It sure has been a year! Somehow, God bless them, many people managed to write and even publish books this year, despite everything. Here are 50 of the best books from this year that are by and about women, feminism or gender and related intersectional issues. (Some of these picks will overlap with our list of LGBT books published this year, for obvious reasons!) There seem to be strong recurring themes of dystopia, anger, and navigating violent structures of power. What a coincidence!
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh
Moshfegh has quickly become a must-read for anyone interested in “unlikable” female characters in fiction. In her latest, Moshfegh’s narrator embarks on a quest for the ultimate in avoidance as she tries to medicate herself into hibernation in her Upper East Side apartment. Described as “tender and blackly funny, merciless and compassionate,” it’s a must-read if you’d like a literary meditation on an impulse we’ve probably all felt this year!
The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner
Kushner’s newest work focuses on Romy Hall, a single mother who’s moved from a life as a stripper at the rundown Mars Room to two life sentences in a California correctional facility after she kills her stalker. In what the Guardian calls an “unflinching portrayal of what it means to be poor and female in America,” Kushner puts intensive research on prison life for women to work in a literary indictment of the system and the nation that perpetuates it.
Those Who Knew, Idra Novey
Set in “an unnamed island country” where a US-backed regime has collapsed, a woman watches a well-liked senator gain power and credibility and wonders whether she should speak out about her own violent history with him. When another young woman associated with the senator turns up dead, she must reckon with the risks and rewards of saying something in this “riveting exploration of the cost of staying silent.”
Insurrecto, by Gina Apostol
In an innovative novel that plays with structure and form through “interlocking voices and a kaleidoscopic structure,” Apostol follows two women on a road trip through Duterte’s Phillipines working on a film script about a massacre during the Phillipine-American war. A white American filmmaker writes a script about the atrocity, and a Filipino schoolteacher reads it and rewrites her own version; both scripts are woven through the body of the story in this compelling, engaging and fully funny novel about the interwoven lives of women and how they articulate them.
The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley
Oh just a modern, literary retelling of Beowulf set in American suburbia! Grendel and his mother are transformed into Gren and Dana, a war veteran who finds herself in heated battle with Willa Herot, suburban soccer mommy extraordinaire. Called a “consciousness-altering mind trip of a book” by Kelly Link and “genius” by Carmen Maria Machado, this is a must-read for anyone interested in myths and monstrosity in modern times.
Vox, by Christina Dalcher
The author’s debut novel explores a United States where women are allowed to speak only one hundred words per day; soon, they can’t hold jobs or learn to read and write. For the protagonist, formerly a neurolinguist, it’s too much to bear. One of several titles this year exploring Atwood-esque dystopias, Vox asks questions about women’s voices in larger society and also about language itself.
Before She Sleeps, by Bina Shah
In a dystopian Southeast Asia, the ratio of men to women has motivated the government to forcibly ramp up women’s reproduction, making them take multiple husbands to have more children as quickly as possible. Shah dives into the complex relationship or lack thereof between sex, reproduction, intimacy and power in a near future technocracy, and the toll it takes on the people who live it — as well as the underground collective of women trying to resist.
Circe, by Madeline Miller
Also included, of course, on our best witchy books of the year, Circe is a revisitation of one of mythology’s most compelling women (and one who managed a respectable #35 on our list of witches ranked by lesbianism) as a real person, not just a figure in Odysseus’s story. As she struggles with her power and choosing between the world of gods and that of mortals, Circe deals with other key figures from mythology (including fellow unpopular mythological maiden Medea).
Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas
In a plot that is only just barely dystopian, Red Clocks explores the lives of five women in an America where abortion has once again become fully outlawed along with IVF, and the constitution grants full personhood to unborn embryos. When the fates of the women in a small Oregon town become intertwined over questions of pregnancy, they’re inexorably drawn into a “modern-day witch hunt” when an herbalist is put on trial.
She Would Be King, by Wayétu Moore
This debut novel follows three characters through the early life of the nation of Liberia and especially Gbessa, a West African woman who’s survived against all odds and becomes bound up in the founding of a nation. Combining reimagined real historical events and magical realism, Moore’s first book was called “engrossing” by the New Yorker and compared to Gabriel Garcia Márquez by Harper’s Bazaar.
90s Bitch Media Culture & the Failed Promise of Gender Equality, by Allison Yarrow
The 90s are having a comeback moment; it’s a perfect time to read Yarrow’s deep dive on women and girls of the 90s and the legacy of girl-power feminism and “bitchification” it’s left us with. There’s a reason Anita Hill, Tonya Harding and Monica Lewinsky are all back under discussion; if you’d like to think through why, check out this “must-read for anyone trying to understand 21st century sexism and end it for the next generation.”
The Real Lolita, by Sarah Weinman
The Nabokov novel Lolita was a cultural watershed that crystallized a lot of confusing ideas about gender, sex and power dynamics into the larger cultural consciousness, to say the least. The actual child that Lolita was based on, Sally Horner, was 11 when she was kidnapped in 1948. The subsuming of the real violence she experienced into a man’s literary work that creepy men at parties now aggressively reference at you is too on the nose to handle; Weinman’s telling of Horner’s story “echoes the stories of countless girls and women who never had the chance to speak for themselves.”
You have only to look at Shonda Rhimes’ incredible work and career to know that women are dominating television in a way they never have before; Press’s book looks at the rise of the female showrunner and how it’s changed the entertainment world — hopefully forever.
Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, by Leta Hong Fincher
Through interviews with China’s famous Feminist Five, arrested in 2015 on orders of the Chinese government, and other leading Chinese activists Hong Fincher draws a portrait of the modern Chinese feminist movement and its pushback against interpersonal, governmental and digital control over their lives. She argues that the widespread movement with roots throughout China’s population “poses the greatest challenge to China’s authoritarian regime today,” creating a “feminist movement of civil rights lawyers, labor activists, performance artists, and online warriors prompting an unprecedented awakening among China’s educated, urban women.”
Text Me When You Get Home, by Kayleen Schaefer
Both a personal and sociological text, Schaefer’s work explores the challenging, changeable project of female friendship: both the ways that women are encouraged to see each other as competitors and the ways that we save and support each other. If you’ve ever celebrated a Galentine’s Day, this might be the read for you.
Bad With Money, by Gaby Dunn
You already love friend of the site Gaby Dunn’s podcast Bad With Money; now the podcast comes to you in the form of a thoroughly useful and relatable financial literacy book covering “how to make that #freelancelyfe work for you, navigate money while you date, and budget without becoming a Nobel-winning economist overnight.”
Against Memoir, Michelle Tea
From queer lit veteran Michelle Tea, this collection explores topics near and dear to your heart and hers: lesbian biker gangs, recovery, adolescence, and more. Although the title itself defies memoir as a category (and I guess it worked, as it is not listed with the other memoirs here), the book copy also admits that “in the process of excavating and documenting these queer lives, Michelle Tea also reveals herself in unexpected and heartbreaking ways.”
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, by Brittney Cooper
Cooper writes about the anxiety and defensiveness around anger, having been forcibly labeled an ‘angry black woman’ or ‘sassy’ unceasingly — and what it would look like to reclaim anger as “a powerful source of energy that can give us the strength to keep on fighting,” or as one of her students puts it, “eloquent rage.”
Revolting Prostitutes, by Molly Smith and Juno Mac
Joining the ranks of texts on sex work written by sex workers, like Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore, Revolting Prostitutes situates questions about sex work in contemporary life in the context of labor rights, white supremacy, critique of police and the global sex workers’ rights movement. As sex workers face increasing legal threats and decreased safety in the US, it’s a more urgent read than ever.
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, by Rebecca Traister
Anger is something of a theme this year — who would have thought! Traister narrates a political history of women’s anger in the US: “women’s anger at both men and other women; anger between ideological allies and foes; the varied ways anger is perceived based on its owner; as well as the history of caricaturing and delegitimizing female anger; and the way women’s collective fury has become transformative political fuel.”
Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, by Soraya Chemaly
If Traister’s work is a sort of historical framework of women’s anger, Chemaly’s is a more philosophical investigation of it. What progress can anger fuel, and in whose interests is it to repress it? She argues that “anger is a vital instrument, a radar for injustice and a catalyst for change.”
So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo
It comes as no surprise the Ijeoma Oluo of The Establishment wrote the indispensable book this year on explaining issues of race and racism in America to readers who are struggling to digest the current conversation on them. If you’ve ever shared one of her pieces from The Establishment with everyone you know — and you have! — check out this book!
You are perhaps familiar with our very own beloved KaeLyn Rich, and also her book, which Heather Hogan called a guidebook for intersectional feminist superheroes! I’ll let her describe it:
“Girls Resist! is part introduction to intersectional feminism and part actual workbook with detailed information and plans for how to engage in various forms of activism that contribute to toppling the patriarchy. So many of us have felt so lost these last few years, overwhelmed by the daily onslaught of horrors perpetrated against minorities by our government. While I was, at times, cowering under my covers, KaeLyn was hovered over her keyboard, all day and all night, writing to teach every generation of girls and women how, exactly, to proceed.”
Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence, by Kristen R. Ghodsee
Beyond the pithy (but important!) title, this book promises an exploration of the ways capitalism works with sexist power structures to harm women in specific ways — from relationships to family to career, Ghodsee outlines the ways that “unregulated capitalism disproportionately harms women, and that we should learn from the past.”
Meaty, by Samantha Irby
You’ve likely already read Samantha Irby’s unforgettable, incomparable voice elsewhere on the internet or in her first collection, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life; her latest essay collection brings you new observations and reminiscences that truly earn the title “tragicomic.”
The Reckonings: Essays, by Lacy M. Johnson
Lacy Johnson’s previous book, The Other Side, dealt with her kidnapping and rape; her newest tries to answer the question of what she would want to happen to her rapist. Exploring questions of justice and violence as well as compassion and grace, Johnson gets at both structural themes of violence and the particularities of femininity and gendered experience.
This Will Be My Undoing, by Morgan Jerkins
Coming recommended by Roxane Gay, Jerkins’ essay collection investigates pop culture and personal experience, relying on both and everything in between to ask the question “What does it mean to “be”—to live as, to exist as—a black woman today?”
Tonight I’m Someone Else, by Chelsea Hodson
With accolades from Miranda July and Maggie Nelson, this collection speaks to “anyone who’s ever searched for what the self is worth,” looking at work, bodies, and the experiences of being human in both bizarre and everyday circumstances.
Dead Girls: Surviving an American Obsession, by Alice Bolin
The Dead Girl Show is a time-honored American tradition, with campy, confusing trainwreck Pretty Little Liars a prime example. Bolin explores the genre and the implications of our obsession with it while also bringing in other foundational American cultural texts, from Britney Spears’ work to James Baldwin’s for the project of “interrogating the more complex dilemma of living women – both the persistent injustices they suffer and the oppression that white women help perpetrate.”
Art of Feminism: Images that Shaped the Fight for Equality, 1857-2017, edited by Helena Reckitt
The history of any cultural or political movement is always accompanied by a history of imagery and iconography; here, the authors assemble images to create a story of feminist art over the last 160 years accompanied by essays “examining the legacy of the radical canon.”
Well-Read Black Girl, edited by Glory Edim
“Well-Read Black Girl” is already a popular book club thanks to Glory Edim; now it’s also an incredible anthology featuring such voices as Jesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, Barbara Smith, Morgan Jerkins, and more. Oprah endorsed it in O, no big deal.
Can We All Be Feminists?, edited by June Eric-Udorie
It’s easy to say it would be ideal if everyone were a feminist; in reality, what that would look like and the particular roadblocks remaining between many of us and feminism is more complicated. In this anthology, 17 writers grapple with the reasons why many women don’t identify as feminists, and the ways that intersecting identities like race, religion, sexuality and more impact the ways the authors relate to feminism.
Our Stories, Our Voices: 21 YA Authors Get Real About Injustice, Empowerment, and Growing Up Female in America, edited by Amy Reed
YA as a genre is tackling some of the most important issues of our day, from police violence to challenges faced by queer teens and beyond — so it’s not surprising that these major YA authors came together in this volume to write twenty-one essays on justice, injustice and “topics related to growing up female in today’s America.”
Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay
In this highly anticipated anthology, authors explore topics related to rape culture as a broadly lived experience and pointing up the internal measuring stick women live with that calls us to ask ourselves constantly whether it was really “that bad.” Bracing and honest, the authors in this collection have come together to “saying something in totality that we cannot say alone.”
Becoming Dangerous: Witchy femmes, queer conjurers, and magical rebels on summoning the power to resist, edited by Katie West
As if you weren’t excited enough to read an anthology about the rituals and systems of power that these witches and witch-adjacent humans have come up with to grant themselves power and protection in a world bent on harming us, you will be pleased to know that Autostraddle contributors Mey Rude and Laura Mandanas are both included in the authors of these 21 essays!
Foreworded by Ashley C. Ford, the Girls Write Now anthology is created by mentors and young mentees and this year coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Girls Write Now mentorship program for young female voices.
I’m Afraid of Men, by Vivek Shraya
Musician, visual artist, and writer (who recently joined the creative writing faculty at the University of Calgary) Shraya writes about “the cumulative damage caused by misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, releasing trauma from a body that has always refused to assimilate,” and the violence of the ways that masculinity was forcibly imposed on her throughout her life.
Trauma Cleaner, One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster, Sarah Krasnostein
Sarah Krasnostein writes about the unique life and career of Sandra Pankhurst, founder of Specialized Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services Pty. A trans woman who’s held a dizzying range of positions in life, Sandra now works cleaning up the last site of a person’s life and death — “the extraordinary true story of an extraordinary person dedicated to making order out of chaos with compassion.”
The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Leslie Jamison
The celebrated author of The Empathy Exams returns with a memoir that unpacks addiction — her own alcoholism, but also the cultural narrative of alcoholism at large, especially as it relates to art and artists. Throughout her investigation of her own addiction, Jamison is in conversation with “John Berryman, Jean Rhys, Billie Holiday, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, and David Foster Wallace, as well as brilliant lesser-known figures such as George Cain,” exploring what addiction and the human needs and damages that fuel it have to do with art.
Sick: A Memoir, by Porochista Khakpour
Sick is Khakpour’s memoir of having been sick for much of her life, and also the ways in which illness can become a whole life, or take over the one you wanted to have. In her writings about her long-undiagnosed late-stage Lyme disease, Khakpour looks at “the physiological and psychological impacts of uncertainty, and the eventual challenge of accepting the diagnosis she had searched for over the course of her adult life.”
How to Be Alone: If You Want To, and Even If You Don’t, by Lane Moore
In this celebrated memoir, Moore gets into the harrowing, upfront account of moving through the world largely without a support system, and what it’s taught her about human connection (or the lack thereof). It’s unfailingly honest, compassionate, and of course as funny as you’d expect.
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors
Patrisse Khan-Cullors is one of the three founders of the Black Lives Matter movement; this deeply affecting memoir chronicles the life that brought her to that moment, and how she’s continued to carry herself through it with deep love and commitment to community and to the lives of those she loves as a north star. As Al described it in our book club post on the book:
“After Erica Garner’s untimely death to heart attack, the book is also asking us to look at what living in a constant state of emergency and trying to defend one’s right to live their life without fear does to a person’s mind, body and soul. Khan-Cullors reminds us that taking care of ourselves is just as important to the movement as more obvious forms of direct action. It’s a reminder that we who are marginalized are also whole people and need to take care of ourselves as such, even if systems that are supposed to protect us don’t.”
And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, by Meaghan O’Connell
O’Connell was surprised by an unplanned pregnancy in her twenties and decided to have the baby; she found that nothing she read prepared her for the experience. Since then, she’s written a memoir that gets brutally honest about “the pervasive imposter syndrome that comes with unplanned pregnancy, the fantasies of a “natural” birth experience that erode maternal self-esteem, post-partum body and sex issues, and the fascinating strangeness of stepping into a new, not-yet-comfortable identity.”
Becoming, by Michelle Obama
The former first lady (and current first lady of our hearts)’s hotly anticipated memoir just came out in the last few weeks, and is already being talked about as one of the most important books of the year. Read it to find out about Michelle’s work to create “the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history,” and the life that brought her to the position she’s held.
The Carrying, by Ada Limón
Limón’s newest collection brings sharp, precise imagery and expertly turned language to “exploring with honesty the ambiguous moment between the rapture of youth and the grace of acceptance.”
The Mobius Strip Club of Grief, by Bianca Stone
Have you heard the one about the guy who walks into the strip club and everyone’s dead? Stone’s book is set in a “burlesque purgatory where the living pay―dearly, with both money and conscience―to watch the dead perform scandalous acts otherwise unseen,” inventively asks us to consider grief and its complicated economies.
If They Come For Us, by Fatimah Asghar
Celebrated writer and co-creator of the webseries Brown Girls Asghar’s debut poetry collection “captures the experiences of being a young Pakistani Muslim woman in contemporary America” as she’s navigating questions of sexuality, race, and identity.
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, by Diane Seuss
Seuss’s voice is irreverent, unsettling and unmistakable; her newest poems “escape gilded frames and overturn traditional representations of gender, class, and luxury. Instead, Seuss invites in the alienated, the washed-up, the ugly, and the freakish.”
Bound, by Claire Schwartz
Schwartz’s work is incisive and haunting in the best way, a voice that stays with you after the book is closed; her Button Poetry Prize-winning collection “investigates queerness, Jewish identity, and kinships through a consuming series of narrative and lyric.”
Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart, by Alice Walker
Literary legend Alice Walker’s latest work “offers us a window into her magical, at times difficult, and liberating world of activism, love, hope and, above all, gratitude,” exploring both her internal world and “bearing witness to our troubled times.”