A Survey of Women’s Issues in the 19th and 20th Centuries

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Photo Credit: American suffragists,  members of the American contingent that took part in the Women’s Social and Political Union’s 23 July 1910 procession, monochrome photo, World’s Graphic Press Limited: LSE Library/Flickr/No known copyright restrictions

March is National Women’s History Month, where we look at all the accomplishments of women past generations. And we certainly have had a lot we’ve had to accomplish! 

I thought I’d do a survey of some of the important women’s issues throughout the years, particularly focusing on some of the eras that I’ve written about like the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and the era of “Occupation: Housewife”. There is so much we can say about women’s struggles throughout history, but there are issues that have always interested me and that have affected women’s psychological and social presence and progress more than others.

In the mid-19th century, the first dregs of organized suffragism emerged with names now branded in history such as Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I introduced the struggles of women’s suffragism during this time in this blog post . During the 19th century, much of the effort was focused on one solitary goal: to win women the right to vote. The fact that women were fighting for this one fundamental but critical aim says a lot about how women were seen in the 19th century, and I talk here about the psychological and social ideology behind how women were treated during this era. 

In the beginning of the 20th century, when progressive movements were taking center stage, suffragism continued with women such as Jane Addams, Alice Paul, and Ida B. Wells. They continued to fight for the vote for women and achieved success when the 19th Amendment was ratified in the United States in 1920. But the Progressive Era also brought awareness to many women that it wasn’t just about the right to vote and have a voice in the public sphere. It was also about a psychological freedom and throwing off the shackles of 19th century rigid definitions of femininity that limited what women could and could not do and be. Thus emerged a new image of the New Woman who was active, athletic, and could move her mind and body more freely than her mothers and grandmothers.

If we jump to the mid-20th century, we find that things aren’t so empowering. After the fight for women’s suffragism and breaking the stereotype of the Victorian “angel in the house”, the post World War II generation brought it back. During this time, there emerged what Betty Friedan labeled the feminine mystique. Magazines, advertisements, the media, and the medical establishment all pushed forward the idea that women’s place was in the home and their identities tied up in their roles as mothers, wives, daughters, caretakers — in short, in their relationships to others rather than in and of themselves. Friedan found that these women in American suburbs who were living a life that fulfilled this destiny were not happy and suffered from what she labeled The Problem That Has No Name. This was a problem of discontentment, as many of these women felt that something missing from their lives that they couldn’t define.

Friedan’s book and others which identified the same disillusionment with the feminine mystique eventually led into the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1960s and 1970s with activists such as Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bell Hooks, among others. These women, whose slogan was “the personal is political” went further than the political sphere of the 19th and early 20th century suffragists. They honed in on more social and personal oppressions of women, including issues such as domestic violence, rape, and reproductive rights. 

I discovered feminism when I was in college, and it opened up a whole new world for me. Up until then, I had very little sense of what women before me had been up against, nor did I really have a sense of my own oppression. This wasn’t because I grew up in a very liberated household. On the contrary, my well-meaning parents followed a very patriarchal model, both having come of age in the era of “Occupation: Housewife”. I discovered women’s fiction in college and started exploring historical texts like Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) and since then, my writing has always brought in elements of women’s psychological and social issues embedded with the characters’ psychological reality, even when the story was about something entirely different. For example, in False Fathers, the second book of my Gilded Age family drama, the Waxwood Series, the novel focuses on a male character, but the story also contains mentions of Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the series, whose awareness of women’s oppression is beginning to infiltrate her consciousness. This is a theme I will explore much more in the third and last books of the series coming out later this year. Similarly, my upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, the five stories were inspired by my reading of The Feminine Mystique and the idea of The Problem That Has No Name.

You can order Lessons at a special preorder price now on this page. You can also find out more about the Waxwood Series here=. And I’ll be launching a historical mystery series called The Paper Chase Mysteries featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman sleuth in the future, which you can find out more about here.     

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Author: tammayauthor

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14, and writing became her voice. She writes characters who examine their past in order to move into their future and are influenced by the time in which they live. Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga. The first book, The Specter, is now available, and the second book will be out in December, 2019. She is also working on a historical mystery series featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California. She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and historical fiction, watching classic films, or cooking up awesome vegetarian dishes.