A History of Feminist Thought: The Essential Feminist Reader

This book has been on my to-read list for years.  Once I decided to buy it so I could annotate it, it sat on my nightstand for a few more years.

essential feminist reader

I’ve finally gotten to The Essential Feminist Reader (2007) edited by Estelle B. Freedman, and I loved it!  It is a compilation of feminist writings, some excerpts and some full text, from all continents and cultures from 1405 to present.  It begins with an excerpt from Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), a book I read in an undergraduate seminar in humanities, and one that was a delight to revisit through the short version of it included in this anthology.

I worked my way through all of the selections, which include feminist writers and thinkers I knew and some that I didn’t.  I was introduced to Mexican feminist Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz who wrote in the late 1600s and eventually stopped writing because she was threatened with excommunication from the Catholic Church.  I learned about Kishida Toshiko, who wrote in Japan in 1883 about not keeping our daughters in boxes.  I reviewed the words of familiar American feminists, such as Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Emma Goldman, who, by the way, makes an appearance in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975).  I made connections to W.E.B. Du Bois’s work The Souls of Black Folk (1903), which I read two years ago and wrote about here, to his feminist writings in 1919.  I learned about Mariarosa Dalla Costa from Italy, who argued that we need to redefine “work” to include women’s experiences, a theme I use quite frequently in my own research.

All of these writers and thinkers have helped me to continue to make connections between my work as a scholar and the historical and geographical context of women’s issues throughout the centuries.

Some of my favorite selections included the following:

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions,” (United States, 1848)

Susan B. Anthony, “Social Purity,”(United States, 1875)

Qasim Amin, The Liberation of Women (Egypt, 1899)

Emmeline Pankhurst, “Suffrage Speech at Old Bailey,” (England, 1912)

W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Damnation of Women,” (United States, 1919)

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, (United States, 1963)

Mariarosa Dalla Costa, “A General Strike,” (Italy, 1974)

Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” (United States, 1979)

Rebecca Walker, “Becoming the Third Wave,” (United States, 1992)

My favorite poem from the collection (one of the only represented) is this:

“The Day the Mountains Move”

The day the mountains move has come.

I speak, but no one believes me.

For a time the mountains have been asleep,

But long ago they all danced with fire.

It doesn’t matter if you believe this,

My friends, as long as you believe:

All the sleeping women

Are now awake and moving.

(Yosano Akiko, Japan 1911)

The rest of my post is a compilation of some of my favorite quotes from the book.

“I see the endless benefits which have accrued to the world through women and nevertheless these men claim that there is no evil which has not come into the world because of them. . . . Oh how could any man be so heartless to forget that the door of Paradise was opened to him by a woman? As I told you before, it was opened by the Virgin Mary, and is there anything greater one could ask for than that God was made man?” (Christine de Pizan, France 1405, p. 7).

“[T]he mind . . . has no sex. . . . A woman’s mind is joined to her body, like a man’s, by God himself, and according to the same laws. . . . Like us, women hear with their ears, see with their eyes, and taste with their tongues” (François Poullain de la Barre, France 1673, p. 11).

“All working class woes can be summed up in two words: poverty and ignorance; ignorance and poverty” (Flora Tristan, France 1843, p. 53).

“How many more women there are who silently cherish similar aspirations, no one can possibly know; but there are abundant tokens how many would cherish them, were they not so strenuously taught to repress them as contrary to the proprieties of their sex” (emphasis in original, John Stuart Mill, England 1869, p. 75).

“[T]hese girls are like creatures kept in a box. . . . it is out of love for their daughters that these parents construct these boxes. . . . I intend to create a box without walls. A box without walls is one that allows its occupants to tread wherever their feet might lead and stretch their arms as wide as they wish. Some may object and say: is your box not one that encourages dissipation and willfulness? No, it is not so at all. My box without walls is made of heaven and earth—its lid I would fashion out of the transparent blue of the sky and at its bottom would be the fathomless depths of the earth upon which we stand” (Kishida Toshiko, Japan 1883, p. 100).

“No matter how much women prefer to lean, to be protected and supported, no how much men desire to have them do so, they must make the voyage of life alone, and for safety in an emergency, they must know something of the laws of navigation” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, United States 1892, p. 124).

“This evidence of history confirms and demonstrates that the status of women is inseparably tied to the status of a nation” (Qasim Amin, Egypt 1899, p. 146).

“God did not divide the universe, making one part of it to be enjoyed by women alone and another to be enjoyed by men, working in it segregated from women. In fact, He created the burdens of life to be shared and controlled by both men and women” (Qasim Amin, Egypt 1899, p. 149).

“This proves clearly that it is no more appropriate for a woman to cover her face than for a man to cover his. How strange! If men feared that women would be tempted, why were not men ordered to wear the veil and conceal their faces from women? Is a man’s will considered weaker than a woman’s? Are men to be regarded as weaker than women in controlling their desires? Is a woman considered so much stronger than a man that men have been allowed to show their faces to the eyes of women, regardless of how handsome or attractive they are, while women are forbidden to show their faces to men, from the fear that men’s desires may escape the control of their minds, and they may thus be tempted by any woman they see, however ugly or disfigured she be? Any many who claims this viewpoint must then admit that women have a more perfect disposition than men; why then should women always be placed under the protection of men? If however, this viewpoint is incorrect, what justified this traditional control over women’s lives? (Qasim Amin, Egypt 1899, p. 150).

“What I do recommend, however, is the preparation of our daughters for this change, starting in their childhood. This early preparation will gradually accustom them to independence and to the belief that chastity is an inner spiritual quality, not the result of a garment which hides the body” (Qasim Amin, Egypt 1899, p. 152).

“Regardless of all political and economic theories, treating of the fundamental differences between the various groups within the human race, regardless of class and race distinctions, regardless of all artificial boundary lines between women’s rights and man’s rights, I hold that there is a point where these differentiations may meet and grow into one perfect whole” (Emma Goldman, United States 1906, p. 169).

“Pettiness separates, breadth unites. Let us be broad and big” (Emma Goldman, United States 1906, p. 173).

“After visiting their peons, she should explain to her husband the state and conditions of these unfortunate souls that produce her family’s capital and obtain a salary increase for them, and she should do so discreetly and frugally instead of using fancy garments and other useless adornments on her body or in her home. She should go to them consoling and healing the sad homes of those victims of exploitation. Take them clothes, footwear, books and attempt to instruct them by reading to them and making sure that there are schools in the neighborhood to educate the children of these employees. How beautiful and comely she would be, woman sowing goodness, fulfilling her obligation to humanity!” (Luisa Capetillo, Puerto Rico 1911, p. 189).

“Use your brain, and make a habit of doing so” (Ding Ling, China 1942, p. 241).

“[W]e must discard the vague notions of superiority, inferiority, equality which have hitherto corrupted every discussion of the subject and start afresh. . . . For our part, we hold that the only public good is that which assures the private good of the citizens” (Simone de Beauvoir, France 1949, p. 261).

“The level of civilisation which any society has reached can be measured by the degree of freedom that its members enjoy. The status of women is a test of civilsation. . . . We women share with our menfolk the cares and anxieties imposed by poverty and its evils. As wives and mothers, it falls upon us to make small wages stretch a long way. It is we who feel the cries of our children when they are hungry and sick” (Federation of South African Women, South Africa 1954, p. 264).

“[M]enstruation is normal . . . We found that, for many of us, beginning to menstruate had not felt normal at all, but scary, embarrassing, mysterious. We realized that what we had been told about menstruation and what we had not been told, even the tone of voice it had been told in—all had had an effect on our feelings about being female” (Boston Women’s Health Collective, United States 1973, p. 296).

“It is by writing, from and toward women, and by taking up the challenge of speech which has been governed by the phallus, that women will confirm women in a place other than that which is reserved in and by the symbolic, that is, in a place other than silence. Women should break out of the snare of silence. . . . Write!” (Hélène Cixous, France 1975, p. 324).

“For difference must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. . . . Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged. . . . Without community, there is no liberation. . . But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist” (Audre Lorde, United States 1979, p. 333).

“Only be remaining flexible is she able to stretch the psyche horizontally and vertically. . . . [she] copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity” (Gloria Anzaldúa, United States 1987, p. 388).

“Women have always worked, in all societies—and at all times” (Gro Haarlem Brundtland, Norway 1995, p. 413).

“If that freedom is bestowed by others, it may be seized and violated any time” (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, Afghanistan 2004, p. 429).


If you’re looking to learn more about feminist thought, especially from a historical perspective, this is a great introduction to it.  It covers all types of feminism from many perspectives, some of them clashing.


40 thoughts on “A History of Feminist Thought: The Essential Feminist Reader

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  1. This book sounds so interesting. I learned a lot just by reading your post. I love the quotes, too. I think my favourite (at least the one that still sticks in my mind after having read all of them) is the one about a box without walls. The Qasim Amin quote about women covering their faces was also interesting. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention!

    1. You are most welcome! I love the box without walls idea, and yes, Amin is pretty amazing. I’m glad this book introduced me to her writings.

  2. Thanks Emily, for sharing this post with us. This might be a very interesting book to read. We should not be ignorant of the plight of women around the world. We are all sisters. I enjoyed your thoughtful insights and the quotes you included to give us a look into the book. I will put this book on my reading list!

    1. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And yes, we are sisters. We shouldn’t ignore each other, no matter the circumstances. Thanks for that reminder!

  3. I haven’t heard of some of those women so thank you for sharing. I do love Christine de Pizan though. Did the book have anything by Mary Wollstonecraft? I like her too.

    1. Yes, the fifth entry is an excerpt from Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. You can’t have a feminist anthology without that one!

    1. I hope that isn’t a prevailing idea about women anymore, but it was interesting to see how many of the early writers in this book were concerned with the problems that idea presented. Apparently, historically women were thought to be just that: evil.

  4. Interesting review. Is there a section for Abigail Adams, perhaps the first American feminist? She wrote to her husband, John, in March, 1776: “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

    1. Unfortunately, no Abigail Adams. But I do love that quote from her. She was an important woman of her time, to be sure. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. Emily, there are lot of good quotes here. Here is one, I gravitated toward.

    “This evidence of history confirms and demonstrates that the status of women is inseparably tied to the status of a nation” (Qasim Amin, Egypt 1899, p. 146).

    I picked this one as it ties into the “Half the Sky” theme from Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Women hold up half the sky. If a nation treats women like chattel, they are competing with half their intellectual capital and resources.

    Thanks for sharing, BTG

    1. Yes! I’m glad you made that connection, because that idea was familiar to me, but I couldn’t place from where. Half the Sky, of course!

      1. Emily, I have been wanting to read Jimmy Carter’s new book on the global maltreatment of women and contrast it with “Half the Sky.” Carter said in an interview the work WuDunn and Kristof have done is tremendous. I did a post on “Half the Sky” and it got some views, but I was surprised it did not get more given the topic. Maybe if you did one, the book would get more notoriety. All the best, BTG

        1. Good idea! I should. I listened to it in my car a few months ago and I really can’t cite statistics or facts, but I can give an overview. I really want to read Carter’s book soon!

  6. This was a great review and I’m adding this book to my list. I haven’t had much time to read for myself lately but my to-read stack ever grows. This will be a welcome addition. My favorite quote from your post is, “Women have always worked, in all societies—and at all times” (Gro Haarlem Brundtland, Norway 1995, p. 413). I feel there is still some (stupid) assumption, at least in the U.S. that women (or men) who “stay home” are not working, which is just not so.

    1. I agree. They are working! I think we make the assumption that anything not earning capital is not work, but that’s false. I hope you like this one!

  7. Loving your post – really makes me ponder 🙂

    “[T]hese girls are like creatures kept in a box. . . . (this reminded me of my relationship with my father and how he let me go and spread my wings at 16, 18, 23, and at 29 when I married my adventure partner.)

    Love the quote by Elizabeth Cady Stanton too. I love that I am supported by strong women as well as being a strong, confident and independent women too.

    Happy Thursday!

    1. I can’t tell if you mean your relationship with your dad was stifled, but I hope that it was a good thing. It sounds like you’ve found your way out of a box! I love your blog.

      1. Emily – more like strained with a twist of stifling. Very much about being a good girl with good values and morals while I strained for some independence and wanting to experience life. I was a rebel at 17 because I had so much responsibility and just wanted to be a teenager and enjoy those years, especially my Senior year in High School. Our relationship is much better now and continues to develop and grow and deepen. Sometimes you build walls and sometimes you break down walls – it all works out!

  8. Thanks for sharing this. It looks like a really interesting book. I’m familiar with some of these writers, but others I’ve never heard of before, such as Kishida Toshiko. I really liked the box quote – very inspiring!

    1. You’re welcome. I was delighted to be introduced to so many women as well. I hope to get a chance to read their words in more depth in the future.

  9. I am very agree with – “This evidence of history confirms and demonstrates that the status of women is inseparably tied to the status of a nation” (Qasim Amin, Egypt 1899, p. 146).

  10. I purchased a copy of this for my Women’s Studies class in high school and have kept it around ever since. I also gave it as a graduation gift to a friend and now she’s using it for one of her university seminars. It’s a standard and just an awesome read!

    1. That is the perfect description of this book: a standard. I’m glad to hear it is getting good use! I’m using it for my comprehensive exams in the fall.

  11. I will have to read this at some point! Have you ever read “The Pill: Genocide or Liberation?” by Toni Cade? I think it’s probably my favorite feminist essay out of the very few that I have read.

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