Here is my selection of the best French feminist books you should read at least once in your lifetime! In honor of International Women’s Day (” la Journée Internationale des droits des femmes” in French), I encourage you to lose yourself in one of these amazing French books, all celebrating women.
France has long produced some of the most influential (and sometimes controversial) feminist thinkers and still does. There are famous French feminist theorists like Simone de Beauvoir and Virginie Despentes. But there are also the everyday feminist women writers whose books don’t explain theory so much as demonstrate it.
Being French, I have compiled a selection of the best French and Francophones books, some mainstream, others more controversial, with a feminist streak or written by a notable feminist writer. Among the selected books are philosophical essays, historical accounts, and novels published at different periods but still remain true today. They address, in their own way, issues of domination, male-female, explore our identities as they pertain to gender issues, and give a voice to those silenced or forgotten by history.
The Declaration of the Rights of Women, Olympe de Gouges (1791)
Written over 200 years ago, The Declaration of the Rights of Women by Olympe de Gouges started a chain reaction in history that went on to inspire other women to fight against the lives society had imposed upon them. Arguments from this must-read French feminist book still remain very true today.
Olympe de Gouges was ahead of her time; she was not only one of France’s first feminist thinkers but also one of the country’s early abolitionists. Femme philosophe, playwright, political analyst, and activist, she advocated for the rights of many marginalized groups, including those of blacks, women, children, the poor, and the elderly.
The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir is a powerful analysis of the Western notion of “woman,” a detailed analysis of women’s oppression, and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism. Beauvoir’s pioneering and impressive text remains as pertinent today as it was back then, and will continue to provoke and inspire generations of men and women to come. It’s definitely a must-read feminist book, one of the most important works of the 20th century.
La Cause des Femmes, Gisèle Halimi (1973)
Gisèle Halimi is a Tunisian-born French feminist and lawyer. At 16, she refused an arranged marriage and moved to France, returning to Tunis in 1949 to defend members of the Algerian nationalist movement the FLN. Halimi has been deeply involved in many cases on women’s rights over the course of her career. In 1971, she founded the feminist group Choisir (which means “to choose” in English), which was created to defend and protect the women who signed the “Manifesto of the 343.” She also famously helped pass a French law that legalized contraception and abortion in 1975.
Her book La Cause des Femmes includes a short biography of her childhood and mainly covers the fight to legalize abortion in France by explaining the different trials —including the trial of Marie-Claire Chevalier— which were steps to secure legislation that finally arrived in 1975.
Masculine Domination, Pierre Bourdieu (1998)
Masculine Domination by Pierre Bourdieu —which has been a bestseller in France— is essential reading for anyone concerned with questions of gender and sexuality and with the structures that shape our social, political, and personal lives.
According to Bourdieu, masculine domination is so anchored in our social practices and our unconscious that we hardly perceive it. In his book, the French sociologist has this interesting concept of “symbolic violence”, basically saying that the forces of power no longer need to exert actual violence on the little people (women) to keep the status quo of capitalism going. According to him, women reach instinctively for the positions men want them to take, namely, “self-denial, resignation, and silence.”
King Kong Theory, Virginie Despentes (2006)
King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes is an autobiography, a call for revolt, and a manifesto for new punk feminism. Drawing from personal experience, Despentes shatters received ideas about rape and prostitution and explodes common attitudes about sex and gender. Her direct writing style makes her one of France’s most readable and controversial feminist authors.
A Life, Simone Veil (2009)
Simone Veil was one of France’s most beloved public figures, most admired for her personal and political courage. She led an extraordinary life; she survived deportation to Auschwitz as a teenager during World War II and subsequently became France’s health minister, championing the 1975 French law that legalized abortion. Simone Veil was even elected the first female President of the European Parliament and later returned to the French government as Minister for Social Affairs.
Her memoir A Life is a sincere account of an extraordinary life and career, reflecting both her humanity and her determination to improve social standards at home and maintain economic and political stability in Europe.
Beauté Fatale, Mona Chollet (2012)
The feminist journalist and writer Mona Chollet published her first openly feminist book in 2012, Beauté Fatale, about the beauty standards imposed on women’s bodies and the alienation tied to the obsession with beauty. In this book, the author dissects with barbed wit the cult of beauty and the obsession with appearances, as imposed she believes, on women. Mona Chollet bluntly shows how, far from being hedonistic, women’s relationship vis-à-vis their bodies is often marked with worries and complexes.
In Defense of Witches, Mona Chollet (2018)
In Defense of Witches by Mona Chollet is one of the most empowering feminist books I’ve ever read! The author explores three types of women who were accused of witchcraft and persecuted: the independent woman (widows and celibates), the childless woman, and the elderly woman. This book seeks to unite the mythic image of the witch with modern women who seek to live their lives on their own terms.
“In Defense of Witches talks about socially condemned women since the witch hunts which created feminine features viewed as repulsive and modeled one type of socially acceptable behavior while rejecting others. We are products of the world that hunted witches.”Mona Chollet, interviewed for France-Amerique.
A Decolonial Feminism, Françoise Vergès (2019)
Françoise Vergès is a French political scientist, historian, film producer, independent curator, activist, and public educator. Her work mainly focuses on postcolonial studies and decolonial feminism. In A Decolonial Feminism, Françoise Vergès argues that feminists should no longer be accomplices of capitalism, racism, colonialism, and imperialism. The book grapples with the central issues in feminist debates today: from Eurocentrism and whiteness to power, inclusion, and exclusion.
We Are Not Born Submissive, Manon Garcia (2021)
Manon Garcia is a French philosopher, specializing in feminist philosophy. Her book We Are Not Born Submissive (originally On ne naît pas soumise, on le devient) offers the first in-depth philosophical exploration of female submission, focusing on the thinking of Simone de Beauvoir, and more recent work in feminist philosophy, epistemology, and political theory. According to her, the submission is not linked to any “feminine nature”, but the result of social conditioning. She analyzes the causes that push women into submission and highlights the paradox of a consented female submission involving a kind of “cost-benefit calculation”.
Et voilà! I hope this guide to the best French feminist books will help you choose your next read! If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments below.
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Leonce is the founder and editor of Leonce Chenal, a lifestyle platform launched in 2018. Originally from France, Leonce offers a fresh perspective that comes from her experience at top tech companies in Paris and London. Having spent several years in Paris and now residing in Amsterdam, she combines her professional expertise with a personal passion for French and Parisian styles. Leonce is committed to guiding her readers through the intricacies of Parisian chic, empowering them to embrace the elegance and sophistication of French style.