As long as theater has existed as a human endeavor, women have been involved in the creation of performances. In Western society, the earliest known plays were various types of fertility celebrations held in honor of the Greek god Dionysus; many of these rites were almost certainly first performed by women known as maenads. Eventually, when theater became a state-sponsored institution, women were no longer allowed to participate in public performance. Though this exclusion of women is unfortunately all too typical of theater history, during the twentieth century a new style of issue-oriented, female-centered theater began to emerge, led by pioneering feminist playwrights such as Alice Childress, Tina Howe, Caryl Churchill, and Marsha Norman, among others. Feminist theater can be defined as theater that works to highlight women’s social and political struggles, while in the process exposing patriarchal structures in society and the politics of prevailing gender roles. Although feminist theater has waxed and waned throughout its history, feminist writers and performers have made a lasting mark on the world of contemporary theater.
The earliest known female playwright did not emerge in the twentieth century but much earlier, in the tenth century—Hroswitha of Gandersheim , a nun who wrote six comedies in Latin during her lifetime. Other early playwrights included Isabella Andreini, a famous star of the Italian commedia dell’arte (an improvisational style of theater popular during the Renaissance), and Aphra Behn, one of the most popular playwrights in England during the seventeenth century. However, though women were writing plays and participating in various ways in the theater, true feminist theater did not emerge as a genre until the twentieth century.