Representation of Women in Literature and How it Changes Over Time


Feminism: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” ( Webster Dictionary). Feminism exists all around us, and it only exist because women have been ill represented for too long, we have been thought of as weak, frail, housewives, people who are supposed to stay at home, cook dinner and clean. We have been thought of as people who are supposed to sit back and watch, do nothing except what men tell us to do. This ideology has gone on too long and it can be seen everywhere especially in life and in literature.

Literature tends to represent how women are depicted during the time period that the novel was based in. In many novels this means that they are represented as unequal to men, or submissive, or the classic, subservient wife as per anti-feminist ideology. (Shuklal, Ankita)This representation is the reason a course over the Representation of Women in Literature and How it Changes Over Time was created.

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By focusing a course specifically on the portrayal of women in literature through years as early as 1000 AD to 2014 (InfoRefuge) students can see how novels influence the depiction of women and how the idea of what women should be like influences writing. Students can see how the characteristics of women progresses to a more modern feminist ideology over history and see the differences of what feminism was at the different time periods. In readings such as Taming of the Shrew by Shakespeare where women are seen as things that are wild and need to be tamed feminism would have been Katherine refusing to act like a civil women compared to the writings similar to those of Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, or Emily Brontë where women can hold strong female roles and strive to fight for what they believe (Sanders, Valerie).

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The appeal of this course is that is it intriguing to a wide variety of people as it can be useful to both english majors and women and gender study majors and it can help the students learn out how much women were objectified as some people have become desensitized to the objectification of women, seeing it as either something that only happens to other people or something that has been exaggerated in the past. The process of taking this course would give the students a new perspective on the objectification of women in earlier times and see how they are still objectified in today’s time.

Precedents: While there are no existing courses that cover the exact precedents for this course there are many that are very similar. One such course is taught at the University of Colorado Boulder is called “ Introduction to Women’s Literature”. This course aims to ask the question, “ “What is Women’s Literature?” and proceeds through a variety of readings in an attempt to expose you to the gamut of women’s lives and concerns as represented in literature… and will examine how these works voice similar or differing concerns depending on the writers’ race, class, and sexual orientation” (Auvinen, Karen).

The main difference between this course and the course described above is that “Introduction to Women’s Literature” covers the concerns of women’s life in literature whereas this course would focus on the idea of how women are represented. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute offers a course called “Female Stereotypes in Literature (With a Focus on Latin and American Writers)”.  The main focus of this course is that “women have been portrayed in literature as very confined and submissive characters…this unit gives some background as to these archetypes and their prevalence in literature. These types are discussed and outlined so as to be easily recognized in a text. With the desired end result being changes in viewing women (and men) in both life and literature” ( D. Jill Savitt). While this course appears to be very similar to the course this essay focuses on, there are differences.

These differences are mainly due to the fact that this course focuses on stereotypes of females in literature whereas the course the essay focuses on uses stereotypes of women combined with other representation of women as a whole. Another difference is the Latin and American focus in the Yale-New Haven course that this course does not have as this course focuses on writing from a variety of places. Another course taught by Kimberly M.Radek-Hall at Illinois Valley Community College is called “Women in Literature”. “This course introduces you to representative works by and about women from historical, social, and literary perspectives as it seeks to inform you about gendered identities. You will learn how gender roles develop and change and how women’s views of themselves are reflected in their writing” (Kimberly M. Radek-Hall). The focus of this course differs from the course described in this essay by a few things. The first is that this course not only discusses women in literature but also in films and other forms of media whereas the course in this essay focuses solely on literature.

Another differentiation is that this course focuses on gender identity (as being what the role of the gender should be) whereas the course in this essay focuses on how women are represented in literature during certain time periods and how it has changed throughout time. Course Proposal:  “Representation of Women in literature and how it changes over time” was created to be a college level English course that can be used for people interested in English and Women and Gender studies, it is meant to be a course that studies the way the representation of women in literature has changed as the feminist movement has progressed and how this representation has been different as societies definition of a feminist has changed. The main focus of the course would be how women were ill represented in literature from eras such as the middle age and to see where they started getting representation that was more equal to men.

Students would see how concepts of representation have changed over history by studying books ranging from the early 1800’s to 2006 as well as a book that can be dated back to 1000 AD, Beowulf, as it is one of the first writings. Through this the students should learn how the portrayal of women has affected societies understanding of them and vice versa, as well as seeing how writers use the characteristics of women in their novels to portray women in society at the time and what they hope women in society would be like in later times.

The main target audience for this course would be students interested in Women and Gender studies and or young men and women who believe that women have not been very objectified as they have become desensitized to the objectification of women after years of reading To be able to accomplish the objectives that were previously stated students will read a list of books in the order they were written from the earliest written novel to the most recent novel. Therefore, they will start off the course by reading Beowulf. This book is considered one of the first written books and it is fitted to the course as one of its main characters, Grendel’s mother, is depicted to have masculine qualities as she is powerful and murderous and yet, she is still subjected to stereotyping, “No female, no matter how fierce, could have come with the power and courage men fight with” (Beowulf).

By reading this novel students can see how even monsters are not exempt from female stereotyping in their representations due to the ever so persistent subjection they face. Next, students would analyze the novel Emma by Jane Austen though it takes place many centuries after Beowulf. This novel represents a women who does not conform to society, at least not in every aspect. Emma, the main protagonist, is a well educated girl who goes where she wants when she wants and decides who she gets to marry. She does not change herself to be more agreeable nor does she change to fit society’s view on a women and yet she is a rather terrible feminist. Emma thinks that women are unequal to men, as did many during the time period, she believes that anyone below her social class is not worthy of her and she thought that “A single women, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid!”(Austen, Chapter 10).

Emma thought women were only able to live a comfortable life if they were able to marry and women were only able to marry if they had money and able to attract men to receive marriage proposals. Even though she thought this she did believe that if people in different social classes should not marry and when her friend Harriet received a marriage proposal from a boy she loved who was below her status, Emma made Harriet refuse, a very anti-feminist thing to do. By reading this novel students can understand that even women with feminist qualities have anti-feminist views for they feel the need to conform to society’s thinking. (The telegraph) Following an analysis of Emma, students would begin to read “Wuthering Heights”by Emily Brontë. This novel includes a variety of different women as characters that portray different characteristics of women during the late 1800’s. In “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë many of the women choose class instead of the people they love such as the character Catherine Earnshaw who marries a richer man rather than the main character Heathcliff. Another character, Nelly Dean, is a housemaid and slave, she is wise and powerful but also very compliant to men as she was raised thinking women were insubordinate compared to them.

“Linton is all I have to love in the world, and though you have done what you could to make him hateful to me, and me to him, you cannot make us hate each other. And I defy you to hurt him when I am by, and I defy you to frighten me!” ( Brontë). This quote in “Wuthering Heights’ is from the perspective of the next character, Catherine Linton, she represents women from a different perspective, she is her own person and feels the need to do what she wants such as having control over her own life, it should be noted that she is the only character who is able to achieve a sort of peace between men and women as she creates happiness for herself with Hareton Linton and helps him learn and become something better while not dominating over him, they are equals to each other.

Another character, Isabella Linton, has a very feminist ideology, she fights for her right to marry whom she chooses and love who she wants even if her family does not approve and she even leaves her husband due to his violent and abusive nature and takes their child to London. Isabella has the mind of a feminist and shows that women are more than capable to take care of themselves and is able to raise her son as a single mother which was not acceptable before the 19th century. Overall, Brontë depicts a world much like the one we live in where men are leaders but women are fighting for their right to have control for themselves and have the ability to do what they want. ( Free Book Summary).

Proceeding the reading of “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë the students will read “Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. This novel depicts a representation of what society could be like if women do not receive rights. In the novel women have no rights anymore, they are fired from their jobs, their money gets taken away, they cannot vote, and they are not allowed to read or write, even their name gets taken from them, their identity.

Atwood represents women in society in three different ways, based on their age, marital status, and fertility rate. These deciding factors help decide what women will be out of three things, a handmaid, a wife, or laborer. This novel is told from the perspective of a handmaid who was renamed Offred, in the following quote Offred explains how she does not like seeing her body because it seems to be the only thing that determines her fate in the world. “I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely” (Atwood). This quote is so important because in the novel the main thing women are used for in the society is reproduction, they are reduced to nothing but a baby maker or baby caretakers. This novel may not seem feminist at first glance but throughout the book one can understand how the main character becomes a radical feminist especially at the end when she escapes the society she was forced into.

The novel is best seen as feminist when one notices that it represents how society needs to change in order for women to have rights, otherwise we could go back into a society where women no rights at all (NewStatesman). After reading the previously stated book the students would read “Eat Pray Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert. This memoir gives the reader a look into the life of Elizabeth Gilbert in her 30’s when she realizes that she does not want to conform to society’s expectation of women wanting to be mothers. After being married for six years Gilbert’s husband had wanted to start having kids but after each pregnancy test she would find herself relieved and grateful for another failed pregnancy.

This would lead Gilbert into the realization that she did not want to be a mother nor a wife. Gilbert divorced her husband and left New York to travel and go on a journey of self-discovery. In this quote from the novel Gilbert explains that “I’m choosing happiness over suffering, I know I am. I’m making space for the unknown future to fill up my life with yet-to-come surprises.” (Gilbert). These actions would not have taken place in earlier years, it would be unspeakable. However, in the current time period these ideas are those of a feminist. Gilbert took control of her life and did something for herself that allowed her to not conform to the traditional ideas of all women wanting to be mothers and wanting a family life ( Feminist book review). By reading this book the students should understand that feminism is not just the right to be equal but also the right to not have to do something you don’t want to. In Gilbert’s case that is starting a family and being married, in other women’s case it might be working.

The students should understand that people have a right to do what they want whether its being a stay at home mom, a housewife, a worker, or even a nun. Addendum:Free Response Question 2:The following excerpt is from “Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Brontë. A novel that takes place in the late 1700’s and discusses the life of a man named Heathcliff from the point of view of a servant named Nelly. The excerpt depicts the thoughts of the girl Heathcliff loves, Catherine Earnshaw on her new engagement to Edgar Linton. In a well-developed essay, discuss how Brontë uses literary devices such as imagery, tone, and diction to depicts the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine. “I shouldn’t be Mrs. Linton were such a price demanded! He’ll be as much to me as he has been all his lifetime.

Edgar must shake off his antipathy, and tolerate him, at least. He will, when he learns my true feelings towards him. Nelly, I see now you think me a selfish wretch; but did it never strike you that if Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggars? whereas, if I marry Linton I can aid Heathcliff to rise, and place him out of my brother’s power.’ ‘With your husband’s money, Miss Catherine?’ I asked. ‘You’ll find him not so pliable as you calculate upon: and, though I’m hardly a judge, I think that’s the worst motive you’ve given yet for being the wife of young Linton.’ ‘It is not,’ retorted she; ‘it is the best! The others were the satisfaction of my whims: and for Edgar’s sake, too, to satisfy him. This is for the sake of one who comprehends in his person my feelings to Edgar and myself. I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you.

What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and HE remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. – My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I AM Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable” (Brontë).

Many works of literature contain important female characters that hold a feminist identity. Choose a novel or play in which a minor character helps represent feminism or anti-feminism during the time period. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze how this character contributed to the main theme of the book and how their views differed or were similar to the protagonist. ( CollegeBoard) You may choose a work from the list below or another work of comparable literary merit.

Agendas and Homework: In class students will use Canvas to access the daily agenda. They will be open for students not present as well. Daily agendas will be listed after the date of the class under the home tab. Announcements will include any homework such as reading or essays or tests after every class period. You are responsible for making up and classes missed since the agenda will be posted on Canvas at all times. Remember, if you have questions, ask or email me.

Canvas- https://phm.instructure.comCourse Overview: Enrollment in Representation of women in literature and how it changes over time is a one semester class where students will read and analyze five novels. In addition to this they will write five, ten page essays, over each of the works as well as a twenty page essay over all the works and the progression of women’s portrayal in literature and how it changed as history progressed.

We will have a guest speaker near the end of the semester, an author of one of the more recent feminist books, attendance for this lecture is mandatory and graded, who will discuss their opinions on feminism and the reason for writing their novel. After the guest speaker students will be required to write a short four page essay over their thoughts and opinions that will be due the next week. The purpose of this course is to understand how representation of women has progressed throughout history. All essays written over the course of the semester should serve as preparation for the finals twenty page essay. After reading and writing about the first three books students will have a multiple choice test consisting of 100 questions over the novels and have to answer two short answer questions this will be the midterm. The final essay, accompanied by a 50 question multiple choice over the reading material and the guest speaker will serve as the final.

Course Objectives: Students enrolled in Representation of Women in Literature and How it Changes should be able to:Understand how the portrayal of women in literature progresses as our understanding of equality progressesBe able to explain how different environments affect the portrayal of women Be able to write a well-written essay that conveys an understanding of the portrayal of women and how it has changed over historyBe able to analyze larger themes between novels including but not subjected to: sexism, anti-femininity, gender identification, and feminismBe able to write an essay analyzing the larger themes that are apparent in numerous novelsWriting: Students will have to write five, ten page essays over the each of the novels read during this course.

They will have approximately two and a half weeks to complete each essay after each reading. After the guest speaker an additional four page essay will be assigned. If this speech is missed students will not be exempt from this essay, they will be required to find and watch a different speech similar to the one presented in class. The twenty page essay over the five works the students will have read will be weighted as half of the final and will need to discuss, in some way, representation of women. All essay will be written in APA format with a works cited page and citations.

More information on the writings will be given in class and on Canvas throughout the course. Grading Scale: Grades may be rounded depending on the case of the student, participation and performance will be used when rounding. A+ 98.0-100 C+ 78.0-79.9 F 59.9 and A 92.0-97.9 C 72.0-77.9   below90.0-91.9 C- 70.0-71.9B+ 88.0-89.9 D+ 68.0-69.9B 82.0-87.9 D 62.0-67.9B- 80.0-81.9 D- 60.0-61.9Course Policy: Each essay and assignment will be given a deadline, late work is not acceptable. If a student is absent on the day assignment is due, the assignment should be turned in online. Excuses will not be acceptable make sure to plan ahead, if for some reason a student has an illness, or family emergency then late work may be tolerated. On the note of plagiarism, it will not be tolerated.

Plagiarism is an academic offense that will result in a 0% and either a suspension or expulsion. If plagiarism is suspected an investigation will occur, if found guilty the student will receive an automatic failing grade along will suspension or expulsion even if this plagiarism is thought to be accidental. ( This information was written in accordance with the Penn High School Student Handbook and the review of teacher, Mr.Coffee’s, syllabus)Reading: ‘Beowulf” author unknown “Emma’ by Jane Austen “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë “Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood “Eat Pray Love” by Elizabeth GilbertConclusion: This course reviews the portrayal of women and females in literature over the ages. The course will talk about how women are represented in the novels and whether it is stereotypical for the time period it takes place in. The students will be required to read five books in the order of the following: “Beowulf” author unknown, “Emma’by Jane Austen, “Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Brontë, “Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, and “Eat Pray Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert. After each book is read the students will be required to write a ten page essay.

After all five books are read the students will have a final with a multiple choice consisting of 50 questions over the reading and a twenty page paper that connects all the books and points out their similarities and differences in the way they view women. The course was created as to help people recognize the objectification women face everyday as many people have become desensitized to sexism in literature and life.

The main effort of the course is to make people aware, aware of feminism, equality, sexism, objectification, and to hope the students use the information they learn to lead better lives, to help fight for equality, and stop sexism and objectification in both literature and life.

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Representation of Women in Literature and How it Changes Over Time. (2022, Jun 04). Retrieved from

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