The best books on feminism (“not the fun kind”)

By Robert Jensen

Published in · March, 2024

March 25, 2024
Why am I passionate about this?
After bumping around newspaper journalism in my 20s, I wandered into a Ph.D. and then landed a great job at the University of Texas at Austin. Being a professor allowed me to explore any subject that seemed interesting, which resulted in books on environmental collapse, sexism and pornography, racism, foreign policy and militarism, religion, journalism and mass media, and critical thinking. Throughout this work, radical feminism has remained at the core of my philosophy. Andrea Dworkin captures this politics in a line from her novel Ice and Fire, “’I am a feminist, not the fun kind.” Such feminism may not always be fun, but it’s always important.

I wrote…
It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics

What is my book about?
I am drawn to controversial topics, to issues that scare me and scare others. My book offers one path toward a deeper conversation than might seem possible in today’s polarized political climate. I wrote the book for those who yearn for discussions based on evidence, reason, critical self-reflection, and mutual respect.
The book offers a model for engaging others rationally without discounting the powerful emotional component of our lives, for thinking for oneself and at the same time recognizing that thinking is a collective enterprise, and for defending strongly held political positions while inviting critique. It encourages rigorous thinking by ordinary people to better equip citizens to participate in political life.

The books I picked & why

The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory
By Marilyn Frye
Why did I love this book?
When I first read this book on feminist philosophy in the late 1980s, I was nervous about both feminism (because I wasn’t sure what it meant for me) and philosophy (because I wasn’t sure I was smart enough to understand it).
Marilyn Frye’s book helped me realize that I had been raised in a male-dominated and deeply sexist culture without knowing much about it, making feminism essential to my education. She also demonstrated that philosophy written in plain language was for everyone rather than an esoteric endeavor for specialists.
Frye was a scholar-in-residence at the university where I did graduate studies, and she sat in on our reading group. It was a real treat to sit across the room and hear her think out loud.

Letters from a War Zone
By Andrea Dworkin
Why did I love this book?
It’s a cliché, but the writing of Andrea Dworkin changed my life (often through painful internal struggle, but always for the better).
This is not her most well-known book, but this collection of essays and speeches was, for me, the most influential. Her speech “I Want a Twenty-Four-Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape,” delivered to a men’s group in 1983, helped me understand that radical feminism was not a threat to men but a gift.
A few years before she died (far too young, at age 58, in 2005), I had a chance to meet her, and in the few hours of a shared car trip, I felt the loving spirit that motivated her work.

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
By Audre Lorde
Why did I love this book?
Audre Lorde was known primarily as a poet, but her essays were more engaging for me. She was fearless in confronting male dominance and white supremacy—and every other hierarchy that structures modern life—always with an awareness of the centrality of love and beauty in our lives.
Two of those essays that became classics in feminism—“Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” and “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”—were particularly influential for me and are as relevant today as when they were published in 1984.
She also died too young (at age 58 in 1992), and I have always wished I could have had a chance to see her speak.

Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography
By Christine Stark (editor), Rebecca Whisnant (editor)
Why did I love this book?
I first encountered the feminist critique of the sexual exploitation industries (prostitution, pornography, stripping, etc.) in the late 1980s, my first step in learning to analyze our patriarchal society. It also helped me rethink my own life and commit to change.
Sadly, the critique was rejected or ignored, not only by most people in the dominant culture but even by many feminists. This book came at a crucial time, bringing together activists, survivors, and scholars to challenge men’s sexual use and abuse of women.
I was proud to contribute a chapter, “Blow Bang and Cluster Bombs: The Cruelty of Men and Americans,” and I am grateful that one of the editors, Rebecca Whisnant, remains a colleague and friend.

Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation
By Julie Bindel
Why did I love this book?
Many women continue to embrace a radical feminist perspective, and one of the important feminist writers today is the UK journalist and organizer Julie Bindel. Her reporting on sex trafficking has been essential to understanding the worldwide exploitation of women and girls.
She published this book in 2021 to restate the liberatory goals of feminism and critique the impediments created not only by conservatives but also by liberals. Bindel pulls no punches and takes no prisoners—she’s never afraid to confront the powerful and respond to her critics. One of the great experiences of the past year was being interviewed by Bindel for her podcast on men and feminism. Finally, Bindel reminds us that one of the biggest lies about feminists is that they have no sense of humor.