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Feminism in literature has only grown in strength, from its inception in the works of the earliest female writers. Looking ahead, across genres, the future is feminist.
“One evening I was lounging in an easy chair in my bedroom and thinking lazily of the condition of Indian womanhood.” Thus begins the novella written by Begum Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain, Sultana’s Dream. Written in 1905, it is widely considered to be among the earliest pieces of feminist science-fiction in the world. Set in an utopian Ladyland, it features a reversal of gender roles, where men are secluded inside the house and women run the world, assisted by electrical technology.
I cannot help but contrast it with Naomi Alderman’s 2017 Bailey’s Prize winning novel, The Power, which also features a world run by women, who have gained the power to shoot electricity from their hands, making them physically stronger. Unlike Ladyland, however, this world is dystopian.
This difference in the two books is not insignificant. It reflects the change in how feminism itself has grown and changed. For the early feminists, who were denied the most basic of rights, and who were trapped in the bonds of domesticity, it was pertinent to take over traditionally male spaces. It was the need of the hour.
For feminists today, who are more aware of the workings of intersectionality and privilege, power itself is the problem, and not who wields it.
The earliest women writers in the world, such as ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian or even Indian writers, or their characters may not be “feminists” by today’s standards, but they did portray women who had an awareness of themselves and their status in society. Few of their works survive, but as this poem from the 7th century poet Vidya shows, they could be quite bold: “As children we crave / little boys / pubescent we hunger for youths / old we take elderly men. / It is a family custom. / But you like a penitent / pursue a whole / life with one husband. / Never, my daughter / has chastity / so stained our clan.”
Considering that the myths punished women who were ‘unchaste’, even by no fault of their own (Ahalya, Medusa), this is rather revolutionary.
A streak of self-determination is also visible in the works of saint-poets like Meerabai or Andal, for whom ‘bhakti’ or devotion was a revolution in itself. Muktabai’s preachings to Changdev, a bigoted man, and her Thatiche Abhang, which is a lesson to her elder brother Dnyaneshwar, reflect wisdom and learning.
In Unbound: 2000 years of Indian Women’s Writing, Annie Zaidi also mentions the bhakti poetesses, Janabai and Soyarabai, whose work was not only about “spiritual hunger, but also of their world, its inconsistencies and divisions,” and the Mughal Princess Zeb-un-nissa, whose writing reflected “her yearning, and the weariness of living in a restrictive, judgemental world.”
In the West, for a long time, women were not even allowed to read novels. As this article points out, it was believed that women were so feeble-minded that they could not differentiate between fact and fiction, and so novels were considered dangerous for them.
Women reading, was enough to scare men then, and it is enough to scare them now. Women in Iran, for example, were banned in 2012, from studying more than 70 university courses, including English literature.
From the time women started reading and writing however, feminists have created reflections of themselves on the page.
The depiction of feminism in books has always paralleled the waves of the feminist movement itself.
Women’s writing really took off in the nineteenth century as access to higher education gave them the opportunity to sharpen their skills.
In India, the struggle for freedom against the British rule as well as the struggle against patriarchy formed the soul of the writing. This paper focusing on the writings of three women writers of this era, Cornelia Sorabji, Sarojini Naidu and Krupabai Satthianadhan, discusses how they used narratives, poetry and novels, respectively, to support their activism.
In the West, Louisa May Alcott wrote in 1868, the character of Jo March; a character who I identified with more than a century later. The feminism of the novel is debatable but Jo, who is outspoken, intelligent, creative and who dreams of a career, is undoubtedly a feminist in any age. It was truly unique because it was, however minor, a resistance to the ‘marriage plot’ that was in vogue at the time.
Jane Austen, in particular, is the creator of such relatable and enduring characters like Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliot, who as this video points out, “encountered difficult choices about romantic, filial and financial stability, and they resolved them without sacrificing their own values or their sense of humour.”
Similarly, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, etc. also wrote about unconventional women, whose choices led them to toil and trouble.
Sadly, the works of these women, which we now regard as classics, were dismissed in their own time as being unworthy of serious academic study.
African-American women too, began to write extensively in the 19thcentury, their work an intricate portrait of the double marginalization that they had to face.
Reflecting the changes in society, the feminist characters in books too were multidimensional women. They were heroines of their own stories, in the truest sense of the word. They had greater agency. They were not ‘punished’ for being who they were, though they often displayed an internal struggle of not ‘fitting’ with the world’s expectations. There is a stark realism in these works.
Poets like Kamala Das and Eunice D’Souza wrote with a female voice that was openly rebellious and dismissive of oppressive social expectations. Women in novels such as those of Amrita Pritam, Ismat Chughtai, Mahasweta Devi, Kamala Markandaya or Shashi Deshpande, are confident, educated and sensitive to the lives of marginalized women. The push and pull of modernity versus tradition were reflected in their inner conflicts.
While these women often had careers, many of their challenges emerged from the domestic sphere too. Annie Zaidi writes, in her introduction to Unbound: 2000 years of Indian Women’s Writing, “Patriarchy is nothing if not domestic. Besides there is more sex, violence, politics and overall drama in the average household, than say, the average office.” Depictions of feminism in 20thcentury literature were born out of the writers’ awareness of this truth.
Men like Rabindranath Tagore, and Sadat Hasan Manto too portrayed women as multi-dimensional and with agency. Who can forget Binodini from Tagore’s Chokher Bali or Manto’s Mozail?
Western poets like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Dorothy Parker wrote deeply confessional poetry and revealed their rich inner lives as flawed, conflicted and complex people. In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, the protagonist keeps different coloured diaries for each part of her life, a structure that Lessing said, was to “show the fragmentation of a woman’s mind, and how, through writing, she might put her identity back together.”
In the works of black women like Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, there are powerful insights about race and gender.
There were a plethora of books in various genres, from detective fiction (in the works of authors like Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Peters, Kerry Greenwood and others), to science fiction and fantasy (Margaret Atwood, Ursula K Le Guin, Octavia Butler, etc.) which featured their heroines boldly take the lead.
Anne of Green Gables (written by Lucy Maud Montgomery), Matilda (written by Roald Dahl), Hermione Granger (written by J K Rowling) and others emerged as a new kind of female character in books for children. Here, finally, were girls who were smarter, kinder and often braver than the boys.
Feminists in literature today are defined by intersectionality. As the push towards reading diversely increases, the feminism in literature too reflects this. Characters are no longer exclusively white, abled, or heterosexual.
Meena Kandasamy’s work (poetry and novels), reflect a deep understanding of the intersection of caste and gender, and are an extension of her activism. Eating Wasps by Anita Nair, features a wide variety of women, many of whom are feminists in thought and action, even though they do not refer to themselves as feminists. These are women who are not afraid to be ‘unlikeable‘. There is also a wonderful split here between the character of Sreelakshmi, a 20thcentury feminist, who is ground down and driven to suicide by the society around her, and the other women, of today’s world, who are defiant in the face of oppression. It is a beautiful testimony to how far feminism has come, and how much women today benefit from the struggles of the early feminists.
Writers like Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Samhita Arni, Sharanya Manivannan and others have also used mythology as a base from which their feminist characters rise up. In rewriting the women in these myths as feminists, they explore the struggle of staying true to one’s identity in a society that seeks to strip one of agency. In the words of Annie Zaidi, “Myths are referenced, goddesses invoked, legends summoned forth for a conversation. Draupadi and Sita, Amrapali and Akka Mahadevi are addressed with familiarity, as if they were grandmothers lying down in an adjacent bedroom.”
Coming to the West, The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan, features a single mother and her daughter, who is a transgender girl, set in an ‘ice-age’ world that has been brought about by climate change. The Hate You Give, by Angie Thomas follows the life of Starr Carter, a black girl and her activism after she witnesses her friend being shot by the police. The two books of Daevabad trilogy by S A Chakraborty, that are currently out feature many powerful women of diverse backgrounds, set in a mythical Arabian City, and the Winternight trilogy by Katherine Arden set in ancient Russia, also has a female protagonist who refuses to bow down to the restrictions imposed upon her by society.
Nor are such feminists being written exclusively by women. Books in Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series, set in ancient China for example, feature women from diverse backgrounds, including a disabled female scientist and a bisexual princess, who are ambitious, unafraid and intelligent. The character of Cyrah, a rape survivor, in The Devourers by Indrapramit Das, is neither wronged victim nor a physically violent avenger, but a beautifully written multidimensional woman.
These books are not feminist novels, but simply books that feature women who are also feminists as they go about their lives. The feminism is more organic.
Feminism itself is being examined in books like Bad Feminist, a collection of essays by Roxane Gay.
Feminism in literature has evolved, keeping pace with the big social and political questions of the time. Irrespective of the era, feminists in books have always questioned the status quo. Genres ranging from children’s books, to young adult, to romance, to science fiction, are all filled with fabulous feminists of all ages, sexual orientations and skin colours. The future, undeniably, is feminist.
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