Known fiction did not begin in the West, and when novelist Murasaki Shikibu wrote her masterpiece Genji monogatari (1001-1015; The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933), she was not the only female writer in Asia. In fact, the writing of fiction was considered appropriate only for women, as was writing in kana (native Japanese phonetic characters), rather than in the Chinese characters used by men in literary circles. While she could have written in Chinese, Murasaki acquiesced to her father’s wish that she not broadcast her knowledge. That her work eventually earned the praise of educated men was to her credit.
In the West, and specifically in the United States, the early writing of women was largely poetry or nonfiction, often on personal and domestic topics. Seventeenth century poet Anne Bradstreet never tried to publish her work. Instead, she conformed to the Puritan idea that women were created to help men and that, being subordinate, women were willing to renounce their own desires for intellectual advancement or self-fulfillment. In the prologue to her collection The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650), she refers to a talent “made . . . irreparable by nature.”
It would be some time before female writers in the New World would verbalize the sentiments of perhaps the first feminist critic, Englishwoman Mary Wollstonecraft, who remarked that it was time to “effect a revolution in female manners.” The nineteenth century saw unprecedented changes in the status of women that included the beginning of a powerful literary tradition. Issues such as the right to vote, own property, retain custody of children after divorce, pursue a college education, and establish businesses joined the writing of best-sellers as a prime focus of the day.