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


(The entire section is 221 words.)

Primary Sources

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


SOURCE: Ducrest,...

(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....

(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...

(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...

(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,...

(The entire section is 218 words.)


Elaine Showalter (Essay Date 1977)

SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. "The Female Tradition." In A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists...

(The entire section is 10293 words.)

Susan Rubinow Gorsky (Essay Date 1992)

SOURCE: Gorsky, Susan Rubinow. "Introduction: Literature and Society." In Femininity to Feminism: Women...

(The entire section is 6345 words.)

Susan K. Harris (Essay Date 1993)

SOURCE: Harris, Susan K. "'But is it any good?' Evaluating Nineteenth-Century American Women's Fiction." In...

(The entire section is 7169 words.)

Dorothy Mermin (Essay Date 1993)

SOURCE: Mermin, Dorothy. “Entering the Literary Market.” In Godiva's Ride: Women of Letters in...

(The entire section is 9023 words.)

American Women Writers

Rennie Simson (Essay Date 1986)

SOURCE: Simson, Rennie. "Afro-American Poets of the Nineteenth Century." In Nineteenth-Century Women...

(The entire section is 4456 words.)

Susan Coultrap-Mcquin (Essay Date 1990)

Coultrap-McQuin, Susan. "Why Try a Writing Career?: The Ambiguous Cultural Context for Women Writers of the...

(The entire section is 6067 words.)

Marjorie Pryse (Essay Date 1997)

SOURCE: Pryse, Marjorie. "Origins of American Literary Regionalism: Gender in Irving, Stowe, and...

(The entire section is 10239 words.)

Lyde Cullen Sizer (Essay Date 2000)

SOURCE: Sizer, Lyde Cullen. "Introduction: My Sphere Rounds Out: Northern Women and the Written War,...

(The entire section is 7891 words.)

British Women Writers

Elaine Showalter (Essay Date 1977)

SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. "The Double Critical Standard and the Feminine Novel." In A Literature of...

(The entire section is 8455 words.)

Albert C. Sears (Essay Date Spring-Summer 2000)

SOURCE: Sears, Albert C. "The Politics and Gender of Duty in Frances Power Cobbe's The Duties of...

(The entire section is 5331 words.)

Valerie Sanders (Essay Date 2001)

Sanders, Valerie. “Women, Fiction and the Marketplace.” In Women and Literature in Britain...

(The entire section is 8532 words.)

Further Reading

Ardis, Ann L. "The Controversy over Realism in Fiction, 1885-1895." In New Women, New Novels: Feminism and Early...

(The entire section is 1481 words.)