It’s not news that throughout history women have been oppressed and repressed by the patriarchal society that favours men. From getting denied their share of education and their right to freedom to being forced into marriage, women travelled a long way to get to the position where they stand today. Among all the years of struggles and fights, “feminism” took its birth in a new form. Revolution begins in the minds of writers, and as we look back, we see how women’s writing has evolved and sparkled over the feminist waves that are marked as one of the greatest movements the world will remember.
“For most of history, anonymous was a woman.”— Virginia Woolf
Over centuries, writing has emerged as an effective tool to give shape to one’s thoughts and voice about social or societal change. Women’s literature has proven shelter to issues in such a context without being an exception. Since the first wave of feminism, women have been putting pen to paper to bring to the fore the challenges and prejudices experienced by females. Even before the feminist movement, women writers worked hard at presenting the dark side of patriarchal society but were ignored for their inferior position. They wrote under pseudonyms to avoid being criticised for practicing the profession of writing, which was considered “masculine,” and therefore we see a lot of unknown written works by female writers.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication on the Rights of Women” (1792) is a monumental work that paved the way for the women after her to not only publish their works but to also engage themselves in critical discourses related to women’s literature. Mary laid emphasis on the equality of women in the domain of education and challenged the notion that women exist only to please men in her book. The first wave of feminism argued for equal opportunities in domains that were dominated by men because of the gender roles assigned by society to men and women. The vision of Mary Wollstonecraft was later concretized by Virginia Woolf, an important modernist 20th century writer, in her seminal text “A Room of One’s Own” (1929). Considered Woolf’s master work, it is a long form of essay told through a fictionalized narrator that presents the argument of the necessity of both metaphorical and literal “room” for women’s literature within the literary tradition.
The second wave of feminism from the 1940s to the 1980s challenged the essentialist assumptions and acceptance of the division between gender and sex as defined by society. It sparked a rejuvenation of the issue raised about the place of women in the workforce. Presses published the lost and ignored works by women; colleges instilled the courses teaching on women’s literature and history. Simone de Beauvoir was an active participant of the second movement, and her book “The Second Sex” (1949) is credited to have paved the path of modernist feminism. Beauvoir wrote fearlessly; her writings were ahead of time, making strong points regarding the fight for the feminist cause. Every feminist might have come across this famous saying of hers: “One is not born; rather, one becomes a woman.”
The third wave of feminism, from the 1990s through 2000, focused more on the performative aspect of sexuality or gender. Writers like Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Walker were at the forefront. All these resulted in the commonality among women nowadays of living as singles and leading an independent life, but society still puts her under a great deal of pressure. For this reason, feminist criticism became an important subject in modern literature, which eventually took the shape of a completely new genre: “chick lit.” This genre tackles the feminist issue and is targeted towards contemporary women. It became popular in the late nineties, when “equal opportunity” and “feminism” were not popular ideologies in society. Helen Fielding is regarded as the pioneer of this modern form of women’s fiction, or original chick-lit. Fielding’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary” is a great example of a chick-lit novel that presents a clear picture of society and its implications in the life of a woman, especially single women. At the present time, Chimamanda Ngozi, one of the greatest role models of 21st century feminists, exemplifies honesty and bravery in the face of change. All in all, these writers emerged as powerful forces as they put forward the need for acknowledgement and activism for the growth and benefits of women as well as the literary tradition as a whole.
Sania Parween is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Moneera Aiman