Women’s Writing - Study Guides on General Topics

Realism and Regionalism 1865–1914 - Gary Scharnhorst and Thomas Quirk 2010

Women’s Writing
Study Guides on General Topics

Although women were actively publishing well into the early nineteenth century, it was not until after the Civil War that their writing took on a more political and social agenda. After the war, women became more familiar with the publishing world and their place within it. Several became writers and editors. Sarah Josepha Hale is credited with largely influencing the shape of the literary marketplace for women. As editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Hale refused to reprint British stories as was the custom and chose to publish only original American works that focused on educating a female readership. Even though women’s place in the publishing industry had been established in the early part of the century, writers during the latter part clearly extended their influence, bringing to the forefront more progressive ideas. Where their writing had before been more domestic and feminine, the Civil War prompted many postbellum women writers to draw on the motifs of conflict and violence to explore the psychological and political effects of the Civil War and women’s place within a patriarchal order. The war marked a shift in focus from sentimental romance to Realism as women authors sought to reflect a changing society. Drawing on themes of power, sacrifice, and independence, female authors such as Rebecca Harding Davis in Waiting for the Verdict (1868) and Louisa May Alcott in “My Contraband; or, the Brothers” (1863) explored race and class conflict during the war. Social-protest and reform movements were deeply embedded in women’s writing throughout the mid nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as women campaigned for universal suffrage. Much of their writing centered on the tension between the Victorian “angel of the house” and the ambitious artist. For example, Alcott’s A Modern Mephistopheles (1877) and Diana and Persis (written 1873, published 1978), Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s The Story of Avis (1877), to name just a few, dealt with the incompatibility of marriage and maternity with artistry.

The latter part of the nineteenth century has been typically associated with literary Realism and designated specifically as a male-centered period. Many women writers, however, participated in the tradition of literary Realism and its offshoots, Regionalism and local-color fiction. For these writers, literary Realism’s concentration on aspects of everyday life offered ample and familiar material. Reacting against the earlier domestic fiction that ended in marriage, women writers at the turn into the twentieth century explored the conflicts inherent in marital life and in so doing profoundly shaped a distinctive literary form about particular regions. For many women Regionalist writers, marriage was not the sole outcome female characters sought. Rather, what we see is writing that more accurately depicts the thoughts and actions about and between women. For example, Louisa Ellis in Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun” (1891) realizes that marriage does not represent the most important event in her life, and she chooses to remain single. Rose Terry Cooke’s “Miss Beulah’s Bonnet” (1880) focuses on the world of girls and women.

The more prominent regional and local-color writers such as Freeman (A New England Nun and Other Stories, 1891), Sarah Orne Jewett (The Country of the Pointed Firs, 1896), and Rose Terry Cooke (The Sphinx’s Children and Other People’s, 1886) wrote about New England and the North Atlantic coastal area, while others sought to represent the Southern region. For example, Chopin’s Bayou Folk (1894) depicts Creole culture in Louisiana, Mary Noailles Murfree’s In the Tennessee Mountains (1884) looks toward the rustic men and women who inhabit the Tennessee mountains, and Constance Fenimore Woolson’s For the Major (1883) paints a world redolent of Southern gentility. Helen Hunt Jackson, a New Englander by birth, is best known for her novel Ramona (1884), which details competing property claims in California. All of these writers departed from domestic fiction in their narratives of aging villages inhabited by oddly wise spinsters and matriarchs. Although the terms “local-color” and “Regionalism” were used somewhat derogatorily to depict the types of works these writers authored, this genre nevertheless paved the way for the literary careers of many women writers. Writers such as Freeman, Cooke, and Jewett were able to explore their own regions while earning success in the literary marketplace.

The primary venue for women’s publishing was through the periodical, an industry run and managed by such figures as James T. Fields, Louis A. Godey, and William Dean Howells. Some female authors were able to circulate their work in such prestigious magazines as the Atlantic Monthly, Century, Scribner’s, and Harper’s Bazaar, while others were content to publish their stories, poems, and advice treatises in American ladies’ magazines, which tended to pay three times as much as their high-culture counterparts. With the proliferation of new periodicals, middle-class monthlies, and cheap weeklies, the topics women addressed in their writing ran the gamut from women’s rights, dress reform, domestic duties, and divorce. The postbellum era also saw a niche filled by devotional writing, children’s literature, and the abolitionist gift book as women navigated the complicated web of writing, editing, and publishing.

Although white women dominated the literary scene and thus much of their writing reflects conflicts experienced from a predominantly white, middle-class perspective, there has recently been an attempt by scholars such as Elizabeth Ammons to reconsider the writings and experiences of nonwhite women writers. Pauline Hopkins, for example, argued for social change in the African American community through her short fiction in the Colored American Magazine, which she edited from 1900 until 1909. Non-Anglo female authors such as Mana Christina Mena, Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, and Zitkala-Sa experimented with regional topics tied to their own culture and ethnic identity. For Mena, writing for a mostly white, middle-class readership meant that she had to include quaint pictures of Mexican life, but she spoke in a realistic voice that covertly betrayed her condemnation of imperialism and patriarchy. Well aware of the literary constructions of race, Mena used them to her advantage by challenging male dominance and power. Winnemucca’s Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (1883) includes elements of myth, poetry, biography, and oral tradition that profoundly reveal a Native American culture. Zitkala-Sa’s “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” (1900) details the struggles of a nonwhite American girl attempting to achieve a sense of selfworth and equality in a white-dominated culture.

Local-color fiction often incorporated supernatural elements because of the prominence of ghosts within regional folklore. As a result, supernatural stories abound at the turn of the twentieth century, and women writers took advantage of the ghost tale as a means of challenging conventional gender roles. This form allowed women writers more freedom to explore issues of sexuality and victimization than could be asserted in their more realistic fiction. Specifically, American women writing during the age of literary Realism found the ghost story an attractive alternative. Writers such as Wharton, Freeman, Harriet Prescott Spofford, Willa Cather, Gertrude Atherton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote and published many supernatural tales. Catherine Lundie’s Restless Spirits: Ghost Stories by American Women, 1872—1926 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996) and Alfred Bendixen’s Haunted Women: The Best Supernatural Tales by American Women (New York: Ungar, 1985) are substantive anthologies of American women’s Gothic fiction with introductions that clearly locate the Gothic within a feminist tradition.

Women writing in the vein of Naturalism, an outgrowth of literary Realism, found an appropriate venue to depict their despair in a patriarchal world, a powerful force acting on the world and specifically defining women’s place within it. Adhering to the principles of Darwin in The Descent of Man (1877) and Gilman’s Women and Economics (1898), women writers used literary Naturalism to explore women’s economic dependence and biological destiny to highlight their lack of choices in a hostile and indifferent world. Three key works that best illustrate this type of literature are Chopin’s The Awakening, Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), and Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913). These novels illustrate how societal forces and inherited characteristics determine the fates of female characters, fusing feminism with deterministic elements.

Students seeking to familiarize themselves with late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century women writers are encouraged to begin with American Women Regionalists, 1850-1910 (New York: Norton, 1992), edited by Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse, which includes sixty-four stories by fourteen women as well as biographical and critical headnotes and an extensive bibliography. Elaine Showalter’s collection Scribbling Women: Short Stories by 19th-Century American Women (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997) reprints short stories by key women writers and includes brief biographies of the authors.

Students wishing to read criticism on the body of work produced by women writers would benefit by reading the introduction to Elizabeth Ammons’s Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) and chapters 7 through 12 of Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (New York: Knopf, 2009). Other critical sources students will find particularly useful are “The Only Efficient Instrument”: American Women Writers and the Periodical, 1837-1916 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001), edited by Aleta Feinsod Cane and Susan Alves; Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Critical Reader (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998), edited by Karen Kilcup; and The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Writing, edited by Dale M. Bauer and Philip Gould. These collections offer intriguing approaches to understanding gender, race, and class conflict as seen in the diverse writings by women at the turn into the twentieth century.


  • 1. How do works by women of different ethnicities and from within and outside of the literary canon, such as those by Winnemucca, Hopkins, Mena, Chopin, Wharton, and Zitkala-Sa, sustain or problematize a female literary voice?
  • 2. How are the characters and description in women’s realistic and regional writing different from their male counterparts, and what are the continuities?
  • 3. How do these works alter our view of women’s writing and the literary tradition in general?

Some possible answers to these questions can also be obtained from a helpful website dedicated to American women’s writing at <http://www.wsu. edu/~campbelld/ssaww/index.html> [accessed 9 September 2009].



Maurice Duke, Jackson R. Bryer, and M. Thomas Inge, American Women Writers: Bibliographical Essays (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983).

Fourteen bibliographical essays on individual works by twenty-four major American women writers, with information on editions and manuscripts.

Barbara A. White, American Women Writers: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism (New York: Garland, 1977).

Critical assessments of American women’s writing, including such topics as biography, literary history, contemporary analyses, and feminist literary scholarship.


Denise D. Knight, Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997).

An invaluable resource that gives biographical information on representative American women writers, including lesser-known authors. Each entry also discusses the author’s major works and central themes and provides an overview of the scholarship pertaining to particular texts.


Willa Cather (1873-1947)

While managing editor of the widely read McClure’s, in New York City, met and befriended Sarah Orne Jewett. She later moved to the Southwest.

Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910)

Led a literary career that spanned five decades and included works in the genres of local color, Realism, travel literature, and children’s stories.

Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859-1930)

Editor of the Colored American Magazine, where she published sentimental fiction that dealt with miscegenation and racial prejudice.

—Cindy Murillo