Throughout history, feminism has been relegated to the domain of dangerous ideas – treated as a social contagion that must be contained and eliminated. Patriarchy has attempted to stamp out the words of women through various legal, economic, and social punishments. Until recently, women were frequently barred from even publishing their work and had to take on male pen names in order to get their words out there.
Today, one will get little thanks for speaking up for women and girls, and the attacks on women who do are vicious. In many ways, it feels like we’re going backwards. Feminist bookstores and publishing houses have all but disappeared in recent decades. And while organizations like the ACLU are quick to treat pornographic images of women’s bodies as free speech (even when the woman is being exploited and pornified non-consensually), few are standing up for women’s actual speech and challenging the widespread stigmatization and marginalization of feminist voices in media and academia.
The freedom of the written word is precious and must be defended from forces seeking to silence women and feminist speech. It’s Freedom to Read Week in Canada — a good time to remind ourselves about the consequences of banning books that contain the “dangerous ideas” of women. Here are nine important books written by women that have been banned in recent history:
1) The Woman Rebel — Margaret Sanger, 1914
Margaret Sanger’s pretty much the OG of banned feminist literature. In the US in 1914, she was arrested for disseminating information on contraceptive methods to women. This was labeled as “Obscene Literature” under the Comstock Law. Anthony Comstock led early enforcement of the law through his organization, “The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice,” which featured a man burning books on its official seal.
But Sanger would not be stopped! She opened the first birth control clinic in the US and established the organization that would later become Planned Parenthood.
2) The Well of Loneliness — Radclyffe Hall, 1928
This semi-autobiographical novel about coming to terms with lesbian identity was quickly seized and criminalized after its publication in the UK. The reason: officials deemed it to “deprave and corrupt” the minds of women.
3) The Second Sex — Simone de Beauvoir, 1949
Beauvoir’s text is foundational to feminist theory today. (For example, did you know that gender is just some made-up bullshit artificially imposed on the female sex in order to promote male supremacy? Thanks, Simone!) Her book was so radical that the Catholic Church banned its followers from reading it! It still appears on the Vatican’s list of banned books to this day.
4) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — Maya Angelou, 1969
This autobiography has been so widely challenged and banned from school reading lists and libraries across the states that Maya Angelou has been called “one of the most banned authors in US history.” The book details Angelou’s survival of rape, teen pregnancy, and prostitution while growing up in racist America.
5) Our Bodies Our Selves — Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, 1971
This radical feminist text was revolutionary for using explicit descriptions and candid discussion to arm women with knowledge about topics including birth control, abortion, menopause, and lesbianism. Naturally, a book by women, for women, about women’s bodies was banned from libraries across North America.
6) The Color Purple — Alice Walker, 1982
This novel about sisterhood, male violence, and racism still frequently appears on the American Library Association’s yearly list of books most frequently challenged or banned from school curricula and libraries.
7) The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood, 1985
This feminist portrayal of patriarchal dystopia was supposedly too “explicit” for various schools across the US.
8) Black Looks: Race and Representation — bell hooks, 1995
The initial shipment of this book was turned away at the border by Canada Customs for being possible hate literature. The book critically examines white supremacist culture from a feminist perspective.
9) I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot by the Taliban — Malala Yousafzai, 2013
An organization representing over 40,000 private schools banned this memoir advocating for the rights of girls from its libraries, claiming Yousafzai was “representing the West, not us.”