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Choice and Change: Modern Women, 1910–1950


There is a lag between the advent of a major social change—the right to vote, the availability of education, working for pay outside the home—and the moment when any one individual avails herself of the opportunities arising from such a change. Activists and visionaries fight for the change long before it comes; pioneers are the first in line to participate; others hesitate and face resistance. Each woman changes her mind at a different rate from the legal and policy changes of the culture at large, and writing by women dramatizes the sometimes liberating, sometimes uneasy responses to those cultural changes.

Consider Sylvia Townsend Warner, born in 1893 and the author of numerous works of fiction including Lolly Willowes (1926) and Mr. Fortune’s Maggot (1927). One does not necessarily expect a bookish thirty-seven-year-old woman, even one whose novels celebrate a queer sensibility, to dump her married boyfriend, suddenly fall in love with a woman, make a new life with her, and become a communist, but that is precisely what Warner did in the 1930s. Her experience—and the equanimity with which she accepted a powerful change of mind and heart—still has power to surprise. Warner fictionalized such a volte-face in Summer Will Show (1936), her novel about a wife who leaves behind the British aristocracy for a female lover and the barricades of the 1848 Revolution in Paris. Without the biographical information, Summer Will Show seems to be an uneasy historical novel, simultaneously nostalgic and radical; but with the biographical frame, we can see how the novel continues and deepens the queer explorations of Warner’s first two books, how the historical setting permits kinds of experimentation that censorship laws might otherwise have made difficult to portray.

Anglo-European women such as Warner are an invaluable control group for studying the way that changes on a grand scale lead to changes in individual lives. Because sex roles were so segregated, the social and cultural changes of the turn of the last century affected women differently than men. For just one example take the humble bicycle, which is impossible to ride sidesaddle—thus, women adopted bloomers, culottes, and, eventually, trousers. Anglo-European writers in the first half of the twentieth century were born into a world in which women had only just earned the right to keep their own income.[1] In England, women over thirty only attained the right to vote in 1918; in the United States, women were enfranchised in 1920.[2] The first birth control clinic did not open in the United States until 1916; it took Britain until 1921. In the areas of education, labor, suffrage, and birth control, women experienced, whether at first or second hand, revolutionary cultural change in their lifetimes, and we see these changes, and others, manifest themselves in the lives and work of women writers. If we fail to consider the difference of sex and gender in our account of modernism and modernity, we risk glossing over these differences. Literary history, especially when it is as attentive to sex and gender roles as it is to biography and aesthetics, helps us understand the relationship between social change and changing your mind.

Changes in Education and Employment

Education and employment (outside the home and for pay) are among the most consequential social changes which profoundly affected women in this period. In the case of college, the opportunity was technically available long before many women enrolled. The women’s colleges Girton and Newnham were founded in Cambridge 1866 and 1872 respectively, and Oxford’s Somerville followed soon after, in 1879. Nevertheless, even highly educated, progressive people did not consider sending their daughters to college. In 1900, when Virginia Woolf (then Stephen) turned eighteen, Girton’s doors had been open for thirty-four years and Newnham’s for twenty-eight—but Leslie Stephen, Woolf’s father, did not send his daughter to school. This oversight animates some of Woolf’s most intense feminist anger, most notably in A Room of One’s Own (1929), and emerges more obliquely in the frequent portrayals of the frustrations of undereducated women throughout Woolf’s fiction.

The wartime availability of jobs for women was embraced quickly by wide swaths of the population. These rapid and often rapidly accepted changes in the workforce during both World Wars suggest a pent-up demand to be useful, to have something to do, and to earn money. In short stories about World War I, we see the deep joy some women found in war work and the ways in which war work permitted women to express strength, independence, and even aggression.[3] For example, Winifred Holtby’s “So Handy for the Fun Fair” (1934) centers around a former WAAC who has kept her war-time adventures from her husband partly out of pity for his noncombatant status. The very title of Radclyffe Hall’s “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself” (1926) announces the protagonist’s delight in her war work, though not the crisis that arrives when the war ends and, with it, her newfound purpose. And D. H. Lawrence’s “Tickets Please” (1919), in which a group of female transit workers, drunk with the power of their jobs, set upon the lone man remaining in their corps, manifests male anxiety at women’s presence at work.

History, Biography, Literature

We can find corroboration for these observations on the differential effects of social changes on women in the thriving genre of feminist literary biography. In Laura Doan’s Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women’s Experience of Modern War (2014), Lisa Cohen’s All We Know: Three Lives (2012), and Carla Kaplan’s Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (2013), we get riveting and richly researched biographies of nearly-forgotten women’s lives. However, for all the powerful feminist and queer history and genealogy of these studies, none takes a strong interest in literature. Building on their work, I encourage a renewed attentiveness to biographical sources in literary criticism, one in which critics return to biographical sources as crucial context for the literary responses. Resisting the temptation to read fictional characters autobiographically, we can still find in the particularities of an individual author’s context clues to the specific nuances of the struggles within the text. This method is theoretically informed, historically astute, and attuned to the finest details of literary language. It is also feminist to the marrow.

The historicist turn that enabled and coincided with the new modernist studies means that biographical sources no longer seem as strange to us as they once did in a field that was once defined, in part, by T. S. Eliot’s rejection of the personal and the biographical in literary criticism. Eliot’s call for privacy and impersonality has stood in tension with feminism from the start.[4] This tension only grew with the ascendance of post-structuralism, which amplified the turn away from individual authors at the very moment when feminists and writers of color were experimenting with personal criticism. In contrast to the arguments of Alice Walker, Jane Tompkins, and others, I advocate for a criticism attentive to artists’ biographies, not my own.

Advertisement for Jessie Redmon Fauset’s There is Confusion (1924).

We use life stories, both nonfiction and fiction, to help us understand the shape of our lives. As our own lives are nearly impossible for us to interpret, the lives of others can become models. Writers exert a measure of control over their stories that is harder to measure in their lives; in literature, women writers often narrate the thought process behind making a change in ways that biography rarely can. Literature offers a window into the comparison of risk, a way to discern the difference between the moment when a choice becomes technically possible and that moment, often much later, in which ordinary, not particularly brave women begin to have the courage to make that choice. And between the individual life and the broad historical narrative lies literature. Literature offers us a mediated text in which the writer transforms her understanding of the world into a narrative that takes history into account. Where Ewa Ziarek and Madelyn Detloff, in this cluster, use theory to explain the “violent founding fictions of politics and aesthetics” and “cultural imaginaries that naturalize biopower’s effects,” I argue for literature’s value in a more micro-historic vein: if we analyze both literature and biography against the background of these large cultural narratives, we see anew how individual women responded to the forces under which, within which, and in opposition to which they lived.

The fictional and biographical stories that interest me most are those of middle-class women who, late into adolescence—and even into adulthood—show every sign of obeying a rather ordinary social script, but whose lives, somewhere in adulthood, take a left turn: suddenly, they change jobs, take a leap into political activism, commit to earning a living, leave a marriage to live with a woman. That turn often comes at a moment of recognition of a new possibility, the possibility of change, and these women, like the “metic” modernists whom Detloff studies, see both their privilege and its limitations; there can be meta-lucidity in alienation. What combination of social change and personal revelation makes the conditions for such change possible? If cultural revolution translates into real change on a human scale, we need to map that change through a critical practice that takes into account historical trends, individual lives, and fictional narratives. I want to focus on three stories of women from the first half of the twentieth century: Vera Brittain, Jessie Fauset, and Margaret Wise Brown. Each writer looked closely at the choices that seemed to be available to her and found a way to live out what Carla Kaplan calls “unpredicted lives.”[5] Viewed through a critical prism of history, biography, and literary analysis, their stories help us to understand the ways in which revolution becomes change.

Vera Brittain and the Uneven Pace of Change

Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933) contrasts with the perhaps too-familiar story of men at war and women at home. Brittain’s memoir details her transformation from a young girl thrilled to be beginning her college career in August of 1914 to a young nurse’s aide with the VADs. While working in nursing, she lost her three best male friends (including her brother and her fiancé) and her mother had a nervous breakdown. After the war, she returned to university and began her career as a peace activist. Brittain writes with tremendous care about prize day at her brother’s school when she was falling in love with Ronald Leighton, who became her fiancé. The passage goes on and on—her floaty dress with the pink spots, her pretty hat—and then she explains that she spends so much time on this because it was “the one perfect summer idyll” of her life.[6] Etched, every moment of it, in memory. What’s lovely and unusual about Brittain is that she’s writing from such a kindly, matronly perspective: she’s generous to the whole world that’s past, including her naïve self. We see that in the book’s unforgettable first line: “When the Great War broke out, it came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans” (Brittain, Testament, 17). The opening of the war was exasperating to her, it would have been. She had spent two years fighting her parents for the right to go to university. She remembers, writing,  all that she could not have known that fateful August. Her observation that she did not attend to the assassination of an archduke of whom she had never heard in a nation she could not find on the map is perfectly calibrated to be patient with the individual—in this case, the young Brittain herself—but damning of the society. She is smart on the perils of ignorance, as when she tells the story of a fellow nurse trainee who got mad at Brittain for wrinkling the frills in her knickers. It is pure silliness in retrospect, but for that girl, at that moment, such a worry was possible. Brittain’s book gains its effect by asking us to think that through. She was a young woman in a world where pretty girls worried about the frills on their knickers. Then: war. Brittain’s method shows—and asks us to bear—some compassion for that poor misguided girl, too, a girl who surely suffered, too. Testament of Youth reproduces at once Brittain’s memory and her postwar perspective. It also enacts the uneven pace of change: after the long struggle with her parents to be permitted to attend university, the advent of war saw those same parents accept her volunteering almost immediately.

Jessie Fauset and the Elusive Promise of Happiness

Brittain mourns her lost youth as she chronicles her long, slow transition from pretty undergraduate to powerful feminist pacifist. She might well lament, “Doesn’t anyone think that we have a right to be happy simply, naturally,” but the line comes not from Vera Brittain but Jessie Fauset.[7] Fauset’s Plum Bun (1928) chronicles the lives of African-American sisters who move from Philadelphia to New York. The young woman who speaks of her wish to be happy is tired of earnest talk of race and responsibility, desiring instead to get on with her life as an artist. Frustrated with her limited opportunities, she moves to New York and passes for white, only to find that passing brings a new set of challenges and limitations. Like Brittain, Fauset chronicles the false promises of happiness.

The characters in Fauset’s novels There is Confusion (1924) and Plum Bun are well-educated, elite African Americans, working to take full advantage of every opportunity society can offer, and frustrated by ongoing racism. In writing about the well-off Marshall family, Fauset takes up her own social milieu: born to a well-off old Philadelphia family, Fauset had wanted to go to Bryn Mawr, but they would not accept her because she was black. Instead, the Bryn Mawr administration found her a full scholarship to Cornell University where she graduated in 1905, Phi Beta Kappa with honors in classical languages as well as “a firm grounding in French and German.”[8] It was at Cornell that she met W. E. B. DuBois, with whom she developed a close personal relationship. He took the place of her father,who had died while she was in college, though Fauset’s biographer David Levering Lewis also speculates that there may have been a love affair. After teaching high school for fourteen years, Fauset moved to New York and from 1919 to 1924 worked closely with DuBois as the literary editor for The Crisis, the literary magazine of the NAACP. In this role, she accompanied DuBois to Europe many times to attend Pan-African Congress meetings.

She writes obliquely about the kind of thinking that goes into such a change of career in her second novel, Plum Bun:

Sawyer here, who . . . always wanted to be an engineer, [and] will transmute his colour either into a bane or a blessing according to whether he lets it make him hide his natural tendencies under the bushel of school teaching or become an inspiration toward making him the very best kind of engineer that there ever was so that people will just have to take him for what he is and overlook the fact of colour. (54)

For these young, well-educated black friends, a choice of career is always also a political choice. They must measure ambition against talent, opportunity against barriers. Fauset offers an underexplored perspective on the question of changing your mind. Each change of mind brings with it immense consequences, including, often, the need to break with family and even to reject aspects of one’s own self in order to pursue a dream. In Plum Bun, when Angela, the lighter-skinned sister who just wants to be happy, discovers that passing for white is not a clear path to that happiness, she reflects: “Jinny had changed her life and been successful. Angela had changed hers and had found pain and unhappiness. Where did the fault lie?” (243). In the ensuing pages, Fauset tries to answer that question, shifting the fault away from the woman who chooses to pass and onto the racist society that creates the phenomenon of passing. In doing so, Fauset writes into being a space for a woman who is both ambitious and black. 

Margaret Wise Brown: Resisting the Fairy Tale Ending

I want to end with Margaret Wise Brown (1910-1952), the author of the children’s book Goodnight Moon (1947) and dozens and dozens of others. Her story is not about moving into consciousness or finding purpose so much as it is about the privilege to resist the dominant narrative, the power of wandering to find your purpose. Brown’s mother, who had gone to college, supported her daughter’s desire to go as well, in spite of her father’s strong objections.[9] At Hollins, a women’s college in Southern Virginia, Brown and her best friend “read to each other from Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein” (Marcus, Margaret Wise Brown, 30).  Shortly after college, in 1934, Brown moved to Greenwich Village, enrolled in a fiction-writing workshop at Columbia University, reread Woolf and Chaucer, and went to BAM to hear Gertrude Stein’s lectures.[10] Eventually, she found her way to Lucy Sprague’s Bureau of Educational Experiments (later the  Bank Street College of Education). In the school’s Writer’s Laboratory, Brown found a community of writers, educators, and artists who were inspired by the relevance of modern ideas (if not always modernist art) to early childhood education.

Photograph of Margaret Wise Brown by Consuelo Kanaga, c. 1940s.

In this circle, Brown pioneered books for children who do not yet know how to read. Building on Sprague’s Here and Now theory, she wrote little modernist poems with minimal plot and a strong focus on the sensory experiences of the very young child: the noises, sights, and sounds of the child’s world, urban and rural. This innovation eventually eclipsed the fairy tales and didacticism of prior children’s literature. Nearly as important as Brown’s innovations is the way in which her financial stability and her ambition to achieve something allowed her to wander, and, like many male artists before her, to try a lot of things before settling on a path—in her case, writing books for children too young to read—which, before she took it, did not seem to exist. In 1938, Brown met the American painter Clement Hurd. He was just back from Paris where he had studied with Fernand Léger and he, like Brown, admired Stein. They forged the collaboration that, shortly after World War II, led to Goodnight Moon.

Goodnight Moon is a celebration of the objects in a wonderful, enormous nursery, furnished with some of the features of Brown’s own childhood room. In this text, objects are celebrated for themselves. A rose is a rose is a rose and a little toy house is a little toy house. The book is little more than an inventory of the nursery. The structure echoes Stein in following a personal logic, ordering itself through rhyme and repetition, having a symmetry that is not entirely precise, and in gesturing toward the overwhelming feeling of one’s smallness in the universe—“Goodnight stars / Goodnight air”—even toward the void—“Goodnight nobody”—while ultimately offering the reassurance, in the form of the quiet old lady and the final lines that cocoon our little sleeper in “noises everywhere.”[11] These noises, even if not understood, are introduced as a normal feature of the atmosphere of the great green room. This last gesture seems particularly astute in a book for the very young. Since misunderstood noises often keep us from sleep, the final line of Goodnight Moon seems to anticipate them, incorporating them into the lulling final words as if to reassure the young listener that the complaint she is about to make is unnecessary, that those noises are just another thing to placidly bid goodnight. One might think that brief books written for children who cannot yet read would be challenging to read for politics, and yet Goodnight Moon, while accepting many upper-middle-class life social norms, also presents an ungendered protagonist with apolitical interests. Compared to other interactive books of the immediate postwar period, such as Pat the Bunny (1940) (where children are encouraged to try on Mommy’s wedding ring and feel Daddy’s scratchy beard), Brown’s work here and elsewhere forestalls the narrowing of choices that adulthood so often brings, just as Brown herself forestalled them.

The effects of social change in the writing of Brittain, Fauset, and Brown emerge with most clarity when their writing is placed in the context of biographical and historical sources. Brittain takes advantage of the form of the memoir to create sympathetic tension between her subject (the younger Vera) and her narrator (her older, more political self). Fauset takes the conventions of the novel of manners and stretches them to accommodate long philosophical discussions and private musings about the intersection of race, sex, and ambition. As for Margaret Wise Brown, her adventures keep possibilities open, eschewing gender stereotypes, in the very ways that she herself most valued.

My discussion of Brittain, Fauset, and Brown—modern women, women writers, activists, and makers of culture all—arises out of an intersectional and intertextual approach. It is alert to the particularities of a specific context, the larger social forces in play, and each artist’s aesthetic ambitions and achievements. Such analysis has the potential to revitalize the study of the modernist moment, a literary movement that arose in response to tremendous social change, but one whose critical history at first turned its back on history and then, with the advent of the new modernist studies, returned to history in ways that occasionally lost sight of women and of the ways in which texts can encode what it is like to change your mind.


[1] In England, the Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1870, allowing women to keep £200 of their own earnings; those rights were extended in 1884.

[2] New Zealand, an early adopter of women’s suffrage, allowed women to vote starting in 1893.

[3] For the classic articulation of this point, see Sandra M. Gilbert, “Soldier’s Heart: Literary Men, Literary Women, and the Great War,” Signs 8, no. 3 (1983): 422–50.

[4] Compare, for example, Eliot’s foundational “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) with Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929), which depends on biographical and mock-biographical sources to explain why Shakespeare could prevail where his fictional sister did not.

[5] Carla Kaplan, Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 66.

[6] Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925 (New York: Penguin, 2005), 91.

[7] Jessie Redmon Fauset, Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral (1929; rpt., New York: Beacon, 1990), 54.

[8] David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Penguin, 1997), 121.

[9] Leonard S. Marcus, Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon. New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 10.

[10] See Marcus, 37, 41–42.

[11] Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon, illus. Clement Hurd (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).