Feminist Criticism (1960s-present)
This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.
Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams
Last Edited: 2018-02-14 02:46:31
Feminist criticism is concerned with "...the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women" (Tyson). This school of theory looks at how aspects of our culture are inherently patriarchal (male dominated) and "...this critique strives to expose the explicit and implicit misogyny in male writing about women" (Richter 1346). This misogyny, Tyson reminds us, can extend into diverse areas of our culture: "Perhaps the most chilling example...is found in the world of modern medicine, where drugs prescribed for both sexes often have been tested on male subjects only" (83).
Feminist criticism is also concerned with less obvious forms of marginalization such as the exclusion of women writers from the traditional literary canon: "...unless the critical or historical point of view is feminist, there is a tendency to under-represent the contribution of women writers" (Tyson 82-83).
Common Space in Feminist Theories
Though a number of different approaches exist in feminist criticism, there exist some areas of commonality. This list is excerpted from Tyson:
- Women are oppressed by patriarchy economically, politically, socially, and psychologically; patriarchal ideology is the primary means by which women are oppressed.
- In every domain where patriarchy reigns, woman is other: she is marginalized, defined only by her difference from male norms and values.
- All of Western (Anglo-European) civilization is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideology, for example, in the Biblical portrayal of Eve as the origin of sin and death in the world.
- While biology determines our sex (male or female), culture determines our gender (scales of masculine and feminine).
- All feminist activity, including feminist theory and literary criticism, has as its ultimate goal to change the world by prompting gender equality.
- Gender issues play a part in every aspect of human production and experience, including the production and experience of literature, whether we are consciously aware of these issues or not (91).
Feminist criticism has, in many ways, followed what some theorists call the three waves of feminism:
- First Wave Feminism - late 1700s-early 1900's: writers like Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792) highlight the inequalities between the sexes. Activists like Susan B. Anthony and Victoria Woodhull contribute to the women's suffrage movement, which leads to National Universal Suffrage in 1920 with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment.
- Second Wave Feminism - early 1960s-late 1970s: building on more equal working conditions necessary in America during World War II, movements such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), formed in 1966, cohere feminist political activism. Writers like Simone de Beauvoir (Le deuxième sexe, 1972) and Elaine Showalter established the groundwork for the dissemination of feminist theories dove-tailed with the American Civil Rights movement.
- Third Wave Feminism - early 1990s-present: resisting the perceived essentialist (over generalized, over simplified) ideologies and a white, heterosexual, middle class focus of second wave feminism, third wave feminism borrows from post-structural and contemporary gender and race theories (see below) to expand on marginalized populations' experiences. Writers like Alice Walker work to "...reconcile it [feminism] with the concerns of the black community...[and] the survival and wholeness of her people, men and women both, and for the promotion of dialog and community as well as for the valorization of women and of all the varieties of work women perform" (Tyson 97).
- How is the relationship between men and women portrayed?
- What are the power relationships between men and women (or characters assuming male/female roles)?
- How are male and female roles defined?
- What constitutes masculinity and femininity?
- How do characters embody these traits?
- Do characters take on traits from opposite genders? How so? How does this change others’ reactions to them?
- What does the work reveal about the operations (economically, politically, socially, or psychologically) of patriarchy?
- What does the work imply about the possibilities of sisterhood as a mode of resisting patriarchy?
- What does the work say about women's creativity?
- What does the history of the work's reception by the public and by the critics tell us about the operation of patriarchy?
- What role does the work play in terms of women's literary history and literary tradition? (Tyson)
Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:
- Mary Wollstonecraft - A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792
- Simone de Beauvoir - Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex), 1949
- Julia Kristeva - About Chinese Women, 1977
- Elaine Showalter - A Literature of Their Own, 1977; "Toward a Feminist Poetics," 1979
- Deborah E. McDowell - "New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism," 1980
- Alice Walker - In Search of Our Mother's Gardens, 1983
- Lillian S. Robinson - "Treason out Text: Feminist Challenges to the Literary Canon," 1983
- Camiile Paglia - Sexual Personae: The Androgyne in Literature and Art, 1990
Feminist Literary Analysis
Feminist theory is an approach that focuses on the way women are represented in literature. This mode of interpretation is important not only to understanding how gender affects characters in a work, but also in understanding the societal values that are reflected by the work.
Since the world of academe has privileged the male sex for most of history, it is not surprising that the traditional literary canon mostly overlooks or ignores works by female authors. Hence, written women often adhere to traditional gender roles determined by patriarchal, or male dominated, society. Women are often depicted as submissive wives, dutiful homemakers, and selfless nurturers, considered virtuous by right of beauty and dominated by emotions. Feminist theory tries to answer the question of whether a character perpetuates traditional female stereotypes, and to what extent the text supports those views. Though much of feminist scholarship focuses on rediscovering and analyzing works by women authors, feminist theory can be applied to any work. Because of this, there are many varieties of feminist theory.
Historical feminist criticism focuses on how a work correlates with women’s position at a certain point in time. By thinking about the work in its historical context, the reader can better analyze how the characters typify or transgress the gender norms of their society. For instance, a historical feminist approach could be effectively used to analyze “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” by Katherine Mansfield because the death of an unmarried woman’s father had much different consequences in the 1920s than it does today.
Psychoanalytic feminist criticism focuses on the mental state and the unconscious impulses of a character and how they were formed by early life experiences. Feminist criticism is more specifically interested in the ways in which the social construct of gender have influenced their personality. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar would be a good novel for psychoanalytic feminist criticism because you could focus on the ways in which patriarchal oppression contributed to or interacted with the heroine’s mental illness.
Marxist/socialist-feminist criticism focuses on the ways in which the socioeconomic system oppresses women based on both class and sex. In A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Feminist Literary Criticism, Maggie Humm explains that “Marxism offers both a way of linking historical evidence of women’s oppression with literary texts and understanding how writers consciously or unconsciously transpose that evidence into their text” (75). A Marxist feminist approach might look at the ways in which a woman is divested of social power by the inability to legally own property. You could use Marxist feminist approach when analyzing Kate Chopin’s The Awakening by looking at Edna’s perception of her husband’s wealth and her decision to leave the material comfort of his lavish house.
Poststructuralism / deconstruction feminist criticism analyzes the ways in which language is ingrained with the ideologies of the ruling society. In the case of feminist theory, the interest is how language inherently supports patriarchal ideas and is oppressive to women. This is not only because the value judgement language implies, but also because it is an inadequate tool for women’s expression of their experience. For example, you might look at the ways active and passive sentence structures relate to Edna's experience in Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Postructuralism feminist theory is a good approach to more modern works, where sexism or gender expectations might be subtly expressed by connotations.
Black feminist criticism focuses on works both by and about African American women. It focuses heavily on their cultural traditions and history that make a black woman’ experience unique. Toni Morrison’s Beloved could be explored using black feminist criticism because the novel is deeply rooted in Afro-American culture and female characters struggle with both racism and sexism.
Important Feminist Literary Figures
Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1972).
Virginia Woolf, author of A Room of One's Own (1929).
Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex (1949).