Colonial America (Women's Issues (Ready Reference series))
Women in Colonial America were represented as Eve in the garden, and their role was to support male leaders of the religious and political community (that is, their husbands) by keeping house and rearing strong, moral children. This ideology influenced fair/virgin and dark/virago stereotypes used by American writers from Puritans to postmodernists.
Believing that reading and writing diminished women’s physical and mental capabilities, Puritans discouraged female authors. However, the first published poet of British North America was Anne Bradstreet, whose The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650) illustrated the difficult position in which the first generations of colonists found themselves. Puritans should have approached the wilderness with complete faith in God’s mission for them; yet, as Bradstreet’s poetry suggested, many were initially appalled by the wilderness and perhaps doubted their faith, as Bradstreet had at the deaths of her grandchildren. Far from being a feminist, Bradstreet greatly accepted her role in society and questioned the properness of her writing.
Another early form of women’s writing was the captivity narrative, which showed the vulnerability of white womanhood to hostile wilderness and native attacks. The most famous of these was Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 narrative of her experiences during King Philip’s War.
Women began to play more active roles in American literature during the...
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Nineteenth Century Womanhood (Women's Issues (Ready Reference series))
Popular British sentimental and epistolary fiction such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741) and Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-1748) sparked American interest in novels. After the revolutionary war, two-thirds of the American population was under the age of twenty-four, women far outnumbered men, and the average marrying age for women was twenty- two. Women were not yet attending college—Oberlin College was the first to admit women, in 1837—and even secondary education for female students was rare. Therefore, women spent their years from adolescence to early adulthood looking for suitable husbands. Women had to choose carefully because under the laws of coverture, husbands had total control over their wives’ possessions and bodies. In a society where women could not choose freely from many men, living vicariously through fictional heroines’ experiences allowed young women to develop some understanding of what kind of man they might want to marry. A good early example of a novel serving this role is Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette: Or, The History of Eliza Wharton (1797). Eliza sees several types of marriages: her mother’s to a clergyman, her cousin’s to a thoughtful and loving young officer, and her best friend’s to a gold- digging womanizer. Eliza rejects all these models and eventually makes a fatal error in letting a man seduce her. By reading this story, young women not...
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Turn-of-the-Century Realism (Women's Issues (Ready Reference series))
One type of fiction that suffered at the hands of male critics was late nineteenth century local color writing, a subgenre of realism characterized by strong references to place, use of dialect, and descriptions of local traditions. Most local color writers were women who created strong and independent female characters. A good example is Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), in which a female journalist spends a summer living among a community of women in a small Maine fishing village. Most of the village men have either died at sea or moved west, but the strong women make due without them.
Most male-authored literature between the Civil War and World War I portrayed women either as members of the elite (in the works of Henry James and William Dean Howells) or as poor slum girls and prostitutes abused by their surroundings (in the works of Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser). James valued the concept of true womanhood, and his fiction affirmed rigid standards of beauty and morality. The title character of his novella Daisy Miller (1878), the daughter of a newly rich industrial leader, thwarts custom by publicly meeting with men unchaperoned. Proper society promptly snubs her. The fates of working-class girls who “go wrong” were equally severe. The heroine of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) is abandoned by her family and friends after having an affair with a traveling salesman.
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Modernism (Women's Issues (Ready Reference series))
White male modernist authors often used stock characters in their fiction. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway portrayed women as nonintellectual, sexual objects, and John Steinbeck portrayed strong, nurturing mothers such as Ma Joad and Rose of Sharon in The Grapes of Wrath (1939) or lusty whores such as Dora Flood, the madam of Cannery Row (1945). Male authors of this time often praised their female counterparts, but specifically as women writers. Meanwhile, authors such as Edith Wharton were creating superior female characters more diverse than those of her male contemporaries.
Modernist prairie literature offered specialized female images. In Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913), an intellectual young woman inherits her father’s farm, and her faith in the land is rewarded by abundant harvests. Later, she marries her soulmate and enjoys sexual and intellectual fulfillment. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (1935) taught young girls to value marriage, motherhood, and hard work, reinforcing traditional roles. Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles (1916) shows a less idyllic side of prairie life—a woman virtually imprisoned by her husband. A pet bird brightens her life, but her husband kills it and she kills him. Prairie life was a dismal trap for women not fortunate enough to find soulmates.
Two lesbian modernist writers whose stylistic innovations represented human...
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Postmodernism (Women's Issues (Ready Reference series))
Many American women, represented by the stereotypical figure of “Rosie the Riveter,” went to work in factories while American men fought in World War II. After the war, some gladly returned to domestic life, but others were not so content. Post- World War II America witnessed great shifts in women’s work from housekeeping to industrial and professional employment. Improved methods of family planning lowered birthrates and decreased family sizes, changing prevailing concepts of motherhood. These factors also influenced literary portrayals of women. A constant stream of domestic literature flowed through the end of the century, but growing numbers of works such as Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980) celebrate alternative female experiences.
Beginning in the late 1960’s, women’s writing branched into several experimental genres, including science fiction and “cyberpunk.” Utopian writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ used imaginary cultures to critique contemporary values. In The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Le Guin chronicles a man’s visit to an androgynous society where everyone can bear children and be held responsible for their upbringing. Le Guin wrote Always Coming Home (1985) as an archaeology of a future civilization, contrasting its militaristic patriarchy with a productive communal ecological culture. In The Female Man (1975), Russ presents a self-consciously subversive fiction...
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Women in Ethnic American Literature (Women's Issues (Ready Reference series))
Generations of American literature have stereotyped American Indian women as mysterious, quiet helpmates to white settlers. Combating this Pocohontas image, American Indian female writers sought recognition for vital feminine qualities in native culture, especially its rich tradition of oral narratives dating back to stories of goddesses in nature. Pueblo Laguna and Sioux critic and novelist Paula Gunn Allen devotes much of her work to promoting the American Indian worldview—feminine interconnectedness rather than rigid masculine order. Chippewa Louise Erdrich uses oral tradition to produce communal stories in her novel Love Medicine (1984).
Representations of African American women in literature are complex. Early writers such as seventeenth century poet Phillis Wheatley were not taken seriously by white readers, who doubted her authorship. Women were also conspicuously absent from male slave narratives, such as those of Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass, which described the men’s solitary quest for freedom. Representing only a small fraction of that genre, female narratives such as Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) offered a communal voice focusing on issues of family separation, friendship between women, and sexual exploitation by white masters. This image of black womanhood was overshadowed, however, when Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin introduced the untameable slave Topsy to American...
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Women in Canadian Literature (Women's Issues (Ready Reference series))
Whereas women’s literature has traditionally been overshadowed by men’s writing in the United States, female writers dominate Canadian literature. Canada produced the first North American novel: The History of Emily Montague (1769), by Frances Brooke, the wife of a British Chaplain stationed at Quebec City. Much like women portrayed in early U.S. fiction, Brooke’s heroine considers marrying different types of men—Englishmen, Frenchmen, and even an American Indian. While U.S. literature often presents masculine settlers struggling to tame Mother Nature, Canadian literature more often suggests feminine heroes struggling against a harsh masculine landscape; the best early example is Major John Richardson’s Wacousta: Or, The Prophecy, a Tale of the Canadas (1832). U.S. fiction often portrays young male characters hiking into the wilderness to find themselves, such as Huck at the end of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Canadian literature, on the other hand, often sends women into the wilderness. In Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (1964), Hagar Shipley leaves her retirement home to seek her identity in the wilderness.
Canadian writers have traditionally portrayed their nation as an oppressed (female), struggling for individuality against the overshadowing (masculine) United States, Great Britain, and France. Susan Swan cleverly illustrates this phenomenon in her novel The Biggest...
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Bibliography (Women's Issues (Ready Reference series))
Ammons, Elizabeth. Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. This first major consideration of female writers from this time period argues that their long fiction is diverse (sentimental, local color, protest fiction, mystery, ethnic) yet unified by common themes.
Baym, Nina. Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and About Women in America, 1820-1870. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978. Discusses significant female writers whose careers flourished with the popularity of women’s fiction through the first half of the nineteenth century and suggests reasons for the waning of their popularity.
Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. This landmark study argues that American fiction arose from a crisis of identity and authority in a new nation. Explains how eighteenth and nineteenth century women used novels to explore lifestyles.
Fairbanks, Carol. Prairie Women: Images in American and Canadian Fiction. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. Traces literature through generations of prairie women, from the first wave of settlers to more recent writers. More than one hundred twenty works by sixty-six authors (thirty-two from the United States and thirty-four from Canada) constitute a unique tradition separate from the male...
(The entire section is 499 words.)