This anthology is a good text for use in a women's studies class, since it deals with the concept of the "New Woman" around the turn of the century (twentieth century, that is) in both American and British society. Some of these short stories are well known: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's tale of mental illness, "The Yellow Wallpaper," appears here, as does Kate Chopin's heartbreaking story of interracial marriage, "Désirée's Baby." Chopin is well represented, but a few other authors make multiple appearances. Additionally, stories from Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, Willa Cather, and Thomas Hardy are printed in this collection. There are some stellar works by less renowned authors, as well.
Each of these stories deal with woman's place in a changing culture, both domestically and outside of the home. The heroines of these stories deal with issues of infidelity, prostitution, same-sex and interracial relations, cross-dressing, social class, motherhood, marriage, and even such trivial things as shopping. This anthology represents a wide range of characters: an artist's model, a waitress, a lady detective, suffragettes, and other such interesting people.
As with any anthology, some of the short stories will be more appealing than others. I particularly enjoyed Chopin (she is perhaps my favorite writer from this time period), Hardy, Perkins Gilman, and Sarah Grand. The authors represented come from a wide range of backgrounds. Zitkala-a is a Sioux Indian, Olive Schreiner was born in South Africa, Saki was born in Burma, and the rest are from the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and the US. Their backgrounds and personal experiences add credibility to their stories. Perkins Gillman, herself mentally ill, used that as a basis for "The Yellow Wallpaper"; her explanation of why she wrote the story is also reprinted here. Zitkala-a places her story in Native American society.
Angelique Richardson's extensive and exhausting introduction explains the changing role of women in a modern society. In it, she addresses such issues as suffrage, education, the changing laws and attitudes about marriage, women in the workforce, class and race, and even the bicycle, which became a major craze at the time these stories were written. She also discusses the rise of the short story genre, and how that ties in with the theme of the anthology. She includes a lengthy chronology from 1875-1928. A recommended reading list, notes, and biographical information on the authors complete the anthology.
While Women Who Did may only appeal to a limited number of leisure readers, it is definitely a worthy text for academic study. Richardson's selection of these stories is methodical and appropriate to the context of the anthology's theme. The writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries portray women who are a far cry from any of the heroines of Jane Austen or her contemporaries. These are women who want equality with men and to be valued as more than just mothers and housewives. These are women who work outside the home, are educated, and can carry on an intelligent conversation. These are women who did.