Like many other spheres and domains of life, the literary space too worked on the politics of gender. It was long thought to be a space marked only for men, and women were always discouraged from writing or reading. But, there were some women writers who did not let anyone limit their potential. They wrote extensively and let their work speak for themselves.
1. Mary Wollstonecraft
Many of the ideas floating today about feminism and equality of genders were floated by Mary Wollstonecraft, an Anglo-Irish feminist, intellectual and writer, in as early as eighteenth century. She was born on April 27, 1759, in Spitalfields, London and had an abusive father who spent most of his fortune on a series of unsuccessful ventures in farming. Troubled by his actions, she set out of her household to earn a living for her own self. In her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), she talks about how women are not biologically incapable of reason, but as they are denied exposure to proper education, they’re made to think illogically. She realised the true potential of the female gender and appealed to the in-place institutions to not limit women as helpless adornments of the household. Some of the excerpts from her work are:
“The woman who has only been taught to please will soon find that her charms are oblique sunbeams, and that they cannot have much effect on her husband’s heart when they are seen every day, when the summer is passed and gone. Will she then have sufficient native energy to look into herself for comfort, and cultivate her dormant faculties? or, is it not more rational to expect that she will try to please other men; and, in the emotions raised by the expectation of new conquests, endeavour to forget the mortification her love or pride has received? When the husband ceases to be a lover—and the time will inevitably come, her desire of pleasing will then grow languid, or become a spring of bitterness; and love, perhaps, the most evanescent of all passions, gives place to jealousy or vanity.”
(A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft)
2. Ismat Chughtai
Ismat Chughtai was one of the Muslim writers who stayed in India after the partition. She was an eminent writer in Urdu who was known for her boldness, fierce ideology and impregnable attitude. She was born into an upper middle class family yet was subjected to stringent mindsets. When other girls were taught to be docile and dreamed about becoming the perfect wives, Chughtai took to books and educated herself with the support of her father and brother. Her mother disapproved of her decisions and Chughtai writes, “She hurled her shoe at me but missed.”
Her works became representative of the feminist ideas in the 20th century. Lihaaf is one of the most celebrated short stories written by her which talks about homosexuality in Aligarh. It was leveled with charges of obscenity but she never compromised on her outspoken nature and never apologized for the same. She won the case in court and became nothing less than an inspiration for the future generations of intellectuals.
3. Virginia Woolf
Known for her famous dictum, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” from her essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf was an English writer and one of the most talented modernists of the twentieth century. She was raised in a wonderful household where her father was a historian and author, and her mother had been born in India and later served as a model for several Pre-Raphaelite painters. She was also a nurse and wrote a book on the profession. Woolf was a happy child but soon was distressed after being sexually abused by her half brothers. She also lost her mother and her sister soon after, which led to a nervous breakdown.
But, despite all these challenges, she took up Ancient Greek, Latin, German and history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London. Her novels like Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) gained much appreciation and are still read enthusiastically.
4. Maya Angelou
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
(Still I Rise, Maya Angelou)
Maya Angelou was a poet, novelist, actor, civil rights activist and what not. She had published seven autobiographies, three books of essays and several books of poetry. Her first autobiography called I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) outlines her life up to the age of 17 and brought her much international recognition. Her works revolve around the themes of race, identity, society and culture and she was considered a respected spokesperson for black men and women.