The 20th century saw an emergence of talented women writers who defied traditional gender roles and paved the way for stronger representation of women’s voices in literature. These writers produced works that reflected the experiences and challenges faced by women in their time and tackled themes such as gender, identity, sexuality, race and class. Some of the most notable women writers of the 20th century include Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. This generation of women writers inspired me to write this article as they continued to transcend social norms, barriers and limitations for females during the 20th century in literature and society in general.
These emerging women writers had areas of focus that contrasted with the women writers of the 19th century. One key difference between women writers of the 19th century and those of the 20th century is the social and cultural context in which they wrote. In the 19th century, women were largely excluded from public life and had limited opportunities for education and professional development. As a result, women writers often had to navigate restrictive social norms and expectations and were frequently overlooked and dismissed by male critics and readers. However, many women writers of the 19th century, such as Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë) and Mary Shelley, nonetheless produced enduring works that continue to be celebrated today. These mentioned names belong to authors commonly analyzed in secondary and post-secondary English courses, indicating their relevance in the 21st century.
In the 20th century, women writers were able to build on the progress made by earlier generations and made even more tremendous strides in representation and recognition. This was partly due to the growing feminist movement and increasing social and political awareness around issues of gender and inequality. As the second wave of feminism rose in the 20th century, so did women writers of the 20th century producing works of outstanding literary merit. They also helped to shape and expand the cultural conversation around critical social issues. Today, their contributions are celebrated and studied, and their works remain vital to the literary canon.
In the 20th century, the literary landscape experienced a significant change and underwent much-needed innovation, and women writers played a crucial role in shaping this evolution. During this time period, women writers focused on entirely new territory. They continued challenging social norms by focusing on issues like gender equality and feminism, the importance of identity and delving into previously patriarchal topics, including social and political issues. Overall, their contributions and subjects of focus did change as the time progressed in the 20th century, with the early, mid and late 20th centuries all having their distinguished group of women writers focusing on the prevalent issues, feelings and emotions at the time.
EARLY 20th CENTURY: THE MODERNIST MOVEMENT
The early part of the century saw the emergence of modernist literature, characterized by experimentation with form and style and a focus on the individual’s interiority and subjective experience. Women writers such as Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes were at the forefront of this movement, producing works that challenged traditional narrative structures and explored new modes of expression. These women writers were also instrumental in promoting a feminist agenda within the modernist movement. They challenged the conventional portrayal of women in literature and sought to create new models of female identity and subjectivity.
Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, for example, features a lesbian relationship between two women. This work remains impactful and transcended values by speaking on controversial topics like sexuality, 2SLGBTQIA+ issues and gender disparity. The novel was first published in 1936 and is set in the bohemian world of Paris, where a cast of characters explore the boundaries of love, desire and identity. At the heart of the novel is the relationship between two women, Robin Vote and Nora Flood, who struggle to navigate their feelings for each other in a society that does not accept their love. The novel also explores themes related to gender and power, as the male characters in the novel attempt to exert their influence over the women and control their lives.
Despite being published nearly a century ago, Nightwood continues to resonate with readers today due to its frank and unflinching portrayal of 2SLGBTQIA+ relationships and the struggles faced by marginalized individuals, issues rampant even in today’s society. In addition, the novel’s portrayal of gender and power dynamics is equally relevant, as women continue to face discrimination and oppression in many areas of society, including unequal pay (YES—the gender pay gap is real!) and sexual oppression.
Through their writing, these writers helped to break down gender barriers and create a more inclusive and diverse literary landscape. They challenged traditional literary conventions and opened up new possibilities for future generations of women writers. Their contributions to the modernist movement continue to be celebrated and studied today as a testament to their enduring impact on literary culture.
MID-20th CENTURY: THE FEMINISM MOVEMENT
In the mid-20th century, the rise of feminist movements and the civil rights movement led to an even greater focus on issues of gender, sexuality, race and class in literature. Societal rights, including workplace discrimination, reproductive rights, sexual liberation and increasing political representation, were issues actively fought for by this new wave of feminists. Importantly, women writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou brought these issues to the forefront of the cultural conversation, producing works that gave voice to marginalized perspectives and experiences.
From this list, Maya Angelou is a respected author and poet who was first introduced to me through an allusion to her and her works in the 1999 novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Maya Angelou was a 20th-century writer, poet and civil rights activist known for her powerful and evocative writing and advocacy for social justice and civil rights. In Speak, Melinda Sordino, the protagonist, has experienced sexual abuse committed by a senior in her school, Andy Evans, and has to cope with this tragic event during the school year.
Melinda, unknowingly, makes a fitting choice by using a poster of Maya Angelou in the isolated school janitor’s closet, where she finds a haven during school hours. Angelou, a renowned African-American author, details her experience of sexual assault in her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Melinda finds inspiration from the poster throughout the year and feels empowered by it, particularly when it encourages her to confess the truth about Andy to her previous best friend, Rachel, who is also coincidentally dating Andy.
Expanding on this allusion is essential as it speaks to the type of writer and poet Maya Angelou was and the impact she had on people in both the 20th and 21st centuries. Angelou’s most famous work is her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which explores her childhood experiences of racism, trauma and abuse as a Black woman. This book is a powerful exploration of identity and resilience and has become an important work in African-American literature.
The allusion to Angelou’s work highlights how women writers of the 20th century have used literature as a means of exploring and challenging issues related to gender, identity and social justice. Angelou’s work, like Anderson’s Speak, is a powerful example of how literature can be used to give voice to marginalized experiences and to effect social change.
“The school board banned one of Maya Angelou’s books, so the librarian had to take down her poster.
I fished it out of the trash.
She must be a great writer if the school board is scared of her.”
– Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson
In addition to this, throughout her career, Angelou was a vocal advocate for social justice and civil rights, and her writing often addressed issues related to race, gender and inequality. She worked closely with prominent civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., and her writing is marked by a deep sense of social and political engagement.
LATE 20th CENTURY: THE POSTMODERNIST MOVEMENT
Towards the end of the century, postmodernism emerged as a dominant literary movement, characterized by rejecting traditional narrative structures and focusing on intertextuality and meta-fiction. Women writers such as Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson were prominent figures in this movement, producing works that challenged established literary conventions and subverted dominant cultural narratives.
As a Canadian women writer, Margaret Atwood’s impact as a women writer of the 20th century is significant and far-reaching. Atwood’s writing has profoundly impacted feminist discourse, and her work is often studied in women’s and gender studies courses around the world. Her novels, such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, have become crucial touchstones for feminist literature and have helped to inspire a new generation of feminist writers.
In addition to her contributions to feminist discourse, Atwood’s writing has also been recognized for its engagement with environmental issues and its exploration of the ways in which human activity impacts the natural world. Her work has been praised for its prescience in anticipating the environmental crises that have become increasingly urgent in recent years.
Similar to the motivational Maya Angelou, Atwood’s impact as a writer extends beyond her published works. She has been a vocal advocate for writers’ rights and has played an active role in literary organizations such as PEN International. Her advocacy work has helped to create a more supportive environment for writers, particularly women writers, and has paved the way for greater recognition of women’s contributions to literature.
Women writers of the 20th century played a significant role in shaping literary culture and challenging societal norms. Instrumental authors like Djuna Barnes, Maya Angelou and Margaret Atwood used their writing to explore issues related to gender, identity, power and social justice. Their work continues to inspire and challenge readers around the world.
Through their writing, these women writers broke down barriers and paved the way for future generations of women to pursue their literary ambitions. They challenged stereotypes and expanded the boundaries of what was considered “acceptable” subject matter for women writers, and in doing so, they helped to create a more inclusive and diverse literary landscape. This literary landscape was accompanied by a more inclusive and diverse society, which is what inspired me to write about these writers.
In our society, it is important to continue to recognize and celebrate the contributions of women writers of the past and present and to create a literary culture that is inclusive, diverse and representative of all voices. By doing so, we can ensure that women continue to have a powerful and transformative impact on not only the literary landscape but also other societal factors for generations to come.