Feminism in Literature Essay - Women's Literature in the 19th Century

Women's Literature in the 19th Century


Modern critical analysis of nineteenth-century women's literature seeks, in part, to understand the underlying reasons that women authors, especially in America, Britain, and France, were able to gain such widespread exposure and prominence in an age known for its patriarchal and often dismissive attitude toward the intellectual abilities of women. In addition, scholars have examined the broad thematic concerns that characterize much of the literary output of nineteenth-century women writers, many arguing that it was in the nineteenth century that gender-consciousness and feminist attitudes first came to the forefront of the literary imagination, changing forever how the works of female authors would be written and regarded.

The number of published women authors was greater in the nineteenth century than in any preceding century. Women's access to higher education increased exponentially during the century, providing them with skills that they could use to develop their art. The growth of market economies, cities, and life expectancies changed how women in Europe and the United States were expected to conform to new societal pressures, and made many women more conscious of their imposed social, legal, and political inequality. Finally, the many social reform movements led by nineteenth-century women, such as religious revivalism, abolitionism, temperance, and suffrage, gave women writers a context, an audience, and a forum in which they could express their views. While most scholars agree that many women writers expressly or tacitly accepted the separate sphere of domesticity that the age assumed of them, they also argue that as the century progressed, an increasing number of women began to express, in their writing, their dissatisfaction with gender relations and the plight of women in general. Throughout the Victorian era, the "woman question" regarding woman's true place in art and society was a subject that was hotly debated, spurred in large part by the rapid rise in literature by and for women.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, women writers were largely confined to the genres of children's literature and poetry. The emotionalism of poetry, particularly poetry in which depth of feeling and sentiment, morality, and intuition were expressed and celebrated, was considered a "feminine genre," suitable for women writers. As nineteenth-century women increasingly began to write fiction, however, critical reviews of the age often derided the inferior talents of women novelists, faulting what they perceived as women's lack of worldly experience, critical judgment, and rationality—traits thought to characterize men—and dismissing their works as little better than pulp designed to appeal to the unrefined tastes of an ever-expanding female readership. Many of the century's greatest novelists, including Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, and George Sand, never completely escaped the condescension of critics whose negative assessments of their works were often based on the author's gender. Scholars argue that the legacy of this sexism has been a historic dismissal of the work of many of the age's most popular, gifted, and influential women writers, consistently judged as unworthy of academic study.

Some modern critics have continued to disregard the contributions of nineteenth-century women authors, while others have noted that by the end of the century, women novelists were more prevalent, and often more popular, than male novelists. Others have focused on representations of women in literature written both by men and women to illuminate the full spectrum of expectations of and perspectives on women and their perceived roles in society. Commentators have also compared the thematic concerns of women writers in England, France, and the United States, recognizing in these three cultures intersecting movements toward creative and feminist literary expression. In recent decades, critics have examined the contributions of African American and Native American women authors, as well as the influence of the nineteenth-century periodical press, analyzing the increasing radicalism of journals and essays edited and written by feminist pioneers such as Frances Power Cobbe and Sarah Josepha Hale.

Toward the end of the century, nineteenth-century women writers expanded their subject matter, moving beyond highlighting the lives and hardships suffered by women locked in domestic prisons. Instead, they increasingly expressed their individualism and demanded more equal partner-ships—in marriage, public life, law, and politics—with men.

Representative Works

Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey: And Persuasion (novels) 1818

Miss Marjoribanks (novel) 1866

Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre (novel) 1847

Villette (novel) 1853

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Aurora Leigh (poetry) 1857

Josephine Butler

The Education and Employment of Women (nonfiction) 1868

Kate Chopin

The Awakening (novel) 1898

Frances Power Cobbe

Essays in the Pursuit of Women (essays) 1863

The Life of Frances Power Cobbe: By Herself (autobiography) 1894

Dinah Craik

Olive (novel) 1850

George Eliot

Romola (novel) 1863

Middlemarch (novel) 1871-72

Fanny Fern

Ruth Hall (novel) 1855

Margaret Fuller

Woman in the Nineteenth Century (nonfiction) 1845

Elizabeth Gaskell

Ruth (novel) 1853

Adam Bede (novel) 1859

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper (novella) 1892

Women and Economics (nonfiction) 1898

Sarah Grimké

Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women (letters and essays) 1834

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

"The Two Offers" (short story) 1859

Sketches of Southern Life (folklore poetry) 1872

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter (novel) 1859

Marietta Holley

My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's (short stories) 1873

Sarah Orne Jewett

A White Heron and other Stories (short stories) 1886

A Country Doctor (novel) 1884

"Tom's Husband" (short story) 1886

The Country of the Pointed Firs (short stories) 1896

Anna Cora Mowatt

Fashion; or, Life in New York (play) 1854

Caroline Sheridan Norton

English Laws for Women (essay) 1854

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

The Woman's Bible (prose) 1895

Harriet Beecher Stowe

"Uncle Lot" (short story) 1834

Uncle Tom's Cabin (novel) 1852

The Pearl of Orr's Island (novel) 1862

Susan Warner

The Wide, Wide World (novel) 1851

Primary Sources

StéPhanie-FéLicité Ducrest, Comtesse De Genlis (Essay Date 1811)


SOURCE: Ducrest, Stéphanie-Félicité. “Preliminary Reflections.”In The Influence of Women on French Literature, translated by Matthew Bray and Amy Simowitz, pp. 208-11. Paris: Maradan, 1811.

In the following essay, Ducrest relates the importance of women writers to French literature.

Men of letters have over women authors a superiority of achievement that, assuredly, one cannot fail to recognize or contest. All of the works of women taken together are not worth a few choice pages from Bossuet or Pascal, or a few scenes from Corneille, Racine, or...

(The entire section is 1747 words.)

Elizabeth Oakes Smith (Essay Date 1851)

SOURCE: Smith, Elizabeth Oakes. Woman and Her Needs, pp. 10-29. New York: Fowlers and Wells, 1851.

In the following excerpt, Smith underscores the importance of "Woman thought."

Whatever difference of opinion may exist amongst us as to the propriety of the recent Conventions held in our Country, called "Woman's Rights," the fact stands by itself, a handwriting on the wall, proclaiming a sense of wrong, a sense of something demanding redress, and this is fact enough to justify the movement to all candid eyes. Indeed enough to render it praiseworthy. For one, I am glad to see that our Republic has produced a class...

(The entire section is 2868 words.)

Josephine Butler (Essay Date 1868)

SOURCE: Butler, Josephine. "The Education and Employment of Women." In Women's Writing of the Victorian Period 1837-1901: An Anthology, edited by Harriet Devine Jump, pp. 162-65. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

In the following excerpt, originally published in The Education and Employment of Women in 1868, Butler describes two separate rationales for women's rights to equal education, concluding that educated women would prove to be a benefit to gender relations and society as a whole.

There are two classes of advocates of the improvement of the education and condition of women The one class urge...

(The entire section is 1468 words.)

Frances Power Cobbe (Poem Date 1871)

SOURCE: Cobbe, Frances Power. "To Elizabeth Garrett Anderson." In Women's Writing of the Victorian Period 1837-1901: An Anthology, edited by Harriet Devine Jump, pp. 181-82. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

In the following poem, originally published in 1871, Cobbe details many of the institutions that the women's rights movement needed to overcome.


The Woman's cause was rising fast
When to the Surgeons' College past
A maid who bore in fingers nice
A banner with the...

(The entire section is 545 words.)

Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (Poem Date 1892)

SOURCE: Coleridge, Mary Elizabeth. "The Witch." In The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, Second Edition, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, p. 1147. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

In the following poem, originally published in 1892, Coleridge characterizes marriage as being akin to death for women.


I have walked a great while over the snow,
And I am not tall nor strong.
My clothes are wet, and my teeth are set,
And the way was hard and long.
I have wandered over the fruitful earth,
But I never came here...

(The entire section is 218 words.)