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Fantastic writing, real lives: Gender, race, and sexuality in early twentieth-century American women's speculative fiction

Darcie D Rives, University of Nebraska - Lincoln

Abstract

This dissertation explores connections among American women writers of differing racial, class, and sexual backgrounds who employed speculative fiction to challenge social inequities in early twentieth-century U.S. and European culture. Focusing on authors Edith Wharton, Pauline Hopkins, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Natalie Barney, my study argues that the speculative mode offered these writers the opportunity to imaginatively explore controversial issues at the time, from feminism to post-Reconstruction violence against black women to an emerging discourse on lesbian identity. ^ I contend that for these four women, realist fiction became insufficient for articulating the increasing complexity of feminine identity in the new century. Speculative writing, which combines elements of gothic, utopian, and science fiction, allowed these authors to be at once political, popular, and literary. For example, Wharton, known for her scathing portraits of a New York upper-class society which used and then discarded women, makes a similar critique of female powerlessness in her ghost stories. Hopkins, who, as editor of Colored American Magazine, composed numerous articles decrying violence against black Americans, also published a fantasy in which such virulent racism is overcome by uniting African American women and men with their African heritage. Gilman, famous for her feminist tracts and lectures, conceived of a female utopia in which oppressive patriarchal gender constructions do not exist. And Barney, who published poetry and essays in opposition to early twentieth-century sexology constructions of lesbian identity, wrote a novel in which categories of gender and sexual orientation no longer exist in the afterlife of its dead protagonist. ^ With the exception of Gilman, these writers have not previously been recognized as part of a tradition of speculative writing, nor has their speculative fiction been acknowledged as important contributions to American literature. My study argues for their inclusion in both traditions by emphasizing the creativity with which these four writers faced problems of gender, race, and sexuality which touched their own lives and those of other women at the time. ^

Subject Area

Black Studies|Women's Studies|Literature, American|Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies

Recommended Citation

Rives, Darcie D, "Fantastic writing, real lives: Gender, race, and sexuality in early twentieth-century American women's speculative fiction" (2006). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3216433.
http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/dissertations/AAI3216433

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