Feminism in Literature Essay - Women in the Early to Mid-20th Century (1900-1960)

Women in the Early to Mid-20th Century (1900-1960)


The dawn of the twentieth century witnessed changes in almost every aspect of the day-today lives of women, from the domestic sphere to the public. The women's movement, with its emphasis on advocacy of equal rights, newly formed women's organizations, and the rise of a new generation of female artists, photographers, and professionals, transformed the traditional patriarchal social structure across the globe. Followed closely by the advent of World War I, these social shifts, which had been set in motion at the beginning of the century, developed further as women were propelled into the workforce, exposing them to previously male-dominated professional and political situations. By the midpoint of the twentieth century, women's activities and concerns had been recognized as a significant element of the literary, scientific, and cultural landscape of several countries, marking a revolutionary change in the social and domestic roles of women.

The end of the nineteenth century saw tremendous growth in the suffrage movement in England and the United States, with women struggling to attain political equality. The suffragists—who were often militant in their expressions of protest—presented a sometimes stark contrast to the feminine ideal of the era, which portrayed women as delicate, demure, and silent, confined to a domestic world that cocooned them from the harsh realities of the world. Despite many challenges English and American women eventually won the right to vote, in part due to the changed perception of women's abilities following World War I. As men were called to war, companies that had previously limited employment in better-paying jobs to white males found themselves opening their doors to white women and women and men of color. Racial and gender tensions escalated during this time, and many jobs were in fact permanently redefined as "women's work," including teaching, nursing, secretarial work, and telephone operations. As well as functioning in the workforce, women actively participated in the political and cultural life of England and the United States. The early decades of the twentieth century, often referred to as the Progressive Era, saw the emergence of a new image of women in society which had undergone a marked transformation from the demure, frail, female stereotype of the late Victorian Era. The women of the Progressive Era, according to Sarah Jane Deutsch, were portrayed as "women with short hair and short skirts … kicking up their legs and kicking off a century of social restrictions." Progressive women smoked, danced in public, held jobs, and generally did most things that nineteenth-century women were barred from doing. However, Deutsch asserts that this image of the 1920s "flapper" was restricted to certain portions of the population, namely white, young, and middle-class communities. Women elsewhere, particularly women from other ethnic backgrounds, such as African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics, lived much differently, struggling in their new roles as mothers and professionals. The number of women who worked outside the home in the 1920s rose almost 50 percent throughout the decade. While women still constituted a small number of the professional population, they were slowly increasing their participation in more significant occupations, including law, social work, engineering, and medicine.

The presence of a large class of young working women after World War I was reflected in what had become a major cultural force—the film industry. Nevertheless, films of the era continued to reinforce outdated stereotypes about women's place in society. While early cinematic storylines often featured poor women finding success and contentment through marriage to rich men, the films of the 1920s depicted young, feisty working women who, like their predecessors, could attain true happiness only by marrying their bosses. Such plotlines helped many to cope with the growing fear that the domestic and family structure of society was being eroded by the emergence of the new, independent woman. Rarely did depictions of women in mass media, including film, radio, and theater, convey the true circumstances of working women. Instead, audiences were presented with images of flappers or visions of glorified motherhood and marriage.

Women in the early twentieth century were perhaps most active and influential as writers and artists. The advent of the new century did witness a change in the style and content of women's writing, as well as an increase in the depiction of feminine images and themes in literature. Male authors such as D. H. Lawrence and W. D. Howells explored issues pertaining to sexuality and the newly redefined sexual politics between men and women. Women authors such as Dorothy Richardson, May Sinclair, and Katherine Mansfield focused on topics pertinent to women, bringing attention to the myriad difficulties they faced redefining their identities in a changing world. Other major women writers of the period included Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wharton. In the arena of art, the early twentieth century provided growing opportunities for women to exhibit their work. In 1914, for example, the National Academy of Design first allowed women to attend anatomy lectures, thus providing them with a chance to study draftsmanship and develop drawing skills in a formal setting. Such artists as Emerson Baum and photographers like Alfred Steiglitz helped promote exhibitions of women's art, including the works of Imogen Cunningham and Georgia O'Keefe. Many female artists—among them Dorothea Lange and Claire Leighton—used their talents to highlight the social realities of their times, and some of the most powerful images of this period, including stirring portrayals of coal miners and farmers, were produced by these women.

By the mid-twentieth century, women throughout the Western world had completely redefined their roles in almost every social, political, and cultural sphere. While the fight for equal rights and recognition for women would continue into the 1950s and beyond, the first major steps towards such changes began at the advent of the twentieth century, with women writers, photographers, artists, activists, and workers blazing a new trail for generations of women to follow.

Representative Works

Jane Addams

Democracy and Social Ethics (nonfiction) 1902

Twenty Years at Hull House, with Autobiographical Notes (essays) 1910

The Long Road of Woman's Memory (nonfiction) 1916

Peace and Bread in Time of War (nonfiction) 1922

Margaret Bourke-White

* Fort Peck Dam (photograph) 1936

You Have Seen Their Faces (photographs) 1937

Imogen Cunningham

The Dream (photograph) 1910

Magnolia Blossom (photograph) 1925

Isadora Duncan

Der Tanz der Zukunft [The Dance] (nonfiction) 1903

The Art of the Dance (nonfiction) 1928

My Life (autobiography) 1928

Crystal Eastman

Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution [edited by Blanche Wiesen Cook] (essays) 1978

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

"The Yellow Wallpaper" (novella) 1892

Women and Economics (nonfiction) 1898

Concerning Children (nonfiction) 1900

The Home: Its Work and Influence (nonfiction) 1903

Human Work (nonfiction) 1904

The Man-Made World; or, Our Androcentric Culture (nonfiction) 1911

Emma Goldman

Anarchism and Other Essays (essays) 1910

Living My Life (autobiography) 1931

Red Emma Speaks [compiled and edited by Alix Kates Shulman] (essays) 1972

Frida Kahlo

Self Portrait (painting) 1926

Fruits of the Earth (painting) 1938

Dorothea Lange

Cotton Picker (photograph) 1930

White Angel Bread Line (photograph) 1932

Claire Leighton

Lapful of Windfalls (woodcut) 1932

Margaret Mead

Coming of Age in Samoa (nonfiction) 1928

Georgia O'Keeffe

Tent Door at Night (painting) 1913

Oriental Poppies (painting) 1928

Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue (painting) 1931

Eleanor Roosevelt

This Is My Story (autobiography) 1937

The American Mothers' Declaration (nonfiction) 1939

Ladies of Courage [with Lorena A. Hickok] (essays) 1954

On My Own (autobiography) 1958

Margaret Sanger

Woman Rebel (periodical) 1914

What Every Mother Should Know; or, How Six Little Children Were Taught the Truth (nonfiction) 1916

Woman and the New Race (nonfiction) 1920

Motherhood in Bondage (nonfiction) 1928

My Fight for Birth Control (nonfiction) 1931

Olive Schreiner

The Story of An African Farm [as Ralph Iron] (novel) 1883

Woman and Labour (nonfiction) 1911

Gertrude Stein

Useful Knowledge (nonfiction) 1928

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (memoir) 1933

Lectures in America (lectures) 1935

Marie Stopes

Married Love (nonfiction) 1918

Wise Parenthood (nonfiction) 1918

Rebecca West

The Return of the Soldier (novel) 1918

Harriet Hume (novel) 1929

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. 2 vols. (nonfiction) 1942

Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth (novel) 1905

The Fruit of the Tree (novel) 1907

The Age of Innocence (novel) 1920

* This photograph was used on the first cover of Life, 23 November 1936.

Primary Sources

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Essay Date 1898)

SOURCE: Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "Chapter XIV." In Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998.

In the following excerpt from her book Women and Economics, originally published in 1898, Gilman reflects on the changing relationship between men and women.

The changes in our conception and expression of home life, so rapidly and steadily going on about us, involve many far-reaching effects, all helpful to human advancement. Not the least of these is the improvement in our machinery of social...

(The entire section is 1347 words.)

Rebecca West (Essay Date 26 November 1912)

SOURCE: West, Rebecca. "The Woman as Workmate: Her Claim to Equal Rates of Pay for Equal Quality of Work." Manchester Daily Dispatch (26 November 1912).

In the following excerpt, West responds to an article by George Edgar denouncing women's participation in the workplace, and makes a case for equal pay for equal work.

Every man likes to think of himself as a kind of Whiteley's—a universal provider. The patriarchal system is the ideal for which he longs. He likes to dream of himself sitting on the verandah after dinner, with his wife beside him and the children in the garden, while his unmarried sisters play duets in the...

(The entire section is 1577 words.)

Emma Goldman (Essay Date C. 1913)

SOURCE: Goldman, Emma. "Victims of Morality." In Red Emma Speaks, Alix Kates Shulman, pp. 126-32. New York: Random House, 1972.

In the following excerpt, originally written circa 1913, Goldman responds to the Comstock Law of 1873, which made it difficult for women and men to obtain contraceptives, denouncing its imposition of a narrow version of morality on the lives of men and women.

Not so very long ago I attended a meeting addressed by Anthony Comstock, who has for forty years been the guardian of American morals. A more incoherent, ignorant ramble I have never heard from any platform.

The question that...

(The entire section is 1513 words.)

Crystal Eastman (Essay Date 1918)

SOURCE: Eastman, Crystal. "Birth Control in the Feminist Program." In Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution, Blanche Wiesen Cook, pp. 46-9. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

In the following article, originally published in the Birth Control Review in 1918, Eastman contends that birth control is a fundamental right for women and must be available as an alternative if they are to participate fully in the modern world.

Feminism means different things to different people, I suppose. To women with a taste for politics and reform it means the right to vote and hold office. To women physically strong and...

(The entire section is 1747 words.)

Elise Johnson Mcdougald (Essay Date 1 March 1925)

SOURCE: McDougald, Elise Johnson. "The Double Task: The Struggle of Negro Women for Sex and Race Emancipation." The Survey 53, no. 11 (1 March 1925): 689-91.

In the following article, McDougald reflects on the struggle confronting young African American women in their efforts to obtain employment in areas hitherto denied to them.

Throughout the long years of history, woman has been the weather-vane, the indicator, showing in which direction the wind of destiny blows. Her status and development have augured now calm and stability, now swift currents of progress. What then is to be said of the Negro woman today?


(The entire section is 2230 words.)