Feminism in Fiction

My View of Feminism

Because I was educated in French and in English, my view of feminism encompasses both philosophical and social aspects. The leading French feminists in the twentieth century were women educated as philosophers, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, a historical and psychological approach to the history of women, was published in 1949. De Beauvoir’s huge tome discusses women’s place in history focusing on facts and myths as well as on women’s lived experience. The book’s impact is credited with initiating what is now called the second-wave feminism—the first waves refers to the movement in the USA that brought women the right to vote in 1919 and in France women the right to vote in 1945. Because the French took predominantly an intellectual approach to feminism, French feminist scholars discussed philosophy, the psychology of women, women writers’ approach to writing, and literary theory and criticism as it did or did not apply to women authors. French feminist psychologists, Luce Irigaray, for example, in Speculum of the Other Woman attempted to better understand a woman’s psychology as rooted in her physical body in contrast to the phallocentrism of male writers. Hélène Cixous and Monique Wittig  attempted to write from the experience of the female body expressing a woman’s reality through écriture féminine.

In the USA, feminist scholars were for the most part equal rights advocates. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) was based on a survey of her female students at Smith College. Its publication reawakened an American interest in feminism which been waning since women had achieved the right to vote. Friedan went on to help develop the National Organization of Women—founded in 1966 partially in response to the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which is still an engaged social activist group. Kate Millet, whose doctoral thesis in English literature analyzed D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer from a feminist viewpoint—shocking male literary critics—published the book as Sexual Politics in 1970. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, published in 1970, examined how women throughout history have perceived their roles.

In the 21st century, American feminist scholarship has expanded to include concerns with intersectionality—that is, the interplay of race, gender, sexual preference, religion, ability, socio-economic status, and nationality on individuals’ possibilities as they attempt to live their lives in an unjust society. Though she is classified as a science fiction writer, Octavia Butler’s novels are representative of an intersectional approach to literature. Intriguingly, a French feminist at the time of the French Revolution (1789), Olympe de Gouges, devoted her writing and political life to supporting what today is called “intersectionality.” De Gouges wrote plays as well as political pamphlets decrying the treatment of black slaves and women. The fact that she was one of only three women beheaded by the revolutionaries does give one pause.

As I work on my novels, my approach to feminism is always at the forefront of my mind. My favorite definition of feminism is, “Feminism is the radical idea that women are people.” I would add to that definition, “worthy of respect, competent in all aspects of life, and deserving of choosing their personal life’s path.” Believe it or not, there are today many men, women, and governments who do not concur with this definition.

What Is a Feminist Writer?

Recently, I have read many novels by women, some professing to be feminist while others do not mention the word. I have been puzzling over what exactly creates a feminist novel, how a feminist protagonist might be depicted, and why some women novelists reject the assignation of “feminist.”

My doctoral dissertation examined the letters of two 19th century writers: George Sand (the pen name of Aurore Dupin Dudevant) and her author friend, Gustave Flaubert. She was 17 years older than he, but from the moment she lauded his novel Madame Bovary in the press, they were close friends. They were both night owls and spent literally nights together discussing literature. Sand wrote many novels, plays, political tracks, ideas on education, and more than 20,000 letters over the course of her career. Her plays were so popular in Paris that on opening night, it was impossible to navigate in Paris due to the crowds lining the streets. Yet, George Sand stated in print that she was not a feminist. There was a feminist movement at her time, but she did not identify with the women protesting for the rights of women. She was an aristocrat, owned her own property, had divorced her battering husband, and was earning enough money from her writing that to give away more than one million dollars in her lifetime. She was obviously living the life of a feminist so why did she refuse the label?  Her novels feature heroines who do interesting things like become spiritual leaders or travel to unknown realms—which seems feminist to me.

Flaubert on the other hand referred to himself as “une vieille hystérique”—a hysterical old woman. He also famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” that is, Madame Bovary is me.” Madame Bovary exemplifies the confinement, limitations, and deadly mistakes young women endured in marriages to older men in the countryside. As in other nineteenth century novels, Madame Bovary dies rather than thrives. Flaubert also featured another woman in a short story called “A Simple Heart,” the story of Félicité. Félicité is a working woman—a servant. Her work is hard. Her only pleasure is her parrot who dies and she has him stuffed. Again, the story details the difficulties of a woman’s life and her unfair position in society. Flaubert to me is a feminist.

What Defines a Feminist Character?

To be categorized as feminist, does the character have to be political or radical? Can she be married, divorced, widowed, or single? Is feminism a question of how she defines herself in relationship to others? Does it have something to do with her education or what she reads? Her language? Her sartorial style? Is feminism an individual or a public stance? Is feminism psychological, social, emotional, physical, spiritual, or economic? Can a feminist be a wife, mother, a grandmother, or a daughter? Can a feminist be a male character? Authors seem to have a hard time deciding how to write about women characters, especially as the main character in a novel. As writers wrestle with these issues, they seem to be seeking another type of freedom in the writing world.

Some contemporary women novelists display the courage to write about women protagonists who, despite being quirky, achieve a certain satisfaction in their lives—for example, Olive Kitteridge in the eponymous novel and in the recently published, Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout. Strout’s characters—women and men—seem to be caught in the web of life yet show their humanness through small acts of kindness. In Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant, Eleanor suffers from traumatic stress disorder resulting from an event in her childhood. She is who she is. Yet, she survives through establishing a relationship with a compassionate young man. If a feminist is a woman who lives her own life as she chooses and survives, both would qualify.

A Woman Protagonist versus a Feminist Protagonist

As I work on my novels, I am constantly questioning my own writing. Are my women characters simply women filling typical roles or do they have feminist qualities? Two of my novels take place at historical moments when feminist movements were at issue so I have the opportunity to embed a feminist subtext. The other novel takes place during the Great Depression when women had to do just about anything to simply survive. Each novel has a strong female protagonist. Each one is committed to self-development. My hope is to create strong and memorable female characters which to me implies a feminist approach.

Writing Goals for 2020

Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:

In August, after printing out the full manuscript, I reworked parts of my first novel. I am enjoying reading it as I edit but it is challenging to place a proper order on it.

Regarding my second novel, this month I focused on integrating accurate scenery and describing the house and land more vividly.

Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020, by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:

During RMFW’s NovelRama from August 14–17, 2020. I succeeded in writing 26,335 words in four days which amounted to 1,335 words beyond my personal goal. I practiced writing different characters’ points of view through journals, letters, and their reactions to certain scenes.

Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:

Today is September 7, 2020, I am posting my ninth blog of 2020. The topics I choose to write about arise from thinking deeply about my own writing. As I write my blog, I am very aware of whom my readers might be. This month I watched an interview with Elizabeth Strout in which she says, “I’m always thinking about the reader. I have an ideal reader. It’s somebody who is patient but they’re not super patient. It is somebody who needs the book, if I can deliver it to them. So, I have a sense of responsibility to them.” I definitely need to figure out who the ideal readers for my fiction are.

Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

As Vice President of Boulder Writer’s Alliance this past month, I zoomed into a workshop presented by Dr. Melanie Peffer, who discussed writing her book Biology Everywhere. I also contributed to an online Steering Committee conversation about how to maintain membership in the organization during a pandemic.

In Gary Alan McBride’s Writers Who Read group, the group discussed Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for Olive Kittridge. The format of the book presents 13 chapter stories about an older Olive and people in the same town whom she has known for years. The format is a novel approach to point of view.

As a participant in the Membership Committee for the Denver Women’s Press Club, I communicated with the other members. DWPC is holding Sunday Salons and Thursday Meet and Greet sessions via Zoom. Sadly, I missed two I had signed up for because I was so tired I needed a nap.

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ August 2020 NovelRama provided the opportunity for writers to encourage each other to keep pumping out 6500 words a day for four days. Participants posted memes of llamas, aliens, and flowers to amuse and inspire us as we pounded on our keyboards.

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