I read books and articles by a bunch of queer theorists, feminist theorists, and gender theorists during my time as a Women’s Studies major and totally self-righteous twenty-something.* And yet, a lot of the same names come up again and again.
For example, everyone has heard of — and possibly deciphered — Judith Butler in their day. (If you haven’t, click here immediately, because you must.) She is Legend. She is Queen. I love her! She’s a gem!
But there’s so much out there — some of it you read in your Women’s Studies course, some of it you’ll probably have to seek out on your own, some of it the works that provided a backbone for the fields of gender theory, queer theory, and feminist theory.
So here are nine queer, feminist, and/or gender theorists to check out when you finally get through Gender Trouble. Recommended companion piece: Our lesson on badass Black women who wrote books that shook the world.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I included Halberstam because the specific text mentioned was largely important in the field. I didn’t realize he was also sometimes a huge shithead! I will make sure to more vigilantly vet folks in the future when I’m spotlighting them here. Thank you so much for speaking up, and for everyone who has offered suggestions moving forward for folks to give attention to!
Alison Kafer is currently the Associate Professor and Chair of Feminist Studies at Southwestern University. She’s also the author of the incredible and revolutionary book Feminist, Queer, Crip, which re-envisions our narratives of the future and brings together those three often overlapping communities in alliance with each other.
Anne Fausto-Sterling’s groundbreaking work has set out to prove the failure of a binary understanding of sex and gender by highlighting widespread variances in-between or in defiance of our culture’s concepts of how those binaries function and what they mean. (In short, she’s made a killer case for the idea that there are more than, maybe infinitely more than, two sexes or genders.) Fausto-Sterling has written two books that could blow your mind: Sexing the Body and Myths of Gender. She is currently the Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Biology and Gender Studies at Brown.
Cathy Cohen writes and lectures about power and politics with an intersectional focus that also embraces race, gender, sexuality, and class. Her work drives policy and social change. She’s written two books and edited a collection you’ll need to consume, Women Transforming Politics: An Alternative Reader, but before you read any of that stuff you need to read her groundbreaking essay “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” which calls on queers to focus on intersectional solidarity rather than their sole queer community in order to destroy heteronormativity and the other forces shaping our lives. Cohen is currently David and Mary Winton Green Professor in Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago and is also a founding board member of the Audre Lorde project.
Chandra Talpade Mohanty
Chandra Talpade Mohanty totally gets you. She’s a postcolonial transnational feminist theorist with a focus on anti-capitalist practice and racial justice, by which I’m really saying that she works to broaden the focus of the feminist movement and spotlight the experiences of women around the world that are shaped by US imperialism. You’ll wanna read all the books she’s written and edited as soon as you glance the titles, most notably Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity.
Donna Haraway wrote “A Cyborg Manifesto,” which you might remember from this lesson. If you haven’t read it, read it. If you’ve read it and you’re ready for more, go grab Haraway’s book A Simians, Cyborgs, and Women and check out the update. Also cool? Her essay “Situated Knowledges” envisions a feminist science.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Eve Sedgwick’s work is where gender theory met queer theory. Her career, spanning over three decades, established some of the language and framework for modern-day queer studies. Her books documented queer history, delved into queer subtext, and laid the groundwork for academic conversations about sexuality and gender.
Jack Halberstam is a gender / queer theorist who has writen some of the most important words on female masculinity, including the ones in the book by the same name: Female Masculinity. (Spoiler Alert: He’s been talking about gender deviance and bathrooms way longer than the mainstream media or those weird right-wing people at your kid’s school.) Halberstam is currently an English Professor and Director of the Center for Feminist Research at USC.
Sharon Holland has written across topics and fields, typically with a focus on feminist, queer and critical race theory – and her book The Erotic Life of Racism explored their intersections. She is also the author of Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity, co-author of Crossing Waters / Crossing Worlds, a collection of trans-Atlantic Afro-Native criticism, and brought The Queen is in the Garbage to the Feminist Press in order to get it published. (That act alone deserves a lot of recognition, let’s be real.) She is currently the Associate Chair of the Department of American Studies at UNC Chapel Hill.
Susan Stryker’s work in the field of LGBT studies has been invaluable, and she’s made waves in her own career as well as in the fabric of the feminist and queer movements as a trans gender and sexuality theorist. She’s written books exploring trans history, lesbian pulp fiction, and queer culture in the bay, among other things, and currently co-edits the academic journal Transgender Studies Quarterly while continuing to write about the queerest things and teach about them, too — as Associate Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona, Director of their Institute for LGBT Studies, and a visiting professor at colleges as prestigious as Harvard.
Rebel Girls is a column about women’s studies, the feminist movement, and the historical intersections of both of them. It’s kind of like taking a class, but better – because you don’t have to wear pants. To contact your professor privately, email carmen at autostraddle dot com. Ask questions about the lesson in the comments!
Really? Jack “It’s fine to say tr*nny, don’t be oversensitive / You don’t need trigger warnings, don’t be oversensitive” Halberstam? This isn’t the recommendation I expect from a website that claims to support trans women.
What do you expect from a site that puts afab trans people over queer trans women?
And Jack you are not a trans woman you can’t claim the T-slur back for trans men and it only applies to amab trans people.
And racist to boot. I was presenting at an event where Halberstam was the keynote speaker, and their speech was entirely about how Lady Gaga is reinventing feminism by embracing the monstrous etc etc. When I pointed out that women of color like Grace Jones, Rihanna, etc were doing much the same things as Lady Gaga, often before her, and weren’t getting as much credit, Halberstam dismissed them – they called Rihanna irrelevant and thought that Erykah Badu’s video where she walks down the street naked (it had just come out at that point) was “crazy”.
Julia Serano should haven included.
oops … should have been included.
She’s a bit awful when it comes to race, as she sometimes forgets she has white privilege over twoc.
my, my, my. now trying to pass apocrypha like ct for canon? reminder: your consensus washed saint donna (your version of catholic church’s teillard de chardin, except more insightful and cooler) down the sink in 1994 – and finders keepers.
actually maybe i could do something good and rewrite her teachings in english/technocrat (i.e. eliminate the conceptual dependency on insignificant and irrelevant heritage, as it is about as helpful as an always-online feature when the servers have been shut down 3 years ago) and someone will definitely find her thoughts for what they are: extremely ahead of time and incredibly practical, helpful and beautiful.
i am not sure baseliners will ever understand ct, as the only proof it’s possible i know of is saint donna herself – but for the first ones, our younger and more promising siblings the grinders and any future serious cyborgs/constructs it can make so fucking much sense it hurts. A woman’s self-awareness expressed entirely in terms of functionalist philosophy – that shit saved my life and empowered me, nevermind turned me totally complete and not subject to a judgement of a baseliner. I can see why the self-titled supermartyr moral master race cryptofascists disliked her so much.
Just grabbed me some Anne Fausto-Sterling and Alison Kafer. Thanks for the recommendations! :)
Proud that I’ve read most of these theorists! Love, love, love Fausto-Sterling’s work.
Susan Stryker went to my school for undergrad– the University of Oklahoma! Our small community of queers are very, very, proud of that :) Glad she made the list.
Yep – sad to see Jack Halberstam getting promoted by AS. I’ve seen him publicly say that trans kids shouldn’t get puberty blockers as well.
Also, Judith Butler? Has some good points, but I can’t get past all the shitty things she’s said about trans women before. E.g. (obvious content warning…) in her book ‘Bodies that Matter’, Butler analyses a documentary about Venus Extravaganza, a Latina trans woman sex worker who was murdered. She argues that Extravaganza enacts an imaginary allegory of the category ‘woman’ in order to try to escape her race and class, and her murder is due to this ‘tragic misreading of the social map of power,’ i.e she cannot escape her race and class. Even though another woman in the documentary explicitly explains it, Butler did not think her transexuality or sex work had anything do with her murder. I wonder if she stands by that. (I got this reading from Namaste’s book ‘Invisible Lives’)
Other suggestions off the top of my head: Viviane Namaste, Raewyn Connell, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Shiri Eisner
I fell as though I’ve just returned to my MA thesis bibliography. :)
Also, unsolicited opinion to follow-
Re: the objections to Jack Halberstam (and, oddly, to Butler, as these are all posed directly as alternatives/additions to her body of work): yes, you may have issues with Halberstam but it’s undeniable that the work has, in its time, been a significant component of gender/women’s/sexuality studies. An awareness of it does not imply agreement with it and, thus, it’s inclusion in the list is appropriate. It contributes to a more robust understanding of the field of study and how it has evolved and continues to shift. The attitude that something shouldn’t be included simply because you disagree with it (or even some portion of it) is dangerous and it frustrates me to see that kind of thinking here. Do I think this list should be longer? Yes. Do I think it should only include those theorists with whom we all happily agree? Not at all.
I totally agree that it is valuable to (be willing to) read those who have been influential even if we dislike things they believe, however this does raise the question of where to draw the line. I mean, Janice Raymond was also extremely influential with her anti-trans tirade; but does that mean we should read her offensive trash today? I’d say no (unless you’re specifically interested in History of Feminism and the role her tirade played in developing the way that modern mainstream feminism positions trans folks). Is Halberstam as irredeemable as Raymond? I don’t know, only having read a few of his works. But there’s definitely a point where the trauma of reading a thing outweighs whatever content may exist therein. In any case, I think it’s worthwhile to acknowledge/discuss the controversy around Halberstam before recommending his works
If racist transmisogynists are to be included, they should be included with the acknowledgement that they are racist transmisogynists and everything they say should be taken with a spoonful of salt.
And i thought this list was to be of great people you may not have heard of, instead of shitty people you hear of constantly, so his being popular isn’t a point in his favor.
hey everyone! i included halberstam because the specific text mentioned, ‘female masculinity,’ was largely important in the field. i didn’t realize he was also sometimes a huge shithead! i will definitely go in and add a disclaimer, as well as making sure to more vigilantly vet folks in the future when i’m spotlighting them here. thank you so much for speaking up, and for everyone who has offered suggestions moving forward for folks to give attention to! i promise to do better, and i promise i will always hear you out.
Beatriz/Paul Preciado deserves a place in that list too.
Also Sara Ahmed! So wonderful. Her blog http://feministkilljoys.com/ is a good place to start.
Dorothy Smith!!! Mariana Valverde!