‘First’ is a decisive word in the study of the humanities, particularly when it comes to feminist literature. Literary historians spend a good deal of time arguing over the exact idea of ‘who was first?’ whether it is the first modern novel, the first true poet, or even the minefield of the first use of various words in Shakespeare’s plays. It is most beneficial to be at the cutting edge as a writer, and above all the arguments these four writers are the best example of prominence, not only in their feminist ideals, but also in literary leadership. They were the first to address the issues surrounding their society and the time they lived in, and they did so with originality and the power of words.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
An unprecedented example of style in Victorian literature, Jane Eyre is one of the first feminist novels and one of the best. Adapted in many ways and considered a classic, it is a novel that has the reputation for being dry and slightly stale, perhaps due to its constant placement on school and university reading lists. Eyre is anything but: it is as modern and fresh a novel as anything published today. It is an absurd, strange, bizarre account of cross-dressing Byronic heroes, STD ridden women hidden in attics, and phallic and menstrual imagery. Most importantly, it is a unique view on Victorian womanhood and the expectations placed upon them during the era. The eponymous hero Jane is, at first, a fairly typical example of a bildungsroman, and we see the entirety of the novel through her eyes. It is as the book progresses and she is faced with the challenges of adult life that Bronte brings something new to the table, both in plot of the novel and Jane’s philosophical ponderings. She begins as an orphan, and quickly we are thrown into the world where merit means almost nothing when you are a woman. After her schooling, she becomes a governess and meets the passionately surly Mr Rochester, and the love between them begins to grow. Jane suffers greatly across the novel, but she learns great amounts about why women are treated as second class citizens, and what little she can do to counter it. In this novel, Bronte left the groundwork for many female writers to come as well as writing as brilliant story.
Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf
It is hard, in a list like this, to ignore the free and forward thinking of literary and social intellect Virginia Woolf. An extremely prolific writer and essayist, perhaps best known for her 1925 Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf wrote Three Guineas in 1938 as a continuation of her earlier essay, A Room of One’s Own, another classic of the genre. In this essay, Woolf uses the medium of letters to argue against patriarchal values in Edwardian England. Firstly, she looks at the looming outbreak of war, asking, through the letter of an anonymous gentleman, how this war should be prevented. She praises the man for asking a woman, noting that in the generation before this would have been a subject solely kept to the discussion of males. Secondly, she wonders aloud as to why the government does not support the education of women, carrying on the questions and the main idea put forward in A Room of One’s Own. Finally, she asks why society looks down upon the idea of women entering professional fields, making it harder for women of all classes to gain the independence Woolf demands in A Room of One’s Own. Woolf had her finger on the beating pulse of society in her era, and clearly her vision is something that still finds relevancy today.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The first and last novel written by the American poet Sylvia Plath, who truly eats men like air, was initially published under the pen name Victoria Lucas due to its semi-autographical content and the pressure of her family. A popular choice among young men and women across the world, Plath’s novel is a first-hand account of the story of Esther Greenwood, who works as an intern at a glamourous magazine in New York City. She goes into detail about the absurdity of city living at the time, focusing especially on the fissure that came between men and women of the period. In the novel, Plath makes the point that young women of the period were expected to do two things; firstly, perform well in school; secondly, marry well and quickly. This expectation leaves Esther confused and unhappy, asking the question that there must surely be more to life. It is here that The Bell Jar takes a different turn: Esther becomes depressed and is convinced (or forced) to see a therapist and go into a mental hospital by her controlling mother. In the hospital Esther undergoes electro-shock therapy, and worries constantly at the difference between herself and the other patients. This novel highlights two of society’s standards that were in massive need of a change in the America of the 1950’s; the treatment of women and the stigma attached to mental health. It is a book of extreme beauty about an ugly reality for Plath and many of the readers who emphasize with her.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Based on a TED talk she gave in 2012, Nigerian writer Chimananda Ngozi Adiche wrote and published this essay in late 2014. A short, concise piece, it is a superlative in the contemporary feminist philosophy, but a quiet one. This 52 page essay did not come out to great fanfare until later in the year with the help of Beyoncé’s song, Flawless, which sampled sections from her writing. Adiche makes great strides in her essay not to use words of anger or aggression; instead, she looks at both sides of the issue and is fair, looking to the readers to raise our sons and daughters differently in order to improve the standard of living in our world. She utilizes her own experiences by discussing her own life growing up as a feminist in Nigeria, using the smaller incidents of her past as examples and metaphors for larger aspects; how the way we view gender differences when we are younger has an absolute impact on how we view them as adults. Besides, you know something is good when Beyoncé likes it.
Words by Jack Williams.
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