Early Feminist Literature

Chevy Chase LibraryStaff Picks

Early Feminist Literature

Plus One

Apparently, when details of Mary Wollstonecraft’s “unconventional” life choices were made public after her death by publication of a memoir by her surviving partner, father of Mary Shelly, Wollstonecraft’s feminist writings, were discounted because of her ‘immoral’ lifestyle for more than 100 years until second-wave feminists began to read her seminal work on feminist theory, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. After reading The Yellow Wallpaper a couple of years ago and remembering Susan B. Anthony and her contemporaries were the first wave of feminism, I thought about the evolution of feminist thought without Mary Wollstonecraft. Three of the works on this list were novels written in the 19th century (1800’s). I am including Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll House (also written in the 19th century), because I wanted to read it. The last title on this list is a Science fiction novel that was written in the mid-1970’s that coincided with second-wave feminist movement. These works might be particularly interesting reading for younger people who of age of the third wave feminists.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin has written in this novel a heartfelt glimpse into the struggles of a woman who is torn between her traditional role as wife and mother and her need to satisfy the dreams and needs of self. Edna Pontellier is an individual that captures empathy and understanding. Contentment and self-sacrifice are not easily regained once lost. Freedom is seldom relinquished without regret. The Awakening is referred to as a "feminist" novel, but it goes beyond that and reaches into the need of every human being to embrace their own identity and make their own choices. I found this to be more about what early feminists were after, which was equality of thought and of value, rather than contemporary feminist issues.

Ruth Hall by Sara Willis writing as Fanny Fern
This novel is a “Roman A Clef”. Defined as a novel in which real people or events appear with invented names.
Fanny Fern AKA Sara Willis, in 1855 was the highest-paid newspaper columnist in the US, according to the Wiki article about her. One hundred dollars per week back then was a TON of money, nearly $3000 per week in today’s buying power.
"Fanny Fern" (aka Sara Willis) was an acerbic columnist from 1851-1872. In retrospect, it's easy to see why her writing would prove popular: she was one of the few nineteenth-century women whose style tended more toward the sarcastic than the pious, and she was about calling people out. Fanny Fern had little help from her family after her husband died and left her in a state of impoverishment. After some difficult times, the fictional Ruth Hall was successful as a newspaper columnist and a writer of popular fiction. Did she get to that point overnight? Hardly. She struggled with incredible difficulties in her life, and the book Ruth Hall is the "fictional autobiography" that shows the reader exactly what Fanny/Ruth/Sara Willis experienced.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Yellow Wallpaper is Gilman’s attempt to express the hopelessness of mental illness; effectively an invisible, inescapable cage around your mind as reflected by the imagery of a cage of a woman locked behind the patterns in the wallpaper. There was no proper diagnosis of mental illness in the 1890s as we know it today. Gilman suffered from depression herself and knew what she was writing about. Unfortunately, Gilman lived at the tail end of the Victorian Period when depression, post-natal or otherwise, was totally mysterious and misunderstood. A perfect Victorian solution to outward displays of "unconventionality" was to put those afflicted in an asylum/prison/attic/foreign country (only as viable depending on income and social status).

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
This is the story of a marriage that superficially seems happy, but a critical turn of events reveals a sham relationship.
Torvald and Nora Helmer, who've had some financial struggles, are delighted because Torvald has gotten a major promotion at the bank where he works. But Nora, behind her lightheartedness and childish behavior - encouraged, always, by Torvald, who calls her diminutive, vaguely (or sometimes explicitly) insulting names such as "my sweet tooth" and "little spendthrift" - is hiding a major secret. She borrowed a substantial sum of money a few years ago to finance a trip to Italy to help Torvald recover from a major illness. She told Torvald the money was left to her by her father. She has been slowly paying it back. But now an unscrupulous man is threatening to reveal all to Nora's husband. A disclosure and disaster looms, Nora becomes more frantic. But she still thinks that Torvald, who has shown nothing but disdain for her mind and financial ability, will stand by her and protect her if her misdeed (which was done because of her love and concern for her husband) becomes public.

This is one of the earliest feminist works of literature, written in 1879 by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It's hard to believe that this hard-hitting play, about a woman who realizes she's been treated as a mindless doll all her life by her father and then her husband, was written in the 19th century.

The Female Man by Joanna Russ
This book was a 1975 Nebula Award nominee and winner of other awards and also Credited with inspiring William Gibson.
The Female Man is a complex and fascinating examination of gender roles and ideology. In it, Russ contrasts the stories of Joanna (a 1970s feminist of a world much like, if not identical to our own of that era), Jeannine (a young, fairly stereotypical woman of an alternate timeline in which the Depression never ended), and Janet (a woman from the distant utopian future of Whileaway, a world with no men and only women), showing multiple variations on the issue or problem of sex difference alongside multiple responses to inequalities. Joanna is outspoken and sees clearly the inequalities that surround her, even if she is not always certain how to best address them; Jeannine is thoroughly indoctrinated in the ideology that says a woman needs a man and has neither the strength nor the apparent inclination to challenge this ideology; and Janet, from a world without men, doesn't fully understand what the problem is. She is what all women could be if sexist inequalities no longer existed.