An explanation of how feminism, nonconforming ideas, and the voices of the minority through literature impacted the trajectory of equality.
Throughout history, women have been considered the minority. The fight for equality is ongoing even now. However, there were trailblazers of the past that opened the door for women being respected authors. Whether it be fiction, poetry, or other genres women of the postbellum era started the literary movement of equity. The balance between male and female writers is a sensitive scale that changes as society develops new ideals and tolerances.
The acceptance of female literary minds started its development after the Civil War. Not only were people fighting for equal rights because of their skin color, immigration status, or level of wealth but by gender. A comparison of women versus men authors during the postbellum era will show not only the inequality of treatment but the difference in historical focus. At the same time, the social progress for women is evident through the various female contributors to the craft.
The social dynamics of the time were oppression towards women, people of color, immigrants, and poverty-stricken communities. If you were a member of these groups, your voice was invalidated. The gap between gender and wealth was wide. Money was the great divider of this period, but marginalized classes were fighting against this inequity through literature. Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins was a woman of color and a novelist. Hopkins used romance to explore race, gender, and social nuances of the time.
Hopkin’s resume includes plays, novels and even working as a journalist. All of these roles were groundbreaking for someone whose gender and race was not respected. It is interesting to note that often female writers of this time were poets which were one option in the minimal pool of choice the writers could use to document emotions and experiences. Being female allowed society to excuse their bias and invalidate the important messages in the text. Nevertheless, some authors broke the mold of societal norms and created content that questions perspective, values, and equality.
The majority didn't say it
Kate Chopin was born in the late 1800s and gained notoriety for the work The Awakening which tackled various taboo topics for the time. One of the groundbreaking moments of this text is the realization that Chopin is exploring what it means to be female. The concept of power dynamics in the family structure and the exploitation of femininity were controversial. Nevertheless, this is one of many pieces of literature that contributed to the fight for equality.
As a comparison between the sexes one counterpart of the industry was a man named Joseph Alexander Altsheler. While Chopin was writing about feminism, this author penned historical fiction and young adult literature. However, instead of focusing on social dynamics, Altsheler wrote on the Civil War. While female writers at the time were looking towards the future, Alsheler was providing a look into the battles that men had fought in times past. This difference in content is due to societal viewpoints on the minority classes.
Men did not need to be concerned about exploring masculinity or commentary on equal rights, since they were the majority. White male authors were respected, accepted and their word was valued by society. The philosophies of the naturalist groups, no matter how accurate, were viewed as cannon. Even the depiction of the Civil War by Altsheler is biased toward the masculine.
If you are at the top of the food chain you do not have to worry about discrimination based on gender. Therefore, female authors' work is steeped in complex controversial subjects like equality, suicide, and independence. Women did not have power or a voice that would be willing heard. Therefore, so they used a power that men could not remove: thoughts, opinions, and emotions on paper.
Women writers of the postbellum era took a risk in speaking their voices. They created a pathway for equal rights today by questioning the opinions of the majority. Even when treated unfairly by others, they preserved their work and published their words. Now long after their death, they are the model for writers today of all genders. They showed how the influence of books can move society to action and improve social norms and call out inequality. This pattern continues today with movements like #metoo and Black Lives Matter. Voices coming together to make a change through words spark the evolution of change in humanity.
Originally Written by us in our LIT 265 course.
Arms, George, et al. “Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography.” American Literature, vol. 43, no. 1, 1971, p. 136. Crossref, doi:10.2307/2924491.
Chopin, Kate, and Margo Culley. The Awakening (Norton Critical Editions). Third, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.
Foy, Roslyn Reso. “Chopin’s Désirée’s Baby.” The Explicator, vol. 49, no. 4, 1991, pp. 222–23. Crossref, doi:10.1080/00144940.1991.11484079.
Gomillion, Charles G. “The Influence of the Negro on the Culture of the South.” Social Forces, vol. 20, no. 3, 1942, p. 386. Crossref, doi:10.2307/3005630.
Hopkins, Pauline Elizabeth. (2006). Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, 1064-1065.
Ida Jo Marshall, “Altsheler, Joseph Alexander,” Handbook of Texas Online, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/altsheler-joseph-alexander.Published by the Texas State Historical Association.