This look at feminism in post-1900 literature has two timely inspirations: Margaret Atwood and…Donald Trump.
I just read The Testaments, Ms. Atwood’s excellent 2019 sequel to 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale. And sore loser Trump is about to (hopefully) leave the White House this Wednesday, January 20.
Trump has been rightly criticized for many things during his dumpster fire of a presidency. The lies, the criminality, the incompetence, the cruelty, the blatant racism, the homophobia, and more. So, it can get a bit lost just how misogynist Trump and his ilk have also been.
There are the more than 20 credible pre-presidency rape and other sexual misconduct allegations against Trump, the crudely sexist remarks, the pathetically few women he named to top administration positions, etc. Of course, amid Trump’s toxic machismo, the females in Trump’s mostly male orbit have been awful in their own right — including wife Melania, daughter Ivanka, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, former education secretary Betsy DeVos, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, and others. Complicit, complicit, complicit.
The fictional Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments feels like an extreme (?) version of the far-right Trump/far-right Republican/far-right evangelical vision for America. Atwood’s authoritarian fictional republic has made women second-class citizens — stripping the older ones of their former professions, not allowing the younger ones to have intellectual jobs, forcing teen girls into marriages with much older men, and other patriarchal outrages that of course include Gilead’s handmaid system of child-bearers with no rights. There’s also all kinds of corruption and violence. One of Atwood’s accomplishments in both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments is creating unforgettable women characters who either fight against the system (overtly or subtly) or come to grudgingly accept it (under duress). Also impressive is that Atwood is near the top of her writing game in the sequel despite her turning 80 the year it was published. My only significant criticism of The Testaments is that its nail-biting conclusion is too short.
Anyway, I’m limiting this piece to post-1900 literature with feminist elements because I covered many earlier novels with such elements in this 2018 post. There are many novels I can discuss, but I’ll focus on just a few.
The title alone of Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen tells the reader that the 1974 novel will have feminist aspects. Its protagonist, Adah, is a smart and resourceful woman who battles sexism from society and her husband in an effort to get the education she desires and do the work she wants to do. She moves from Nigeria to England, but both places are frequently not hospitable for ambitious women. Racism is in the mix as well.
Both sexism and racism are also faced by characters in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982).
Women taking leadership roles is obviously a feminist thing, and we see that in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. That novel’s leader is Lauren Oya Olamina, whose take-charge personality is sorely needed in a society that has crumbled due to climate change, huge economic inequality, and corporate greed. (Do those three mega-problems ring a bell? This prescient science-fiction book was published in 1993.) Lauren even founds a new religion of sorts!
Eliza Sommers, the Chilean protagonist in Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, goes to mid-19th-century California against her parents’ wishes and even spends much of the 1998 novel disguised as a man in order to live more freely.
Looking back at a 1910-published novel, Colette’s The Vagabond features music-hall dancer Renee Nere and the very familiar push-and-pull on her life between work and romance.
There are also feminist novels that at least partly focus on the right of women to make independent decisions about sexual matters — with two examples being Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Rita Mae Brown’s lesbian-focused Rubyfruit Jungle. Both, coincidentally, published in 1973. Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987) also deals compellingly with a lesbian relationship, albeit more-closeted in this case.
Women working in traditionally “male” professions is another mark of feminist novels, with Ms. Flagg offering a great example of that with the women World War II pilots in 2013’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. (I wish “Women” rather than “Girl” was in that title, but “Girl” might have been used ironically.) There’s also a memorable Russian female WWII pilot in Kate Quinn’s The Huntress (2019).
Plus Claire Fraser of Diana Gabaldon’s 1991-launched Outlander series of time-travel novels is a medical doctor in both the 1960s (when that was relatively unusual for a woman) and during the 1700s (when that virtually never happened).
Women having control over their own bodies is certainly an aspect of feminism, meaning novels that sympathetically look at abortion fit this post’s theme. One example is John Irving’s The Cider House Rules from 1985 — the same publication year as The Handmaid’s Tale.
Your favorite 20th- or 21st-century novels with feminist elements?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about my town’s reaction to the Trump-incited white riot at the U.S. Capitol building — is here.