The intent of this eight-week unit is to point out the struggle of women writers to become recognized and included in the literature of this century.
Throughout American history, women have suffered, often without hope of improving their situation. Today they are demanding an end to discrimination. They have organized to gain equal treatment in order that their rights no longer be denied. Laws and practices have changed and women are demanding equal treatment with men.
The early writings of American women began in the late 1700’s and the early 1800’s with magazine articles containing the latest information on fashions, popular science, household hints, and other domestic matters. According to the contributors to these magazines, piety, purity, and domesticity were the foundations on which to build feminine happiness. By teaching every woman proper standards of behavior, dress, and literary tastes, mass circulation magazines fostered the aspirations of lower-class women who wanted to become ladies just like middle-class women. These periodicals required many writers and naturally women were the ones who could provide the proper tone and approach. Many women writers began to come into their own with the advent of ladies’ magazines.
Contributions to these magazines were at first submitted anonymously because society did not approve of women writers or women who worked outside of the home. By the 1830’s it was possible for a lady to admit to authorship. Sarah Hale, best known for her “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” had a great influence through her forty years as editor of
Godey’s Lady’s Book
, the most important magazine of its type, with a circulation of 150,000. Mrs. Hale used her columns to advocate higher education for women and to advise them to train as doctors and nurses, occupations she considered perfectly compatible with “true womanhood.” She published a total of thirty-six volumes during her lifetime and inspired other women to go into journalism.
Women who took up professional literary pursuits had talent, drive, and economic need just as men did. Most of these women came from families that were able to provide them with a good education. Some were single or widowed and many had dependents to support. Their career choices were limited. Except for teaching, writing was the only professional career widely available to women in the nineteenth century.
Some of these pioneer writers were Lydia Marie Child (18021880), a novelist; Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), author of
and other novels; and Jane Swisshelm (1815-1884), owner and editor of
The St. Cloud Visitor
in Minnesota. One of the most famous of anti-slavery writers was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
In the early years of the twentieth century women were an important part of reform activity which occurred as a result of problems created by industrialization and territorial expansion. Twentieth century women were impatient with the lack of progress of reform to improve the status of women. The woman’s rights movement, for a short while, united women of all social classes in a common cause. During World War I women entered new fields of industry and many people were of the opinion that the long struggle for women’s suffrage would be ended. The struggle for suffrage did end when women gained the right to vote in 1920, but the vote turned out to be relatively unimportant in improving women’s status.
The Depression had an adverse effect on whatever economic gains women had made because men were given priority for scarce jobs. World War II changed this trend, and once again women were employed in large numbers in industry. But at the end of the war men again replaced women in industrial jobs. Most women returned to their jobs as homemakers and mothers.
In the 1950’s there was a dramatic rise in the birth rate, accompanied by earlier marriages and a general acceptance of the old-fashioned view that “woman’s place is in the home.” However, women’s share of the labor market increased at the same time.
The new feminism in the 1960’s was a movement composed primarily of middle-class women who wished to revive the struggle of women to achieve equal rights. The struggles of women of previous generations had improved the status of women, although social values, mores, and institutions lagged far behind the material and economic progress that had been made.
In literature some well-known authors were Mary Roberts Rinehart, Edna Ferber, Pearl Buck, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Dorothy Parker, Katherine Ann Porter, and journalist Dorothy Thompson. With less social restraints in the twentieth century, women are now writing plays, television scripts, and newspaper columns. Woman is no longer limited by her ability to take advantage of the many choices open to her. She is no longer faced with the conflict between career and motherhood; she can choose both.