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date: 14 June 2024

Writing as a Woman in the Twentieth Centuryfree

Writing as a Woman in the Twentieth Centuryfree

  • Wendy Martin
  •  and Sharon Becker


  • North American Literatures

During the Progressive Era, roughly spanning 1890 to 1920, the American woman struggled to change the definition of womanhood in profound ways. At issue was the right to vote, to wear bloomers, to be free from corseting, to work outside the home, and to have a place in the world beyond the domestic sphere. By 1900 the “new woman” had emerged; these modern women were attending college, getting jobs, agitating for the right to vote, rejecting traditional domesticity, proudly asserting themselves in public, and in general, becoming an integral part of American popular culture and invading its literature as well.

At the end of the nineteenth century, writers such as Rebecca Harding Davis, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were already writing about women seeking lives outside traditional feminine norms. It is impossible, indeed, to trace developments in twentieth-century women's writing without considering one of the most important texts produced by an American woman in the late nineteenth century: Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899). Chopin's protagonist, Edna Pontellier, is dissatisfied with marriage, children, her home, and the stifling codes of a society that refuses to acknowledge women as creative, sexual beings. In response to her confining world, Edna is driven on a quest for autonomy, solitude, and self-discovery. This radical pursuit ultimately leads Edna to swim into the ocean until her strength leaves her. Because nineteenth-century writing, and by extension society, offered no effective narrative solutions to Edna's struggle to achieve selfhood, Chopin's protagonist drowns.

Although Edna's search for autonomy in a society hostile to women's independence ends with her drowning, each successive generation of women writers push Edna further and further to the shore of self-discovery. As the twentieth century progresses, the voices of women become louder and more artistically innovative. Women of color join the chorus, making American stories more vigorous, complex, and inventive. In the twentieth century, women's writing travels a course in which each generation of female characters progresses toward vital and independent lives, free from society's traditional limitations. From Lily Bart's death, hastened by her resistance to society's marital expectations, in Edith Wharton's House of Mirth (1905) to Sethe's escape from slavery into selfhood in Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), women writing fiction in the twentieth century created textual reflections of women's positions in American culture.

Writing Their Lives in the New Century

The suffrage movement, and the involvement of women in surrounding political movements such as socialism and the temperance movement, inspired a particular genre of writing that included both creative and political texts which examined the issues and problems facing women at the turn of the century. In The Traffic in Women, an essay published in Anarchism and Other Essays (1917), Emma Goldman views prostitution as a larger trope for the oppression of women in a capitalistic society. Elizabeth Robins's play Votes for Women (produced in 1907) and her novel The Convert (1907) portray heroines rejecting marriage proposals and undergoing abortions at a time when abortions were both scandalous and illegal, thus refusing domestic expectations for women to maintain their separate and equal place in the world. The autobiography also became a popular form of writing for women. Written by women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice James, autobiographies exposed the private thoughts and feelings of women at a time when the public expression of dissatisfaction by women was taboo. Other women writers interested in exploring the social situation of women did so through utopian fiction, often envisioning women living in a world free from gender constrictions. Charlotte Perkins Gilman expressed her yearnings for women's equality in Herland (1915), a utopian novel in which an all-female society is capable of reproducing without men and of building and maintaining a complex community.

Through the genres of regionalism and realism, women writers concentrated on the domestic details of women's lives in order to explore the powerful relationship between women's development and the society that created them. In regionalism, women established a congruous, and sometimes utopistic, relationship with the land as their thoughts, feelings, and struggles were reflected in the natural world around them. Heroines in realist novels were often set adrift in cityscapes, their fates tied to the whims of capitalism and patriarchal control. Women writers of regionalism and realism commonly used romantic and domestic plots to explicate not only women's position in the home, but in the world at large.

Writers of realism attempted to depict life in an objective manner and created stories that often focused on the details of everyday life. Edith Wharton's novels concentrate on upper-class women confined by the expectations imposed on them by a materialistic and acquisitive society. In her novels The House of Mirth (1905), Custom of the Country (1913) and The Age of Innocence (1920), Wharton portrays wealthy New York City society and how, at the turn of the century, this society created a generation of women, indulged and sheltered, who are disconnected from the world beyond tea parties, balls, and dressmakers. Wharton condemns the society for making these women ornamental and useless, while she simultaneously depicts them as sabotaging themselves through an acceptance of the definition of women as decorative objects.

As America became an increasingly large and complicated nation, interest grew in how Americans living in different parts of the country talked, ate, and lived. Women regionalist writers, whether their narratives focused on the South, East, or West, wrote of women's domestic lives with a specificity and complexity that has been overlooked. Both Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891) capture the New England landscape in exquisite detail, rendering a world of stoic women who live in a chosen state of often blissful isolation. Kate Chopin, Ellen Glasgow, and Grace King were all southerners who anchored their stories in the southern landscape. Both King and Chopin, in the subtle and complex stories, The Little Convent Girl (1892) and Desiree's Baby (1892), respectively, confront the issues of race and gender by delineating the convoluted nature of miscegenation, racial categories, and self-definition in the Deep South. Ellen Glasgow's novels, such as Virginia (1912) and Barren Ground (1925), capture the South on the cusp of change from a rural, agriculturally based society to a modern, mechanized one. Glasgow dramatizes southern women's struggle to escape the claustrophobic, patriarchal social code that historically dominated southern life. In The Land of Little Rain (1903), Mary Austin recounts her experiences in the Owens Valley desert. Austin rejects the names given to the places she visits, creating her own names for these sites and thus personalizing the landscape and symbolically blending herself inextricably with the earth. The heroines of Willa Cather's O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918) thrive in the harsh beauty of the Nebraskan prairie and embody a pioneer spirit essential, in Cather's view, to the human character, but one that is lost in modern America.

Women Outside the Mainstream

African-American women at the turn of the twentieth century were also involved in writing about the world around them. Alice Dunbar-Nelson's short stories, published at the turn of the century, helped establish the short story genre within the tradition of African-American literature. Francis Ellen Watkins Harper's novel, Iola Leroy (1892), delineates the African-American experience through the Civil War and Reconstruction. In 1900 Pauline E. Hopkins published Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South. Though the novel's framework is based on the traditional tropes of domestic and historical romance, Hopkins provides a startling account of bourgeois African-American life and offers the domestic drama, long the staple of white women writers, as a model of resistance to racism.

Women of other ethnicities and races also wrote at the turn of the twentieth century. Asian-American Edith Maud Eaton, who as Sui Sin Far published stories in a volume titled Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912), explored the lives of Chinese families living in Seattle and San Francisco. Gertrude Bonnin, a Native American writer who used the pen name Zitkala-Sa, authored collections of traditional Indian stories, Old Indian Legends (1901) and American Indian Stories (1921). Bonnin combined American storytelling techniques, such as the romantic plot, with Native American legends and contemporary native culture at a time when Indians were largely absent from the American cultural landscape. Mary Antin, a Jewish immigrant from Czarist Russia, introduced an important addition to American ethnic minority women's fiction: the assimilation story. Antin's From Plotzk to Boston (1899) and The Promised Land (1912) both present the experiences of a woman eager to integrate herself successfully into American culture and offer stories of resistance to typical constructions of femininity. Antin writes passionately of the importance of higher education and self-reliance for all American women. Gertrude Stein states in her book, Everybody's Autobiography (1937), “In the nineteenth century men were confident, the women were not.” If Stein's observation is accurate, then it is in the twentieth century in which women gained their confidence. As the writing in the last decades of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth century shows, women were no longer content to remain silent about their dissatisfaction with their roles in the world. Political tracts, realistic renderings of New York City society, and carefully crafted depictions of the Nebraskan prairie often covertly express women's desires for sexual equality, social recognition, and self-determinism. As America inched closer to World War I, writing women became more experimental in style and subject, thus breaking the last tie to the nineteenth century's long-suffering “angel of the house.”

Women, Modernism, and the Age of Anxiety

The first decade of the twentieth century was marked by the tumult of technological and industrial innovation. Many Americans hailed these revolutions as the push the country needed to truly come alive as a nation. However, some American artists and writers saw a dark side to this mechanical modernity. For these writers the assembly line, mechanized industrial machinery, and the ability to record and play back music and human voices, project images on a screen, and traverse huge distances were the result of technological innovations that had the power to permanently disconnect human beings from each other. Indeed, the era between the beginning of World War I in 1914 and the advent of World War II in 1939 has been termed the “Age of Anxiety.” The devastating repercussions of modern warfare employed during World War I left a generation of men overwhelmed with feelings of disillusionment, disappointment, and uncertainty towards the world in general. Many women, in contrast, faced changes in the world with enthusiasm.

The genre of writing deemed modernism emphasized a radical redefining of literary style, syntax, and subject matter. Modernists sought to unhook language from its traditional meanings and definitions and to push the form of storytelling beyond its traditionally rigid constructions. Because this new genre demolished traditional cultural hierarchies and artistic assumptions, it allowed women to rise to the fore of literary creation. Long left out of mainstream American culture, women writers anxiously embraced newly emerging forms of poetry and fiction as a way to best capture the unique experience of being a woman in modern America. The stylistic innovations of modernism became the method through which, as the English writer Virginia Woolf expressed it, “a woman's sentence” was contemplated. This woman's sentence was not only created through the fresh construction of language but also through newly discovered subjects. Modernist women wrote of lesbianism and sexual freedom while rejecting domesticity, and in the process shattered all traditions in women's writing.

Poetry of the Modern Woman

Women embraced a new poetic ideal, infusing their poems with challenging language and using form itself as a medium in which to express literary and cultural resistance. The poets Louise Bogan and Amy Lowell dedicated much of their poetry to the issues of modern womanhood. In her poem, Women (1922), Bogan exhorted women to stop living as if they had no wilderness in them. One of Amy Lowell's most striking poems, The Sisters (1925), is a long meditation on the silence that surrounds female poetics:

Taking us by and large, we're a queer lotWe women who write poetry. And when you thinkHow few of us there've been, it's queerer still.

Hilda Doolittle, better known as H. D., rose to poetic prominence as a member of the imagist school of poetry, and her work often relies upon an intricate play among Greek mythology, psychological connections between nature and humanity, and the structure of the poem itself: short lines, free verse, and concise imagery. Her poem, Eurydice (1917, 1925), considered to be one of H.D.'s most personal poems, twists the familiar myth to formulate an accusation against egocentric men who recklessly wield power over women.

Elinor Wylie's poetry, the most successful of which was collected in Nets to Catch the Wind (1921), strikes a balance between the modernist austerity of technique and a delicate evocation of the natural world. Wylie's pessimistic stance on the modern world is marked by her recurrent attention to the theme of feminine alienation and exile. Wylie influenced poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose poetry often takes a backseat to the mythology surrounding Millay herself. Her ethereal beauty, red hair, and green eyes embodied the mythical flapper of the Jazz Age. Millay's poetry, though at times dark and reflective, nonetheless most often celebrates sexual and personal independence. Her collection of poetry, Second April (1921), features Millay's most innovative contributions to modernist verse: the reinvention of the sonnet. Millay revitalized the traditional sonnet by removing the female muse as subject and replacing her with a male beloved who becomes the focus of sensual love.

Standing in opposition to Millay's sensuality are the poems of Marianne Moore, whose poetic aesthetic is marked by a dedication to compression of language and image and an extraordinary attention to a singular object. Moore often focused on animals, as in the poem The Jerboa (1932), emphasizing the vast lessons couched in a tiny, particular entity. Incorporating already-published materials into her poems—magazine articles, newspaper clippings, advertising slogans—through the use of quotation marks, Moore creates a powerful pastiche in which a world of writing speaks both to and through her. Using quotation and endnotes as a poetic technique, Moore successfully engages the readers in the text, casting them as cocreators of the poem. Thus, Moore's work represents a communal or meeting space where Moore dually instructs the reader while exposing the construction behind her lessons.

The Fiction of Modernism

Women who wrote modernist prose experimented with language as much as their sisters who wrote poetry. Their new literary approaches stand in stark contrast to the novels written by women at the beginning of the century, which often featured a standard, linear narrative and presented women mostly in domestic and romantic entanglements that could only covertly express women's issues and desires. Modernist fiction freed the female character from operating only in this domestic sphere. No longer bound by its constraints, modernist women writers used the newly emerging literary forms to critique directly domesticity, traditional love relationships, and the trap capitalism often set for the women who decided that being modern meant being a consumer.

Gertrude Stein is cited more often than any other woman writer as the leader of the female branch of the modernist movement. She eschewed all literary expectations as she sought to release language from its common meanings, remove linear time from the narrative, and reinvent the reader's relationship to the text. Stein's writing, including the novel Three Lives (1909) and the autobiography, The Making of Americans (1925), is often constructed through a repetition of simple words and phrases, a technique meant not only to free language from its roots but to erase the hierarchal structure of “high” and “low” language. Stein's prose poems in Tender Buttons (1914) fracture the totems of domesticity (teapots, cakes, freshly washed laundry) into multifaceted word pictures, symbolically deleting the domestic simplicity of these items and infusing them with feminine sensuality, thus redefining these common words and images for her readers.

The most significant work of Djuna Barnes, a reclusive yet influential member of the modernist movement, is Nightwood (1937), which explores a turbulent love affair between two women. It is also a dense and complicated text redolent with grotesque imagery, metaphysical speculation about the relationship between body and spirit, and an exuberant exploration of language. Thus, in Nightwood, Barnes explodes the traditional romantic plot, modernizing it not only by focusing on lesbian characters but also by narrating this transgressive love story in experimental language and narrative form.

Katherine Anne Porter's short stories often deal with women who are torn between a desire for traditional domesticity and a yearning for an independent life. The stories of Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) highlight the elegant and controlled style of Porter that embodies a tension between the author's ironic distance and her close connection with her characters, who struggle for personal freedom. Dorothy Parker's short stories, poems, and criticism are often remembered for their humor and dark, sardonic edge. Like Porter, Parker exposes the moment of discovery of self, but for Parker this moment is more often disappointing than revelatory. Her story, The Big Blonde (1929), best represents Parker's interest, often comically rendered, in the disjunction between outward appearances and inward feelings.

Eudora Welty combined a sharp sense of humor with a precise evocation of her native Mississippi landscape. Her first collection of fiction, A Curtain of Green, and Other Stories (1941), is marked not only by humor but also by the precision of metaphor, a perfect rendering of southern idiom, and a simplicity of language that often belies the complicated undercurrents running below the text. The women of Welty's stories, such as the protagonists in Why I Live at the P.O. and Petrified Man, often search for individuality while clinging to the small towns that repress them. Like turn-of-the-century regionalist writers, Welty often used the domestic drama as a starting point of her critique of American culture; however, her mythological symbols, the often nonlinear shape of her narrative, and her focus on the underdogs of society allows her work to resonate beyond the borders of her region.

Women writing modernist fiction pushed the genre of women's fiction beyond previously established boundaries. The change was not only in form, but also content. As women in American society were leading increasingly public lives, the size and shape of women's worlds began to expand. Women's writing reflected these expansions, and writers captured these changes through challenging narratives and the use of inventive language.

American Drama and the Early Twentieth Century

While women writers were pushing traditional boundaries of “women's fiction,” women were also reshaping the form and content of the theater, often in response to social changes. Susan Glaspell wrote both fiction and drama, most of which involve women searching for the meaning of life isolated from success, money, or even happiness. Glaspell's play, Trifles (produced in 1916), presents her recurrent theme of the new woman who seeks her dreams despite the hostility of the conservative, repressive world. Lillian Hellman's tough, lively, and ironic writing forced the social and psychological concerns of women to the American stage with such plays as The Children's Hour (produced in 1934), the story of a lesbian schoolteacher in love with her colleague and best friend, and The Little Foxes (produced in 1939), a tale of a woman who craves both power and money, both of which helped redefine the direction of modern theater. Clare Booth Luce's The Women (produced in 1936) examined the competitive, and often vicious, interactions of wealthy, pampered wives, and bitter divorcées. Other playwrights, such as Shirley Graham, Hallie Flanagan, and Margaret Ellen Clifford, used the stage as a forum for issues such as racism and the plight of workers during the Great Depression.

Women and the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance, though concurrent with the modernist literary movement, stands as a distinct literary endeavor. Though its roots stretch back to the beginning of the century, the movement did not truly flower until the late 1910s and early 1920s. New York City, already established as a center of publishing, became a haven for African Americans wishing to leave the South after Reconstruction. Harlem became a center of African-American life in which jazz and blues music became prominent attractions, numerous magazines and newspapers gave voice to African-American concerns, and an African-American literary renaissance bloomed.

The writers of the Harlem Renaissance were determined to focus a lens on their unique experience of American life and culture. African-American writers' work was charged with different issues than those that preoccupied white writers of the same period. African-American writers, though they experimented with narrative form and language like white modernists, were committed to using those techniques to explore black life and black issues. Additionally, a revision of narrative forms and of language allowed black writers to capture the unique rhythms of black language and culture.

Women writers such as Angelina Weld Grimké and Anne Spencer made early inroads into the Harlem Renaissance movement through the publication of poetry. Gwendolyn B. Bennett wrote poetry in a traditional form, but addressed as her subjects black women and girls, figures often left out of the poetic world. Helene Johnson also used a traditional poetic form, as in Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem (1927), but rejected typical sonnet subjects for the world of modern, urban blacks. Women's biggest contribution to the Harlem Renaissance came with fiction. Some of these writers, such as Jessie Redmon Fauset and Nella Larsen, wrote about the complexities of race and gender through the framework of the lives of everyday African-American women. Jessie Redmon Fauset's novel, Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral (1929), tells of a middle-class, light-skinned African-American woman who passes as a white woman not only because she can, but because being “white” allows her access to the worlds of money and power that would normally be inaccessible to black women. Nella Larsen's novel, Passing (1929), contrasts the lives of two women, one who has passed for white daily and one who has passed for white occasionally. The novel, however, is about more than the question of race, as Larsen also addresses the complexities of female friendship and sexuality.

Although published at the end of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston's complex fiction is considered to be the some of the finest work of the movement. Trained as a folklorist at Columbia University under the tutelage of Franz Boas, Hurston infuses her fiction with black idiom, overtones of African myths and legends, and the details of modern African-American life. Generally acknowledged as Hurston's best novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is the story of Janie Crawford, her three tumultuous marriages, and most important, the discovery of Janie's own voice. Introduced as a romantic young girl repressed by prevalent racism, sexism, and poverty, Janie grows into a woman with a greater understanding of the complexities of self-definition. Hurston's story stands as a testament to the strength of a generation of African-American women striving for a place in the world.

The Great Depression and the rumblings of World War II signaled the end of modernism and of the Harlem Renaissance as cohesive literary movements. Although modernists and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance sought to create languages and forms that delineated the modern experience, the world continued to change, necessitating new forms of literature and creating new genres of writing that reflected America's changing relationship with the categories of race, gender, class, and ethnicity.

The Literature of Change, 1940–1980

The marketing of the American family as a perfect unit began in the 1930s, after the heady 1920s and the beginning of the Great Depression. The promotion of family togetherness became a safety line, enabling Americans to pull through hard times. During World War II the family served as an important reminder of the perfection of American life and was set as a beacon of hope for “our boys” overseas. However, the 1950s were truly the golden age of the family. America, reborn after the scrimping and saving of World War II, was a shiny, plasticized, boomeranged, and tail-finned world in which television and advertising packaged the perfect family alongside gelatin salads and pink refrigerators. Nevertheless, as this myth of familial perfection was being constructed, it was simultaneously being destroyed by women writers who resisted the lie of domesticity and the figurehead of the perfect housewife that stood in the center of that lie.

In the poem Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, (1958–1960), poet Adrienne Rich looks to the future when women rise,

at least as beautiful as any boyor helicopter,poised, still coming, her fine blades making the air wince.

Rich goes on to describe a woman mindlessly polishing teaspoons, her shaved legs gleaming like tusks, her mind as blank as a “wedding cake.” Tillie Olsen's recurrent theme of women silenced through poverty and domesticity coalesces in her novella, Tell Me a Riddle (1961), as a dying grandmother, once a revolutionary political speaker, regains her voice after years of domesticated silence. Eva's deathbed speech counters the silence the 1950s placed on women as well as immigrant communities and the poor. Thus, Eva's act of speaking becomes one of resistance to the cultural norms. Southern writer Flannery O'Connor exploded the genre of Southern Gothic into one that spoke not only of loneliness and isolation but also offered a radical revision to the very fabric of American life. A female graduate student's jettisoned artificial leg becomes symbolic for her own loss of innocence and hope in Good Country People (1955), a family on a mundane road trip is brutalized by bandits in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1953), and a mentally disabled young woman is left sleeping in a diner by her new husband in The Life You Save May Be Your Own (1953). O'Connor's women are defined not by their perfection but by the very flaws that make them vulnerable to seduction, violence, or disappointment. Her women stand as a testament to the terrible beauty of faults and foibles, and O'Connor clearly values these very women who fall short of expectation.

In 1963, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique exploded the myth of the contented suburban housewife. This explosion resounded across the country, revolutionizing not only what women wanted from their lives, but also what women wrote. Mary McCarthy's novel, The Group (1962), a best-seller, follows a set of female friends from their time together in college into their lives as independent women. McCarthy explores a number of taboo subjects, such adultery, abortion, divorce, and insanity, while also exposing the American marriage to be an institution fraught with misogyny. McCarthy positions the women who resist the boundaries of traditional femininity—marriage, a ladylike appearance, heterosexuality—as the only successful women of the novel. In the years between the publication of The Group and the advent of the 1970s, the women's movement as an organized and powerful force came to the attention of the wider American public. Writers and activists such as Jo Freeman, Nancy Chodorow, Casey Hayden, Mary King, and Caroline Bird all brought the issues of women's equality to the page, signaling that women were serious about ending the construction of woman as housewife. Joyce Carol Oates's frequently anthologized story, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (1966), explores the life of Connie, an ordinary high school student who is seduced into a relationship with an ominous “friend.” Connie's vulnerability to Arnold Friend and the violence that is suggested at the end of the story stand as powerful symbols of the failure of the traditional interpretation of femininity. Through Connie, Oates locates the innocent, primed-for-domesticity girl as an anachronism, one that will be forced completely out of the house through the coming decades.

The literature of African-American women reflected a resistance not necessarily to suburban domesticity but to a culture that often ignored them. Ann Petry's novel, The Street (1946), focuses on the daily degradation faced by black Americans of both genders. However, Petry's female protagonist simultaneously resists and succumbs to this degradation as she murders the man who attempts to rape her. The blunt examination of rape, and the issues of power that surround rape, was a revolutionary topic at the time, particularly as written by an African-American woman. Other African-American writing, like Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), also speaks of African-American women and girls who enact resistance to American cultural repression simply by their very existence. Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her collection, Annie Allen (1949). In her poetry, Brooks uses black idiom and slang as a vehicle to express black rage and oppression. A Street in Bronzeville (1945) and Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956) concentrate on the boredom of poor youth and the sadness of mothers who have lost their children and men to violence and the streets. At a time when poetry was often self-consciously intellectual, Brooks's use of casual language in combination with a close attention to poetic form was a revolution in style.

Poetic Voices, Poetic Subjects

Poetry written after the apex of modernism reflects a more simplified approach to the poetic project. Though writers continued to experiment with language and form, poetry in general began to reflect an individualized and personal viewpoint that was absent in modernism. The assertion of the individual, that is, the poet, into the poem was perhaps a reaction against the oppressive quest for sameness that enveloped the country at mid-century.

Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are perhaps the two best-known women of the confessional school of poetry, which emphasized the use of poetry as a mode to explore the universal through personal failings and desires. Sylvia Plath's poems are a study in opposition: dark yet playful, intensely rhythmic and carefully rhymed, yet far from traditional. Plath utilizes simple language and repetition to craft poems about the most difficult of subjects: the hatred for her father, her uncertainty as a mother, and her own delicate mental state. Yet she also writes poems of breathtaking beauty, elevating beekeeping and nature walks to moments of divine transcendence. Plath's poems begin in the personal but, through the use of myth and often the metaphysical symbolism of the natural world, they become universal statements about the quest for a place in the universe.

Anne Sexton's collections, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), All My Pretty Ones (1962), Live or Die (1966), Love Poems (1969), Transformations (1971), The Book of Folly (1972), and The Death Notebooks (1974), reveal not only Sexton's psychological travails but her physical trauma—menstruation, abortion, incest, drug abuse—that remained largely silenced in women's poetics before the woman's movement. Sexton's direct language, repetition of words and phrases, and alternation of short, concise lines with long, languid stanzas help create a unique poetry that is at once light on the page but heavy in the mind of the reader.

Although confessional poetry revolutionized women's poetics, other poets like Elizabeth Bishop, working from a more traditional vein, examined women's lives in profound ways. Bishop's tropes of exile and travel, her precise language and brilliant images, reflect a woman finding her self through a close examination of the world around her. Other poets, such as Marilyn Chin, Pat Parker, Judy Grahn, June Jordan, Marge Piercy, Pat Mora, and Rita Dove, revolutionized poetics through topic by focusing on Latina, Native American, African-American, and lesbian lives and politics. Adrienne Rich's poems reflect these changing concerns while also mirroring the transformations in Rich's personal life from wife and mother to lesbian and political activist. Rich's early poetry is relatively traditional with standard line breaks and rhythmical stanzas. However, by the 1970s her poetry incorporates stylistic innovations such as punctuation suggested only by spaces within the stanzas, along with traditionally taboo poetic subjects such as pornography explored in rigidly constructed couplets in order to reflect the changing place of women in the world. Though Rich commonly addressed woman as subject, poems of hers such as Diving into the Wreck (1973) are more political and the poetic process becomes a way for Rich to redress the wrongs of the contemporary world.

The Final Decades of the Twentieth Century

The civil rights movement, women's liberation movements, and protests against the Vietnam War, and the accompanying social reverberations throughout the final decades of the twentieth century, helped to redefine the trajectory of American literature. As African-American activists recovered a long-suppressed and forgotten African-American literary tradition, women writers like Adrienne Rich were calling for a recovery of “foremother” writers such as Virginia Woolf and Marianne Moore. In breaking through the wall of domination built by the hegemony of male literary precursors, women writers of the late twentieth century had a unique challenge. Texts such as Tillie Olsen's One out of Twelve: Writers Who Are Women in Our Century (1972) and poems like Denise Levertov's Hypocrite Women openly sought to redefine the scope of women's literature and the way in which this literature spoke directly to women and excluded masculine influence.

The proliferation of literary styles in African-American writing from the 1960s through the end of the twentieth century can be attributed to the interest of African Americans in reframing black history as well as in recovering long-ignored black literary traditions. African-American writers reactivated the painful ghost of slavery in order to understand the contemporary configuration of black American life. Additionally, writers like Alice Walker and Paule Marshall published stories about black life in a language uniquely crafted to convey the sounds of black English, which also dovetailed with the recovery of African-American oral storytelling traditions. This language allowed African-American writers to shape a picture of life that existed outside the boundaries of white language and experience.

Sonia Sanchez's first volume of poetry, Homecoming (1969), set the tone for poetry by African Americans in the 1970s and 1980s. Sanchez's conversational style and black slang, set to a jazzy rhythm, was at once exuberant and political. Nikki Giovanni's assured and controversial stance of black militancy as the answer to white repression made her an instant subject of magazine articles and news reports. Audre Lorde's first book of poetry, The First Cities, published in 1968, turns the rage African Americans felt about racism into a medium of positive self-definition. Lucille Clifton's poetry also takes on the project of racism in America, but Clifton does so by reanimating her own past as well as the history of Africans and African Americans. Clifton uses spare language and short, concise lines to convey small moments of dignity in the lives of urban blacks.

The year 1970 was a landmark in African-American women's writing as Maya Angelou's autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, broke open the silences of African-American women about their lives in mid-nineteenth century America. Toni Cade Bambara's collections of short stories—The Black Woman (1970), Tales and Stories for Black Folks (1971), Gorilla, My Love (1972), and The Sea Birds Are Still Alive (1977)—were also groundbreaking publications in the 1970s. Bambara dedicates herself to the exploration of the African-American past and present through the use of black idiom and slang, both of which are used as a form of resistance to the hegemony of Western language and an affirmation of African-American culture. Asserting through her stories that African-American women, in particular, have, “a certain way of being in the world” that is determined as much by gender as it is by education, political outlook, and class, Bambara creates heroines who are independent, tough-minded, and above all, survivors.

In Alice Walker's essay, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983), the growth of art and literature by African-American women is explored. Walker asserts that though black women were not always allowed access to education, they nonetheless learned to express themselves artistically through crafts such as cooking, sewing, and oral storytelling. Walker's The Color Purple (1982) was the first novel by an African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Though she faced criticism for her portrayal of black men as violent and sexually deviant, the novel was most often praised for its unflinching look at black life. Walker's work is indicative of the changes present in literature by African-American women in the 1980s. Though still political, writing by African-American women became more grounded in the richness of the individual experience and spoke of African-American lives not only in their extraordinariness, but also in their ordinariness.

Toni Morrison, author, teacher, and critic, saw her first novel, The Bluest Eye, published in 1970. In the decades since its publication, Morrison has become a household name, and she enjoys the unique status of being both critically respected and widely read. Though her novels Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Tar Baby (1981) were all best-sellers, her greatest achievement in fiction is considered to be Beloved (1987), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. The story of Sethe, a former slave who kills one of her children to prevent them from being taken into slavery, is told through a complicated narrative structure. The story weaves back and forth in time, creating a complex narrative quilt that raises Sethe's particular struggles both within and without slavery to a more general story about the ravages of slavery on African Americans as a community and the need to move forward with life. While the past needs to be honored, it cannot be permitted to entrap future generations. By claiming her life for herself, Sethe symbolically embodies a level of freedom and self-possession available to black women courageous enough to embrace it.

Native American intellectuals and writers created and enjoyed a cultural renaissance throughout the 1970s, publishing books that offered a revisionist view of Native American history and creating novels, short stories, and plays that spoke dually of the Native American past and the dissatisfaction Indians felt in the twentieth-century world. By the 1980s, writers like Joy Harjo and Louise Erdrich further challenged American readers by focusing on the struggle of Native American women to reside in a space between both old and new worlds. In her work, which includes the novels Love Medicine (1984), The Beet Queen (1986), and Tracks (1988), Erdrich crafts unflinching visions of Native peoples who occupy increasingly complicated worlds. Using traditional Native American stories, a nonlinear narrative, and characters that border on being magical, Erdrich etches an indelible portrait of Native Americans living in a modern America while simultaneously trying to maintain ties to tradition. Joy Harjo's poetry provides a unique perspective on Native American life as she recovers the lost voices of her ancestors through her use of lyrical language and the rhythms of Native American speech and song. Leslie Marmon Silko's quiet style reflects an oral storytelling tradition that relies on repetition and simple language, as exemplified in her frequently anthologized story, Lullaby (1975), which encompasses the complexities of Native American life. Her characters, like Erdrich's, are caught between the ghosts of the past and the bleak landscape of the future.

The cultural visibility of another group of Americans, Latinos, increased in the mid-1960s when activists, recovering the label of “Chicano” (once a title of derision), began demonstrating on college campuses over a variety of issues. These Chicano activists sought to revitalize their community's connection to their historic past, while writers, musicians, and artists reclaimed Aztec roots, the use of Spanish, and traditional Mexican handiwork. Gloria Anzaldúa's landmark text, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), reflects not only this absorption of the Mexican past but also the incorporation of the feminist tradition. This interplay of texts is a physical manifestation of the cultural, social, and linguistic borderland contemporary Chicanas occupy. Sandra Cisneros's two collections of short stories, The House on Mango Street (1984) and Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991), both participate in Anzaldúa's effort to use Mexican myth while presenting Latinas as continuously creating a vital, contemporary culture. Cisneros's straightforward style, use of Spanglish, and commitment to telling stories about ordinary people offer an essential portrait of Latina life and culture in the larger context of American culture.

Asian-American voices have also become an integral part of the landscape of American literature. Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood amongst Ghosts (1976) is at once an autobiography, a retelling of Chinese myths, and a fictionalized account of Kingston's family history. Kingston deftly criticizes the patriarchal traditions of Chinese culture while also indicting America's racism as having a devastating effect on Chinese-American women. Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club (1989) continues Kingston's project of using traditional Chinese mythology to explicate the lives of contemporary Chinese-American women. The novel unfolds through stories told by eight women, four Chinese and four Chinese American, reflecting Kingston's use of “talkstories” as a the backbone of Chinese culture. Bharati Mukherjee prefers to categorize herself as an American writer, not a South Asian writer of Indian descent. Indeed, her novels—The Tiger's Daughter (1971), Wife (1975), Jasmine (1989), and Holder of the World (1993)—are narratives not only of assimilation by Indian characters to American culture, but also the general quest by human beings for acceptance, love, and a constantly shifting definition of self.

If Edith Wharton's House of Mirth crystallized the plight of women at the turn of the twentieth century, then Toni Morrison's Beloved is a testament not only to the strength of African-American women, but is symbolic of the journey made by American women through the twentieth century. From a life begun in complete submission, Sethe not only endures, but claims her energy and life on her own terms, an accomplishment that Wharton's Lily Bart strove for but never reached. As bookends of the twentieth century, House of Mirth's Lily Bart and Beloved's Sethe represent the beginning and the end of the journey begun by The Awakening's Edna Pontellier. Each of the many texts written by women in the years between House of Mirth and Beloved is a tiny island upon which Edna could rest, gain strength, and move forward. Standing so close to the end of the twentieth century makes it impossible to define the trends, themes, and writers who will endure the test of time. However, one can say with assurance that women in the late twentieth century occupy literary spaces not open to women at the beginning of the century. Contemporary fiction, poetry, and drama written by women no longer fit neatly into categories such as realism, regionalism, or modernism. Instead, women's writing now encompasses a much larger range of experiences and is a more vivid and accurate reflection of American women's place in the twentieth century.

Further Reading

  • Ammons, Elizabeth. Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York, 1991. Ammons's work encompasses the often ignored and maligned writing by women from the early 1890s through the late 1920s. Authors featured include Sarah Orne Jewett, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Ellen Glasgow, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Pauline Hopkins, Sui Sin Far, Gertrude Stein, Mary Austin, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Nella Larsen.
  • Barstow, Jane Missner. One Hundred Years of American Women Writing, 1848–1948: An Annotated Bio-Bibliography. Pasadena, Calif., 1997. A good reference guide for beginning scholars of American women writers. Each chapter provides a general essay on the time period, an annotated list of books and articles, biographical and critical information about the sixty-six featured authors, and a list of selected and featured writings by the authors discussed.
  • Cahill, Susan Neunzig, ed. Writing Women's Lives: An Anthology of Autobiographical Narratives by Twentieth Century American Women Writers. New York, 1994. Excerpts from the autobiographies and memories of such American luminaries as Edith Wharton, Ellen Glasgow, Lillian Hellman, Tillie Olsen, Denise Levertov, and Maya Angelou.
  • Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York, 1987. Focuses on African-American women authors of the nineteenth and early twentieth century through political, literary, and social lenses. The novelists discussed include Frances Harper, Pauline Hopkins, Ida Wells, Anna Cooper, Jessie Fauset, and Nella Larsen.
  • Cutter, Martha J. Unruly Tongue: Identity and Voice in American Women's Writing, 1850–1930. Jackson, Miss., 1999. Cutter argues that the goal of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American women writers was to free language and storytelling from its masculine origins.
  • Drake, William. The First Wave: Women Poets in America, 1915–1945. New York, 1987. Provides biographical information on twenty-seven American women poets active in the early twentieth century, including Marianne Moore, Amy Lowell, and Louise Bogan.
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. 3 vols. New Haven, Conn., 1988–1989. A landmark study of women writers in which Gilbert and Gubar provide a thorough outline of the literary, historical, and social forces that shaped the writing of women in the twentieth century.
  • Gould, Jean. Modern American Women Poets. New York, 1984. Gould presents biographical studies of women poets writing in the second half of the twentieth century, including Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Nikki Giovanni.
  • Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. Claiming the Heritage: African-American Women Novelists and History. Jackson, Miss., 1991. An examination of African-American feminine identity in novels by twentieth-century black women writers. Novels discussed include Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones, Jesse Redmon Fauset's Plum Bun, and Nella Larsen's Quicksand. Also includes discussion of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and other late-twentieth-century writers.
  • Lumsden, Linda J. Rampant Women: Suffragists and the Right of Assembly. Knoxville, Tenn., 1997. Communicates the approaches of early-twentieth-century suffragettes through newspaper accounts, autobiographies, and creative writing by women deeply involved in the movement.
  • Reynolds, Guy. Twentieth-Century American Women's Fiction: A Critical Introduction. New York, 1999. Reynolds views writing by women as inextricably linked to historical and social issues as well as the literary concerns pervasive throughout the twentieth century.
  • Stansell, Christine. American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century. New York, 2000. Stansell is primarily interested in how the modernist movement played itself out among New York City writers, poets, political activists, and artists. A good overview of the movement as a whole that makes an argument for feminism as the central focus of both male and female modernists.
  • Walker, Cheryl. Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets. Bloomington, Ind., 1992. Walker attempts to recover and canonize women poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century left behind because of the restrictive construction of femininity during the modernist period.
  • Wheeler, Kathleen M. A Guide to Twentieth-Century Women Novelists. Oxford, 1997. Wheeler examines writing by women in English through four periods: realism and the rise of early modernism, from 1895 to 1925; high modernism and the development of the social-moral novel, from 1918 to 1945; neorealism, the postwar novel, and early postmodernist innovations, from 1944 to 1975; and internationalism, diversification, and experimentation, from 1970 to 1995. Also includes a section on feminist theory and a bibliography of research resources.