As a result of the twin efforts of feminist literary scholarship and historians of the printed word, the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne's expression of exasperation with those “damned scribbling women,” his contemporary female writers, can be interpreted as the cry of an angry competitor rather than as a judgment of their literary merit. Throughout the nineteenth century American women writers not only crowded the marketplace with their work, they, as recent scholarly work shows, came to define it. Their engagement with abolition, women's rights, and the cult of true womanhood among other then-current issues coincided with the rise of authorship as a profession, placing the work of women writers at the center of the burgeoning nineteenth-century literary marketplace. Major figures of the century, such as Louisa May Alcott, Lydia Maria Child, Sarah Josepha Hale, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, E.D.E.N. Southworth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan Bogart Warner, and Sara Payson Willis Parton (a.k.a. “Fanny Fern”) all made their living—unlike many of their male counterparts—by the pen. And perhaps what is most striking about their success as a group is the degree to which, because of their popularity, they had an impact on the development of literary culture. [Exceprt takent from Encyclopedia of the United States in the Nineteenth Century, available through Credo Reference.]
By the early twentieth century, the question of the suffrage was the predominant concern and it was the issue on which public campaigning activity was focused. The issue of the vote, seen as the key to placing the equality of women on the legislational agenda, united almost all feminists into a single campaign. There emerged, however, a fundamental difference of opinion over tactics. The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies was formed in 1897, with Millicent Fawcett as the President, and consisted of mainly well-connected middle-class women. In 1903, the Pankhursts set up a separate organisation, the Women's Social and Political Union, which employed more militant tactics. Thousands of suffragettes were imprisoned; many went on hunger strike and were subjected to force feeding. The outbreak of World War One in 1914 put an end to the militant activities of the suffragettes and further diversified the women's movement, since some of its leaders supported the war while others followed a pacifist line (Alberti 1989). The war itself is generally thought to have broken down many traditionally held views about women, following their being drawn into the labour force as replacements for the absent men. The ending of the war brought expectations for change in many spheres of life and in 1918, the Representation of the People Act widened suffrage to include all men over 21 and women over 30 who were householders, or the wives of householders or had been to university. [Exceprt takent from 50 Key Concepts in Gender Studies by Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan].
The period from 1880 to 1920, within which modernism emerged and rose to preeminence as the dominant art form in the West (it remained dominant until the end of World War II), was also the heyday of the first wave of feminism, consolidated in the Woman Suffrage movement. The protagonist of this movement was known as the New Woman: independent, educated, (relatively) sexually liberated, oriented more toward productive life in the public sphere than toward reproductive life in the home. The New Woman was dedicated, as Virginia Woolf passionately explained in 'Professions for Women', to the murder of the 'Angel in the House', Coventry Patmore's notorious poetic idealization of Victorian nurturant –domestic femininity. This New Woman inspired a great deal of ambivalent modernist characterization, from Hardy's Sue Bridehead (Jude the Obscure, 1896) and Ibsen's eponymous Hedda Gabler to Chopin's Edna Pontellier (The Awakening, 1899) and Woolf's Lily Briscoe (To the Lighthouse, 1927). [Exceprt takent from The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English]
[Feminist movements] arose in most advanced industrial countries in the second half of the twentieth century, condemned the subordination of women to men and wanted women's liberation. Their core belief was that women were of equal value to men but that social attitudes denied them equality even where laws demanded equal treatment for women. They were highly critical of stereotypical ideas that women were emotional, illogical and passive and that they could find fulfilment only through having children and/or looking after the home. Their resurgence in the 1960s owed much to the Civil Rights Movement, which made people aware of inequality in the US, though only a small minority of women called themselves feminists. Many women resented being told that raising a family was boring and saw themselves as complementary to, rather than as competing with, men. [Exceprt takent from A Dictionary of Contemporary History - 1945 to the Present by Duncan Townson]