Feminist Literature: Puncturing the Spectacle


by Margaretta Jolly

A fresh chapter was shaped by the 1960s and 70s women’s movements in a long story of literary feminism. As newly educated women rejected unwanted destinies as second class wives and mothers, they channelled new ambitions into poetry, novels, short stories, autobiography, musical verse, history-writing, theatre and journalism. 50 years after women had got the vote in Britain, it was the need to change culture, and all its unconscious assumptions about gender and sexuality, that often felt most urgent. As Ros Delmar has explained, ‘in the suffrage movement, if you talked about women’s representation, you talked about the vote, you meant political representation; through the Women’s Liberation Movement, women’s representation came to mean the representation of women in the image. … And so, puncturing the spectacle, puncturing the image, was very important’.

Free women: Literature and consciousness-raising

Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1960), heralded the new era. We meet Anna Wulf, a writer and single mother with writer’s block, exploring her disillusionment with men, communism, and violent resistance. She decides to keep four notebooks, one for each part of her life – black for her experiences in Africa, red for politics, yellow for a fictionalised version of herself, and blue for a diary, weaving around a novel-within-the-novel, titled ‘Free Women’. Lessing said this complex structure was to show the fragmentation of a woman’s mind, and how, through writing, she might put her identity back together.

Feminist film director Michele Ryan encountered The Golden Notebook at a point of confusion in the early 1970s:

I remember sitting on a bus and … feeling, yes, this is absolutely where I’m at, and I’ve got to, kind of, hold my centre a bit better. … I suppose because I did have politics, I did have the Women’s Movement, I did have the theatre at the time, I had things that belonged to me, and I wasn’t going to let go of those, in order to fit into a man’s life.

The Golden Notebook was a breakthrough example of a wave of ‘consciousness-raising’ writing and film.[1] Margaret Drabble, Nell Dunn, Shelagh Delaney, Eva Figes, Ann Oakley, Alison Fell, Sara Maitland, Michelene Wandor, Fay Weldon, Anne Devlin, Michele Roberts, and poets Sylvia Plath, Grace Nichols, Liz Lochhead, Denise Riley and many others captured the distinct flavours of women’s struggles in Britain: class manners and working class wit; laborious arguments in and with the Left; boring food; drab weather; the deceptive dazzle of London and the disappointments of a sexist counterculture. Buchi Emechta’s Second Class Citizen (1974) engages with these themes while exploring the particular disappointments of the women who came to the UK from former colonies after the war. Her Nigerian protagonist Adah is determined to succeed as a writer but a cruel husband and demanding children combine with the indignities of racism in dreamed-for England. Written in the first person, with rage, humour and ambition, these novels rewrite the bildungsroman to show the new journey women must take, a journey which no longer ends with Mr Right.[2]

Utopias, dystopias, gothic fantasies and the gender of other worlds

Women writers have often used a style of domestic realism – reflecting the family homes in which they have laboured and nurtured. But in the 1970s and 80s they also took up science fiction, fantasy or historical fiction to explore gender relations on an epic scale.[3] In Britain, Zoe Fairbairns’s Benefits, published six years before Atwood’s better known The Handmaid’s Tale, is a feminist literary gem. Set in 1976, this dystopia has a woman prime minister use welfare benefits to force women back into the nuclear family, uncannily anticipating Thatcher’s reign. Based in part on Fairbairns’ experiences volunteering for an abortion charity – ‘I listened to women who felt unable, because of poverty, to continue their pregnancies’ – it is also dryly funny about feminists’ own behaviour: endless meetings, lesbian shenanigans and leadership panics. Angela Carter, an even more experimental writer, was also satirical about women as well as men. The Bloody Chamber, published in 1979, demythologised innocent Red Riding Hood with what she claimed was the ‘violently sexual’ latent content of the traditional fairy tale form. Carter developed such thoughts controversially in The Sadeian Woman, published the same year, in which she returned to the writing of the 18th century ‘father’ of sadomasochism, the Marquis de Sade.[4] Unlike other pornographers, Carter argues, de Sade was one of few to claim the ‘rights of free sexuality for women, and in installing women as beings of power in his imaginary worlds’. Her dramatization of the contrary psychology of desire is evident in The Passion of New Eve (1977), in which Carter tells a psychedelic tale of white Englishman Evelyn’s journey from sadistic desire for an African-American woman to his symbolic punishment and mythical transformation through surgery into ‘Eve’.

Carter was certainly non-binary in her fantastical imaginings – Eve/Evelyn at one point confesses, ‘Masculine and feminine are correlatives which involve one another. I am sure of that – the quality and its negation are locked in necessity. But what the nature of masculine and nature of feminine might be, whether they involve male and female, […] I do not know’ (149-150). Feminist fantasy allows big questions to be asked about what a women-emancipated or gender fluid world could look like, as well as what would happen if our oppressive ways of living get even more out of control. Carter’s play with transgendered as well as feminist plots encourages us to look closely at whether today’s vampire romances and video game neo-gothicism are as bold and generous.

Doing it for ourselves: Virago, The Women’s Press and the radical book trade

Activists also challenged patriarchal culture through creating their own publishing houses, lists, bookshops, fairs and festivals.[5] The pleasure and skill involved is hard to imagine today when digital technology has so democratised these processes. But for many such as some-time printer Gail Chester, publisher Carmen Callil and editor Ursula Owen, women were seizing the means of cultural production. Publishers Sheba, Onlywomen, Pandora, New Beacon Books, Allison and Busby, and most famously Virago Press, were key players in promoting feminist writing. And as radical booksellers, feminists joined anarchist, left, black and ‘third world’, gay and lesbian, Irish and green communities, to create an alternative public sphere, in its way as comforting as today’s bookstore-coffee shops. Virago nurtured important non-fiction – including Amrit Wilson’s Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain (1978), Stella Dadzie, Beverly Bryan and Suzanne Scafe’s Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, (1985) and Beatrix Campbell’s The Iron Ladies: Why do Women Vote Tory? (1987). These, as well as its reprints of African-American best sellers such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, opened up the diversity of women’s struggles and songs. Virago also ingeniously connected readers with women’s struggles in the past by reprinting scandalously neglected ‘Modern Classics’. Antonia White’s Frost in May, republished in 1978 after its debut in 1933, was the first, a tale of a traumatic Catholic girlhood before the First World War, while Sylvia Townsend Warner’s sly portrait of a rebellious aunt-witch in the 1920s, Lolly Willowes (republished 1978), has recently been championed by Sarah Waters, whose gripping lesbian historical novels will undoubtedly be Virago classics themselves for as many decades to come.

Magazines, protest and pleasure

Virago was inspired by one of movement’s sparkliest productions – Spare Rib. Founded by Marsha Rowe and Rosie Boycott in 1972, this monthly magazine reinvented the popular woman’s glossy from a feminist perspective. It included articles on lifestyle, fashion, relationships and work aspirations – but all rooted in deep analyses of whether these enabled women genuine choices, and as importantly, solidarity and equality with each other. By the time it folded in 1993, over 4,300 writers and artists had contributed, with cartoons, artworks, photographs, music reviews, as well as new fiction, poetry and journalism. Jill Nicholls, collective member 1974–1980, saw it as a work of art in itself, and certainly its design was funky and fun. Spare Rib opened up the movement to a wider readership, although walking a narrow line between pleasure and the political points it wanted to make.

Feminist literary criticism

The debate over whether writing can teach and delight at the same time goes as far back as the Roman rhetorician Horace. But feminist critics as well as creative writers brought new questions to the kitchen table. Does anger help or inhibit poetry?[6] Are women’s novels feminist novels?[7] Does a sex have a history?[8] Is there pleasure in silence and secrets as well as in speaking out?[9] Who speaks for who? Can erotica be feminist and why do women so often enjoy romance fiction?[10] Does feminist meaning come from the writer or the reader? Why are there so many mad women in the history of literature?[11] Can the subaltern speak?[12] What is the significance of the birth – or abortion – metaphor in poetry?[13] Is there a relationship between national mother tongue and mothering?[14] What connects visual pleasure and the male gaze?[15] Does feminist theory match feminist literary practice?[16] Did lesbian writers use literary code in hostile times?[17] Why is autobiography so important to social uprisings?[18] Is it time to listen to the testimonies of men and boys who have rejected patriarchal ways, or use literature to think up new gendered ways of living? These questions and many more will give spice to the literary dishes that new feminists are cooking in the 21st century.

Piece originally published at the British Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


[1] Joannou, Maroula, and Imelda Whelehan, ‘This Book Changes Lives: The ‘Consciousness-Raising Novel’ and Its Legacy’, The Feminist Seventies, ed. by Helen Graham (York: Raw Nerve Books, 2003), pp. 125–40.

[2] Niamh Baker, Happily Ever After? Women’s Fiction in Postwar Britain 1945–60 (London: Macmillan Education, 1989)
Linda R Anderson, Plotting Change : Contemporary Women’s Fiction (London: Edward Arnold, 1990).

[3] Helen Carr, From My Guy to Sci-Fi : Genre and Women’s Writing in the Postmodern World (London: Pandora Press, 1989).

[4] Hera Cook, ‘Angela Carter’s “The Sadeian Woman” and Female Desire in England 1960–1975’, Women’s History Review, 23.6 (2014), pp. 938–56.

[5] See the British Library’s Women in Publishing project and Talking Print: Oral History of the Book Trade <> [accessed May 2016]

[6] Alicia Ostriker, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America (London: Women’s Press, 1987, 1986).

[7] Rosalind Coward, ‘“This Novel Changes Lives”: Are Women’s Novels Feminist Novels? A Response to Rebecca O’Rourke’s Article “Summer Reading”’, Feminist Review, 5 (1980), pp. 53–64.

[8] Denise Riley, ‘Does a Sex Have a History’, New Formations, 1.1 (1987), pp. 35–45.

[9] Mary Eagleton, Working with Feminist Criticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).

[10] Janice A Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature, (London: Verso, 1987, 1984).
Helen Taylor, Scarlett’s Women: Gone with the Wind and Its Female Fans (Virago, 1989).

[11] Sandra M Gilbert, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination, ed. by Susan Gubar (Yale University Press, 1979).
Elaine Showalter, ‘Gilbert & Gubar’s the Madwoman in the Attic after Thirty Years, Edited by Annette R. Federico (Book Review)’ (2011) Vol. 53, pp. 715–17.

[12] Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea, ed. by Rosalind C Morris (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Clary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271–316.

[13] Judith Wilt, Abortion, Choice, and Contemporary Fiction: The Armageddon of the Maternal Instinct (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
Tess Cosslett, Women Writing Childbirth: Modern Discourses of Motherhood (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994).

[14] Susheila Nasta, Motherlands: Black Women’s Writing from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia (London: Women’s Press, 1991).

[15] Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen, 16.3 (1975), pp. 16–13.
Laura Mulvey, ‘Afterthoughts on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Inspired by Duel in the Sun‘, Feminism and Film Theory, ed. by Constance Penley (New York: Routledge, 1988), pp. 57–68.

[16] Paulina Palmer, Contemporary Women’s Fiction: Narrative Practice and Theory (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1989).

[17] Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow, Lesbian Texts and Contexts : Radical Revisions (London: Onlywomen Press, 1992).
Emma Donoghue, Passions between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668–1801 (London: Scarlet, 1993).

[18] Linda Anderson, Women and Autobiography in the Twentieth Century: Remembered Futures (Hemel Hempstead, Herts: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997).
Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader. Wisconsin Studies in American Autobiography (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998).
Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

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