Feminism Reflected in Literature

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 119

Since the rise of feminism, which began in the nineteenth century and surged again in the last decades of the twentieth, there has been an explosion of literature, in every genre, by women. Studies of women’s literature have shown that there are certain common themes that tend to play out in women’s writing.

Since the beginning of the women’s movement, there has been a strong rise in the amount of literature that is self-consciously feminist in tone, clearly espousing the ideals of female equality. Feminists have also studied other women’s writings, including those of an earlier time, probing them with renewed interest about what sets women’s writings apart and what commonalities they may have.


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One of the primary themes of feminist writing is its insistence on expressing and valuing women’s point of view about their own lives. While earlier in history, it was primarily men who wrote, from their own point of view, about women, the concern of feminist writing is to place women in the position of authority about their own lives and experiences, to hear and believe women’s voices.

As feminists have become interested in hearing women’s voices in literature, a number of authors from earlier times have newly been taken seriously. For example, the early Greek poet Sappho, whose work has nearly been entirely lost to the literary tradition, focuses on women’s point of view and therefore was considered insignificant at best and immoral at worst. Another example is the fourteenth and fifteenth century writer Christine de Pizan, whose Le Livre de la cité des dames (1405; The Book of the City of Ladies, 1982) expresses ideas that are usually considered new: the horrors of rape and domestic abuse, arguments against the notion that women are not as intelligent as men, and arguments against the notion that women cannot handle financial matters. This work was lost to modern readers until it was first translated into English in 1982. It has since become a classic of feminist literature, and illustrates that women’s writing, from whatever time period, expresses a clear female experience, viewpoint, and voice. The book’s publication history, and the deliberate destruction of Sappho’s work, are clear indications that women’s voice has not been, until recently, considered significant or of literary importance.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a feminist writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wrote many works of fiction and nonfiction, including an economic analysis that focused on women’s issues, Women and Economics (1898). However, perhaps her most well-known writing is the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” published in New England Magazine in 1892, which describes a woman who is completely under the control of her husband’s supposed cure for depression and who as a result goes completely mad. Although the woman, who narrates her own story, pays lip service to his superior knowledge as a man and his loving care for her, her own perception that the whole situation is being mismanaged shines subtly through her words.

Challenging the Canon

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In Western culture a consensus has been built about what are the primary works of literature, the works with which every educated person should be familiar. This list is called the canon. Most of these works, however, were written by white males. Furthermore, part of why these works have been considered to have universal appeal has been that literature has been judged by white male critics, who experience life in similar ways. Therefore, one of the literary concerns of feminism is to challenge these traditional assumptions and to encourage serious interest in literature by women, including women of color. A result of the feminist critique of this predominantly white male canon is that what appears to be a universal human viewpoint is exposed as, in fact, the viewpoint of only one group.

Books that are classics of women’s literature, and are working their way into this new conception of the canon, include Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929), the poetry of Maya Angelou and Adrienne Rich, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), the works of Gilman and Zora Neale Hurston, and the nineteenth century works of such authors as Edith Wharton, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, and the Brontë sisters. All of these works, whether or not written from a feminist perspective, illustrate a view of the world that comes from female experience and therefore provide a balance to the predominant male viewpoint of the traditional canon.


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One difference that appears between women’s writing and that of men is attention to collectivity. Rather than the individualism that is one of the hallmarks of, in particular, American male writing, women’s writing tends to emphasize the importance of the community. There are, of course, notable exceptions: Ayn Rand, for example, did much to elevate, if not create, the cult of the individual (and always male) hero in mid-twentieth century America. However, the more common interest in collective authority can clearly be seen in women’s utopian and science fiction. Whereas science fiction by males is often concerned with hierarchies and dominance, the imaginary worlds described by female writers are usually egalitarian, nonhierarchical, even anarchist. They are concerned with self-empowerment, and with empowerment of the group as a whole, rather than with gaining power or control over others.

The hero might be, not one person who makes it to the top, but a group of women and men who, together, are able to achieve their goals. An excellent example is in Starhawk’s first novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing (1994), in which the people of an imagined future San Francisco are able, together, not only to repel conquest by the fascist rulers of Southern California, but even to win the army over to their nonviolent, collective lifestyle.

Nature is also considered part of this collective community, as women’s science fiction shows a respect for nature that is not usually seen in male works. This is illustrated, for instance, in Sally Gearhart’s The Wanderground (1979), in which nature has rebelled against the modern assaults against it, and refuses to allow machines to work outside cities, which are male bastions. Meanwhile, most women live in simple, natural communities out in the country. Women’s science fiction also shares concerns about using technology for human needs, and imagining reproductive methods and styles of parenting that free women from carrying the brunt of bearing and rearing children. An example is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which takes place on a planet in which each person, randomly and periodically, changes from a neutral state and becomes either male or female.

Valuing the Personal

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Emphasizing community effort and heroism, women’s writing also tends to value the personal. Characters are developed deeply, and their personal concerns are considered important to their own lives and to the plot of the story. Following the feminist adage that the personal is political, the concerns of individuals are seen to be integral to the community and issues in which they are involved. Jane Austen’s early nineteenth century novels offer a prime example: Her protagonists, observers of community and gender roles, are the objects of their author’s interest, undergoing subtle characterization and growth throughout the novels.

Another example of this theme is Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women: Or, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (1868-1869), in which four sisters and their mother, left alone as a community of women while their father is in Civil War, manage their lives. Each daughter’s character is explored in depth, and although their personalities differ greatly, each contributes to the whole that is the family. The reader ends up caring deeply about each character and about the fate of the family as a whole as personalities and events interact.

This value given to the personal is reflected in the importance placed by feminists on biography, and particularly autobiography and autobiographical fiction. As an author looks at her own life and the lessons she has gained from it, and from her interactions with others in it, the reader can share in these lessons. Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989) is an example. In addition, the book gives the non-Chinese reader a glimpse of how Chinese and Chinese American women have lived out their lives, complete with glimpses of the ways they have handled the restrictions placed on them, their interactions with others, and the events of their lives. While women’s autobiography at one time was considered uninteresting in any serious way, because women’s lives were considered by the mainstream (white, male) critic to be uninteresting, feminists are understanding that such accounts are extremely important for understanding the breadth and depth of female experience. In fact, there is a developing interest in women’s diaries, journals, and letters, and in gathering oral history of women who have not been able to write down their experiences.

The Privilege of Writing

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One thing feminist writers have recognized at least since the days of Woolf, who writes about the issue in A Room of One’s Own, is that writing requires a certain degree of privilege. One of the reasons, she suggests, that until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries so few women became published authors is that most women have been required to spend their whole time and energy on serving and maintaining their families, and that privacy and leisure have seldom been accorded to women. Woolf’s reasoning that in order to write fiction a woman needs enough money on which to live during the process and a room of her own in which to work in solitude and without interruption, has been accepted as axiomatic, although it was not, until that time, recognized as a primary reason women and many men could not become writers.

If one main theme could be claimed for feminist literature, and for feminist evaluation of literature, it would be the importance of listening to female voices of all colors in addition to those of males, and of taking women’s experiences seriously. This is done through reclaiming and valuing previously undervalued women’s writings of the past, and through taking seriously the writing of women in the present.


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Suggested Readings

Barrett, Ellen, and Mary Cullinan. American Women Writers: Diverse Voices in Prose Since 1845. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Examines the work of a large number of American women writers, interpreting their work from the viewpoint of feminist literary criticism.

Baym, Nina. Women’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and About Women in America, 1820-1870. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978. Provides a feminist critique of the popular and prolific women fiction writers of the nineteenth century.

Bernikow, Louise. Among Women. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. Explores relationships among women, using authors such as Virginia Woolf and Louisa May Alcott as examples.

Davidson, Cathy N., and Linda Wagner-Martin, eds. The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writings in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. An exhaustive reference book on women writers and women’s writing.

Ferguson, Mary Anne. Images of Women in Literature. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991. Organizes writings, primarily of women, that shed light on various traditional and nontraditional images of women.

Pratt, Annis. Archetypal Patterns in Women’s Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. Explores the differences in male and female perspectives on various literary themes.

Stanley, Liz. The Auto/biographical I: The Theory and Practice of Feminist Auto/biography. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1992. Provides a feminist analysis of the value and importance of women’s autobiography.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929. Addresses the issue of women’s need for sufficient money and privacy in order to write. Explores the question of why women have not written more by imagining the situation of William Shakespeare’s equally talented hypothetical sister.

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