Images of Women in Literature Analysis

Colonial America

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Women in Colonial America were represented as Eve in the garden, and their role was to support male leaders of the religious and political community (that is, their husbands) by keeping house and rearing strong, moral children. This ideology influenced fair/virgin and dark/virago stereotypes used by American writers from Puritans to postmodernists.

Believing that reading and writing diminished women’s physical and mental capabilities, Puritans discouraged female authors. However, the first published poet of British North America was Anne Bradstreet, whose The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650) illustrated the difficult position in which the first generations of colonists found themselves. Puritans should have approached the wilderness with complete faith in God’s mission for them; yet, as Bradstreet’s poetry suggested, many were initially appalled by the wilderness and perhaps doubted their faith, as Bradstreet had at the deaths of her grandchildren. Far from being a feminist, Bradstreet greatly accepted her role in society and questioned the properness of her writing.

Another early form of women’s writing was the captivity narrative, which showed the vulnerability of white womanhood to hostile wilderness and native attacks. The most famous of these was Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 narrative of her experiences during King Philip’s War.

Women began to play more active roles in American literature during the American Revolution. The popular dramatist Mercy Otis Warren (sister of James Otis and friend of John and Abigail Adams) was at the center of revolutionary politics, and her early plays satirized British military and political leaders. After the revolution, Warren stated that women’s role in the new republic was to rear patriotic sons; hence, her later works promote the value of motherhood.

Nineteenth Century Womanhood

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Popular British sentimental and epistolary fiction such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741) and Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-1748) sparked American interest in novels. After the revolutionary war, two-thirds of the American population was under the age of twenty-four, women far outnumbered men, and the average marrying age for women was twenty- two. Women were not yet attending college—Oberlin College was the first to admit women, in 1837—and even secondary education for female students was rare. Therefore, women spent their years from adolescence to early adulthood looking for suitable husbands. Women had to choose carefully because under the laws of coverture, husbands had total control over their wives’ possessions and bodies. In a society where women could not choose freely from many men, living vicariously through fictional heroines’ experiences allowed young women to develop some understanding of what kind of man they might want to marry. A good early example of a novel serving this role is Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette: Or, The History of Eliza Wharton (1797). Eliza sees several types of marriages: her mother’s to a clergyman, her cousin’s to a thoughtful and loving young officer, and her best friend’s to a gold- digging womanizer. Eliza rejects all these models and eventually makes a fatal error in letting a man seduce her. By reading this story, young women not only learned their marriage options but also were warned of the perils of succumbing to sexual desire. Abandoned by her family and friends, Eliza dies alone after giving birth to her seducer’s child.

In early nineteenth century America, writing was one of the few professions open to women. The didactic message of sentimental and domestic...

(The entire section is 742 words.)

Turn-of-the-Century Realism

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

One type of fiction that suffered at the hands of male critics was late nineteenth century local color writing, a subgenre of realism characterized by strong references to place, use of dialect, and descriptions of local traditions. Most local color writers were women who created strong and independent female characters. A good example is Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), in which a female journalist spends a summer living among a community of women in a small Maine fishing village. Most of the village men have either died at sea or moved west, but the strong women make due without them.

Most male-authored literature between the Civil War and World War I portrayed women either as members of the elite (in the works of Henry James and William Dean Howells) or as poor slum girls and prostitutes abused by their surroundings (in the works of Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser). James valued the concept of true womanhood, and his fiction affirmed rigid standards of beauty and morality. The title character of his novella Daisy Miller (1878), the daughter of a newly rich industrial leader, thwarts custom by publicly meeting with men unchaperoned. Proper society promptly snubs her. The fates of working-class girls who “go wrong” were equally severe. The heroine of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) is abandoned by her family and friends after having an affair with a traveling salesman.

While turn-of-the-century fiction such as Kathleen Thompson Norris’ Mother (1911) celebrated domesticity, other women’s writing challenged it as an oppressive lifestyle. In The Awakening (1899), Kate Chopin’s heroine escapes an emotionally sterile marriage. Charlotte Perkins Gilman similarly challenges the ideal of marriage in her novella The Yellow Wall-paper (1892) and her feminist utopian novel Herland (1915).


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

White male modernist authors often used stock characters in their fiction. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway portrayed women as nonintellectual, sexual objects, and John Steinbeck portrayed strong, nurturing mothers such as Ma Joad and Rose of Sharon in The Grapes of Wrath (1939) or lusty whores such as Dora Flood, the madam of Cannery Row (1945). Male authors of this time often praised their female counterparts, but specifically as women writers. Meanwhile, authors such as Edith Wharton were creating superior female characters more diverse than those of her male contemporaries.

Modernist prairie literature offered specialized female images. In Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913), an intellectual young woman inherits her father’s farm, and her faith in the land is rewarded by abundant harvests. Later, she marries her soulmate and enjoys sexual and intellectual fulfillment. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (1935) taught young girls to value marriage, motherhood, and hard work, reinforcing traditional roles. Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles (1916) shows a less idyllic side of prairie life—a woman virtually imprisoned by her husband. A pet bird brightens her life, but her husband kills it and she kills him. Prairie life was a dismal trap for women not fortunate enough to find soulmates.

Two lesbian modernist writers whose stylistic innovations represented human consciousness are Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes. In Three Lives (1909), Stein’s language reflects the perceptions of three servant girls. Rather than using a linear narrative for her encyclopedic family history The Making of Americans (1925), Stein wrote according to the natural rhythms and repetitions of speech. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), perhaps Stein’s best-known work, presents a memoir of her life through the eyes of Toklas, her lifelong companion. Like Stein, Barnes used alternative language to make sense of the world. For Ryder (1928), a bawdy romp through her family history, she uses a mock-Elizabethan prose to denounce patriarchal authority. Sculpting baroque language in Nightwood (1936), Barnes renders a surreal psychological tale of lesbian love.

Socialist writers Estelle Baker and Agnes Smedley also used literature to challenge traditional women’s roles. Both Baker’s The Rose Door (1911) and Smedley’s Daughter of Earth (1929) expose prostitution as a social problem generated by traditional views of womanhood and marriage. Such innovative images of womanhood became more common as the century progressed.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Many American women, represented by the stereotypical figure of “Rosie the Riveter,” went to work in factories while American men fought in World War II. After the war, some gladly returned to domestic life, but others were not so content. Post- World War II America witnessed great shifts in women’s work from housekeeping to industrial and professional employment. Improved methods of family planning lowered birthrates and decreased family sizes, changing prevailing concepts of motherhood. These factors also influenced literary portrayals of women. A constant stream of domestic literature flowed through the end of the century, but growing numbers of works such as Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980) celebrate alternative female experiences.

Beginning in the late 1960’s, women’s writing branched into several experimental genres, including science fiction and “cyberpunk.” Utopian writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ used imaginary cultures to critique contemporary values. In The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Le Guin chronicles a man’s visit to an androgynous society where everyone can bear children and be held responsible for their upbringing. Le Guin wrote Always Coming Home (1985) as an archaeology of a future civilization, contrasting its militaristic patriarchy with a productive communal ecological culture. In The Female Man (1975), Russ presents a self-consciously subversive fiction about four women from different times: a soon-to-be-married woman from the Great Depression, a 1970’s feminist, a member of a women-only utopia, and a woman from a future society where the sexes battle against each other.

Other writers used the science-fiction and cyberpunk genres to explore the effects of contemporary science, reproductive technology, and multinational capitalism. After surviving a nuclear disaster, the African American heroine of Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn (1987) finds herself among extraterrestrial genetic engineers attempting to transform humanity through interbreeding. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973), by James Tiptree, Jr. (the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, a popular writer whom most readers falsely assume to be male), relates the cyberspace Pygmalion story of a squalid streetgirl physically redesigned for stardom in a consumer culture. Pat Cadigan’s cyberpunk novel Synners (1991) questions the role of gender and race in virtual reality technologies. Borrowing, plagiarizing, and cannibalizing literature from Shakespeare to cyberpunk, Kathy Acker rewrote the textual body as a desiring and desirable site. Her novels, including Don Quixote (1986) and Empire of the Senseless (1988), express a brutal need for freedom from a sadistic patriarchy.

Women in Ethnic American Literature

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Generations of American literature have stereotyped American Indian women as mysterious, quiet helpmates to white settlers. Combating this Pocohontas image, American Indian female writers sought recognition for vital feminine qualities in native culture, especially its rich tradition of oral narratives dating back to stories of goddesses in nature. Pueblo Laguna and Sioux critic and novelist Paula Gunn Allen devotes much of her work to promoting the American Indian worldview—feminine interconnectedness rather than rigid masculine order. Chippewa Louise Erdrich uses oral tradition to produce communal stories in her novel Love Medicine (1984).

Representations of African American women in literature are complex....

(The entire section is 905 words.)

Women in Canadian Literature

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Whereas women’s literature has traditionally been overshadowed by men’s writing in the United States, female writers dominate Canadian literature. Canada produced the first North American novel: The History of Emily Montague (1769), by Frances Brooke, the wife of a British Chaplain stationed at Quebec City. Much like women portrayed in early U.S. fiction, Brooke’s heroine considers marrying different types of men—Englishmen, Frenchmen, and even an American Indian. While U.S. literature often presents masculine settlers struggling to tame Mother Nature, Canadian literature more often suggests feminine heroes struggling against a harsh masculine landscape; the best early example is Major John Richardson’s...

(The entire section is 567 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Ammons, Elizabeth. Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. This first major consideration of female writers from this time period argues that their long fiction is diverse (sentimental, local color, protest fiction, mystery, ethnic) yet unified by common themes.

Baym, Nina. Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and About Women in America, 1820-1870. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978. Discusses significant female writers whose careers flourished with the popularity of women’s fiction through the first half of the nineteenth century and suggests reasons for the waning of their popularity.


(The entire section is 499 words.)