis on the many ways this violence has been resisted, and the fear that capitalist society has of women’s collectivity. Silvia was a cofounder of the International Wages For Housework campaign in the ’70s and remains a militant Marxist feminist icon, who is still active and publishing incredible books even now she’s hit her 80s.

Verónica GagoFeminist International

Written in the midst of the colossal feminist strike movement that has ricocheted across Latin America, and many parts of the world in recent years, this book explores the impacts and potencia of that ongoing movement, proving that massiveness does not need to come at the expense of radicality. The feminist strike targets colonialism and capitalism, just as much as patriarchy, and expands the idea of what a strike might be, and therefore who it might include. It’s the perfect antidote to the impotent individualistic girl-boss feminism neutralising our collective power across the West, and it is somewhere that we must look to for a road map in our fights for bodily autonomy and against gender-based violence. I physically shook from the power in these pages, and resolved my commitment to the international feminist strike.

Audre LordeYour Silence Will Not Protect You

This 2017 collection of Audre Lorde’s key essays and poems is basically a best-of album, complete with introductions by feminist and anti-racist rock stars Sara Ahmed and Reni Eddo-Lodge. Those introductions are why I chose this book over others, because they point out all the ways that Audre’s work remains totally vital today, as well as how she influenced both of their own incredible work. That she was a poet is obvious throughout all her vivid, warm, and sensual writing, which, as Reni points out, you’ll recognise from her many famous quotes doing the rounds on social media. She has so much to teach us about the mechanisms of racism, especially from white women in feminist contexts, and, as Sara mentions, was writing about the intersections of age, race, class, sexuality and gender way before Kimberle Crenshaw coined the now-well-known term: intersectionality. Audre’s writing about recognising difference, and her distinction between unity and homogeneity, is a much-needed compass with which we can navigate today’s reckoning with our various identities. I’ve also learned so much from her writing on anger – both in terms of accepting the anger of others in the face of oppression, and truly feeling the potential and limitations of my own anger. She’s brilliant on so many other topics, the erotic, the necessity of poetry, facing death to name just a few, and her wisdom and bravery are unparalleled. I come back to her whenever I need courage, and she has guided my decisions to speak up and hold my ground every time I’ve found my own voice under attack.

Laurie PennySexual Revolution

It was a talk that Laurie Penny gave on women and protest an alarming number of years ago where I got my band name, and it was their writing around that time that helped me to name my experiences of sexual violence for what they were. I owe them a lot, and have grown up through my 20s with their writing soundtracking my life and learnt tons from seeing them listen and learn very publicly from more marginalised voices in our movements. Their latest book, Sexual Revolution, is the best thing they’ve ever written. Premised on the recognition that we are in the midst of a sexual revolution, which is redefining gender, sex and consent, whilst crumbling the existing social and economic order, this book outlines all the ways this is taking place, the consequences, and why and how the far right are organising against it. This is explored through chapters on incel culture, the racist myth of the ‘outsider rapist’, emotional labour, perceptions of sanity, reproductive justice and more. It’s a truly agitating read – the kind of writing that makes you periodically need to slam the book down and pace around the room – with sentences that are the equivalent of big sing-along choruses, ringing as true as they are memorable.

Rebecca SolnitMen Explain Things To Me

It was nearly impossible to choose just one of Rebecca Solnit’s books, but this 2014 essay collection contains some of her absolute classics. The title essay, Men Explain Things To Me, is credited as where the term mansplaining was derived from (though Rebecca never wrote the word and has her issues with it) and is a shining example of one of the best forms of feminist writing: the taking of a small personal interaction that is familiar to so many of us, and revealing the politics and power relations at play. She describes a hilarious incident of a man explaining her own book to her (in much the same way that many non-male musicians have had our own gear explained to us) and uses this as a launch pad to explore the political consequences of the presumption that women don’t know things, especially when it comes to our own experiences. Every time I read it, it hits differently, and casts interactions I’ve had in a new light. Another absolute favourite from this collection is Woolf’s Darkness, which riffs on a Virgina Woolf quote – ‘the future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think’ – to explore the need to embrace uncertainty, in our creativity as much as our political movements. That essay changed my approach to both.

Sara AhmedLiving A Feminist Life

Reading Sara Ahmed is a lot like listening to music in weird time signatures. She plays with words in a way that trips you up, interrupts the rhythm of your reading, and makes you question things you thought you knew, often revealing adjacent meanings or hidden power relations, as she weaves feminist theory from the everyday. In Living A Feminist Life, she faces up to the exhausting and painful parts of living that life, especially as a woman of colour, and shows us how to survive the walls and eye rolls – the resistance we are met with when we speak up. Her infamous figure of the feminist killjoy plays a key role, and she concludes with a killjoy manifesto and toolkit, which I revisit often, reminding us how much we need other killjoys in our lives, as well as dancing and laugher, our bodies and, of course, our books.

Now read these

The best of Kerrang! delivered straight to your inbox three times a week. What are you waiting for?