Women in Modern Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Women in Modern Literature

Gender issues have been a topic in written literature since ancient times, when Greek poets such as Sappho and Homer wrote of female sexuality, marriage, and emotional bonds between women and their families, and philosophers questioned, and usually denigrated, the role of women in society. Christianity brought to literature the dichotomous virgin-whore—or "good girlbad girl"—archetype, modeled after the seemingly contradictory figures of the Virgin Mary and the Biblical prostitute Mary Magdalene, which has survived to the present day in literature and popular culture. In the Victorian period female literary paradigms began to shift as more women openly published their writings and women's emancipation became a major societal issue. At one end of the spectrum was the Victorian "Angel of the House," which placed women in the position of helpmate, homemaker, and superior social conscience, but which ultimately limited women's options to the realm of home and occasional volunteer work. At the other end was the newly emerging liberated woman who candidly demanded her right to education, suffrage, and the single life but who was generally treated as an outcast by respectable society and still could not vote, inherit property, or easily cultivate a career. Both figures appeared in and were scrutinized by the literature of the time. In the early twentieth century, as the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud became widely read, literature by and about women took on an interiorized dimension. Many later feminist thinkers considered Freud's ideas about women misogynistic and claimed that they said more about Freud's own insecurities and neuroses than about the actual state of women's psyches, but it cannot be denied that concepts such as castration anxiety, penis envy, and Oedipal and Electra complexes strongly influenced Western notions about women, particularly in literature, throughout the twentieth century. Literature by and about women in Latin American, Caribbean, Asian, and African countries has tended to focus on many of the same issues, in addition to more fundamental questions of human rights and the effects of colonization and slavery on women. In the modern feminist era—particularly after women earned the right to vote in many Western countries and gained greater access to education and the workplace—literature has concentrated increasingly on women's changing roles and continued obstacles to equality.