We explored this topic—in part—because a Bitch reader asked us to look into it. Got a question about feminism and pop culture that you want answered, too? Tell us!
We asked the Bitch community for the best book of 2016, and in celebratation of our 20th anniversary, we compiled a list of the top 20. From the history of feminism and empowertisement to fictional feminist fables, based on Shakespeare to utterly original, from funny to heartbreaking, here are the best books of 2016. Curl up with your best pet friend, a warm drink, and one of these lovelies, and read your way to 2017!
1. All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister
It was with joy that I breezed through Rebecca Traister’s new book, All the Single Ladies. The book is a lot of things, but perhaps its most surprising feature is that it is quiet. This is not the same thing as calling it bland or tepid or insignificant. Rather, it is a level-headed treatise on the multifaceted representation of the many millions of single women in contemporary America. Traister affirms that single women are not only accepting and sometimes reveling in their independence, but also fundamentally shaping politics and culture as a force in their own right. All the Single Ladies is not so much a pointed attack on conservatives or patriarchy as it is an interrogation of single-female stereotypes and caricatures. —Joshunda Sanders
2. Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
Memories of the time when childhood becomes adulthood in 1970s Brooklyn reveals two Brooklyns for August. There’s a Brooklyn for secrets and ambling the streets with friends—where friendship is everything. And there’s a darker Brooklyn, with danger hiding in plain sight, mothers who disappear, and fathers who cling onto religion. Jacqueline Woodson is also the author of National Book Award–winning Brown Girl Dreaming. —Dahlia Grossman-Heinze
3. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
This book is a reimagining of The Tempest, from Random House’s Hogarth Shakespeare series—all retellings of Shakespeare plays. This one features a staging of The Tempest in a prison. —D.G-H.
4. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
In films and TV shows about the space race, there’s almost always an iconic scene: a big room full of white, male NASA engineers staring nervously at a giant screen, sweating out the countdown to takeoff. What has not been seen, until now, is the women who worked for NASA as human “computers”—the official job title for mathematical whizzes who crunched numbers and calculated flight patterns for engineers long before the advent of the laptop.
In the meticulously researched Hidden Figures, author Margot Lee Shetterly brings their stories to light. Through interviews and years of research, she documents the lives and work of several dozen Black women who worked as NASA’s first computers starting in the 1940s. Hidden Figures fills a major gap in our historical record, painting a clear and critical picture of how these mathematical pioneers broke down gender and racial barriers, determined to thrive and pursue science-centric careers in the era of segregation. They went on to do some of the most important work at NASA—Katherine Goble Johnson, for example, calculated the trajectory for John Glenn’s landmark space flight.
“I was determined to prove their existence and their talent in a way that meant they would never be lost to history again,” Shetterly writes in the prologue. —Sarah Mirk
5. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
2016 has not been the year of fun easy reads for me—it’s mostly been a year of academic texts, design research, and election coverage (barf). I have a list of so many books I’m meaning to read, but it almost never seemed like the right time to loose myself in a book (hopefully in 2017 I’ll be able to)—except for Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Homegoing tells the story of the spilt lineage of two half sisters from Ghana, each chapter flips between the 1400s to present day. Homegoing uses separation, loss, love, and family to track the repercussions of the slave trade in Ghana and how the legacy of the slave trade continues to affect Africans and African Americans. —Alex Gregory, graphic design intern
6. Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
When I first learned about Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes A Breath, I was digging deep into the internet for some lesbian coming-of-age books that include women of color. The cover of Juliet Takes A Breath caught my attention: It features a brown-skinned woman with the book’s title shaved into her hair. It was the most badass cover I’d ever seen.
Author Gabby Rivera is a queer woman of color who writes raw, honest personal essays for queer-centric site Autostraddle. She also writes short stories and poems and worked at social justice organizations like GLSEN and Dreamyard Project Inc. Juliet Takes a Breath, which came out in January, is her debut novel.
The book stars a Puerto Rican lesbian named Juliet Palante. After a failed coming-out to her family, Juliet goes to Portland, Oregon for an internship with a white feminist she admires. Over the summer, she ends up learning a lot about herself and the world around her.
When I finished reading the book, I felt like I had made a new friend. Even though I’m not Puerto Rican, I related to Juliet as a baby queer woman of color, feminist, book nerd, and writer. Juliet Palante is simply the most relatable queer character I’ve ever encountered. This is especially significant because there are only a handful of queer young adult books with people of color protagonists and a handful of YA books written by a queer person of color. —Latoya Pennington
7. Ladivine by Marie NDiaye
Without telling her husband and daughter, Clarisse visits her mother Ladivine on the first Tuesday of every month. Just as Clarisse hides Ladivine from her family, she hides herself from her mother until twenty-five years of deception come crashing down. Plus: magical realism! —D.G-H.
8. The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Everyone’s talking about Bennett’s debut novel. If it’s not on your bedside table yet, or you just want to get a glimpse into Bennett’s writing right now, check out her piece that blew up the internet, “I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People.” It’s essential reading and so is The Mothers: a much-needed contribution to the coming-of-age canon. —Julie Falk, Executive Director
9. Notes From a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life by Erin Wunker
When I first saw the cover of Erin Wunker’s Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, I thought of where I had first encountered the phrase “feminist killjoy”—the internet. I was in high school and still finding my footing in feminism, still feeling like I wasn’t deserving of the title. I recall browsing Etsy shops, looking at all the tiny DIY pins boasting the nomenclature. Reading about certain feminists who had been put on pedestals online made feminism seem too intimidating, another place where I did not belong. Notes from a Feminist Killjoy is the kind of book that reverses this kind of thinking. It shows feminism as what it is, shows that all of the forces we are trying to dismantle are rooted in human life. They’re not vast and unapproachable.
The book is split into three defined sections: rape culture, friendship, and parenthood. These sections share a lot of research and political cases—for instance, the trial of Jian Ghomeshi—but they are also relievingly grounded in smaller life details, as when Wunker writes about her changing relationship to the body and time now that she is a parent. When she writes of the relationship between internalized misogyny and friendship with other women, it is not in hypotheticals but in relation to the friendships she has attempted to form with other women across her lifetime. —Rachel Davies
10. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
This biography of reigning Queen of Horror, Shirley Jackson, explores her relationships with her family and how her fascination with “domestic horror” places her alongside Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe in the American Gothic tradition. Also includes very cute original Shirley J. doodles. —D.G-H.
11. Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman by Lindy West
Lindy West was my first favorite online writer. She was the first writer who made me want to be a writer and who made me feel like I could be a writer, too. Maybe it was because she was a woman; maybe it was because she wrote uncompromisingly about so many things that I (and clearly she) cared about; maybe it was because she was so fucking funny.
West’s new book, Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman, is a joy to read and definitely worthwhile. West’s book covers all the major stories and controversies of her career, including her public disagreement with Dan Savage over fat politics, the Daniel Tosh rape-joke clusterfuck, her ongoing battle with misogynist trolls, and her confrontation with a man who harassed her online by impersonating her dead father. Along the way, she weaves a narrative that showcases her growth as a writer and as a person over the course of her career and that attempts to answer the question she gets so often from readers and fans: “Where do you get your confidence?” —Amelia Ayrelan Iuvino
12. So Sad Today by Melissa Broder
Melissa Broder needed a safe space to vent about her feelings of anxiety and depression. So she turned to Twitter, creating the anonymous account @SoSadToday where she started posting dark and funny reflections on the futility of life. Broder is talented at using 140 characters to say something both profound and hilarious—she is the author of four books of poetry, so she’s used to using words effectively and efficiently. The account gained over 300,000 followers and spawned a book by the same title. The book version of So Sad Today, which came out in March, is a collection of personal essays that capture both Broder’s wit and the unforgiving relentlessness of anxiety and depression. —Vanessa Willoughby
13. Swing Time by Zadie Smith
The world has been waiting four years for Smith’s newest, and Swing Time won’t disappoint music lovers, dancers, or longtime Zadie Smith fans. Smith brings her keen perspective on pop culture to her work, and Swing Time is no exception. Smith moves between London and West Africa as she explores how friendship and music shape the lives of two women. Swing Time asks if we can ever be free from our roots—and what exactly constitutes “freedom” to begin with. —D.G-H.
14. The Girls by Emma Cline
Evie Boyd spots a group of girls in the park one summer in the 1960s and nothing is ever the same. Enthralled by their beauty and freedom, Evie latches onto Suzanne and becomes a part of a circle run by a Charles Manson-esque cult leader—even as violence and danger come ever closer. —D.G-H.
15.The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
In a dystopian world, women involved in sex scandals are kept in a prison camp in the outback. Kidnapped and drugged, they’re forced into brutal and pointless labor in the middle of the nowhere, and what starts out as a relatively simple allegory for slut-shaming becomes a much more engrossing feminist parable. —D.G-H.
16. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
In this incredible book, the Underground Railroad isn’t a metaphor. A secret network of very real tracks lies beneath the United States, and Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, flees on a perilous journey while being hunted by a relentless slave catcher. —D.G-H.
17. Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North by Blair Braverman
Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube is—to use a synopsis simple enough for even husky puppies and some human reviewers to understand—about Braverman’s early infatuation with the North and how that infatuation turned into a deep and sustaining love. Writing of her childhood in sunny California, Braverman remembers that, once, “it had snowed in Davis, a veil over the grass that dissolved by midmorning, and the whole world seemed foreign, thrilling: the north was like that, a thousandfold.”
So is Braverman’s writing. Her vision crystallizes chaotic and overwhelming experiences into telling moments and images. Without banishing any of the lingering mystery or trauma of the events she depicts, she casts a slender but brilliant light on her past. Of her first experience on a dogsled, Braverman writes, “The dogs flowed, a perfect thrilling engine….Their running had nothing to do with me. They wouldn’t have stopped if I’d asked them to.” Of deciding to take a job at an Alaskan company that catered to tourists craving sled dog adventures, she recalls, “I pictured myself atop an icefield, surrounded by huskies, impressing tourists day after day until their idea of me eclipsed who I actually was.” —Sarah Marshall
18. What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Everything Nigerian-born British writer Helen Oyeyemi writes is gold, but this collection of short stories shines. Each story features a different key and in each different permutation, the collection asks: Is a key a gate, a gift, or an invitation? —D.G-H.
19. We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Cover Girl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement by Andi Zeisler
Bitch Media cofounder Andi Zeisler explores how feminism has been co-opted by make-up brands, fashion designers, celebrities, and more. If everything from underpants to energy drinks can be “feminist”—just another “empowering” consumer choice—what happens to the fight to protect women’s rights that are still so visibly under attack? —D.G-H.
20. You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson
In her debut book, You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain, actor, comedian, and writer Phoebe Robinson gives readers a peek into the life of a Black woman living in America today. Through a series of essays, she distills myths about the Angry Black Woman stereotype, spills BPSs (Black People Secrets), and engages the future female president with a list of demands. And she does all this while being funny as heck at the same time. Robinson’s skillful weaving of pop culture references, jokes, and serious facts makes the book hilarious at times and serious at others. It’s clear that while Robinson is deeply concerned about social justice, representation, and equality, she’s learned not to take herself too seriously—which makes for a very entertaining read. —Roberta Nin Feliz