In several lectures she gave during the 1930s and later, writer Virginia Woolf reflected upon the challenge she and her fellow female artists faced at the beginning of the century—Woolf noted that although women had been writing for centuries, the subjects they had written about and even the style in which they wrote was often dictated not by their own creative vision, but by standards imposed upon women by society in general. Advances in women's issues, such as the right to vote, the fight for reproductive rights, and the opportunities women gained during the first half of the century in the arena of work outside the home were major developments. Despite these changes, women artists during these years continued to feel restricted by imposed standards of creativity. It would take, notes Elaine Showalter in numerous essays detailing the growth and development of women's writing in the twentieth century, several decades before women would completely break the mold of respectability under which they felt compelled to write. Fuelled by the feminist movement of the early twentieth century, many women authors began to explore new modes of expression, focusing increasingly on issues that were central to their existence as women and as artists. By the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, with the rise of the second wave feminist movement, women artists began expanding their repertoire of creative expression to openly include, and even celebrate their power and experiences as women. Works such as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963), Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1971), and others by authors like Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, and Marilyn French all helped to awaken the feminine consciousness, paving the way for later writers to explore the reality of women's experience in their writings openly and freely. Works of literature by women authors during the 1960s and later thus began to focus increasingly on women's viewpoints, with issues such as race and gender, sexuality, and personal freedom taking center stage. Additionally, these years also witnessed the emergence of feminist literary theorists, many of whom set about redefining the canon, arguing for inclusion of women writers who had been marginalized by mainstream academia in the past. The latter half of the twentieth century also provided fertile ground for growing recognition of women writers of color. Lesbian literature has also flourished, and women have openly explored concerns about sexuality, sexual orientation, politics, and other gender issues in their works.
Prior to the mid-1960s, women writers who ventured beyond the established feminine stereotypes were regularly characterized as "outcasts," denounced as vulgar or, in the case of Simone de Beauvoir, even "frigid." Nonetheless, many of them persisted in exploring new ways of expression, and poets such as Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and others continued to write works articulating the struggle they faced as authors who could choose to "write badly and be patronized or to write well and be attacked," according to Show-alter. Another aspect of this struggle to gain respect as independent artists was the fight between women who felt compelled to "transcend" their femininity, opting to write as androgynous artists—Woolf chief among them—and others, including Erica Jong, who felt strongly that unless women could find the means to express themselves openly and clearly, they might as well not write at all. Eventually, many women writers in the 1960s and later broke through the stereotypical and restrictive paradigm of female authorship, creating and publishing works that abounded in an open celebration and exploration of issues that were central to women's existence, including sexuality. By the 1990s, critical and academic opinion had shifted, and works such as Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, which deals directly with women's physical and emotional experiences, were hailed as both innovative and literary.
A similar, yet different path to progress marks the writing of women authors of color, who eventually gained critical recognition for their efforts as chroniclers of their cultures, races, and gender. Although there were numerous black female authors writing during the early part of the century, especially during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance, black feminist authors's exploration of both race and gender issues in their writing kept them outside the American feminist discourse that was dominated by either black male activists or white feminists. Scholars have also pointed to the fact that while works such as Friedan's The Feminine Mystique did much to draw attention to the emerging feminine consciousness, they did not address the needs and issues significant to women of color. Further, the narrative strategies used by such pioneering black authors such as Zora Neale Hurston, whose works focused primarily on the private and domestic domain, were, until the 1970s and 1980s, dismissed by both white feminists and black male intellectuals because of the perception that their focus was too limited and narrow. Later critical opinion, however, has reevaluated the writing style and strategies used by many female authors of color to recognize that the personal narrative is a powerful and uniquely expressive mode of extrapolating and commenting upon the state of the world inhabited by these writers. Asian writers have used these strategies particularly well to counter stereotyped images of their own culture and gender. In several anthologies published in the late-twentieth century, including Aiiieeeee!! Asian writers, both male and female have attempted to create new images of Asian American literature. Asian women writers have been faulted for creating what are perceived as unrealistic portrayals of Asian American culture, especially images of the Asian woman as powerful and dominant, often seen in the works of such writers as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan. Mitsuye Yamada has addressed this conflict in her writing, arguing for a cohesive creative vision and the space to express it.
Modern women's writing continues to explore new genres and means of expression, and women writers today participate fully in both the creative and scholarly process. Women's studies, feminist literary theory, and women's mode of writing and expressing are now established areas of academic environments, and women are exacting continued and growing control over their own literary and social spheres.