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.