Showalter, one of the country's founders of feminist literary criticism, has written a sweeping work on the history of female writers in America, A Jury of Her Peers. Their story is a fraught one and not, as the Economist puts it, "a history of inevitable progress." While female writers have flourished since the country's inception - and, indeed, the 19th century literary marketplace was dominated by them - their success has been at the whim of society. The macho ethos of the Modernists, with it explicit attempt to make American writing "more energetic and masculine" made the early 20th century particularly unfriendly to women writers. (Gertrude Stein, on whom she piles "boring/unreadable" scorn, was apparently an exception - if not a positive one - to this rule. Patronage doesn't count?)
Showalter also makes the point that for the female writer, the private and public are more inexplicably entwined: in prior centuries, this was a practical concern, and more recently and problematically, the romanticism seemed necessary to give women writers viability. In Showalter's view, the female writer of today has moved beyond sexist prejudice. We hope so; certainly there seems to be a baffling tendency to romanticize the glory days of literary culture - be it 20's Paris or 50's New York - and unfortunately this involves a tiresome degree of patronizing misogyny. Any glance at a literary bestseller list, however, shows definitively that female writers are, if anything, in a position of prominence at the moment - and many, like Mary Gaitskill or Anne Patchett, seem free of a prior generation's need to shed all traces of "the feminine" in their writing, while still being accepted as "writers" rather than "women writers." However, the landscape is nothing if not a shifting one. Will a new climate mean a need for comfort? And if so, how will we define it? Hopefully with a desire for good reading, without the labels.
A Paean To The Female Pen[Economist]