Women's Literature from 1960 to the Present: Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Levertov, Denise. "Hypocrite Women." In Poems, 1960-67. New Directions, 1967.

The following poem by Levertov was composed in 1967, and like many of the poet's other works, it focuses on issues of female self-definition and the complex nature of femininity.


Hypocrite women, how seldom we speak
of our own doubts, while dubiously
we mother man in his doubt!
And if at Mill Valley perched in the trees
the sweet rain drifting through western air
a white sweating bull of a poet told us
our cunts are ugly—why didn't we
admit we have thought so too? (And
what shame? They are not for the eye!)
No, they are dark and wrinkled and hairy,
caves of the Moon … And when a
dark humming fills us, a
coldness towards life,
we are too much women to own to
such unwomanliness.
Whorishly with the psychopomp
we play and plead—and say
nothing of this later. And our dreams,
with what frivolity we have pared them
like toenails, clipped them like ends of
split hair.


SOURCE: Greer, Germaine. "The Politics of Female Sexuality, Oz, May 1970." In The Madwoman's Underclothes: Essays in Occasional Writings, pp. 36-7. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.

In the following excerpt, originally published in 1970, Greer reflects on the nature of female sexuality, arguing for acceptance of the female sexual organs by women themselves.

From Female Energy Oz, for which I was guest editor.

One of the chief mechanisms in the suppression of female humanity is the obliteration of female sexuality. Historically the process can be traced in the change in the iconography of women. In the Middle Ages women were characterized as lustful, allies of the devil weaning men from God and noble intellectual pursuits; woman-hatred had a virtue which is lacking from more recent forms of stereotyping in that it allowed the women energy, diabolical energy, but energy nevertheless. The rise of the Protestant commercial classes brought with it a change in the characterization of women: they became chaste guardians of their husbands' honour, emblems of prestige and possession. The historical process can be observed in microcosm in the growing up of every female child. From an unknown quantity as an infant human being, she passes through a sexual phase, which the Freudians describe as masculine; her pre-adolescent sexuality is explained as an infantile stage of penis envy, which ought, if due process is observed, to dwindle into the passivity of the mature woman. From subject, she declines into object, and her status as toy for man's delectation is indefatigably illustrated in the popular imagery of sexual intercourse, the missionary position, big boobs, suspender belts and all the paraphernalia of pornography.

In order that women might become sex objects rather than sexual people, sex itself was devalued. Instead of extending through all forms of communication into the 'highest pinnacle of the human spirit' (Nietzsche) it became 'a momentary itch' (Amis). Women lost spirit and were made flesh. Desire was localized in the male genital, the visible doodle, the tag of flesh that could become as hard as a fist. The interpretation of souls and bodies became the pummelling of one lump of meat by a harder lump of meat. Sexuality became as masculine a virtue as packing a good left. No one thought to object that in the sexual battle the bigger and stronger picked upon the smaller and weaker. Women like asses were made to bear. If the softer flesh was further tenderized by pummelling, the tremulous dangling thing in which the male located his sex was safe from any threat, except the anxiety which was the unavoidable result of having invested male sexuality in a lump of meat in the first place. In his efforts to allay his anxiety that his tassel might not turn into a fist when required, that it might be smaller than the man-next-door's, the male forbade comparison to his woman. From her he extracted fidelity. Fast vehicles, bombs, male bonding were called into service to allay his persistent phallic anxiety. Women lost interest in all of it, the competitive sports, the war game, the games of darts with the boys.


SOURCE: Kincaid, Jamaica. "Girl." In At the Bottom of the River, pp. 3-5. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Inc., 1979.

The following story, "Girl," was the first short story to be published by Kincaid. It appeared in the June 26, 1978 edition of The New Yorker, and was eventually reissued in Kincaid's award-winning short story collection At the Bottom of the River (1979).


ERICA JONG (1942-)

"If 'woman writer' ceases to be a polite but negative
label, it will be due in great measure to
the efforts of Erica Jong."
Reardon, Joan. "'Fear of Flying': Developing the
Feminist Novel." International Journal of Women's
Studies 1, no. 3 (May-June 1978): 306-20.

Best known for her novel Fear of Flying (1973), Erica Jong has received both popular and critical recognition for her frank, satirical treatment of sexuality in her works. Born in 1942, Jong grew up on the Upper West Side of New York City. She graduated from Barnard College in 1963, earned an M.A. in English literature at Columbia University in 1965, and in 1966 married Allan Jong, a Chinese-American psychiatrist. The Jongs moved to Heidelberg, Germany, where Allan served in the military until 1969, and Erica taught at the University of Maryland Overseas Division. It was while living in Germany that Jong departed from writing poetry in the formal style of William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas, and began developing her own distinctive approach to treating the human condition. In her works Jong presents observations on such topics as aging, love, sex, feminism, and death, and while her treatment of these topics is often serious, her tone is largely life-affirming and humorous. It was with her poetry collection Fruits and Vegetables (1971) that Jong first gained critical attention, but it was with the publication of Fear of Flying that she received popular notice. The novel, which traces the life of Isadora Wing, a writer who travels extensively and seeks spiritual, emotional, and physical fulfillment in various relationships with men, has been characterized as a bildungsroman in the tradition of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, and James Joyce's Odyssey.

Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don't walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn't have gum on it, because that way it won't hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?; always eat your food in such a way that it won't turn someone else's stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don't sing benna in Sunday school; you mustn't speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions; don't eat fruits on the street—flies will follow you; but I don't sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school; this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming; this is how you iron your father's khaki shirt so that it doesn't have a crease; this is how you iron your father's khaki pants so they don't have a crease; this is how you grow okra—far from the house, because okra tree harbors red ants; when you are growing dasheen, make sure it gets plenty of water or else it makes your throat itch when you are eating it; this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don't like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don't like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don't know you very well, and this way they won't recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming; be sure to wash every day, even if it is with your own spit; don't squat down to play marbles—you are not a boy, you know; don't pick people's flowers—you might catch something; don't throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all; this is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make doukona, this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child; this is how to catch a fish; this is how to throw back a fish you don't like, and that way something bad won't fall on you; this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man, and if this doesn't work there are other ways, and if they don't work don't feel too bad about giving up; this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn't fall on you; this is how to make ends meet; always squeeze bread to make sure it's fresh; but what if the baker won't let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won't let near the bread?


SOURCE: Lorde, Audre. "From the House of Yemanjá." In The Black Unicorn. Crossing Press, 1978.

In the following poem, Lorde, who described herself as "a black lesbian feminist writer poet," uses a Western Nigerian legend about the goddess of the oceans to reflect upon the role of a mother.


My mother had two faces and a frying pot
where she cooked up her daughters
into girls
before she fixed our dinner.
My mother had two faces
and a broken pot
where she hid out a perfect daughter
who was not me
I am the sun and moon and forever hungry
for her eyes.
I bear two women upon my back
one dark and rich and hidden
in the ivory hungers of the other
pale as a witch
yet steady and familiar
brings me bread and terror
in my sleep
her breasts are huge exciting anchors
in the midnight storm.
All this has been
in my mother's bed
time has no sense
I have no brothers
and my sisters are cruel.
Mother I need
mother I need
mother I need your blackness now
as the august earth needs rain.
I am
the sun and moon and forever hungry
the sharpened edge
where day and night shall meet
and not be


1. Mother of the other Orisha [goddesses and gods of the Yoruba people of Western Nigeria], Yemanjá is also the goddess of oceans. Rivers are said to flow from her breasts. One legend has it that a son tried to rape her. She fled until she collapsed, and from her breasts, the rivers flowed. Another legend says that a husband insulted Yemanjá's long breasts, and when she fled with her pots he knocked her down. From her breasts flowed the rivers, and from her body then sprang forth all the other Orisha. River-smooth stones are Yemanjá's symbol, and the sea is sacred to her followers. Those who please her are blessed with many children [Lorde's note].


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Ntozake Shange is best known for her first dramatic production, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (1975). In this work, she incorporates poetic monologue into a dramatic performance, a form she has termed the "choreopoem," also referred to as "staged poetry." Shange is noted for her dramatic representations of the experiences of African American women in a theatrical style that incorporates poetry, dance, and music into dramatic monologues. Her novels, like her dramatic works, incorporate a variety of forms, such as recipes, dreams, songs, and letters in a pastiche format, rather than in a conventional narrative. While Shange focuses on the pain of their experiences, her characters maintain a sense of triumph over their circumstances, often through finding inner strength and celebrating friendship with other women. The message of for colored girls is ultimately triumphant, as Shange's characters conclude that African American women should look to a female God within themselves for strength, and appreciate that the "rainbow" of their own color is sufficient to sustain them. Shange was born Paulette Williams; her father was a surgeon and her mother a psychiatric social worker. During Shange's youth she was exposed to many of the foremost black intellectuals and musicians of the time through her parents' social interactions with such luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, and W. E. B. Du Bois. She received a B.A. from Barnard College and an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Southern California. It was while attending graduate school that she chose the name Ntozake Shange for herself as a way of connecting with her African cultural heritage; "Ntozake" means "she who comes with her own things," and "Shange" signifies "she who walks like a lion."

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SOURCE: Mukherjee, Bharati. "The Management of Grief." In The Middleman and Other Stories. Canada: Penguin Books, 1988.

Born in India, Mukherjee, who now resides in Canada, writes stories that often reflect on issues significant to people who have migrated from one culture to another. In the following excerpt, Mukherjee captures the tragic consequences of an airline crash on a set of neighbors and friends as they struggle to cope with their loss.

Four days later, I find Kusum squatting on a rock overlooking a bay in Ireland. It isn't a big rock, but it juts sharply out over water. This is as close as we'll ever get to them. June breezes balloon out her sari and unpin her knee-length hair. She has the bewildered look of a sea creature whom the tides have stranded.

It's been one hundred hours since Kusum came stumbling and screaming across my lawn. Waiting around the hospital, we've heard many stories. The police, the diplomats, they tell us things thinking that we're strong, that knowledge is helpful to the grieving, and maybe it is. Some, I know, prefer ignorance, or their own versions. The plane broke into two, they say. Unconsciousness was instantaneous. No one suffered. My boys must have just finished their breakfasts. They loved eating on planes, they loved the smallness of plates, knives, and forks. Last year they saved the airline salt and pepper shakers. Half an hour more and they would have made it to Heathrow.

Kusum says that we can't escape our fate. She says that all those people—our husbands, my boys, her girl with the nightingale voice, all those Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, Parsis, and atheists on that plane—were fated to die together off this beautiful bay. She learned this from a swami in Toronto.

I have my Valium.

Six of us "relatives"—two widows and four widowers—choose to spend the day today by the waters instead of sitting in a hospital room and scanning photographs of the dead. That's what they call us now: relatives. I've looked through twenty-seven photos in two days. They're very kind to us, the Irish are very understanding. Sometimes understanding means freeing a tourist bus for this trip to the bay, so we can pretend to spy our loved ones through the glassiness of waves or in sun-speckled cloud shapes.

I could die here, too, and be content.

"What is that, out there?" She's standing and flapping her hands and for a moment I see a head shape bobbing in the waves. She's standing in the water, I, on the boulder. The tide is low, and a round, black, head-sized rock has just risen from the waves. She returns, her sari end dripping and ruined and her face is a twisted remnant of hope, the way mine was a hundred hours ago, still laughing but inwardly knowing that nothing but the ultimate tragedy could bring two women together at six o'clock on a Sunday morning. I watch her face sag into blankness.

"That water felt warm, Shaila," she says at length.

"You can't," I say. "We have to wait for our turn to come."

I haven't eaten in four days, haven't brushed my teeth.

"I know," she says. "I tell myself I have no right to grieve. They are in a better place than we are. My swami says I should be thrilled for them. My swami says depression is a sign of our selfishness."

Maybe I'm selfish. Selfishly I break away from Kusum and run, sandals slapping against stones, to the water's edge. What if my boys aren't lying pinned under the debris? What if they aren't stuck a mile below that innocent blue chop? What if, given the strong currents.…

Now I've ruined my sari, one of my best. Kusum has joined me, knee-deep in water that feels to me like a swimming pool. I could settle in the water, and my husband would take my hand and the boys would slap water in my face just to see me scream.

"Do you remember what good swimmers my boys were, Kusum?"

"I saw the medals," she says.

One of the widowers, Dr. Ranganathan from Montreal, walks out to us, carrying his shoes in one hand. He's an electrical engineer. Someone at the hotel mentioned his work is famous around the world, something about the place where physics and electricity come together. He has lost a huge family, something indescribable. "With some luck," Dr. Ranganathan suggests to me, "a good swimmer could make it safely to some island. It is quite possible that there may be many, many microscopic islets scattered around."

"You're not just saying that?" I tell Dr. Ranganathan about Vinod, my elder son. Last year he took diving as well.

"It's a parent's duty to hope," he says. "It is foolish to rule out possibilities that have not been tested. I myself have not surrendered hope."

Kusum is sobbing once again. "Dear lady," he says, laying his free hand on her arm, and she calms down.

"Vinod is how old?" he asks me. He's very careful, as we all are. Is, not was.

"Fourteen. Yesterday he was fourteen. His father and uncle were going to take him down to the Taj and give him a big birthday party. I couldn't go with them because I couldn't get two weeks off from my stupid job in June." I process bills for a travel agent. June is a big travel month.

Dr. Ranganathan whips the pockets of his suit jacket inside out. Squashed roses, in darkening shades of pink, float on the water. He tore the roses off creepers in somebody's garden. He didn't ask anyone if he could pluck the roses, but now there's been an article about it in the local papers. When you see an Indian person, it says, please give him or her flowers.

"A strong youth of fourteen," he says, "can very likely pull to safety a younger one."

My sons, though four years apart, were very close. Vinod wouldn't let Mithun drown. Electrical engineering, I think, foolishly perhaps: this man knows important secrets of the universe, things closed to me. Relief spins me lightheaded. No wonder my boys' photographs haven't turned up in the gallery of photos of the recovered dead. "Such pretty roses," I say.


ANGELA CARTER (1940-1992)

Angela Carter's career spanned less than three decades but covered many genres, including novels, short stories, screenplays, and nonfiction. Her writing is noted for its vivid prose, Gothic settings, eroticism, violence, use of fantasy and fairy tales, and surrealism that combine to form dream worlds influenced by Freudian theory and futuristic fiction. Two of her best known novels are Shadow Dance (1966) and Magic Toyshop (1967). As an essayist, Carter's most influential work is The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1979), an exploration of the Marquis de Sade's depiction of women and their modern-day counterparts. As an editor and translator, she produced several collections of fairy tales, and as a fiction writer, she wrote fairy tales that were mired in her own theories of sexual dominance and violence. Carter won many awards for her writing, including the James Tait Black Memorial Award for her novel Nights at the Circus (1984). By the time of her death from cancer in 1992, Carter was hailed as one of Britain's foremost writers.

"My wife loved pink roses. Every Friday I had to bring a bunch home. I used to say, Why? After twenty odd years of marriage you're still needing proof positive of my love?" He has identified his wife and three of his children. Then others from Montreal, the lucky ones, intact families with no survivors. He chuckles as he wades back to shore. Then he swings around to ask me a question. "Mrs. Bhave, you are wanting to throw in some roses for your loved ones? I have two big ones left."

But I have other things to float: Vinod's pocket calculator; a half-painted model B-52 for my Mithun. They'd want them on their island. And for my husband? For him I let fall into the calm, glassy waters a poem I wrote in the hospital yesterday. Finally he'll know my feelings for him.

"Don't tumble, the rocks are slippery," Dr. Ranganathan cautions. He holds out a hand for me to grab.

Then it's time to get back on the bus, time to rush back to our waiting posts on hospital benches.…


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Over four decades Paley has published only forty-five short stories, but these works place her at the forefront of American short story writers. The world of Paley's fiction is intensely local and socially conscious, centering primarily upon a few blocks in Manhattan's Greenwich Village where she lived, raised her children, and participated in various political movements, organizations, and demonstrations during the 1960s and 1970s. Paley's fiction vividly chronicles aspects of female experience in the United States from approximately 1950 to 1989. Paley was named the first official New York State writer in 1989. Her 1994 The Collected Stories was a National Book Award nominee and Pulitzer Prize finalist. As adolescents Paley's parents had participated in the Socialist movement in Russia and were imprisoned for these activities. When freed, they fled to the United States with their family, living in the Bronx and working at menial jobs so that Paley's father could attend medical school. Her father became a physician in the neighborhood and conducted his practice from their home. To her family's dismay, Paley neither completed a college degree nor embarked on any kind of professional career. She attended college briefly, married Jess Paley at age nineteen, and relocated to Greenwich Village. She had two children with Paley and spent her time as a mother, housewife, occasional clerical worker, and emerging political activist, before she quietly began writing in the early 1950s. Her first story collection, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) garnered such critical acclaim that Paley was offered a teaching post at Columbia University, followed by a Guggenheim fellowship in fiction in 1961 and two grants, one from the National Council on the Arts and another from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, in 1970. In the years between her publications, Paley has received numerous honors and has been active in various movements and organizations, including playing an instrumental role in the establishment of a women's committee within PEN.

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Women's Literature from 1960 to the Present: Primary Sources

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Women's Literature from 1960 to the Present: Primary Sources