Don't be afraid of the F-word: Your crash course in sassy feminism
From Ismat Chughtai to Maya Angelou
Why is using the ‘f’ word such a big deal? I know what it means, how it sounds and yes, I use it all the time. I’m talking about feminism. And honestly, people receive the other f words with a lot less derision.
Call it a byproduct of being raised by parents who didn’t stir gendered stereotypes into my haldi milk as a child: “Girls shouldn’t drink in public” “Girls shouldn’t sit with their legs apart” “We’ll find a husband for you” I’m also lucky enough to live in a time where I have been treated more or less equally, and don’t think feminism is a scary or negative word.
Our modern comfort hasn’t come easy. From the start of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the 19th century to the contemporary concerns of equal pay and opportunity, we’ve needed champions, to tell the truth with unflinching honesty. Icons like Margaret Atwood who just won her second Booker prize for The Testaments, a joint honour alongside Bernadine Evaristo, making her the oldest to win the Booker. You may know Atwood from the nightmares she inspired with her dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) that explores themes of women in servitude in a patriarchal society.
Like Atwood, some authors have gently nudged, softly pushed and sometimes straight-up forced us to think about feminism and what it means to us. These are our favourites.
If you’re plagued by nightmares of a Gilead-like town, you have Canadian author Atwood, whose writing career spans roughly 50 years, 17 novels, 10 short story collections, and 20 poetry collections to thank. Best known for The Handmaid’s Tale (which was turned into a hugely successful show), the follow-up novel The Testaments won the 2019 Booker Prize and is another example of 79-year-old Atwood’s evocative, descriptive writing style. Recurrent themes in her work include political chaos, male-female relationships, patriarchy, among others. Essential reading to get you started on your journey to feminism.
A dedicated journalist who went undercover as a playboy bunny to reveal the poor pay and working conditions of women at the Playboy Club in New York. Founder of MS magazine, an American liberal feminist magazine. Author of feminist manifestos like Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellion, 85 year-old-Steinem is the OG American feminist icon. And you’ve probably heard or seen her witty one-liners that are as real as they are hilarious — ”A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” Read her book, My Life on the Road for an in-depth look into her world, and her beautiful, beautiful brain.
Female sexuality, lesbianism, women’s struggles to find their voice in society — Indian-born Urdu language novelist, short story writer, filmmaker and Padma Shri awardee Chughtai was well-known (and censored) for her raw depictions of women’s lives.
Born in 1915, it is alleged she narrowly escaped an arranged marriage at 15, convinced her parents to let her study and turned to writing in the 1930s. Chughtai’s most famous story, “Lihaaf” (“The Quilt”), was published in a Lahore-based literary journal in 1942 and detailed the sexual awakening of a begum after she began an affair with her masseuse. Rather ahead of her times, it was not just her feminist writing but her life itself that was a masterclass in living your truth.
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Time is no match for Toni Morrison. In her writing, she sometimes toyed with it, warping and creasing it, bending it to her masterful will. In her life’s story, too, she treated time nontraditionally. A child of the Great Migration who’d lifted up new, more diverse voices in American literature as an editor, Toni didn’t publish her first novel until she was 39 years old. From there followed an ascendant career—a Pulitzer, a Nobel, and so much more—and with it, a fusion of the African American story within the American story. Toni Morrison was a national treasure. Her writing was not just beautiful but meaningful—a challenge to our conscience and a call to greater empathy. She was as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page. And so even as Michelle and I mourn her loss and send our warmest sympathies to her family and friends, we know that her stories—that our stories—will always be with us, and with those who come after, and on and on, for all time.
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Toni Morrison (Chloe Anthony Wofford Morrison)
The literary world wept for Morrison when she passed away at the age of 88 on the 5th of August 2019. The African-American characters that were often central to her epic, evocative novels were probably familiar to a lot of their readers — the readers whose lives she touched, must have wept too. That was the power of the American Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, editor and professor, whose novels are well known for their rich language and epic themes. Her fiction and non-fiction works often took a deep dive into race, gender, and class tensions in America and refrained from masking the harsh truth behind a rosy lens. We recommend The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Beloved… and maybe just downloading all of Morrison’s works on your e-reader.
Fiery, outspoken, the feminist lioness — are just some of the words used to describe Australian-born England-based journalist/ writer Greer. Known for her transition from carefree hippy to a leading force in the spread of second-wave feminism, her writing is explicit, direct and intelligent. It was 1970’s The Female Eunuch, which argued that women had become psychologically and emotionally “castrated” that catapulted her into global fame and the 80-year-old continues to propagate feminism in her unique firebrand manner, even today.
Novels, short stories, children’s stories, plays and activist prose, Bengali writer Devi was a multi-hyphenate even before the term was really invented. Lauded for her social-political commentary and writing that focused on marginalised communities, the Padma Shri awardee was both an activist and author. One of her well-known feminist writings is a short story, Draupadi that highlights the rape and mutilation of a tribal woman called Dopdi Mehjen, but the protagonist threatens the masculinity of her oppressors by refusing to hide her ravaged body. Her oeuvre of more than 90 books is a treasure trove of honest storylines often based on real-life events.
“You may write me down in history, With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt, But still, like dust, I’ll rise.” If you haven’t heard ‘Still I Rise’ Angelou’s iconic poem, may we have the address of the rock you’ve been hiding under? The American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist is best known for her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), that tells of her life up to the age of 17. Her books address themes like racism, identity, family and travel and are a soft introduction to quiet feminism.