Feminist Theater as a genre emerged from the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s. The dialogue in these pieces centered around the sexual, economic, political, social, and cultural oppression. The Feminist Theater Movement broke off from the patriarchal New Left Movement of the 1960s when women founded consciousness-raising groups where they could discuss the workplace, inequality, rape, motherhood, the objectification of their bodies, and more. They were politically active, calling for equal pay for equal work, equal education opportunities, and the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
Contemporary feminist playwrights began looking into the work of female playwrights from earlier centuries, such as Mary Pix, Elizabeth Baker, Githa Sowerby, and Aphra Behn. Scholars began to explore the ways in which theater was a reflection of society. In the 1970s, most plays depicted a society dominated by males and marginalized strong female roles and writers. Scholar Dan Tarker sums it up thusly: “Feminist theatre argues that for over two millennia, since even before Aristotle scribbled out his Poetics, Western theatre has been dominated by a white, male ideology. With its focus on a single protagonist, its belief that identity and gender (and thus character) are fixed and singular, and its dearth of substantive female roles, the Western theatre has perpetuated a masculine perspective of the world at the expense of the feminine.”
Women in the theater felt pigeonholed as understudies, and they formed feminist theater groups to address this concern. The Monstrous Regiment and the Women’s Theatre Group sought to form a coterie of female-centric plays and began touring the country, staging these works in theaters, schools, community centers, and more. These groups were democratic and collaborative, often featuring ensembles. Adele Salem of the Women’s Theatre Group explained how thrilled she was to be in a women’s troupe for the first time:
We wore dungarees. I remember having a Khaki flying suit when I was in the Women's Theatre Group. We could do what men could do. We [could] carry really heavy equipment, drive the big Mercedes van. It was a point of honour to us – to be seen by the young girls when we went into the schools carrying the equipment, setting up electric guitars and all that kind of stuff. Saying yeah, we could do this. You can do this too. Look, we're doing it. That was very radical, very exciting, and very tiring – carrying all that stuff around.
Individual female playwrights began to make a name for themselves. Caryl Churchill, Pam Gems, Bryony Lavery, Claire Luckham, and Louise Page are some of the notable names that came out of feminist theater in the 1970s. African American female playwrights like Ntozake Shange wove race into the discussions of patriarchal oppression and restrictive gender norms.
In the 1980s, a Second Wave of Feminist playwrights became distinguished contributors to the genre. However, by the end of the decade, there was a discernible backlash against feminist theater, which led to different forms of expression in the 1990s (individualistic “girl power”) and 2000s (playwrights challenging the politics and values of the Second Wave feminists).