Feminism in Literature Essay - Women's Literature from 1900 to 1960

Women's Literature from 1900 to 1960


The early decades of the twentieth century were filled with dramatic turmoil and change within United States and abroad, all of which impacted the nascent feminist movement. Two world wars, rapid industrialization, urbanization, and a depression placed enormous stress on traditional social structures and domestic relationships, from the workplace to the family. In fact, more women entered the professional workforce during the first two decades of the century than at any other time in history. Though American women were granted suffrage in 1920, these were difficult times for the feminist movement. The issue of suffrage had united many women around a common cause, but once women gained the right to vote, the movement suffered from conflict and lack of formal organization. The militant nature of many suffragists also caused the movement to lose momentum in mainstream society, and for many years feminists were viewed as an extremist minority.

Despite the success of the suffrage movement and the great influx of women into the workplace before and during World War II, a resurgence of traditional attitudes concerning the home and family would come to define the postwar period. As many feminists argue, the wars served to both empower and suppress women, whose newfound freedom and independence during the world wars was almost immediately ceded to a newly reestablished sense of patriarchy. Women who had supported the war effort through their labor returned home and were once again relegated to domestic duties and secondary status. Such restricted gender roles, exemplified by the conformity and traditionalism of the 1950s, continued to limit the opportunities and experiences of women until the rebirth of the feminist movement during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Amid such conflicts and evolving gender roles, the first half of the twentieth century witnessed a flourishing in the literary arts and the development of new media such as radio, film, and, by the late 1940s, television. American drama in particular reached a high point in the 1920s, with dramatists Eugene O'Neill, Elmer Rice, and Maxwell Anderson writing many of their best works during this decade. Meanwhile, poets such as Amy Lowell, H. D., and Sara Teasdale elaborated upon the prewar modernism pioneered by T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and Ezra Pound. By the late 1950s, however, celebrated poets such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton would lead a turn away from formal detachment toward a more emotion-laden subjectivity in confessionalism. During the first half of the twentieth century many male and female authors also turned to the novel to sketch and satirize the materialism and anomie of the modern condition. Important novelists of the period include Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, along with well-known female novelists Edith Wharton, Katherine Anne Porter, and Gertrude Stein, whose experimentalism defied classification.

A growing number of women writers from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds also emerged during this time. Drawing upon their varied experiences as Asians, Africans, and Native Americans, many of these female writers addressed issues of gender and ethnic identity from new and compelling perspectives. Together, such women provided insight into the lives of women in general and the often denigrated minority populations of which they were a part. In particular, African-American writers came to prominence as part of the literary and artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, which reached its peak during the 1920s and 1930s. This movement provided opportunities for many African-American women writers, including Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Jessie Redmon Fauset, to address issues of race and gender in their works. Such writers also gained appreciation for their declaration of cultural independence and their contribution to the development of an indigenous American language and literature.

While women writers and artists participated in the thriving arts and literary movements during these years, many of them struggled deeply as creators. The world wars had a profound effect on the generation of writers that witnessed them, particularly women who bore the brunt of the social and cultural changes that resulted from these conflicts. Caught between their own aspirations as writers and artists, but confronted with a reality that provided little in terms of equal opportunity or rights, many female authors felt frustrated during these years. In addition, female literary achievement was largely downplayed in academic institutions due to the negative backlash against the suffragists and, more broadly, because of a patronizing and dismissive view of female intellectuals among male cultural elites.

Contemporary critic Elaine Showalter has drawn attention to the conflict, repression, and even decline suffered by many women writers during the early twentieth century. According to Showalter and other scholars, the years following the end of World War I were difficult for female novelists and poets in particular, who were regarded as writers of little substance. Yearning to write about serious issues facing their times but pushed to the periphery, poets such as Teasdale, H. D., Lowell, and Edna St. Vincent Millay were unable to find suitable literary models in past female poets. Additionally, the notion of poetry as an art form that transcends personal and emotional experience, a view expounded by male poets such as Eliot and Pound, led many female poets to feel that their work was being marginalized. Faced with stiff reaction against the type of personal and lyrical poetry many of them wanted to write, Millay and others found it increasingly difficult to continue writing. Some female writers curtailed their creative work and turned their energies to political causes instead, using alternate means such as journalism and reporting to express their opinions. Some writers found ways to incorporate political activism in their fiction and established a model for women writers of the 1960s and beyond.

Representative Works

Jane Addams

Twenty Years at Hull House (essays) 1910

Simone de Beauvoir

L'invitée [She Came to Stay] (novel) 1943

Le deuxième sexe. 2 vols. [The Second Sex] (nonfiction) 1949

Tous les hommes sont mortels [All Men Are Mortal] (novel) 1946

Gwendolyn Bennett

"To a Dark Girl" (poem) 1923

"Fantasy" (poem) 1927

Elizabeth Bishop

"Roosters" (poem) 1946

Louise Bogan

The Blue Estuaries (poetry) 1923

Body of this Death (poetry) 1923

Sleeping Fury (poetry) 1937

Elizabeth Bowen

The House in Paris (novel) 1935

"The Demon Lover" (short story) 1945

Kay Boyle

American Citizen Naturalized in Leadville, Colorado (poetry) 1944

"Winter Night" (poem) 1946

Gwendolyn Brooks

A Street in Bronzeville (poetry) 1945

Annie Allen (poetry) 1949

Pearl S. Buck

The Good Earth (novel) 1931

Willa Cather

My Ántonia (novel) 1918...

(The entire section is 518 words.)

Primary Sources

Amy Lowell (Poem Date 1914)

SOURCE: Lowell, Amy. "The Captured Goddess." In Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. New York: Macmillan, 1914.

In the following poem, the narrator evokes a figure of divinity and mystical experience through descriptions of flowers, colors, and stones, but then withdraws in shock as the goddess figure is bound by men and offered for sale in the marketplace.


Over the housetops
Above the rotating chimney-pots,
I have seen a shiver of amethyst,
And blue and cinnamon have flickered
A moment,
At the far end of a dusty...

(The entire section is 283 words.)

Sara Teasdale (Poem Date 1919)

SOURCE: Teasdale, Sara. "If Death Is Kind." In Flame and Shadow. New York: Macmillan, 1920.

In the following poem, originally written in 1919, the speaker ruminates on the subject of death and the afterlife.

Perhaps if Death is kind, and there can be returning,
We will come back to earth some fragrant night,

And take these lanes to find the sea, and bending
Breathe the same honeysuckle, low and white.

We will come down at night to these resounding beaches
And the long...

(The entire section is 104 words.)

Louise Bogan (Poem Date February 1922)

SOURCE: Bogan, Louise. “women.” The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968.

The following is a well-known poem by author Louise Bogan originally published in 1922.


Women have no wilderness in them,
They are provident instead,
Content in the tight hot cell of their hearts
To eat dusty bread.

They do not see cattle cropping red winter grass,
They do not hear
Snow water going down under culverts
Shallow and clear.

They wait, when they...

(The entire section is 160 words.)

Maria Chona (Essay Date 1936)

SOURCE: Chona, Maria. "The Autobiography of a Papago Woman," edited by Ruth Underhill. Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association 46 (1936): 36-7.

Chona was born in Mesquite Root, a Papago village in the Spanish province of Upper Pimeria, now Arizona. Daughter to Con Quien, a village governor, Chona was a noted basketweaver and medicine woman, and possessed extensive knowledge of tribal affairs, customs, and traditions. The following excerpt is from chapter six in her autobiographical account of her life.


My father said to me: "Look, my girl. We are going to marry you, over at that...

(The entire section is 1377 words.)