Fearless Femininity by Women in American Theatre (1910s to 2010s)

by Lynne Greeley


From the beginning of the twentieth century, when women were claiming the right to be in a public space while keeping their private reputations intact, to the beginning of the twenty-first century, when female artists claim and display their own bodies by choice, artists in American theatre have proved that the performance of the feminine no longer belongs to a mystique created by men but to the women who choose to be and do and sell as they please. All the artists in this study have been selected specifically for their subversions of traditional ideas of femininity. Some artists are well established in the critical literature and others are lesser known, but each has used her notion of femininity to empower a wider reach of feminism, even if indirectly.

Whether contemporary females, transgender, or queer people love, hate, or are indifferent to the idea of femininity, their cultural conditioning creates personal responses to it that are rarely neutral. What is new about this writing is the demonstration of the intimate relationship between femininity and feminism, a combination that has created a century of powerful—and not always feminine—feminists.

In this unprecedented, fascinating book which covers women in theatre from the 1910s to the 2010s, author Lynne Greeley notes that "feminism" (which, for the purposes of this study, is defined as the political impulse toward economic and social empowerment for females or the female-identified) is a position perceived by many feminists as oppositional to ideas of femininity that they see as personally and politically constraining. Moreover, "femininity" is perceived as comprising social behaviors and practices that mean as "many different things as there are women," some of which are empowering and others of which are not.

This book illuminates how throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, playwrights and artists in American theatre both embodied and disrupted the feminine of their times. Through approaches as wide ranging as performing their own recipes, energizing silences, raging against war and rape, and inviting the public to inscribe their naked bodies, theatre artists have used performance as a site to insert themselves between the physicality of their female presence and the liminality of their disrupting the role of the feminine. Capturing that place of liminality, a neither-here-nor-there place that is often unsafe, where the established order is overturned by acts as banal as raising a plant, women have written and performed and disrupted their way through one hundred years of theatre history, even within the constraints of a variably rigid and usually unsympathetic social order. Creating a feminist femininity, they have reinscribed their place in the culture and provided models for their audiences to do the same.

This comprehensive tome, part of the Cambria Contemporary Global Performing Arts headed by John Clum (Duke University) is an essential addition for theater studies and women's studies.

Read the Interview with the Author.


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