There can be little doubt that literature is one of Second Wave feminism’s greatest success stories. The impact of the Women’s Movement—and more particularly of Women’s Liberation—on the cultural arena is succinctly summarised by Nicci Gerrard:
Feminism has encouraged writers who might never have written at all. It has validated writers who, before they found feminism, felt they had no ‘right’ to write. It has given a whole new subject area to literature, demonstrating that women’s lives are important and their fictions exciting and readable. It has produced presses to publish women’s writing. It has encouraged readers who were, often unknowingly, hungry for women’s writing. It has meant an enormous increase in the richness and range of fiction. And it has been a vital tool for the women’s movement.
Constructing feminist fiction as the Women’s Movement’s bestseller, Gerrard here accurately describes its success in the literary marketplace, but the political role this fiction played in many readers’ lives is added only as an afterthought. In my analysis of feminist fiction as a liberating literature, Gerrard’s postscript becomes the main plot. Without losing sight of the dynamics of production and reception, I want to ask with Rosalind Coward, ‘What is the relationship of the practice of reading…with political movements, in what way are texts effective, and most important, which ones are?’ (Coward 1980:236).
To Gerrard’s list of new writers and readers, new fiction, and what Rita Felski has called the constitution of a feminist counter-public sphere, we could add the emergence of a powerful, influential and still proliferating feminist criticism and literary theory, courses in women’s writing, and ongoing lively debate about what a feminist aesthetic might mean. The Women’s Movement created nothing less than a new, gendered discursive space in which all women’s writing would henceforth be written and read, whether it had allegiances to feminism or not. Coward’s question origin-