In a 2010 episode of Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope—a poetic and noble land-mermaid—gave us Galentine’s Day. It’s an unofficial holiday that takes place on February 13th, when women ditch their significant others and kick it with their gal pals over brunch. Ladies celebrating ladies.
If you’re too busy dismantling the patriarchy to needlepoint your friends’ faces onto pillows, then you might consider gifting one of these feminist books instead. These beautifully illustrated gift books range from brief histories of radical women to pocket-size manifestos to feminist activity books, all designed to help you celebrate the women in your life and around the world.
Feminist Books to Gift on Galentine’s Day
The Little Book of Feminist Saints by Julia Pierpont, illustrated by Manjit Thapp
This petite tome is a great primer of 100 feminist “saints” from around the world. Each is given a title that encapsulates her legacy, such as Josephine Baker, Matron Saint of the Independent; Kanno Sugako, Matron Saint of Radicals; and the Brontë sisters, Matron Saints of Dreamers. Each stunning portrait is accompanied by memorable anecdotes from the lives of these women that both educate readers and inspire them to learn more.
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
One of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s friends once asked her for advice on raising her daughter to be a feminist. She wrote this essay in response. Her 15 suggestions provide a straightforward overview of feminist ideals and helpful ways to instill them in the next generation. One of the suggestions is to impart a love of books and reading, because “Books will help her understand and question the world, help her express herself, and help her in whatever she wants to become.” At just 80 pages, which of your Galentines doesn’t need this handy pocket-sized feminist manifesto?
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
This feminist book celebrates the many contributions women have made to the world of STEM. Flip to any page to learn more about a woman you may know—like Marie Curie, physicist and chemist—or one you may not—like Patricia Bath, ophthalmologist and inventor. Rachel Ignotofsky’s distinctive illustrations and color palettes help make these women’s accomplishments even more striking.
Modern HERstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History by Blair Imani, illustrated by Monique Le
In Modern HERstory, activist Blair Imani profiles the women and nonbinary individuals whose contributions to social change have been overlooked or understated. This intersectional feminist book reclaims the narrative for diverse revolutionaries from recent history. Monique Le’s bold illustrations accompany brief biographies of individuals like transgender rights activist Kat Blaque and Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Ann Shen’s Legendary Ladies gives the “incredible women you should know” treatment to mythological goddesses. She explores the foundational role folklore plays in shaping society, bringing to light the powerful feminine figures who are “often the force of life itself.” Watercolor illustrations accompany profiles of these fabled women, ranging from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess who defied mortality, to Mazu, a Chinese goddess who provides protection for travelers.
Feminist Activity Books / Feminist Coloring Books
Boss Babes: A Coloring and Activity Book for Grown-Ups by Michelle Volansky
This feminist activity book features coloring pages for dozens of inspiring women. Each portrait is accompanied by an activity: complete a Beyoncé crossword puzzle, use Mad Libs to help Tina Fey write an episode of 30 Rock, and spot the difference between the two pictures of Amy Winehouse. The back of the book provides a mini biography of each woman featured—from Misty Copeland to Malala Yousafzai—explaining why she’s a boss babe.
Feminist Activity Book by Gemma Correll
Illustrator Gemma Correll’s charming style of art takes on taboo in this feminist gift book. On a page full of illustrated menstrual products, she encourages readers to “Screw the euphemistic blue liquid in commercials” and go at it with a red pen. Other coloring pages and activities include social media bingo for sexist comments, a map of feminist waves, and a feminist book club reading list (complete with space for writing reviews).
Feminist Icon Cross-Stitch: 30 Daring Designs to Celebrate Strong Women by Anna Fleiss and Lauren Mancuso
If you’re feeling inspired by Leslie Knope’s needlepoint genius, give the gift of feminist crafting with this collection of 30 cross-stitch patterns of feminist icons. From Cleopatra to Frida Kahlo to Hillary Rodham Clinton, each design is accompanied by a brief biography of the woman so you can meditate on her awesomeness as you sew her likeness. The book includes introductions on both the art of cross-stitching and modern feminism, so it’s perfect for beginners of all kinds.
Funny Feminist Books to Gift
New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay by Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer
“He calls me into his office and closes the door… to promote me. He promotes me again and again. I am wild with ecstasy.” These comedic shorts take tropes from erotic literature and give them a satirical twist based on the things women really want, like a respectful workplace, a gender-balanced congress, and a Tinder date who invented a serum that will make Ruth Bader Ginsburg live forever. It features a whole section rewriting classic literature to have feminist endings. In their version, 13-year-old Juliet rejects Romeo’s aggressive advances, “exits stage left and lives to be ninety-eight years old.”
How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings: Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies for Women by Sarah Cooper
This satirical guide is for your friends who are Just Done™ with the men in their workplace and need to laugh a little so they don’t cry. Chapters include “Communication: How to Talk Like a Man but Still Be Seen as a Woman,” “Authenticity: How to Bring Your True Self to Work and Then Hide It Completely,” and even “A Few Blank Pages to Doodle on When Men Are Explaining Things.” In the back, you’ll also find achievement stickers you can give male colleagues for taking steps to create a less sexist workplace. These include “Stopped Myself While Explaining Something I Didn’t Understand” and “Didn’t Refer to Watching My Kids as ‘Babysitting.’”
Feminist Photo Books
Why I March: Images from the Women’s March Around the World by Abrams Books
This feminist photo book commemorates the first Women’s March. The event took place on January 21, 2017, in 82 countries with five million participants. These powerful images capture the spirit of protest and the iconic signs that went with it at marches on all seven continents. The book is not just a powerful reminder but also an active part of the movement, as royalties are donated to nonprofits such as the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, the Transgender Law Center, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The Atlas of Beauty: Women of the World in 500 Portraits by Mihaela Noroc
Photographer Mihaela Noroc traveled the world documenting women in their communities. The result is a striking collection of images that capture the diversity of beauty in women of all ages, colors, and cultures. The Atlas of Beauty is a striking reminder of our shared humanity and strength with women around the world.
Strong Is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves by Kate T. Parker
This photo book is a celebration of the energy, confidence, and determination of young girls. The images capture their ambition and their strength in the face of adversity. Next to the portraits you’ll find inspiring quotes from the girls about their accomplishments or their encouragement to others. “Strong girls never lose,” says Kylie, age 12. “They only learn, and come back stronger.”
As you prepare for an epic Galentine’s Day gathering full of feminist books and friends, be sure to also check out:
- 40+ Empowering Feminist Quotes (if you need help deciding what to cross-stitch on a pillow)
- 13 Fabulous Feminist Audiobooks (to listen to while you prepare the waffles, obviously)
- Our Favorite Literary Female Friendships (a good conversation starter at your Galentine’s Day gathering)
I spent the first five years of my life in Charlottesville, Virginia, while my father studied for a PhD at the University of Virginia. In our family photos, I am in turns a baby in a snowsuit; a toddler in a green velvet dress; a sturdy-legged four-year-old in a white pinafore with Peter Rabbit embroidered on the pocket. Later, I am among a group of five-year-olds sitting on a bridge over a gentle stream, then in a bright classroom learning how to cut with scissors and eat peanut butter sandwiches.
My parents looked like any young couple in the early 70s; my father in flares and sideburns posing in front of his prized car, a 1967 Ford Mustang. My mother, who studied sociology at the university, slim and beautiful with long hair parted in the middle, also in bell-bottoms and kurta tops. They were surrounded by other international students who became their best friends. All of them looked like hippies, extras from Saturday Night Fever (long collared shirts, medallions and wild hair), during their get-togethers at night.
These were unusual circumstances for a man of my father’s background. His family had been landlords in Sindh, a province in the south-east of Pakistan, for seven generations. But because of the agricultural economy’s heavy dependence on manual labor, the esoteric culture and customs that had developed over centuries around this system, and the landlords’ reputation for the louche lifestyle of the rich and privileged, the Pakistani intelligentsia dubbed them ‘feudals’, like medieval European lords with serfs and vassals.
As the younger son of an influential family that claimed descent from the Prophet Mohammed, with the honorific ‘Sayed’ – which is attached to all the male members of the family – my father was not content to live the life of a landowner. He was not satisfied with farming, hunting and entertainment. He wanted to study. This odd ambition – landlords did not study, they did not need to – brought my father, his young wife and me, his infant daughter, to the alien land of America.
I did not know it as a child, but we had left behind a hard country. Six months before I was born in Karachi, Pakistan lost a war and half of its territory: the December 1971 war with India transformed East Pakistan, in a theater of blood and horror, into Bangladesh.
Life was stable and peaceful in Virginia in 1972, but the ghost of that war followed my parents to America. In one of his earliest graduate school seminars, the war came up in class. My father, who attended his first classes in a suit and tie, defended Pakistan. His lonely stance was met with cynicism from his professor and the other students. They challenged him with assertions of genocide and other atrocities committed by the Pakistani Army. They called the conflict a ‘war of liberation’. He and the entire Pakistani nation knew it as ‘the fall of Dhaka’, and thought of it as a conspiracy to weaken, if not entirely destroy, the country.
We returned to Pakistan in 1977, after my father had completed his doctorate. My parents enrolled me in the Karachi American School to ease my transition; I went to school with children from many different countries, American teachers and an American curriculum. But it was still hard to adjust to life in Pakistan. I could barely speak or understand Urdu or Sindhi.
The food – heavy, oiled, laden with spices and chilis – repulsed me. People were loud and overbearing; they teased me for my accent, chastised my parents because I was too shy to say Assalam aleikum – or anything else (I was a child monk under a vow of silence). My shalwar kameez itched and irritated me, and felt heavy and odd, nothing like the light summer shorts and T-shirts and sundresses I was used to wearing.
Culture shock was what they called it in those days, but to me it felt like a kidnapping. I had grown up in rural Virginia among rolling hills, horse farms and the Blue Ridge Mountains, which edged the horizon with stunning vistas of pine trees that burned red, orange, yellow in the fall. Karachi, by contrast, was dusty, dirty, ugly. Stray dogs followed me on the street when I tried to ride a bicycle. Soon, my mother deemed it too dangerous for me to play outdoors. The sun beat down on my head all year long, toasting me golden-brown, then burning me ash-grey. Everywhere men stared at me, even when I began to cover my legs, which had grown coltishly long when I was only ten. Everything felt, in some way or another, dangerous.
I did not know this then, but in those years the nation was going through a cataclysm of its own, robbed of its own freedom by General Zia’s coup against the prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Democracy had been replaced overnight by dictatorship. Though Bhutto himself had acted as a cruel and petulant autocrat throughout his rule, Zia’s regime taught everyone how tenuous democracy could be in a country like ours. We had no institutions to stand strong against military rule; Bhutto had ruined most of them by nationalizing them, and destroyed the healthy education system by nationalizing that too.
General Zia had plans to Islamise the entire nation, turn it into his version of Saudi Arabia, enact sharia-inspired punishments for a variety of crimes (hand-cutting for thieves; jail and punishment for women caught committing adultery by admitting to being raped; whipping and flogging for protest; hanging for sedition and treason). His was an Emergency Rule, absolute and merciless, to cement his grip on power. Then, in 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, he made Pakistan the training ground for 100,000 mujahideen, armed and funded by the CIA, MI6, Saudi Arabia and China, to fight the war in Afghanistan.
Karachi, which had been so vibrant and alive in the 1950s and 60s, felt like a garrison by the late 70s: soldiers and spies on the streets, enforcing new rules and repressions, bars and nightclubs closed. At home, our entertainment options had become limited: state television broadcast speeches by Zia that seemed to go on for hours, where he would talk about Islam and sharia in a sonorous voice that sent me straight to sleep. Instead of the singing and dancing I remembered, now there were only broadcasts of qawwali singing, devotional music, with the qawwals dressed in black and prohibited from moving to the music or swaying too much. All I had to keep me amused were a few books from school, the records I’d brought from America, and the occasional MAD magazine I found at the only English-language bookstore in Karachi.
When we went for drives along Clifton Beach at Seaview, I was fascinated by the giant casino, pink-coloured and triangular-shaped, with long sweeping roofs meant to evoke sails that I imagined sledding down and then flying off, sailing into the blue horizon. It was built to attract Arab sheikhs to Karachi after the Lebanese civil war closed Beirut to the world. But a huge opposition protest by religious right-wingers prompted Bhutto to ban nightclubs, alcohol and gambling, on the very day the casino was meant to open. Instead of shimmering like a pink pearl on the ocean, the casino was a shipwreck, desolate and abandoned on the murky shoreline, the Arabian sea behind it, Zia’s Pakistan in front.
A dark cloud settled over the country, a huge depression that everyone felt but I could not yet understand. Pakistanis were traumatized by the theft of democracy, brutalized by the harshness of the new regime. Newspapers were censored, dissent and discourse criminalized, civil society frozen almost cryogenically. On the day Bhutto was hanged, 4 April 1979, his political party the PPP, now led by his wife and daughter, believed thousands of people would pour onto the streets in protest. I was six and a half then, old enough to remember how the streets of Karachi lay completely deserted as I came home from school. Only the stray dogs trotted up and down the streets, masters of everything on that black day.
It was more than food, clothes or language that confused me as a child in this new Pakistan. In America, life was expansive: our small university town was relaxed and open, people tolerant and broad-minded. Pakistan had a different feel, a different ethos: closed, secret, suffocating. People lived as if they were afraid of independence. They seemed glad to be bossed around by parents, elders, teachers, strangers: authorities of any kind. My father had exchanged the freedom we’d known in America for the security of being in our own land, but it didn’t feel like it was mine at all.
Too young for teenage rebellion, I retreated into books, stories, anything that could take me away from the reality of my surroundings. I thought my parents were just being cruel to me by bringing me back to Pakistan, but what I did not know or understand was how coming from a Sayed family was supposed to shape a girl’s life. Even small freedoms threatened to break our traditions down bit by bit, until, in the eyes of the elders, chaos and dishonor would ensue. My mother did not agree with the tight strictures they sugges
Reading Proust Is Like Climbing a Mountain — Prepare Accordingly
Take on an intimidating book like you would take on an immense physical challenge: in small parts, with lots of gear
Some might think reading Proust is akin to watching paint dry, but that would be reductive. Rather, reading Proust is like watching Proust focus on a single part of the wall where the paint has not dried as fast as the rest of the paint, then, once the paint has indeed dried in that part of the wall and is no longer distinguishable from the parts that dried faster, talk about this phenomenon and how it made him feel because it reminded him of his aunt in the spring in Combray, her face at once all dark but for one gleaming disk where the sun fell and made glorious that soft, wrinkled cheek, until the sun completed its rise or fall, whichever path it was on, and gently lit every furrow or kindly hit it all in velvet blue night, the kindness of uniformity ultimately less engaging then the brutal but thrilling spotlight, and what that means about him and his mom and bedtime.
Which is to say that reading Proust takes stamina and fortitude, strength over time and strength of character. In my opinion, it’s worth it, but it’s never going to come easily, and should not be attempted without a battle plan and immense willpower. As with finishing a marathon or reaching the summit of a daunting mountain, the only way to get through Proust — even with the best of intentions, even with unlimited free time — is to force yourself.
Reading Proust takes stamina and fortitude, and should not be attempted without a battle plan and immense willpower.
Avid readers may scoff. They think they have that discipline or that, if they weren’t born with it, they certainly developed it over years and years of gobbling up books like candy on Halloween. And there are still plenty as adults who retain their great appetite, who no more have to make themselves read Ulysses than they would Harry Potter. They’re excited to jump into Infinite Jest or A Suitable Boy or Anna Karenina and stay excited even after they’ve been on this trek for days. They don’t need any gear to help them get through and out — no book club, no paid book review, no online reading challenge to keep them accountable. They don’t get on their sat phones and call for a helicopter to come save them, the equivalent in this metaphor to throwing the book across the room. They are able to finish their great adventure in an acceptable amount of time, and then they move onto the next. It’s not an accomplishment. It’s just what they do — read books.
I thought I was like that too, able to rush in unprepared, sneering at the quinine, granola bars, and compass required by lesser readers. If the trails are well-marked, why fear tripping on a rock or getting lost? Then I met Proust.
Proust doesn’t write day hikes. He doesn’t write those four-day hikes you can take in New Zealand where a boat takes your bags for you from hotel to hotel so you don’t have to weigh yourself down as you get your 10–12 miles in. Proust is more like the Appalachian Trail. You need a strategy, and if you don’t prepare, if you don’t pace yourself, if you don’t, several weeks in, have the capacity to kick yourself out of the tent in the morning to once again drag your exhausted butt to the next campsite, you will not make it.
Proust doesn’t write day hikes. Proust is more like the Appalachian Trail.
While I’m not close with anyone who’s hiked the Appalachian Trail, I do have a friend, Leah Passauer, who ran the Great Wall Marathon, a beast in its own right. Not only does it involve some serious climbing up and down large sections of the Great Wall, China as you might remember, and this part of the Wall in particular, is often immersed in a thick, lung-ruining smog. “I think I honestly love the feeling of just pushing through pain to keep going,” the ever-peripatetic Leah wrote me from Burundi. But that’s not what gets her through race day. “It is exciting when one week six miles hurt and then a month later you are breezing through 14 miles. During the actual race for me, [however], it’s all about breaking it into different chunks. Talk yourself through important milestones. You’re suddenly like, ‘Amazing! Less than ten miles left!’”
In other words, even if you read every day of your life, it doesn’t matter if some of your past experiences were a breeze or a pain: leviathans require a unique approach. The whole can just be too daunting to handle, but cutting it up into pieces — a fang here, a tail there, claws one day, horns the next — is how the beast becomes far more manageable. I might be cowed by a monster, but I can fight a tooth here and a nail there. I can compartmentalize. I can fashion for myself a reading schedule.
For Swann’s Way, the first book in Marcel Proust’s septology Remembrance of Things Past, I have Lydia Davis’s translation, which is a very reasonable 400-something pages. Breaking it up in 20–30 page increments, giving myself every fourth day off, gets me finished in a month easy. Some days it’s very hard to crack that 20 — the less dialogue and more pontificating Proust throws my way, the more challenging it is — but I know I can’t go to bed until I’ve finished. I have a deadline. Self-imposed, yes, but if I don’t shake the stones out of my boots, plow through these mosquitoes, and make it to that milepost, it’ll be just that much harder to make up lost ground tomorrow. Also the monster might call its bear friends over to maul me in the middle of the night.
I have a deadline. If I don’t shake the stones out of my boots, plow through these mosquitoes, and make it to that milepost, it’ll be just that much harder to make up lost ground tomorrow.
Reading schedules aren’t the one and only way to reach the peak of a literary K2. Just like you don’t have to stick to one metaphor in your writing — be it butchering beasts, hiking the Appalachian trail, or climbing into thin, terrifying air — a reading schedule for Proust might not be best followed with a reading sch
For nearly a decade I ran a visiting writers series at a liberal arts university in Indiana. The series was very well endowed, which meant that we didn’t have to hold bake sales to attract the biggest names to campus. I had the opportunity to wine and dine and introduce at the podium Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates, Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, Robert Bly, E. L. Doctorow, Zadie Smith, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and many others. Yet the best reading came from a poet who is virtually unknown in the United States and who does not even speak English.
Humberto Ak’abal is a Maya K’iche’ Indian who writes in his native K’iche’ and in Spanish. Incidentally, there is no word for “poet” in the K’iche’ language; he is called “singer.” When he recited his poems to an audience of mostly Caucasian middle-class midwesterners, something happened that I had never before or since witnessed at a poetry reading. The audience didn’t levitate; rather, the floor sank beneath us, leaving us standing about three feet above it. And this was before the poems were understood; before his translator, the great musician and storyteller, Miguel Rivera, followed with his English translations.
I am not sure how to interpret this. Perhaps it is analogous to the proverbial rug being yanked from beneath one’s feet, as if what we thought we knew that kept us grounded was no longer there, leaving us to reevaluate “where we stood.”
When I was about fifteen, a construction crew was tearing up the street I grew up on to get at pipes or something. I noticed a layer of brick several layers beneath the asphalt, which revealed a history I didn’t realize existed. I lived at the top of a steep hill. My father explained that the bricks were laid in the early part of the twentieth century to provide traction for horses and automobiles with barely the power of twenty horses. Hearing this made me feel connected to a bygone era.
Ak’abal has tapped into the substratum of his land and its pre-Columbian history through poems that are as palpable as the mountains and canyons and the stories they tell.
Ak’abal has tapped into the substratum of his land and its pre-Columbian history through poems that are as palpable as the mountains and canyons and the stories they tell. His poems reconnect to the sacredness in nature. One can feel it in its original language. He explains that onomatopoeia “sprinkles” the tongue of his ancestors: “This is a language that does not go to the senses but to the spirit.” Here is the final stanza of “Kinrayil, Kawaj” (“Quisiera”/ “I Would Like”):
Kinrayij kinb’an tz’ikin,
kinrapinik, kinrapinik, kinrapinik
sib’alaj utz kina’o kinb’an ri nukis
puwi’ kib’ oxib’ sutaq’
xuquje’ nikyaj sutaq chik.[i]
And we listen and absorb and are transformed—not into something but from something—until we forget where we stand (spiritually, figuratively, physically, and emotionally).
And the log
until he forgets
he was once a tree.
But we can never forget the pain and suffering: “And to each one / he gives a shadow.”
Perhaps the floor’s submergence was an invitation to fly. This is hyperbole, of course, but Ak’abal, standing at the edge of a ravine with his mother, writes with absolute sincerity, “I was waiting for the moment / to throw myself into flight.” We, the audience, were not equipped to recognize the overture because we were held down by the very institution that hosted this event.
Blackbirds, buzzards, and doves
land on cathedrals and palaces
just as they do on rocks,
trees, and fences . . .
and they shit on them
with the complete freedom of one who knows
that god and justice
belong to the soul.
Ak’abal does not have an MFA. He left school at age twelve to work with his father, weaving the heavy woolen blankets for which his hometown of Momostenango is famous. This is a foreign concept to poets in the United States. Generally, poets will go straight from undergraduate studies into one of the many MFA programs and have their poems workshopped. They become, either by pressure or ambition, obsessed with publishing and being known.
Ak’abal says that when he is looking for the right word, he does not go to the dictionary but to the marketplaces, the village squares, the streets.
Ak’abal says that it was a particularly prescient dream that “woke up” the poetry in him. “To walk, dig, wait, is simply the process that takes me to the writing of a poem.” Ak’abal says that when he is looking for the right word, he does not go to the dictionary but to the marketplaces, the village squares, the streets. “I look / for a sign from another time,” Ak’abal writes, “something to take me / to the lost voice of my ancestors.”
The writing of a poem must be a need or impulse. Ak’abal writes from this need.
When I was born
two tears were put
into my eyes
so that I could see
the enormity of my people’s pain.
I don’t know ma