In 1963 Norman Mailer wrote a review of a ‘lady-book’, Mary McCarthy’s The Group: ‘[McCarthy] is not a good enough woman to write a major novel; not yet; she has failed, she has failed from the centre out, she failed out of vanity’ (Mailer 1963:82).
Feminist fiction emerged in the mid to late 1970s, on the crest of the Second Wave Women’s Movement. Following the example of Kate Millett in Sexual Politics, who turned the tables on Mailer and exposed him as not a good enough man to treat women decently in literature, feminist writers inverted the logic of a literary-critical establishment which had regarded the ‘lady-book’ as, at best, a sub-literary genre of its own and at worst as an upmarket version of popular romance. Feminist fiction transformed the literary arena and wilfully made it a gendered, political space in which women’s issues could be discussed and a feminist readership constituted. In the work of Marilyn French, Marge Piercy, Alice Walker, Kate Millett, Rita Mae Brown, Alix Kates Shulman and a host of other new writers, the political discourses of Women’s Liberation and Black feminism informed imaginative reconstructions of the condition of women in American society. Here was a body of texts which took feminism seriously, which spoke to women’s contemporary concerns, voiced their discontents and envisioned their dreams. Here also was a mode of writing which reinserted women into the literary domain and demanded that they be taken seriously as imaginative and political writers.
American feminist fiction of the 1970s and 1980s was a liberating literature, a female body of texts which sought to liberate both women and writing from the constraints of masculinist double standards in literature and in life. It threw its bra in the trash-can of conventional femininity and refused to corset itself in prevailing notions of literariness, thus setting free the loose baggy monster of misogynist critical cliché in big rambling novels where women were, unashamedly, at large.
Of all the Women’s Movement’s achievements in changing perceptions of gender difference and dominance, its impact on the cultural sphere is