In the female tradition: Women and sexuality in the 20th century novel

Recent political and social debates around the world have begun to put women’s rights back at the top of the agenda.  Disturbing reports from the US of threats to funding for women’s services; the use of rape threats and social media trolling of women; together with revenge porn law suits, have brought concern over the treatment of women’s expression of sexuality.

Always a feminist, and a life-long lover of literature, I have often sought to find representation of gender and sexuality from my reading; fiction is often the way young girls find out about themselves and other women.

During the post-war period, it seemed the boundaries of the female subculture, still strong for working class women, were perhaps not so rigid for the cultural elite, which included the majority of women writers.  These women were educated and allowed to express their own sexuality, albeit in limited ways.

In the 1930s, Jean Rhys (1890-1979), the English novelist and short story writer, wrote her heroines to be passive and self-destructive.  However, she also demonstrated a new openness about the female body, encompassing discussion of adultery, abortion, lesbianism and prostitution within her novels such as Voyage in the Dark (1939), After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1937) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939).

Rhys engages with women’s sexual oppression in the pages of her novels in a sardonic, open way.  These women often appear resigned to their lot, however, affecting an inability or unwillingness to extricate themselves from their positions.  Her female characters are often unhappy, insecure, ageing, single, and poor.  The men, in comparison, are often hearty, married and rich, having their proverbial cake and eating it.

In the work of other British novelists, such as Muriel Spark, (1918-2006), feminists are portrayed as absurdly intense.  The title character in Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), is portrayed as one of the legions of war-bereaved spinsters discovering and passing on new ideas of life, love and politics to her female students.  Brodie teaches her female students about the love life of Charlotte Bronte, about the menarche, and comes across as a fascinating yet lonely and increasingly eccentric character.

The Golden Notebook (1962), Doris Lessing’s (1919-2013) seminal novel portraying so-called ‘free women’, has often been hailed as a feminist bible.  It features writer Anna Wulf, and her friend Molly Jacobs, an actress -each single women with a child.  They live in their own apartments, and help one another out.  The novel contains many anti-war and anti-Stalinist messages, as well as exploring women’s struggles in the areas of sex, maternity, work and politics, subjects still very much on the political agenda today.

Yet when you delve beneath the text of The Golden Notebook, it is easy to see that Lessing’s ‘free women’ are not so free after all.  Both women are Marxists who think they understand how oppression of women is connected to the class struggle.  But they are also often fragmented; shown as somewhat helpless creatures in the novel, locked into dependency upon men, despite Anna’s protestations to the contrary. So, not so very far away from the male/female representations created by Rhys, writing back in the 1930’s.

In the 1960s, Freudian and Marxist analysis paved the way for women writers to write about women’s experiences.  Previous taboos were explored and exploited in the name of literature.

Erica Jong was one such novelist in this period, her novel Fear of Flying (1973), delving into such taboo subjects as sex without commitment, autonomy over the female body, and the personal –v- the political.

In Jong’s novel, the protagonist Isadora Wing, a poet, searches for what she describes as the perfect ‘zipless fuck’: that is, a no-strings, no commitment sexual encounter, referred to by Jong herself as an encounter in which a man isn’t ‘taking’ and the woman isn’t ‘giving’.  Despite daydreaming about this endlessly, toward the end of the novel, when faced with this proposition, Isadora shies away from the encounter, realising it was just a fantasy all along.

Along the way, however, Isadora runs off on an ill-advised affair with an English psychotherapist, a no-strings type relationship in which both parties are married and yet drawn to one another.  This loose ‘relationship’ takes her across Europe, and opens up the possibility of sex with another couple as part of their sexual discovery.  It is interesting within this novel, however, that Isadora realises that her lover cannot actually satisfy her sexually in the way her husband Bennett can.

This novel seemed a positive step forward in depicting conflicting sexual politics for men and women.  Her assertion that fantasy stops being fantasy the second it is acted upon, that relationships, however stable and committed, can benefit from an element of harmless fantasy, and the revelation that women have the same sexual desires as men, was revolutionary.

The novel ends without a definitive conclusion, but one in which Isadora contemplates what she wants to do next, whether or not her husband will agree.  The whole novel has been noted by critics to run the course of a month, culminating in Isadora’s period starting.  It could be argued from this position that it portrays the last fling of a woman contemplating her fertility and role in society: the personal becoming the political once again.

Around 1970, however, something much more urgent, angry and unpredictable emerged, unexpectedly, from Muriel Spark.  Her Kafkaesque The Driver’s Seat, (1970), sees a heroine at her absolute limits of endurance, filled with unexpressed rage.  This novel, bursting with feminine realism, feminist protest, and female self-analysis, combines the context of 20th Century social and political concern within this era.

Though it is Jong’s novel that often garnered the backlash of a shocked public reaction to the open discussion of sexual politics and, in particular, the central character Isadora Wing’s enjoyment of the sexual act and longing for non-committal sex, it is within Spark’s novel that we find perhaps one of the most perverse, disturbed female characters of this era, whom forces a man to exert sexual violence toward her.  It is a novel that undoubtedly stays with the reader long after reading, supplying more questions than answers.

Each era of women’s writing has opened up new possibilities to explore the female experience.  The exciting landscape on which to write during the height of second wave feminism was undoubtedly enriched by the litany of other female writers who had gone before.  There is still work to do, whether writing fiction or non-fiction, to explore and portray women’s diverse roles and sexuality within our society, but these women certainly flung the doors open wide.

I think female writers are needed, more than ever, to be at the forefront of the feminist movement, writing about characters who explore their sexuality openly and questioning who has the right to censor their ideas and fantasies. Without a doubt, this is an area that continues to be relevant to today’s young women, who face new and often frightening challenges to their bodies, and their autonomy.

Image: Eli Francis


Kate Jones is a freelance writer based in the UK, where she divides her time between writing Essays for various places, including The Short Story, editorial work for Great Jones Street, writing short fiction and teaching Yoga. She has been published widely online, in places including: Thresholds, The Real Story, Spelk and The Nottingham Review. She is often lurking on Twitter @katejonespp

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