Women and Literature
The evolution of literature in western civilization can be tracked through a large number of filters, each of which allows us to erect a slightly different edifice, with a focus either on the genre, the subject, the style and so on. Seldom, however, are we presented with a history of literature that traces back the development of the form of art beyond the 19th century from the perspective of the author's gender.
Likely a good reason for this is the fact that, most often, writers from periods prior to the 19th century are male. There are, of course, exceptions, and the circumstances vary from country to country. For instance, within the set up of medieval societies and the exodus of a vast majority of the male population in the multitudinous armies that sought to recover the Holy Land from Muslim control, the female population emerged not only as hugely influential but, essentially, as the regent class in the absence of male masters.
Hence, courts across the French territory, especially in the southern region of Aquitaine, often boasted troubairitz (female toubadour) who provided entertainment with pieces of their own creation. Nevertheless, there was no Marie de France, or anything similar, in the Spanish courts, where the dominance of male authors could be felt until well into the modern age.
Piety and Literature
Within the eminently patriarchal fold of western society through the Middle Ages and much of modernity the only place suitable for a woman, outside of the warmth and comfort of her own home, where she could look after her kin and husband, was in the sheltered walls of a convent or nunnery, where a life devoted to the Church and Jesus Christ would provide for the only acceptable excuse for her to carry out any sort of work, whatsoever. It is certainly not by coincidence, then, that so many women chose to live a way of life we are often incapable of conceiving these days.
Back in the 16th century, though, and through to well into the 20th, perhaps, the convent was rather a liberating institution, of sorts, that allowed women to flourish in certain areas that would have been barred for them outside the religious context. While this "liberty" came at the dear and strict price of their individuality, it is by no means a coincidence that the first literary creations by female authors in Spanish came in the form of mystic writings that revolved around a religious trope.
Starting with Teresa de Cartagena, who was active towards the middle of the 15th century, female mystics will proliferate, certainly not in abundance, but equally certainly in greater numbers than in any other realms of life. From the transcendental mystery of Teresa de la Cruz's work in Ávila or María de Zayas' entertainments (the famous novelas ejemplares in the style of Cervantes) provide plenty of evidence of the wide range of work that was produced within the religious fold at the time. This phenomenon was not restricted to the continental mainland, either, as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, one of the most notable mystics in Spanish language, would prove with her poetry, which these days is considered the starting point of Mexican literature.
From the emergence of the figure of Fernán Caballero in the 19th century, and into the 20th century and the gradual acknowledgement of equality between men and women, female authors have become much more prolific, to the point where the market these days is both enormous and of extraordinary quality. Today, Spain is home to several strong and influential female authors who over the years have produced a host of excellent publications.
Among them, a particularly prominent place must be reserved for Ana María Matute, renowned author and member of the RSA (Royal Spanish Association). Also well-known is Carmen Laforet, with her portrayal of the female adolescence during Spain's repressive dictatorship. Meanwhile, the political environment and the interpretation of naturalism characterize the work of another important contemporary author, Emilia Pardo Bazán. These and many others are unequivocal proof that there is no shortage of prestigious female Spanish writers.