12 Essential Works of Classic Feminist Fiction

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler

Here are 12 essential works of classic feminist fiction — according to Literary Ladies’ Guide. Some of the books listed were considered daring (and sometimes shocking) in their time. Because of the courage and foresight of their creators, women writers today are freer to speak their truths — and to see them in print — than the authors highlighted in the list following.

These timeless classics have proven foundational for contemporary feminist novels. From Jane Eyre (1847), Charlotte Brontë’s gothic romance, through Octavia Butler’s Afro-futurist Parable of the Talents (1998), the books listed here feature heroines who continue to inspire and surprise. 

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre (1847), Charlotte Brontë’s best-known novel, is the story of a young woman of humble means and lonely upbringing who searches for love and a sense of belonging while preserving her independence. The book sparked a fair amount of controversy when first published, which was fueled by critics and the public suspecting that “Currer Bell” (the author’s ambiguous pseudonym) was a woman.

An avowedly feminist work, Jane Eyre also fits into the genre of gothic novel due to that pesky little detail of Mr. Rochester’s mad wife locked away in an attic. Jane’s strength, integrity, and determination to make her own way in the world has spoken to generations of readers.

 

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (1848)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published under Anne Brontë’s pseudonym, Acton Bell. Like her older sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, it’s now considered among the earliest of feminist novels.

The novel’s heroine, Helen Graham, fled her abusive husband,  lived on her own with her young son, and was making a living as an artist. Taken together, these circumstances were considered shocking at the time. Yet The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, more so than Anne’s quieter first novel, Agnes Grey (1847),  was an immediate success despite its unflinching look at the harms of alcoholism and abuse that arose from it. 

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)

Little women by Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott expert Susan Bailey writes in How Louisa May Alcott’s Feminism Explains Her Timelessness, “It’s the simple and subtle messages inherent in her writing to children that continue to stand the test of time.  Just about every woman pioneer since Louisa’s era remembers reading Little Women and they point to Jo March as a pivotal inspiration.

The story of four sisters and their beloved Marmee who draw strength from one another has proven timeless — with adaptations for the large and small screen appearing regularly. In addition to her literary pursuits, Louisa  was also known for promoting women’s rights and campaigning for women’s suffrage. She allowed her feminist views to  come through in the dialog between her characters, which is one of the great pleasures of reading Little Women and her other works.

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The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)

The awakening by Kate Chopin cover

The Awakening by Kate Chopin, an 1899 novella telling the story of a young mother who undergoes a dramatic period of change as she “awakens” to the restrictions of her traditional societal role and her full potential as a woman. Many times, we find Edna Pontellier awake in situations that signify more metaphorical awakenings to new knowledge and sensual experience.

Consequently, Chopin’s work came under immediate attack when published and was banned from bookstores and libraries. The author died virtually forgotten, yet The Awakening has been rediscovered and holds a secure and prominent position as a watershed text in U.S. literature and feminist studies.

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My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

My Brilliant Career (1901) was Australian author Miles Franklin‘s first novel, written while still in her teens and published in her twenty-first year.

Sybilla Melvyn is a high-strung, imaginative girl from the Australian countryside. Convinced that she’s ugly and useless, Sybilla is surprised when a wealthy young man proposes marriage. What ensues is a slow-moving yet thoroughly satisfying coming-of-age novel that’s decades ahead of its time.

While this book rarely appears on lists of top classic feminist novels, it should  — and its staunchly feminist author deserves to be better known outside her native land. There’s a scene in which Sybilla bloodies a harasser that speaks to today’s #MeToo movement, with a satisfying vengeance!

 

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O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (1913)

O Pioneers by Willa Cather

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather is one of this esteemed American author’s most iconic novels. One of her earliest full-length works, it was published in 1913. Written in the kind of spare, lyric prose, the book explores ideas of community, family ties, destiny, and chance, this is a prime example of overlooked classic feminist fiction.

When Alexandra Bergson’s father is near death, he puts her in charge of the prairie farmland he loved deeply. The father trusted his daughter, not his sons, to carry out his life’s work in taming an unforgiving land. Even as a fictional device, this was a radical notion in 1913. Alexandra proves more than equal to the task, infusing the narrative with values of compassion and dignity. 

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Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Herland is a utopian novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Three American men are exploring an unknown continent, and in the course of their travels, they hear of a land where only women, female children, and babies live. It’s rumored that it’s a place where men might dare to enter, but never seem to come out. 

Reaching the aptly named “Herland,” the three men are captured and imprisoned. The female leaders don’t wish to harm them, but rather to study them, so that the two cultures (and genders) can learn from one another. We join the men on this journey with them as the narrator describes their interactions with the women, the land, and how each of them navigates and adjusts to their surroundings.

A bit clumsily written, Herland is nevertheless an ahead-of-its-time piece of speculative fiction that was followed by two sequels to form a trilogy.

 

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Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

Their Eyes were watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God is arguably Zora Neale Hurston‘s best-known work, and one that has become an acknowledged feminist classic.

Janie, the story’s heroine, searches for a sense of identity,  independence, love, and happiness over the course of twenty-five years and several relationships. Janie’s story has a few echoes of Zora’s own, especially the early portion, though it could be argued that the author never found true happiness when it came to love.

Critic Mary Helen Washington wrote of Zora’s masterpiece: “In 1937 came the novel in which Hurston triumphed in the art of taking the imagery, imagination, and experiences of Black folk and making literature.”

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Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck (1946)

Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck

Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck tells the story of the spiritual and intellectual awakening of Madame Wu, a pampered wife of the wealthy House of Wu. On her fortieth birthday, she announces to her husband that she wishes to withdraw from their physical life as a couple.

Madame Wu beseeches her husband to take a second wife to serve him as a concubine. She feels that this is his due as the patriarch of one of the China’s oldest and most prestigious households, and over his objections, carries out the arrangement herself. She then withdraws to her private rooms to read books and live a life of the mind, something she never had the luxury to do as a wife and mother. With another woman in the household, complications ensue, of course.

Pavilion of Women, an exquisitely told story of a woman coming into her own in a patriarchal society, is a gem to savor. Pearl S. Buck isn’t often listed in compilations of feminist authors and their works, which is curious, as she was a staunch promoter of equality for women.

 

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The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1962)

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, is considered one of the premier authors of fiction and nonfiction of the second wave feminist era. The Golden Notebook might just be her most iconic book, one of introspective feminism that challenged the prevailing notion of women’s roles midcentury society.

A 1962 review stated, “The Golden Notebook is far and away her most ambitious work to date — a long and complex novel which draws on all the talents and insights of this gifted woman …The publisher compares its heroine, Anna, with the ‘new woman’ of Ibsen and Shaw … unquestionably The Golden Notebook is going to be debated and analyzed by students of the novel for a long time to come.”

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Parable of the Sower (1993) &
Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler (1998)

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

When Octavia E. Butler‘s Parable of Sower (1993) begins, Lauren Olamina is a young Black woman just emerging from her teens, navigating the apocalyptic world of Los Angeles in the 2020s. A fight — and flight — for survival leads to her create a new faith called Earthseed, in hopes of repairing the world.

Lauren is once again at the center of Parable of the Talents, still fighting to salvage humanity. Now, she’s battling violent bigots and religious fanatics. Now a mother, her daughter Larkin (also called Asha Vere) becomes part of the narrative.

As richly imagined amalgams of dystopian literature and science fiction, the Parable novels feature the social commentary and prescience that Butler was known for. And Lauren emerges as a feminist symbol of courage and leadership that the real world could use now.

 

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Honorable Mentions

This list began with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, featuring a young woman struggling to save herself, and ends with Lauren Olamina, whose task it is to save humanity in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable novels.

In lists of feminist classics, we often find The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963/1971), The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966).

These books highlight the devastating effects of patriarchy on women who suffer from mental illness. It could actually be argued that it’s the patriarchy that exacerbates mental illness. While these are all great stories that I personally love and highly recommend, their heroines, at least in my mind, are driven to victimhood than emerging  as feminist heroines.

Other books that occasionally pop up in the realm of feminist fiction by more recently deceased authors include The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, Dancing at the Edge by Ursula K. Le Guin, and The Women’s Room by Marilyn French.

It would be pretty overwhelming to list all the feminist-inclined authors and poets in this site’s list of biographies and on the wish list — that would cover most of them, honestly!

Here are a  few lists of essential contemporary classic feminist literature, some mixing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and plays:

 

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