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Women Writers: Lives Interrupted and Lives Spent Interrupting

Maeve O'Brien By Maeve O'Brien Published on March 23, 2017
This article was updated on April 3, 2017

The twentieth century was an era of radical and dramatic social, political and cultural change. In the 100 years between 1900 and 2000, the people whose voices and lives had been marginalised began to break through patriarchal, white supremacist and heteronormative restrictions to finally speak and be heard. There are few examples that illustrate this better than the field of literature – and in particular women’s writing. Indeed, the historical barriers and silences forced upon women have been so great, the quote ‘anonymous was a woman’ has long been popularly used to describe the plight of creative women. With this in mind, it is a remarkable feat that throughout the twentieth century, women writers worked hard to claim their own words under their own names, and were successful in doing so. The strides made by brilliant creative women in the 1900s makes for an exciting and important reading list – for many writers, to speak and be heard meant waging a battle against not only the outer world, but often their own inner lives too.

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Undoubtedly one of the best known women writers of the twentieth century was Sylvia Plath. Born in Boston Massachusetts in 1932, Plath – a prolific diary, short story, fiction and poetry writer – fought not only against the repressive societal expectations of the pre-second feminist wave United States, but her own personal demons as well. In Plath’s only novel, the semi-autobiographical The Bell Jar, readers learn about the problems experienced by many women who suffered mental illness and the harsh gendered discriminations of 1950s America. Protagonist Esther Greenwood’s journey from mental breakdown to health makes for compelling reading and illustrates the darkness of depression and the limitations of modern medicine. With wry humour, Plath pens a novel that is at times laugh-out-loud funny. For any of us who have had one too many vodkas on a night out, The Bell Jar is worth revisiting – it is a novel that gives a very accurate depiction of the lives of ambitious and creative twenty-something women that resonates even today.

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With The Bell Jar in mind, it is possible to see how interruption of female creativity by societal pressures and demands became an important topic for women’s writing. We see this subject broached in memoirs like Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. Made into an Oscar-winning film starring Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder in 1999, Kaysen’s memoir reflects The Bell Jar, as both works examine the treatment of women seeking medical help for their mental health issues. In a world where female illness has been stigmatised as hysteria, both Plath and Kaysen illustrate the complexities of illness and the challenges of attempting to live and create in a world so hostile to depression and female emotion. Indeed, novels by lesser-known writers such as Jennifer Dawson’s 1961 novel The Ha-Ha (which was incidentally the last novel Plath read before her death in 1963) add to the volume of mid-century writings by women that focus on mental health. Like Plath and Kaysen, Dawson draws on her own personal experience of being admitted to a mental hospital in her brutal and visceral depiction of schizophrenia, medicine and women’s lived experiences.  

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Positioning personal issues at the forefront of creative writing resonates with the poetry of Adrienne Rich, whose long career of writing has ensured her place as one of America’s most important poets. Rich’s work charts her life, from her early days of marriage and domesticity to coming out as a lesbian and becoming increasingly more political and influenced by black feminist thinkers against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and anti-LTBGI attitudes in Reagan’s America. One of the most notable collections of Rich’s poetry is the beautiful and elegant Diving into the Wreck, which luxuriates in the intensity and emotion experienced by women in their inner lives. In 2016, four years after her death, a Collected Poems of Rich’s work was published. This book takes readers on a journey not only of Rich’s life but the wider cultural social and political events of the twentieth century and her attempts to fight against restrictions. For example, Rich’s decision to reject the National Medal of Arts in 1997 typifies her principled and passionate lifelong dedication not to align herself to institutions or structures that have marginalised or oppressed others. As she wrote in a letter to the White House:


I believe in art’s social presence—as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright. In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair. 


Adrienne Rich’s poetry shows how women’s writing in the twentieth century frequently blurred the line between the personal and the political. From introspection of inner lives to railing against societal restrictions, women’s writing was born out of activism and indeed, women’s writing can be considered a radical act. With this in mind, Rich has argued that the most significant and important women writers and agitators are the black women and women of colour whose attempts to write were not only impeded by their gender, but by the white supremacist structures, institutions and people who made up the literary world.

For this reason, the work of writers such as Maya Angelou in her brave and poignant autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a staple read for anyone interested in twentieth century women’s writing. Angelou recounts her upbringing in the American south as well as her experiences of being a victim of racism, abuse and learning to love herself in a world filled with so much adversity. Angelou’s battle to survive and to love is perhaps best summed up with these inspirational words: 


Life is going to give you just what you put in it. Put your whole heart in everything you do, and pray, then you can wait.


Taken together, this selection of authors illustrates the seismic changes of the twentieth century and show that women writers used their experiences to energise themselves socially, culturally and politically. These novels are not only inspiring; the cathartic discussions of the inner lives of women have gone on to liberate other women writers. For those who were among the first to forge a path for women writers against interruption, it is surely right that in their work they sought to interrupt with their words.

Based in Northern Ireland, Maeve holds a PhD in English Literature - her thesis deconstructed silence in the work of Sylvia Plath. Maeve is an avid reader of poetry, fiction and academic ... Show More

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