By Radhika Shah:
The first wave of feminism (the nineteenth century and early twentieth century) laid the necessary foundation for the second (1960s–1980s) and the third waves (1990s–2000s) of feminism. The tumultuous century between the 1800s and 1900s brought with it some classic feminist writers like Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and George Sand, whose works became part of the Western (and largely white) canon.
While their writing and work is crucial to understanding feminism, the nineteenth century also saw lesser-known feminist books and feminist writers from around the world. Their focus and priorities range from anticolonial work to anticaste and antipatriarchal work, and their writing is resonant even today to help us remember the stakes and feminist battles of the past, so we better understand the feminist and intersectional needs of today.
Here is a list to get you started on your reading for this month (and beyond!).
1 Ain’t I A Woman by Sojourner Truth (1851)
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York State, U.S. After gaining her freedom in 1827, she became a well-known antislavery speaker, and delivered this speech at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. In the speech, she brought together the larger suffragette movement which was largely white, with the antislavery movement, centering the need to fight for equal rights for African American women. With a resonant and vibrant voice, this speech, now in book form, is a must-read.
2. Kavya Phule by Savitribai Phule (1854)
In this first collection of poems by Savitribai, the first female teacher in India and also the iconic anticaste feminist, we see the beginnings of the many feminist and radical ideas that both she and her husband would continue to build upon. From Dalit and Bahujan girl education to the intersections of caste and gender, Savitribai’s poetry, translated from the Marathi, is the hallmark of feminist Indian thought and writing.
3. About the Grief of Mahars and Mangs by Muktabai Salve (1855)
Muktabai was a young girl in the very school that Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule set up in 1852. As part of the Mang community, Muktabai, just three years after having begun her schooling, wrote a searing essay on not just caste atrocities under Bajirao Peshwa, but also the situation and conditions of Dalit women at that time.
4. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861)
This autobiography documents Harriet Jacobs’s life as a fugitive enslaved person and a mother, and how she gained freedom for herself and her children. By laying bare the sexual abuse she––and other enslaved women––experienced, and describing her own experiences, she added to the body of work on slavery through the intersections or race, slavery, and gender.
5. Stri Purush Tulana by Tarabai Shinde (1882)
A classic and iconic text by another anticaste feminist, this pamphlet/book is generally considered to be the first modern feminist text in India, written by anticaste feminist activist Tarabai Shinde. Tarabai was also an associate of Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule. It directly challenges the upper-caste patriarchy of the nineteenth century and incisively critiqued the position of women in India and their rights.
6. The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner (1883)
While correctly criticized for problematic views on race, this book, written by South African author Olive Schreiner, became known as one of the first feminist novels. With themes of love, motherhood, empire, and racialization, it introduces you to racial politics in South Africa, and provides a valuable lesson both in revolutionary feminist politics for its time, but also in critiquing early feminism.
7. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
An iconic classic, this was first printed as a short story, and later began to be sold as a book. It became quickly known as a foundational text for understanding American feminism for its depiction of attitudes towards the mental and physical health of women in the nineteenth century, and is an indictment of the patriarchy as it extends to both domestic and professional spheres.
8. The Woman’s Bible by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1895 and 1898)
This two-volume book, written by one of the pioneering women’s rights suffragettes of the U.S. women’s rights movements, is an unequivocal challenge to the religious orthodoxy that held women in traditionally subservient positions to man. As the book scrutinized the Bible from a woman’s point of view, it was received with mixed reactions both from within the suffragette movement and otherwise, but it became widely known as an international best-seller.
9. The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)
Both a precursor to American modernist literature and also at the tail-end of the first wave of feminism, this novel created ripples with its unorthodox views on femininity and motherhood during the turn-of-the-century American South. With incisive commentary and a focus on writing about women’s experiences and issues without condescension, The Awakening is seen as a landmark work on early American feminism.
10. Sultana’s Dream by Begum Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain (1905)
Published closer to the end of the first wave of feminism, this Bengali feminist utopian story created a mirror-image of the patriarchal practice of purdah in the technologically advanced world of ‘Ladyland’ with solar powered flying cars and labourless farming. This novel, much like its radical author, espoused revolutionary ideas for gender equality and a fairer world for women.