The Many Shades Of Women’s Fiction

Sappho Writing Photo Credit: Woman with wax tablets and stylus (so-called “Sappho”), artist unknown, Roman fresco, 50-79 A.D., National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy: Butko/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 2.0

I am a feminist and love reading fiction written by women. Since I started writing at the age of fourteen, my work has included some form of feminist character, even when the work involved a male protagonist. My interest in feminism and women’s issues is less political and more psychological, social, and historical. I’m interested in women’s lives in context, seeing how they survive and transcend limitations put upon them by the chains of patriarchy that exists in their environments and their own psyches.

My interest in feminism began when I was studying English as an undergraduate. Up until that time, I was reading mostly bestseller romance fiction (a la Danielle Steele and Judith Michael) so I hadn’t really read much classic or diverse women writers. I discovered works I had never read before and began exploring what made them tick during my undergraduate program. These brave writers made me realize my own upbringing that involved a highly patriarchal mentality. My father was the king (what he said, went), my mother, the queen (subordinating her wishes and ideas to his), my brother, the prince (taken more seriously because he was the eldest and the only boy in the family) and last and somewhat least, my sister and I. The strength in these books made me see the blinders that were blocking my own psyche and my potential. I remember writing my first essay on female friendships in 19th century women’s literature and my professor putting in the comments, “You should explore this more.” Those words became a prophecy for my writing life.

The term women’s fiction is in itself a loaded term. For example, this blog post by literary agent Jessica Alvarez proposes to define the genre but never actually does – rather, it brings in examples of books that have been categorized as women’s fiction. And this article defines women’s fiction as fiction written by, for, and about women – a safe definition if rather a simplistic one.

What exactly women’s fiction is or whether it should be defined as a genre at all (as many have pointed out, nobody seems anxious to set up a “men’s fiction” genre) is beyond the scope of this post. I can only give you my own definition of women’s fiction. Women’s fiction involves stories that focus on women’s emotional, physical, social, and spiritual lives.

My own personal preference in for stories where women take a psychological journey towards self-revelation and emotional autonomy, no matter what the outcome is. So I was anxious to read Alice Adams’ book Superior Women (1984), since Adams is considered a feminist writer. Reading the book proved to be a great lesson in the fluidity of women’s fiction.

***Some spoilers on Adams’ book here.***

Superior Women follows the lives of four women who first meet as college dormitory mates at Radcliffe during World War II up until the early 1980’s. In terms of historical context, the book does quite a nice job of reflecting attitudes and behaviors towards women during the second half of the 20th century. But this is where I felt that Adams’ book has limitations. Like satire, the book holds a mirror up to patriarchy, reflecting its oppression and absurdities. Chapter 21, for example, describes Peg, a mentally unstable housewife living in suburban Texas in the 1950’s, at a version of a Tupperware party that develops into a scene straight out of the 1975 horror satire about housewives The Stepford Wives. At the party, the host leads the group of women into a game to test whether they are being good wives and mothers. The game poses questions about whether they did any ironing during the week, whether they spanked their children or wrote to their mothers, and whether they kissed their husbands in the morning. Peg, recovering from a nervous breakdown, ends up escaping the party early, feeling inadequate and defeated because she can’t measure up to the impossible ideals set in the context of 1950’s patriarchy.

But I felt that the book feel short in terms of depicting the women realizing and transcending their fate. The four women continue to follow the terms set for their lives by patriarchal thinking, not socially or politically, but psychologically. Peg, for example, does end up leaving her emotionally neglectful husband to become involved in political activism and even lives with a woman but her role as the nurturing mother never changes or evolves. Megan, the career woman of the group, spends much of her time seeking romance and sex, constantly feeling inadequate because she isn’t married even as she rises to success in her job. Her fate at the end is more about bringing her back into an “acceptable” female role than about her becoming comfortable in the path she has chosen for herself.

To be fair, the book was written in the mid-1980’s when women’s lives were seen much differently than they are today. More recent women’s fiction books that I’ve read seem to take a different approach. I wrote here about my professor’s contention that fiction tells us what should have happened rather than what did happen – in other words, the potential of art to show us how to transcend limitations and find a path to freedom and self-fulfillment. I belong to a wonderful critique group of women writers, all of whom write women’s fiction. Their works focus on characters who suffer psychological and emotional pain and embark on a journey to rediscover themselves, to forge new identities and new worlds. Their protagonists deal with different traumas such as childhood abuse, teenage pregnancy, and romantic break-up and rise above them to find their own worth in themselves and their relationships.

In 2008, I joined NaNoWriMo for the first time and began a novel titled Garbage Poetry. I intended the novel to be about the value of discovering inner beauty in a world where outer beauty dominated. The novel became a story about a young woman, pushed by her mother into a modeling career, escaping to a retreat in a small mountain town in Northern California where she discovers the way to refocus her life to please herself rather than others. The novel takes the idea of beauty and turns it into one young woman’s journey to finding her own worth beyond both her personal and social expectations.

The idea here isn’t that Adams’ novel is bad and women’s fiction should only be about women’s self-discovery. It’s that there are many faces to this enigmatic genre we call women’s fiction.


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