A brief tour of feminist literary history

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Simone de BeauvoirThe release of the highly anticipated Suffragette film has rekindled interest in the conditions and circumstances women faced in the late 19th to early 20th century, the ‘first wave’ of feminist thought and writings. To summarise the rich and diverse explorations of feminism in literature is difficult, especially considering that the broad movement of feminism hardly lends itself to brevity. This article is a brief look at the origins and development of feminist literature.

From an entirely Western literary viewpoint, a few early names stand out. Simone de Beauvoir claimed that the first woman to defend her sex by taking “up her pen” was Christine de Pizan, an Italian French medieval court writer in the 15th century, author of Epitre au Dieu d’Amour (Epistle to the God of Love). Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, a name you may recognize from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (featuring as a chocolate frog collectible card), wrote a text on the moral and theological superiority of women, Declamatio de nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex) as early as 1529. The 17th century saw protofeminist writers such as Marie de Gournay, Anne Bradstreet and Francois Poullain de la Barre.

The fight for equality and democracy, though not specifically inter-gender, became more pronounced in the 18th century, as the ideals behind the French Revolution, the democratic Constitution of the United States of America and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen indicate. The writings of the famous utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, and the mathematician, French Revolutionary and republican, Marquis de Condorcet, both strongly advocated equality for all. Perhaps the most cited female feminist writer of the time was Mary Wollstonecraft. Her acclaimed text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), laid the foundation for feminist thought, arguing for better education for women and for equality in fundamental rights.

The ‘first wave’ of feminism is commonly believed to have been from the 19th to early 20th century, the period Suffragette depicts. The 19th century saw more female writers published, though many under male pseudonyms. Austen, the Brontës, Shelley, Sand, Gaskell and George Eliot explore in their works the restrictions and the limiting social expectations for women and their consequential resentment and frustration. Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase (1866) is strongly feminist in message, with its near Faustian plot line centering around Rosamond’s attempt to flee the bigoted and demonic Tempest, her husband. Often writers, if their sex was known, were scathingly criticized for writing, which was a male-dominated profession. As political and social opinion began to diversify, male writers also included more feminist themes and representations in their works. The novels of George Meredith, George Gissing and Thomas Hardy, and the plays of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, depict the plight of women of the period. Ibsen has even been accused by critics of the period of writing ‘feminist propaganda’. This period was a form of social awakening, and saw female oppression and limitations being fully and boldly explored in publications for the first time.

After the ‘first wave’ period, ‘feminism’ became more of an umbrella ideology whose overarching preoccupation with equality spans everything from sexuality to culture and class. Feminism evolved as it gained ground historically, from suffrage to issues of discrimination and social inequality in feminism’s ‘second wave’. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique are key feminist texts, challenging social ideals that govern women’s behaviour and expectations. More recently, thinkers focus on differing media representations of both genders; the differing conceptions of sex, gender and the relationship between the two; and the combination of racial and gender discrimination or class and gender discrimination.

That feminism has become so broad and diversified is symptomatic of its continued successes and ambitions. From the tentative ideas that became ‘first wave’ feminism to poetry discussing female genital mutilation in Somalia, literature has been a vital medium for the movement.

Photograph: Thierry Ehrman

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