The dramatic arts has a history that is overflowing with white men, rather than diverse women. It’s a field where men were cast initially to play female roles, as women were not allowed to even be on the stage. And when they were finally permitted to perform, they experienced hate and discrimination up until the 20th century. Today, women are making names for themselves in the industry, and it’s important to recognize those modern day women as well as those in history who have worked to make theater a more inclusive space to tell the stories of complicated, driven, dynamic, intelligent women.
1. The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler
The Vagina Monologues is a 1996 Off-Off-Broadway play that premiered at HERE Arts Center and went on to become an Off-Broadway play at Westside Theatre. The play has been hailed as a feminist achievement in theater and even won an Obie award. It depicts a variety of female characters, including a survivor of rape, a six-year-old girl, a vagina workshop attendee and more.
2. Top Girls by Caryl Churchill
Top Girls is a play from 1982 featuring a strong female lead, Marlene. Marlene throws a dinner party to celebrate her recent promotion, where female guests from history and literature tell their own career and life stories.
3. Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi by Pam Gems
Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi is a play first performed at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1976. It was written by Pam Gems and shows four women roommates each different from one another and dealing with their own complicated, individual issues, together.
4. Fefu and Her Friends by Maria Irene Fornes
Fefu and Her Friends was written by Maria Irene Fornes, a Cuban American playwright, in 1977. The three-part play takes place in 1935 and features an all-female cast, including a lesbian relationship between two of the main characters.
5. Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo
Rapture, Blister, Burn is a feminist play written by Gina Gionfriddo in 2013. The play tells the story of female leads Catherine and Gwen, who venture down different paths in life after graduate school and begin to envy the other’s life. The play is a comedic take on gender politics in more recent years.
6. The How and the Why by Sarah Treem
The How and the Why was written by Sarah Treem and first premiered in 2011. The play is about two women who biologists who meet and bond over their careers, one at the beginning of hers and the other at the end.
7. Uncommon Women and Others by Wendy Wasserstein
Wendy Wasserstein’s first play from 1977 tells the story of a group of female friends looking to find themselves in the real world after graduating from college. The play was an Off-Broadway production for 22 performances.
1. Trifles by Susan Glaspell
Trifles is a one-act play from 1916 that was first performed at the Wharf Theatre in Massachusetts and has since been anthologized in literature textbooks. The play tells a 24-hour story of a woman on trial for murder whose emotional state was ignored by the men gathering evidence to use against her.
2. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
The House of Mirth was a novel written by Wharton in 1905 that became an Off-Broadway play. It tells the story of female lead Lily Bart, an impoverished woman who is involved in New York City's high society at the end of the 19th century.
Wasserstein is one of the most notable female playwrights who worked to bring female-driven productions to popularity. Wasserstein wrote several women-centered plays, including Uncommon Women and Others, The Sisters Rosensweig, An American Daughter and more. She won a Tony Award for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her production, The Heidi Chronicles.
Herzog is a female playwright behind the Off-Broadway plays 4000 Miles, which ran in 2011, and Mary Jane, which ran in 2017. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013, and she won a New York Drama Critics’ Award for Best Play.
Theresa Rebeck is an American playwright and TV writer. She has a lengthy list of productions that include both Broadway and Off-Broadway stages. Her most notable plays are Mauritius The Understudy, Ever After and more. She won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award.
Sarah Ruhl is an American playwright with works Eurydice, The Clean House, In the Next Room and more. Ruhl is a past recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, and she received the award for the distinguished American playwright from the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award.
Hansberry was an African American female playwright born in 1930. Her most notable play, A Raisin in the Sun, discusses segregation in Chicago, her hometown, for African Americans. Hansberry was the first black playwright to have her work performed on Broadway!
Orlandersmith is a 60-year-old feminist female playwright from New York City. she is also an actress and a poet. Her Off-Broadway 1995 play, Beauty’s Daughter, won an Obie Award, and her 2002 Off-Broadway production, Yellowman, was nominated and became a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
History of women in theater
Women were given strong female leads in plays in history (including Lady Macbeth from Shakespeare!), but women were not actually allowed to play these role —they were given to men. When women finally began performing onstage in the 1600s, they experienced physical harassment and pubic ridicule.
Major progress for women in theater began to make a noticeable difference in the 20th century in America. Female playwrights began writing their own stories about complex women characters, their relationships with each other and their relationships and mistreatment by men.
Second Wave feminism brought about even further progress in the female role in theater. Methuen Drama created a series titled “Plays by Women” in 1982 where only women-written plays were featured and highlighted to bring light to the work.
Women have been featured in theater in a variety of ways in the past, but female playwrights have been working to rewrite the history of women characters. Modern female-centered plays combine feminism, politics, gender roles, discrimination, sexual empowerment and more to the characters on stage.
And while trailblazing women have paved the way for other females in the theater industry, there is still progress to be made.
Female director Leigh Silverman recently discussed the “boys’ club” that is the theater industry, saying, “Theater has always been an all-white-male boys’ club. We can and should be a place of inclusion and change but we’re not.”
Actors’ Equity conducted a three-year survey for those in the theater industry in 2017. The study showed that women and people of color are given fewer opportunities in both on and Off-Broadway productions, and they make less money on average.
And Silverman gave her own solution to the inequality issue.
“It’s really simple. Gender parity can happen if people hire more women. That’s the answer. Hold yourself accountable. Do you have an interest in prioritizing gender parity?”