What is Feminism? Feminism, by the Book

As early as 1808, Francois Marie Charles Fourier, a strange and brilliant utopian socialist and philosopher, preached that the development of any civilization depends on the development of its female population. However, it was in 1837 that Fourier first charged the word feminisme with literary analysis of how women had been systematically regarded as socially, politically, morally and economically inferior. In the same breath, he preached that human beings would evolve to live for 144 years, during which time they would grow to a height of 7 feet and develop a tail tipped with a hand-like claw.

Unsurprisingly, not many people took Monsieur Fourier very seriously. But in a system so steeped in misogyny, it was probably easier to find those willing to believe his predictions about copulating androgynous plants, saltless seas and oceans of lemonade before they believed that women were independent thinkers without a biogenetic deficit that rendered them unfortunately stupid.

What is Feminism?

Since 1837, the word “feminisme” has lost its French “e” and has globalized into an amorphous concept that is supposed to contain women’s right to vote, rights to abortion, equal pay, the role of a wife, “Who should cook in a relationship?”, “pick me Twitter”, Osun Sengese, breastfeeding in public, bell hooks vs. Beyoncé, men wearing jumpsuits, burkinis, and white women who voted for Donald Trump. Though coined by a French man, the word found its way into the hearts and hands of women all over the world.

In Western academia, you will be taught that Feminist thought has existed in three waves: the first wave of the nineteenth and twentieth century comprised of women fighting for the right to vote; that after this, in the mid-twentieth century (1949), French Marxist philosopher, Simone De Beauvoir, published, The Second Sex, a book often cited as the beginning of the existential and ideological concept of living life as woman. In the book, she argues that in the humanity we have made, man is considered the default while woman is considered “other,” inferior and relative to the default, ‘normal’ masculine. Your western or west-leaning professors will teach you that De Beauvoir’s book ended up a bible, moving feminism into a second wave, which was characterized by the analyses connecting the social idea of woman to the political and economic position of woman.

And after black women in America had spent a while fighting for what they thought were all women’s rights, they discovered that sometimes, when white women fought for “women” they were not speaking about black women because they still had not fully understood that black people were human at all. The insistence that racism affected and contradicted the first and second waves of feminism would come to be known as the Third Wave. Led by some of the most respected non-white philosophers—bell hooks, Gloria Anzualda, Cherie Moraga, Audre Lorde—the third wave broke into the micro-cultures of racism, the everyday social cues that affected the human rights of black women and, therefore, their inability to achieve the female strength which first and second wave feminists spoke of.

Still, What is Feminism?

But you see, there is a problem: the singular word, ‘feminism’ has been passed through Latin roots, devised by French men, charged by western philosophers and reformed by black American activists and scholars. And, unfortunately, it is this very history that makes talking to “fellow Nigerians” about feminism a tough (mostly dreadful) job. Because of the foreign roots of this word, there seems to be some misconception that the notions of male domination and female marginalization are also western ideas—ideas used as a colonial weapon to harm our ancient traditions rather than heal our modern reality.

It is a truly discomforting reality that the word which fearless women have embedded into the depths of their womanhood was coined by a man, a white man. And, often, it is this reality of the word’s history, its temporal and geographic journey—born of maleness and distilled through whiteness—that arms devil’s advocates and unbelievers with reasons to turn away from the desperate plea or intellectual fury of exploited women, particularly those who exist outside a Western scope.

Devil’s advocates and unbelievers may include men and even other women who have no perceptual apparatus through which they can diagnose or discuss the ways in which the subjugation of women affects the lives of every single citizen of this human race. Even more unfortunately, it is these non-western populations that must deal with the social intrusions of the white superiority complex, the economic wreckage of colonial capitalism and the institutionalized yet arbitrary distinctions between African primitive legacy and Western progressivism. All these regimes of suppression have compromised what it means to call oneself human as a non-white, non-male, non-western being. Therefore, as black women in particular, our reformations of self have had to be specific yet complex—encompassing the entire length and breadth of what we even consider humanity. If that is the case, our definition of a concept that insists on the intelligence of woman beings capable of political revolution and even social destruction must consist of a reconsideration of what we define as Self/real.

So, What is Feminism?

With great sensitivity to that single question, I have curated a list of many answers. A list that I hope will breed even more questions. This list does not pretend to be exhaustive in any manner or form. Instead, it is supposed to give readers different entry points into a conversation that may appear to only concern those who identify as woman. In the list, you will find poems, speeches, psycho-therapeutic testimonies, academic texts, philosophical sermons, short stories, plays and lengthy novels. You will also find stories that approach masculinity with a question mark that disagrees with masculinity’s so-called strengths. All of these texts speak something profound about the nature of the misogynistic world we have inherited; some of them will use our egalitarian histories to challenge our broken reality; others will suggest tactics through which we can misalign ourselves away from the patriarchy.

Indeed, some of these texts will challenge the buzzwords “patriarchy” and “feminism,” alluding to the way language that seems revolutionary may actually turn us away from where revolution lives in our homes. Others will use words to create alternate realities where misogyny has finally carried us into the destruction of our entire race. I understand that people come to experience the world through different formats and my hope is that everyone who is searching may find a text that welcomes them into the question “What is feminism?” Such a sensitive concept/word should be ingested slowly but deliberately; patiently, without a rush toward dishing solutions; and, finally, with great respect for its beginnings but also a sincere urge to criticize its relevance when necessary.

Iranian-American historian and gender theorist, Asfaneh Najmabadi, photographed by Mahyar Ebrahimi.

Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi
African Wo/Man Palava: The Nigerian Novel by Women
The University of Chicago Press. 1995. (Available Here)

In a book about books, Chikwenye Ogunyemi ignites a fiery discussion of womanist approaches to culture and literature. She reviews texts by Nigerian woman novelists including: Flora Nwapa; Adaora Lily Ulasi; Buchi Emecheta; Funmilayo Fakunle; Zaynab Alkali; Ero Obong; Ifeoma Okoye; and Simi Bedford. She explores these texts as womanist “counter-narratives”, which reveal “the politics of oppression, yet represent a complementarity with men.”

Throughout the book, Ogunyemi fights for complementarity rather than “equality”—a term she considers negatively disruptive, born of a western ideology of feminism that is solely interested in power for women rather than discourse between humankind. Earlier, in 1985, she had published the article, “Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English,” which emphasized the intractability of racism in the origins of “Feminism”. To her, anyone who believes that an idea as complex as the liberation for women can be achieved through one rigid construct is yet another imperialist impassioned by desires of individual aggrandizement rather than communal satisfaction.

Ogunyemi insists that white feminists, in particular, co-opt the appeal of blackness without working to acknowledge or address the real complex suffering of black lives. In African Wo/Man Palava, she brands them “fire-brand feminists”, women whose political mindset is that “in which all the women are white or passing.” She not only thinks the selfishness of white women excludes non-white women from feminism, she also believes that the selfishness of their outlook corrupts the entire nature of their feminism. “Theirs,” she claims, “is a monologue haranguing men rather than the dialogue between women or between women and men”.

On the contrary, Ogunyemi’s approach to the liberation of women under oppressive regimes is, “community-centered rather than self-oriented or solely women-centered.” According to her specific analysis of Nigerian history and culture, women continue to fight “eruptions of masculinism [characterized by] continued collaboration between inept black leaders and white men.” By this, she alludes to the everlasting debate of whether feminism is a western concept corrupting traditional values; in her opinion, oppression of any gender in the Nigerian context is the result of colonial indoctrinations that shifted pre-colonial societies out of more efficient systems of gender complementarity by creating identity crises made even worse through systemizing poverty so immense that “women have little energy left to pursue things political or pleasurable.”

In the midst of such poverty, fighting for women’s rights may seem secondary to survival, “even discussing it abstractly shows signs of insensitivity to human deprivation”, borne out of exploitation created by white male colonizers and facilitated by black male leaders, “failing to respond effectively to aggressive colonialism”.

Unlike most other western waves of feminism, Ogunyemi does not believe that “motherhood is a cornerstone of patriarchy” holding women back from freedom. Actually, she believes in motherhood as a symbolic site for the female creative prowess that she analyzes in admiration. Ogunyemi seems to believe that through the critical writing and reading of womanist counter-narratives, women may “bear” a new language. And then, through the nativity of a new vernacular, they may birth a new Nigeria.

By the title of the book itself, it is clear that Chikwenye Ogunyemi does not care to make herself palatable to those who cannot hold the diversity of knowledge that shines through diversity of language. In a generous review, Barbara Hill Rigney acknowledges and maybe even admires the way “Ogunyemi opens doors but does not invite entrance…defines a space but does not welcome visitors”.

Yaa Gyasi
Penguin Random House. 2016 (Available Here)

When a descendant of the Fante king visits the line of mourners who come to weep for his grandfather, he reaches a girl in the line who rejects his open hand. “Respectfully, I will not shake the hand of a slaver,” she says. After being sought by the Fante prince, the girl explains to him that she stands by her anti-violence principles. Having lost three brothers to the Asante wars she has suffered as a result of decisions made by royals like him, she wants no more. Though she may not be able to declare the end of war, she is from a world where she is not a stranger to her dignity. If her nation will not stand with her, “I will be my own nation,” she declares to the Fante prince.

Thanks to Yaa Gyasi, we can immerse ourselves in this kind of world where women have principles on national considerations. Though the story rests on the participation of Ghanaian and British men in the Atlantic Slave Trade, it speaks of black women who are both victims and agents in the destruction and repair of a powerful, historic Gold Coast Empire. In her smashing debut novel, she speaks to the spirit of Ghana’s matrilineal culture by embedding complexity into the breadth of her female characters.

This novel is a good introduction to the feminist ideology because it re-iterates Ogunyemi’s womanism, which dispels the neo-liberal myth that a woman who is unaccountable to any other but herself is a successful woman. Instead, it tells the story of different women who in various colonial eras, economic classes and social statuses are called to negotiate between the personal and the communal. Especially because Yaa Gyasi weaves a plot through character development, the audience is granted an opportunity to witness the varying lives of women who make different decisions when supported or oppressed by the world around them. Embedded in the feminist movement is a strong rejection of the dismissive reduction of all women into a single “woman” that makes inferior decisions based on an inferior genetic makeup. In a clever design, Homegoing responds to the ideology by building an interesting and functional world moved by women with and without agency, away from the patriarchal concept of “woman” as an unfortunate slave to Darwinian biology.

Afsaneh Najmabadi
Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranaian Modernity
University of California Press. 2005. (Available Here)

Using poetry, paintings, drawings, sayings, and passionate speeches, Professor Najmabadi traces the shift of Iran from a nation state where men could be regarded as both subjects and objects of seduction, into a state where men were made to feminize the land, and then make masculine the capacity to save this feminine land. Her interrogation of Iranian gender and sexual culture through the nation’s linguistic shifts and image portrayals is an exemplary way of attending to both literary and non-literary texts in order to analyse a people, using the tools of communication used (and particularly beloved) by the people.

Ghanaian-American novelist, Yaa Gyasi, photographed by Michael Lionstar.

Wendy Brown
States of Injury
Princeton University Press. 1995. (Available Here)

Wendy Brown writes 7 spectacular chapters of political theory, pushing back on the popular Western tenets of feminism. Across the 7 chapters, she plays a kind of devil’s advocate to the seemingly progressive notion of empowerment and freedom. Over and over, she questions the costs of romanticizing liberty as a state rather than a practice. For instance, in her second chapter, Brown alludes to the postmodern instinct to regard the being of woman as injured rather than looking at a woman moving through states of injury.

Particular to this present moment [of feminist movements] is the fight to “believe the woman”, as opposed to “dismiss the woman.” In effect, self-confession has taken a romantic seat on our timelines and in our hearts. The woman who speaks is already freer than the woman who doesn’t. Especially since “women’s subordination is partly achieved through the construction and positioning of us as private—sexual, familial, emotional—and is produced and inscribed in the domain of both domestic and psychic interiors, then within modernity the voicing of women’s experience acquires an inherently confessional cast” writes Brown.

According to Brown, the confession always presents itself as inherently positive “The material excavated there, like the material uncovered in psychoanalysis or delivered in confession, is valued as the hidden truth of women’s existence…true because it is hidden, and hidden because women’s subordination functions in part through silencing, marginalization, and privatization,” she explains.

But she doesn’t end there. Brown claims that it is easy to place the confession on a pedestal where ‘“feelings” and “experiences” acquire a status that is politically if not ontologically essentialist-beyond hermeneutics.”’ In other words, we reach a point where the mere act of a woman speaking becomes so romantically inflamed, that we moralize a woman’s voice into perpetual rightness especially because we rely on the validation of a legal framework, which historically, can only operate on the mechanics of either right or wrong. Though emotionally satisfying, Brown does not subscribe to the comfort it provides, for she complains that such a standpoint is motivated by its own dangerous acceptance of the state’s legal, political and economic power as something that is justifiable, but merely resting in the wrong hands:

“Initial figurations of freedom are inevitably reactionary in the sense of emerging in reaction to perceived injuries or constraints of a regime from within its own terms. Ideals of freedom ordinarily emerge to vanquish their imagined immediate enemies, but in this move they frequently recycle and reinstate rather than transform the terms of domination that generated them. Consider exploited workers who dream of a world in which work has been abolished, blacks who imagine a world without whites, feminists who conjure a world either without men or without sex, or teenagers who fan-tasize a world without parents. Such images of freedom perform mirror reversals of suffering without transforming the organization of the activity through which the suffering is produced and without addressing the subject constitution that domination effects, that is, the constitution of the social categories, “workers,” “blacks,” “women,” or “teenagers.””

In her thesis for the whole book, Brown questions if the path of using the law to damn the individual “offender” does more to corroborate than to contest the “political shape” of domination in our time: “Social injury such as that conveyed through derogatory speech becomes that which is “unacceptable and “individually culpable” rather than that which symptomizes deep political distress in a culture; injury is thereby rendered intentional and individual, politics is reduced to punishment, and justice is equated with such punishment on one hand and with protection by the courts on the other…”

Now, with social phenomena like “cancelled culture,” Brown’s standpoint can (and probably will) ignite many fuses. To add salt to injury, Brown is a white woman; which makes her perspective seem like another removed from the reality of those who have no choice but to seek for at least a power shift, before engaging with the possibility of redefining power. Yet, her examination on the subjective—not objective—ontology and epistemology of the word “freedom” is so powerfully clear and poignant that its urgency is hard to ignore, though unsettling to even entertain, making it worthy of engagement, discourse or, at least, debate.

Amy Lawrence
“Women’s Voices in Third World Cinema” in Diane Carson, Linda Dittmar and Janice R. Welsch ed. Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism
University of Minnesota Press. 1994. (Available Here)

Concerning film, generally, there is an idea that the visual is both the core and the entire dimension of enjoyment and analysis. “Watching,” is how we describe the way we receive film, and “showing” how we explain what we do as we share them. Both the words, “Watching” and “Showing” infuse and are infused by associations of visualization. And since seeing is believing, we believe that what we see is what is. But is it?

“Content,” says media professor, Leger Grindon, “often eclipses the crucial operations of form.” To consider form is often slippery because it is virtual yet real—its impact is often quiet yet gracious when positive and lethal when negative. Due to its invisibility, it is easy to miss its significance. However, that also allows form to execute its power and its ideology as smoothly and effectively as hiding one’s malaria tablet in a smooth ball of eba dipped in sweet soup. With the form of documentary now being populated, used and sometimes even abused to produce what we call “Reality TV”, I find Lawrence’s analysis of women’s voices in Third World Cinema a welcome interruption to Reality as brought to you by Oxygen, Bravo TV and Ryan Seacrest.

In combination with documentary’s reputation as the unrehearsed, unscripted and unfiltered Truth, this dismissal of the non-visual text allows the non-visual aspect of the film escape scrutiny and read. Particularly, this means that with First Person speeches, there is a conflation of the speaking voice with the narrative voice; an assumption that the speaking voice is also the narrative voice. In her essay, “Women’s Voices in Third World Cinema,” Amy Lawrence makes a spectacular reference to the concept of Diegesis, which refers to the synchronization between on-screen image producing and off-screen sound (or voice). For Lawrence, this thin line between “this is what is.” and “is this what is?” is a disadvantage to the progress of development because it makes women brand ambassadors for their own suffering. As Lawrence put it:

“Synchronization in such circumstances not only contains women within the diegesis of the film, barring them from the realm of enunciation “outside” the narrative (a position reserved for the male subject) but at its most chilling “[it identifies] the female voice with an intractable materiality” and alienates the female subject from the meanings “produced” by her own voice.”

In other words, because women are speaking does not mean that we have not been taught what to say by history. I—more than often—hear this argument that empowerment is about choice: It’s my choice to wear the pink dress with frills over the blue one without the frills; it’s my choice to want to get married to a man that could raise his voice at me if I misbehaved; it’s my choice to bleach my skin if I’m unhappy with it. And it’s definitely always my choice to wear makeup rather than not… Or is it? I mean, choice is personal, but does that mean it is ahistoric? Since we usually choose to survive, is this choice essential as it is not geared towards a history of survival? If yes, why do we act like choice cannot be taken through the same analysis that history must be processed through? We might have choice, but who made the list of options? As we circle options a or b, wouldn’t it be sensible to ask who we are submitting our choices to?

Mariama Bâ
So Long a Letter
Heinemann. 1981. (Available Here)

Written in 1979, a year later, So Long a Letter was the first African novel to win the prestigious Noma award. A semi-autobiographical reflection of Ba’s life, So Long a Letter is one of the first novels authored by a Senegalese woman, eventually becoming one of the foundational texts for many female francophone writers. In the novel, the character Ramatoulaye writes a long letter to her childhood friend Aissatou, reflecting on their childhood dreams, their adolescent rebellions, and the pain of forming and leaving adult relationships. First of all, I love this book because it speaks to the necessity of female friendships that exist between strong women, women who are intellectually equipped to defend themselves against a world that would prefer they turn on themselves. Otherwise, the book is a poetic stream of consciousness that considers the difficulty (and sometimes, irony) of trying to be an educated, Muslim, Senegalese woman. It is made further complex by Ramatoulaye’s own grappling with her limits to what she considers liberation.

In any movement about freedom of expression, it is always difficult to make up our minds on the place of limitations. What right to do we have to place a line on liberation and to say, “this is enough” or “this is too far”? In the novel, Bâ wonders if thresholds are hypocrisy against the concept of expression. But Bâ is honest with where she finds herself. When she does place limits, she does not prescribe her limits to all; she merely sits in the nature of her conflict with herself, trying to make decisions for her life with an agency she believes she deserves in a world that believes she should have none.

Nigerian novelist, Buchi Emecheta. Photographer unknown.

Angela Davis
“The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework: A Working-Class Perspectivein Women, Race and Class
Random House. 1981. (Available Here)

“Black women…had to become strong for their families and communities needed their strength to survive. Evidence of the accumulated strengths of black women have forged through work, work and more work can be discovered in the contributions of the many outstanding female leaders who have emerged within the Black community. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells and Rosa Parks are not exceptional Black women as much as they are epitomes of Black womanhood,” says Marxist revolutionary, Angela Y. Davis.

In a society where the biggest drawback to the progress of women’s rights is the question “Who is going to cook for me?” I find this text essential reading for the entire Nigerian population. In this essay chapter, Davis analyses the concept and history of “housework” through a feminist and capitalist lens, diagnosing the boredom and repetition that is “housework.” In it, she explores the history of housework as all work related to the keeping of a home, ranging from the weaving of sheets to the making of soap. Moving on up to industrialization, she details the way traditional women’s work was taken to the factories made up of only men. In a very interesting critique, she argues that women can only be liberated from the degrading nature of housework when it becomes socialized (e.g. providing free public childcare), or when domestic labour is no longer feminized, undermined and unpaid.

Saba Mahmood
Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject
Princeton University Press (Available Here)

“Muslim Feminist” is often questioned as oxymoron—an identity that is essentially irreconcilable. It is often made to seem as if the spiritual core of the Islamic doctrine is at odds with the belief that women are full human beings with the capacity to make decisions for themselves or even the world at large. In the past, earlier feminists took this as a reason to believe the non-white Muslim women born into Muslim societies were trapped in the religion of their birth. At a certain moment in history, there even began to be spaces where the movement to speak on behalf of Muslim women, for Muslim women, was actually repeating the same cycle of ridding these [Muslim] women of the agency to speak for themselves. In an ironic turn of events, those certain secular, liberal and western ‘feminists’ had become the patriarchs they were fighting against.

Though I am no expert on the details of that debate, I highly recommend this reading by Saba Mahmood. The Princeton Review describes it as “a sensitive ethnography of a critical but largely ignored dimension of the Islamic revival.” Though a Pakistani woman, Mahmood deliberately chooses to place herself outside her own personal space and focus on the grassroots women’s poetry movement in Cairo, Egypt. Through her confident critique of the secular-liberal assumptions, the book addresses three central questions. The Princeton University Press lists them as: “How do movements of moral reform help us rethink the normative liberal account of politics? How does the adherence of women to the patriarchal norms at the core of such movements parochialize key assumptions within feminist theory about freedom, agency, authority, and the human subject? How does a consideration of debates about embodied religious rituals among Islamists and their secular critics help us understand the conceptual relationship between bodily form and political imaginaries?”

Uma Narayan
Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions and Third-World Feminism
Routledge. 1997. (Available Here)

As Kimberlé Crenshaw writes on the lack of intersectionality between white upper class feminism and black women’s economic and social realities in America, so does Uma Narayan illustrate the power dynamics of a feminism being produced in the West, readily distributed to the post-colonial South of the world. She uses local examples (e.g. dowry murder, caste oppression, and even culinary practices) of what life as an Indian woman means and how feminist vocabulary for dealing with the specificity of her heritage does not seem to exist. In the book, she expresses love and concern for her culture but also calls for the disruption of masculine dominance. She searches for a disruptive theory without yearning for a ‘feminist’ solution that is steeped in a western superiority complex that depends on the power it holds by seeming as if it is the only site of knowledge production.

Leslie Jamison
“The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” in The Empathy Exams
Graywolf Press. 2014. (Available Here)

Feminism has travelled through many eras. And in each era, each woman who adorns the title will also travel through many life cycles of the identity. At one of my life cycles, I felt very strongly that to be a feminist, I had to overcome my entire Self. I wanted to mount out of everything that exposed a femininity regarded inferior. Sometimes, I tried to do that by announcing that I was “over” everything. I wanted to be over men, over women, over sadness, over tears—basically, over everything that would liken me to a sad woman in need of the world’s consolation. I wanted to become what Jamison called the apathetic “Post-wounded” woman, completely opposing the ancient unliberated woman who was impossible without the mercy of others. Jamison, however, called me into balance. Through her sincere reflection of her past in pain, she put the paradox in front of me: How can we express pain without depending on our performance of pain?

An essay on the wounded woman, “The Grand unified Theory of Female Pain” is a piece of a larger body of work called The Empathy Exams. In this specific essay, Jamison reflects on the inconsistencies surrounding female pain; why is it that the history of western literary text is full of stories that use women’s pain to drive the plot yet, in the reality of lives lived, women are asked to keep quiet about their pain? What are we missing when someone would rather read about a wounded woman in a book than help a wounded woman in the world? What is the fictional exploitation of pain doing for the non-fictional expression of that same pain? Out of all the essays in the book, this particular reads like soliloquy in which Jamison feels directly implicated by her questions. She feels her identity lies somewhere between exploitative story-maker and exploited woman; that space between a rock and a hard place is where Jamison stands to ask questions about the intricacies of our body that affect and are affected by the myth of who Woman is supposed to be. Are we as Menander says, “a pain that never goes away?”

American novelist, Toni Morrison, by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

Jean Baudrillard
Palgrave Macmillan. 1991. (Available Here)

I struggled with the decision to add this to the list. First of all, it is by a white man. Secondly, there are moments in the book where you have to ask yourself if it is a ‘feminist” text or anti-feminist text. However, it is on the list because his analysis of male anxieties around feminine seductions provides some very complex diagnoses as to why we still struggle to address feminism as it pertains to desire, sexual liberation, sexual pleasure and a diversity of the sexes. In his psycho-analytical and philosophical attempt to explain the premise of seduction, he uses a lot of words that must be attended to very specifically. For instance, if one reads the text and assumes “feminine” is always “woman,” then there is going to be a lot misinterpreted. Whereas, “feminine” in his text alludes to what is commodified and presented for consumption—that which is always object, and whose power has to be subversive, taking advantage of some gaps in the system.

I put this reading on the list because in the age of the screen, we are finding more violent ways to capitalize on femininity: Aesthetics of lips, butts, breasts, height, labia, eyebrows etc. And as a result, the equation of woman and feminist makes most of us slaves to abusive imaginations of what makes a woman successfully seductive. As a dense attempt at theorizing where power is created at the site of any seduction, Baudrillard raises some interesting notions about the capitalist history of abusing femininity. But at the same time, it sometimes seems like he wants women to wield femininity as our strong arm—i.e., to turn away from its abusive nature by owning it as our instrument.

Toni Morrison
Knopf. 1973. (Available Here)

In Sula, Toni Morrison forged two major characters, Sula and Nel, who riffed so wonderfully and so painfully off each other’s gaps, that she managed to provide an illusion that both characters were simply the multiple personalities of a single black female woman attempting to simultaneously break free of herself, and at the same time, quiet herself; regret so many things, and apologize for nothing; love herself and find love in others; to give up and live and to fight through death. If one can pay the utmost attention to every single word, every single punctuation, and every single space that the little book carries, one might be able to understand the theories of real life contained and distilled in every moment of the book’s fictional existence.

Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa (Ed.)
This Bridge Called My Back
Persephone Press. 1981. (Available Here)

A collection of interviews, poems, prose, speeches and short stories, this feminist anthology is a candid and unflinching proclamation of black women’s rights to survival and, better still, happiness. The book addresses the racism that corrupted the feminist movement as fought in the United States. “I no longer believe that feminism is a tool which can eliminate racism,” says Chrystos, a contributing Native-American author who identifies as both lesbian and two-spirit. It’s not just Chrystos, the book is considered double-barrelled because most of its contributors identify as queer and coloured. At the time, there was barely any mention of those identities in the public arena of feminist discourse. This anthology is a must-read for people who want to witness the kind of work a woman produces when she is free to write as herself, for her self. “Pen…” says poet, Gloria Anzaldúa, “I feel right at home in your ink doing a pirouette, stirring the cobwebs, leaving my signature on the windowpanes. Pen, how could I ever have feared you. You are quite housebroken but it’s your wildness I am in love with.”

Buchi Emecheta
Joys of Motherhood
Allison & Busby. 1979. (Available Here)

In her book, Emecheta addresses the idealization of motherhood and the vilification of women themselves. The book itself is an ironic ode to the title. Taught to empty herself so that her husband and children can fulfill her, Nnu Ego lives with bitter resentment at the way she gave herself to a world that never intended to return the favor.

On a spiritual plane, I regard Joys of Motherhood to be a fictional presentation for what happens when women lose their ‘Chi’. Buchi Emecheta strategically starts the story with Nnu Ego’s mother, a strong woman who is untouched by the words or actions of anyone in the village. Ona is a woman whose sense of self manifests in her manner of walking and even in the way she oiled herself. However, Nnu Ego is separated from her mother and her homeland as she moves to Lagos. Eventually, her life spirals into a series of inconsistencies where she does the most work but is asked to regard herself as the least significant person.

Paired with Angela Davis’ The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework: A Working-Class Perspective, Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood will illustrate how the so-called inferiority of women is conceived by the way of looking at women as labour, and not necessarily, our manner of being