Feminist Literature: the First Wave

Southeast LibraryRead FeedStaff Picks

Feminist Literature: the First Wave

Feminist literary fiction from 1890 to 1949

Welcome to Feminist Fiction! In this series we’ll explore the library’s best feminist novels and short stories from every wave of the feminist movement.

These novels are from the first wave of feminism, roughly the 1860s to the 1940s. Some are explicitly political, making plot points of social inequalities. Others are more subtle, poking fun at society’s norms or simply describing life from a female point of view at a time when that was still a radical act. Although most of these authors didn’t know or use the word feminist, we can look back at their work and use it to understand how feminism became a stronger movement. 

Everyone has a personal definition of feminism; for the this series, I’m broadly defining feminism as the belief in gender equality. Stay tuned for Feminist Fiction: the Second Wave!

The Awakening, Kate Chopin, 1899
Chopin’s central character, Edna, is an unhappy wife, mother and Presbyterian struggling to find joy in the Louisiana Creole high society life of New Orleans in the late 19th century. Although the storyline isn't as revolutionary in 2015 as when it was published in 1899, Edna Pontellier's agony remains relatable to modern readers. Dialogue aside, Chopin's writing is fresh and readable. This novella is a touchstone of feminist writing and American Southern storytelling whose ending is both obvious and gut-wrenching.

The Complete Claudine, Colette, 1900-03
Colette began her long writing career with the mischievous and autobiographical Claudine, whose four novellas are collected here. The first, Claudine at School, is by far the most fun: Claudine is the cool girl, seducing her teachers of both sexes, stealing love letters, generally making trouble. Over the next three books she grows up, juggles lesbian affairs with her marriage, and ages. Colette’s frank homosexuality was scandalous when these were published in 1900-03; with the passage of time now they’re more of an amusing historical window.

The Short Stories, Katherine Mansfield, 1908-23
In 1937, after her death, Mansfield’s published and unpublished short stories were collected by her semi-separated husband, John Middleton Murry, into one volume collecting her entire, short career. Mansfield, a friend and contemporary of Woolf and others in the Bloomsbury circle, published two story collections during her life but wrote prolifically before her death. She was restless, born in New Zealand, living for years in England and France, conflicted in her relationships with men and women. With her focus on narrative and character psychology, Mansfield is generally regarded as the originator of the modern short story. 

The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim, 1922
Von Armin’s 1922 tale of four English ladies vacationing in Portofino, Italy, is not nearly as ridiculous as it sounds at first glance. The four women each carry a different sadness: of apathetic marriage, of aging, of youth. Surrounded by peace and beauty, together they reclaim their love, hope, and joy in relationships and in life. The Enchanted April is a beautifully written and slightly tongue-in-cheek story describing the power of female friendships, the human capacity for self-engendered change, and the incredible influence of nature. Also it has four-and-a-half stars out of five on Amazon. 

To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf, 1927
Virginia Woolf is a towering figure in modern literature, still an influence on contemporary writers and a major creator of the stream-of-consciousness style. To The Lighthouse combines Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style with a complicated narrative, making it a subtler, more mature novel compared to 1925’s Mrs Dalloway. The main character, Lily Briscoe, embodies many ideals that Woolf herself lived by, including commitment and conceptual engagement with her creative work, fluidity of gender and gendered roles, and lesbian attraction. All of her writing explored women’s interior dialogues at a time when few others were interested. Remember: Woolf’s writing wasn’t widely received or anthologized until 50 years after her death. 

Plum Bun, Jessie Redmon Fauset, 1929
Fauset, a star of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote this immensely popular novel, selling 100,000 copies within three months. Plum Bun’s tells the story of Angela Murray, a light-skinned black woman who uses her complexion to pass as a white woman. Throughout the book her choices and words challenge perceptions, both historic and current, on race and sexuality. Angela thinks that if she can pass as white, she won’t be faced with the challenges of racism. Yet despite her passing, she still faces the challenges of misogyny. I won’t give it away, but in the end Angela does find her happiness. Nella Larsen’s Passing, published the same year, explores very similar themes. Both titles provide amazing insight into black women’s early 20th century life and investigate ideas about race, class, and sex that are still pertinent today. 

Unpunished, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1929
Gilman is a feminist icon for her Herland triology: Moving the Mountain, Herland, and Her in Ourland, the tale of a utopian all-female society, as well as the story collection The Yellow Wallpaper, which delves into the interpersonal consequences of women’s lower status in society. Then, in 1998, an unpublished novel was discovered. Unpunished depicts an ideal marriage: husband and wife detective team Bess and Jim also split domestic chores. The cases they solve highlight social challenges including domestic abuse and economic inequality. Gilman’s tale is thrilling, full of twists and humor enough to satisfy any mystery fan or feminist.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, 1937
This best-known work by one of America’s greatest and coolest novelists was written while Hurston was conducting anthropological fieldwork in Haiti, researching Obeah culture and folktales. In the novel, a black woman, Janie, struggles to find love, happiness and pleasure in a country that still enforces racial and gender inequalities. When it was published, reviewers connected to the Harlem Renaissance were upset by Hurston’s descriptions of female sensuality and desire, which they equated with low-brow culture. Now, Hurston’s writing is celebrated for its honest exploration of humanity, femininity and grace. 

Under a Glass Bell, Anais Nin, 1944
Nin is a complicated figure, often called “labyrinthine” and “mysterious.” In short: she was a writer whose storytelling skills infiltrated every aspect of her life. Nin is equally if not more famous for her published diaries as she is for her fiction and essays. This collection contains some of her best stories, including "Birth," the fictionalized description of Nin’s abortion, and "The Labyrinth," a girl’s lyrical descent into her own diary. Nin lived her life exactly as she wanted, with many-gendered relationships and bi-coastal husbands. Her stories echo this honesty with blazing femininity, telling about the world she saw as a woman.