Modern Feminist Literature is a genre that's not just for and about women. We offer a suggested framework for teachers and students to better understand its origins, and identify exemplary works by authors who explore themes of gender and identity.
In the broadest terms, "Feminist Literature" is the expression of the philosophy of feminism: that women are equal to men. But it's much more complicated, particularly for women, who may express contempt for other women who may not agree with their interpretation of balancing "feminist" and "feminine." Summed up best by the "mother of feminism," Mary Wollstonecraft's prescient observation in 1792:
"My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable ot stand alone."
-- A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
The definitions of Feminist Literature are far-ranging, so we offer more questions than answers. Which authors and works qualify? Can only women be feminists, or are males considered? Do feminists have to hate men or attempt to "get even" by suppressing them? Is it adequate to define the genre as women authors who give voice to their inner struggles, feeling forced to maintain outward appearances, when they would rather satisfy their own needs and wants? Does Feminist Literature have to be "provocative" "controversial" "shocking" "non-judgemental" "unconventional" and "anti-men"? Is it enough for its authors to write great stories featuring strong characters who grip our hearts and minds (and might make us laugh)? Do they have to involve an interesting female twist on a traditional male archetype? Case in point: Luella Miller is a female vampire who inflicts her victims with stifling feminine traits such as dependency and helplessness, also a great example of Gothic Literature.
Back to definitions. "Feminism" is a broad collection of social theories, political movements, and moral philosophies. Its meaning and expression have changed over time. Being a feminist is truly self-defining-- women choose to embrace its practice in their own lives, and may serve as inspiration for others to follow. Generally, its mission is to counter, resist, and eventually eliminate the traditions of a male-dominated society, in favor of equality for all. "Feminist literature" gave these movements voice, and also advocated for women writers being accepted as legitimate sources of creative expression (it was common for many 19th century female authors to assume male pseudonyms in order to be taken seriously).
When did feminist literature become "modern"? Some scholars set the date as works published during or after the 1960s (Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, et al), while others credit Kate Chopin's The Story of An Hour (1894) for kicking-off the "modern" genre. We concur with the latter. For more insights on this story, we offer The Story of An Hour Study Guide.
Women have always conveyed their philosophies through literary expressions, but with fluctuating levels of influence. A contemporary advocacy organization, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (SeeJane.org) aims to empower women to influence, create, be seen and heard (both in front of and behind the camera), and create positive role models for girls. Have we evolved to the point where we no longer label contemporary work as "Feminist Literature"? Focus on skilled storytelling by authors who deliver interesting, flawed characters, evolving on a road to find their own happiness? While we're at it, perhaps we ditch "literature" in favor of "media."
Note: This introduction to the genre of Modern Feminist Literature is by no means complete. We offer it for our readers' enjoyment to highlight outstanding works of fiction and non-fiction featured at American Literature. Please use the many Useful Links, Quotes, and Discussion Questions to pursue your interest further.
We found this chronological List of Feminist Literature, spanning the 15th to 21st century, very interesting. You decide whether all the works fit the genre and how it's evolved over time!
The Awakening, also by Kate Chopin about a woman's discovery of her own sexual needs and desire for independence, caused Chopin to be ostracized and question her confidence as a writer, shortly after it was published in 1899. (Fortunate for us, she went on to create an incredible canon of masterful short stories).
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, considered the "mother of feminism" argues in her famous work published in 1792 that women are not inferior to men by nature, but lack education. Reason should be the basis of social order to achieve equality.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a powerful call to change the public's perception about women's rights to make decisions about their own health and medical treatment. She offers a fascinating account of the work's impact in Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper. You may also enjoy reading her collection of Suffrage Songs and Verses.
The Declaration of Sentiments, Seneca Falls Convention, New York (1848) by Elizabeth Cady Stanton articulated the many grievances against women, galvanizing the women's suffrage movement calling for equal rights of women.
A Trip to Cuba by Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist, poet, and travel writer, best remembered for penning the Union's most popular song during the American Civil War, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, traveled independently to mysterious places of the time, such as Cuba in 1860, opening the eyes of many Americans in her bold observations about the complexities of slavery, communism, and revolution, at a time when her own country was on the brink of civil war. The book remained banished in Cuba for years as "dangerous and incendiary material."
Virginia Woolf's essay, A Room of One's Own (1929) is not yet in the public domain, but we share a summary, considered one of the most influential works of feminist literature. Among many topics including access to education, the four Marys, lesbianism, and women's writing, Woolf discusses the sharp contrast between how women are idealized in fiction written by men versus how they are treated in real life.
Feminist literature, both fiction and non-fiction, supports feminist goals for the equal rights of women in their economic, social, civic, and political status relative to men. Literature dealing with the alientation of women living in a patriarchal society dates back to the 15th century with The Tale of Joan of Arc by Christine de Pisan, followed in the 18th century by Mary Wollstonecraft. The field started getting crowded early in the 19th century: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Charlotte Bronte, Florence Nightingale, Margaret Fuller (who wrote Woman in the Nineteenth Century in 1845, considered the first major American feminist work), Virginia Woolf, and Elizabeth Perkins Gilman, who advocated for women's health rights. Ida Tarbell pioneered investigative journalism, helped dissolve Standard Oil, and wrote The Business of Being a Woman.
Kate Chopin's best known novel, The Awakening (1899) and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's A New England Nun (1891) led the emerging modern feminist literary movement into the 20th century, during which women earned the right to vote, fought for economic, social, political, educational, and reproductive rights and led to the 1960s and 70s Women's Liberation Movement, led by such authors as with Gloria Steinem.
The 21st century brought women screenwriters and directors, such as Nora Ephron's (When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle), Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, and in 2017, a resurgence of interest in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale with a new streaming video series. The Women's March After President Trump's Inauguration (2017) drew more than a million protesters in cities throughout America and the world.
It's helpful to know the list of grievances and demands a group of activitists (mostly women) published in The Declaration of Sentiments in 1848. Principal author and first women's conference organizer was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with high-profile support from abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Many more struggles and attempts to change public opinion followed the conference; it took 72 more years for women to secure the right to vote. Feminism, and the literature which gives it voice, have evolved over time in meaning, intent, and expression across multiple arenas: political, moral, and social, in what's been classified as three "waves." What is the meaning of "Feminism"?
Explain the significance of the following quotes in the context of feminist literature:
"He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world."
-- The Awakening, Kate Chopin
"Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream."
-- A Room of One's Own (summary), Virginia Woolf
"She was a 'greenhorn' janitress, she was twenty-two and dowryless, and, according to the traditions of her people, condemned to be shelved aside as an unated thing-- a creature of pity and ridicule." "I want a little life! I want a little joy!"
-- Wings, Anzia Yezierska
"What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in the face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!"
-- The Story of An Hour, Kate Chopin
"I am glad my case is not serious! But these nervous troubles are dreadfully depressing. John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him."
-- The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
"I know how things can be—for women. I tell you, it's queer, Mrs Peters. We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things—it's all just a different kind of the same thing."
-- Trifles, Susan Glaspell
"Now, 'women will be women.' Mark the change; Calm motherhood in place of boisterous youth; No warfare now; to manage and arrange, To nurture with wise care, is woman's way, In peace and fruitful industry her sway, In love and truth."
-- Suffrage Songs and Verses, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
1. Are women solely qualified to be feminists and feminist literature authors?
2. Frederick Douglass supported women's suffrage, attended and voted for The Declaration of Sentiments in 1846. After reviewing his writings, can Douglass be considered a contributor to the genre of Feminist Literature? Can you identify other male authors who might qualify for the genre?
3. Discuss The Story of An Hour's relevance to the Feminist Movement, its themes and underlying message. Explain whether you think Chopin's work ushered in "modern feminist literature"?
4. One of the criteria of feminist literature is giving voice to the conflict between internal wants and external expectations. Describe Kate Chopin's use of irony (either in The Story of An Hour, The Awakening, or Desiree's Baby) in which what is said explicitly is much different than the characters' thoughts or textual inferences. Provide examples.
5. Read Chopin's allegory about freedom from a cage, her short-short story, Emancipation: A Life Fable. Compare its theme, tone, symbols, and use of irony to modern feminist literature.
6. Discuss why Charlotte Bronte's novel, Jane Eyre was considered a "feminist manifesto." Some say Bronte's writing was revolutionary in her disclosure of the private consciousness of her main character, and her delivery of such a positive role model of resilence, brains, and defiance of conventional ideals.
7. Florence Nightingale was considered by many to be one of the first feminists in her advocacy to educate women and professionalize the field of nursing; others criticized her for not giving feminism enough voice. Consider her quote, and discuss whether being gender-blind (writing about one's achievements or goals, rather than one's sex) is also a form of feminist literature: "I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took any excuse."
8. Read Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's story, Luella Miller, a fine example of Gothic Literature. It is about a female vampire who is a parasitic host, consuming her victims with her own dependency, helplessness, and fear. Explain whether you consider it a "feminist parable."
9. After reviewing the history of feminism and the genre of literature, do you think "Feminist Literature" is an outdated term for modern works? Cite examples of authors and their works to support your position.
Essay prompt: Pick a contemporary female author, read her biographical profile. How does her personal story reflect in her writing? (Consider Malala Yousafzai's I Am Malala, Mary Gaitskill's Somebody With a Little Hammer, or J.K. Rowling)
Feminist Approaches to Literature, read more about the genre
History of Feminism, an introduction
Bronte's Feminist Flair in Jane Eyre: "I will not sell my soul to buy bliss."
Top Ten Most Influential Feminist Books, including Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique
List of Feminist Literature from the 15th to 21st centuries
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