Feminism in Literature Women's Literature from 1960 to the Present - Essay


(Feminism in Literature)

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.

Representative Works

(Feminism in Literature)

Denise Chávez

The Last of the Menu Girls (short stories) 1986

Face of an Angel (novel) 1994

Alice Childress

Florence (play) 1949

Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White (play) 1966

Wine in the Wilderness (play) 1969

A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich (novel) 1973

Frank Chin

Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers [editor, with others] (anthology) 1974

Hélène Cixous

Dedans [Inside] (novel) 1969

La Jeune née [with Catherine Clément; The Newly Born Woman] (essays) 1975

Annie Dillard

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (essays) 1976

Holy the Firm (essays) 1977

Teaching a Stone to Talk (essays) 1982

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Arranged Marriage (short stories) 1995

The Mistress of Spices (novel) 1997

Rosalyn Drexler

The Line of Least Existence and Other Plays (plays) 1967

The Cosmopolitan Girl (novel) 1974

Buchi Emecheta

Second Class...

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Denise Levertov (Poem Date 1967)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Levertov, Denise. "Hypocrite Women." In Poems, 1960-67. New Directions, 1967.

The following poem by Levertov was composed in 1967, and like many of the poet's other works, it focuses on issues of female self-definition and the complex nature of femininity.


Hypocrite women, how seldom we speak
of our own doubts, while dubiously
we mother man in his doubt!

And if at Mill Valley perched in the trees
the sweet rain drifting through western air
a white sweating bull of...

(The entire section is 172 words.)

Germaine Greer (Essay Date May 1970)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Greer, Germaine. "The Politics of Female Sexuality, Oz, May 1970." In The Madwoman's Underclothes: Essays in Occasional Writings, pp. 36-7. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.

In the following excerpt, originally published in 1970, Greer reflects on the nature of female sexuality, arguing for acceptance of the female sexual organs by women themselves.

From Female Energy Oz, for which I was guest editor.

One of the chief mechanisms in the suppression of female humanity is the obliteration of female sexuality. Historically the process can be traced in the change in the...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Jamaica Kincaid (Short Story Date 26 June 1978)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Kincaid, Jamaica. "Girl." In At the Bottom of the River, pp. 3-5. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Inc., 1979.

The following story, "Girl," was the first short story to be published by Kincaid. It appeared in the June 26, 1978 edition of The New Yorker, and was eventually reissued in Kincaid's award-winning short story collection At the Bottom of the River (1979).

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Audre Lorde (Poem Date 1978)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Lorde, Audre. "From the House of Yemanjá." In The Black Unicorn. Crossing Press, 1978.

In the following poem, Lorde, who described herself as "a black lesbian feminist writer poet," uses a Western Nigerian legend about the goddess of the oceans to reflect upon the role of a mother.


My mother had two faces and a frying pot
where she cooked up her daughters
into girls
before she fixed our dinner.
My mother had two faces
and a broken pot
where she hid out a perfect daughter

(The entire section is 334 words.)

Leslie Marmon Silko (Short Story Date 1981)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Yellow Woman.” In Storyteller, pp. 54-62. New York: Seaver Books, 1981.

A Native American from Laguna Pueblo, Silko often retells legends derived from the oral folklore traditions of her own people. The following excerpt, from the short story Yellow Woman, is an example of Silko’s use of these traditions in her own writing.


My thigh clung to his with dampness, and I watched the sun rising up through the tamaracks and willows. The small brown water birds came to the river and hopped across the mud, leaving brown scratches in the alkali-white crust. They...

(The entire section is 4273 words.)

Bharati Mukherjee (Short Story Date 1988)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Mukherjee, Bharati. "The Management of Grief." In The Middleman and Other Stories. Canada: Penguin Books, 1988.

Born in India, Mukherjee, who now resides in Canada, writes stories that often reflect on issues significant to people who have migrated from one culture to another. In the following excerpt, Mukherjee captures the tragic consequences of an airline crash on a set of neighbors and friends as they struggle to cope with their loss.

Four days later, I find Kusum squatting on a rock overlooking a bay in Ireland. It isn't a big rock, but it juts sharply out over water. This is as close as we'll ever get to them....

(The entire section is 1408 words.)

Elaine Showalter (Essay Date 1973)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. "Killing the Angel in the House: The Autonomy of Women Writers." Antioch Review 32, no. 3 (1973): 339-53.

In the following essay, Showalter reflects on the growth of writing from a feminist perspective, focusing on women's issues and emotional expression in women's writing in the twentieth century, briefly discussing the works of various authors, including Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, Sylvia Plath, Erica Jong, and Elizabeth Sargent.

Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.

—Virginia Woolf

In a paper called...

(The entire section is 5352 words.)

Sally Burke (Essay Date 1996)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Burke, Sally. "The Second Wave: A Multiplicity of Concerns." In American Feminist Playwrights: A Critical History, pp. 139-90. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

In the following excerpt, Burke provides a brief history of the second-wave feminist movement, as well as examines the growth and writings of many feminist playwrights during the 1960s to the mid-1990s, including Alice Childress, Megan Terry, Adrienne Kennedy, Rosalyn Drexler, and others.

Under the veneer of 1950s complacency, a new consciousness simmered among women. Buoyed by a self-confidence developed when many managed homes and jobs during World War II,...

(The entire section is 11735 words.)

Elliott Butler–Evans (Essay Date 1989)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Butler–Evans, Elliott. “Enabling Discourse for Afro–American Women Writers.” In Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Works of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, pp. 37–58. Philadelphia, Penn.: Temple University Press, 1989.

In the following essay, Butler–Evans writes that the rise of Black feminist discourse took a secondary role in comparison to the issues surrounding the politics of race, however, he feels the resulting Black feminist literature is more complex than that of Black nationalist or general liberal feminist writing.

The broad–based political movement that...

(The entire section is 8020 words.)

Esther Mikyung Ghymn (Essay Date 1995)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Ghymn, Esther Mikyung. Introduction to Images of Asian American Women by Asian American Women Writers, pp. 1-10. New York, N.Y.: Peter Lang, 1995.

In the following introduction to her book about Asian American women authors, Ghymn reviews the history of Asian American women's writing in English, touching on issues of race and gender as they are addressed in the works of such authors as Mitsuye Yamada, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Hisaye Yamamoto.

The purpose of this study is to examine the images of Asian American women as presented by twelve prominent Asian American women writers. Almost all the well-known Asian...

(The entire section is 3608 words.)

Feminist Literary Theory

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Kolodny, Annette. "Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism." In Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, edited by Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl, pp. 97-116. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

In the following essay, Kolodny traces the rise and development of feminist literary critical theory in the mid-twentieth century and beyond.

Had anyone the prescience, ten years ago, to pose the question of defining a "feminist" literary criticism, she might have been told, in the wake of Mary Ellmann's...

(The entire section is 11239 words.)

Mary J. Carruthers (Essay Date Summer 1983)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Carruthers, Mary J. "The Re-Vision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas." Hudson Review 36, no. 2 (summer 1983): 293-322.

In the following essay, Carruthers examines four volumes of poetry in the context of what she defines as the "Lesbian poetry" movement.

The process of naming and defining is not an intellectual game, but a grasping of our experience and a key to action.

—Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence

This essay chiefly considers four volumes of poetry, three published in 1978 and one the previous year. They are...

(The entire section is 7714 words.)

Carolyn Dever (Essay Date 1997)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Dever, Carolyn. “Obstructive Behavior: Dykes in the Mainstream of Feminist Theory.” In Cross-Purposes: Lesbians, Feminists, and the Limits of Alliance, edited by Dana Heller, pp. 19–41. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1997.

In the following essay, Dever argues that feminist theory has at least partly been influenced by a set of lesbian responses that have helped shape, divert, and eventually develop mainstream feminist literary theory.

The “obstructive behavior” I hope to analyze in this chapter involves the consideration of “dykes,” by which I mean obstructions that impede or redirect a...

(The entire section is 10172 words.)

Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)


Abel, Elizabeth. "Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation." In Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Barbara Christian, and Helene Maglen, pp. 102-31. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Contends that Toni Morrison's story "Recitatif" uses the relationship between its two protagonists to explore the operations of race in the feminine perspective.

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1986, 311 p....

(The entire section is 1208 words.)