Girls to the Front: A Reading List of Provocative Feminist History
Vanessa Wilkie Recommends Essential Books by Kaite Roiphe, Mikki Kendall, Lisa See, and More
My particular variety of feminism has long been one devoted to the idea that women’s lives are not solely defined by their familial roles (wife, mother, sister, etc). Women’s lives are shaped by the communities they build, run from, collide within, and redefine. Communities of women, those whom they invite to join, and those whom they actively exclude merit study so that we can better understand the dynamics and history of these circles and the impact they have.
In the early 1990s, the British historian, G. R. Elton wrote a scathing critique of the works by women’s historians in his published lectures Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study. He called them “fanatical feminists,” who used modern misguided agendas to frame historical studies.
In truth, what many of these feminist historians were doing was using an array of new approaches to historical studies that that provided forays into subjects that had been intellectually inaccessible without them. Elton called this “spiking vodka with LSD,” thus arguing that any historical thinking would be compromised and downright corrupted if the thinker were to look at the past through these new lenses.
Contrary to what Elton may have believed, the feminist methodologies developed in the last century are critical tools needed to find communities, especially communities of women in the past, and if people had listened to Elton’s admonishments, these histories would be unknowable. Fortunately, there were those who ignored his warnings and pursued studies and stories of women’s communities across time and place.
Pour yourself a glass of vodka (or whatever you wish) and sit down with one of these provocative histories about women and their communities.
Koa Beck, White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind
Through diligent research, Beck offers a polemical history of the ways white cis women used language, rhetoric, and action to build pathways to political and financial power…and how they excluded BIPOC and queer women from those spaces. This book is not just a history of different feminist ideologies but is also a call to recognize “white feminism,” especially in corporate power structures.
Mikki Kendall, Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot
Books are often the tools for dialogues within feminist histories, and Beck and Mikki Kendall should be read in conversation with one another. Kendall writes, “[w]hen white feminism ignores history, ignores that the tears of white women have the power to get Black people killed while insisting that all women are on the same side, it doesn’t solve anything.”
Her book is a history of the devastating impact “white feminism” has had on communities of color and argues that issues that are central to the lives of women of color must also be central to feminist discourses.
Katie Roiphe, Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages
A century before the unfortunate term “Girlboss” entered the vernacular, circles of creative women, men, and non-binary people structured their familial lives in an effort to redefine what marriage and family meant. Katie Roiphe describes in intimate detail how people like H. G. Wells, Vanessa Bell, and others “were determined to live differently, to import the ideas of political progress into their most personal relations.”
Roiphe also described the impact these unconventional households had on the children raised in them. While members of this coterie bucked traditional definitions of monogamous, hetero-normative marriage, they also opted for some resemblance to it, showing modern readers just how tight the grip of conventionality can be.
Amy Froide, Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England
The farther back in time you go, the greater the dearth of historical sources that speak to the communities of women, especially women who opted to be childfree. Historian Amy Froide reminds us that “[w]idows had a public and independent place within the patriarchal society; never-married women did not.”
So how can we find these communities of women in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England? Froide looks at historical records of “residential options, employment, and poor relief” to uncover the profound places of never-married, mostly-childless women in early modern England.
Natalia Molina, A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community
Historian Natalia Molina makes her own grandmother’s Los Angeles eatery, the Nayarit, the subject of her critical study of women, community, and sacred spaces. On the surface, the book may first appear to be a regional history about the significance of food within a culture, but it is so much more.
Molina delivers a larger history of Mexican immigrant families, the communities they created, and the women at the center of them.
Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women
Sometimes fiction provides the widow to the past that we don’t always readily find in more traditional historical monographs. Lisa See’s book about a real-life community of female divers on the Korean island of Jeju does just this. The story begins with a community of women who excel based on their physical strength and skill but shifts to become a story of two girls.
Sometimes a best friend is all the community you need. This work of fiction reminds us how fragile these relationships and communities can be.
Sara Marcus, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution
Sara Marcus’ book also demands that we take seriously the feelings and experiences of young women and highlights the communities girls have long made for themselves. In her history of Riot Grrrl, Marcus shows us how this underground punk scene took shape. But she doesn’t end with its popular apex; she carries the story through to its demise.
Sometimes cultures of patriarchy and compulsive heterosexuality actively sought to sabotage this movement; in other instances, Riot Grrrl communities imploded on their own because grrrls are human, too.
A Woman of Influence by Vanessa Wilkie is available via Atria Books.