Feminist Literary Criticism

Feminist literary criticism has its origins in the intellectual and political feminist movement. It advocates a critique of maledominated language and performs “resistant” readings of literary texts or histories. Based on the premise that social systems are patriarchal—organized to privilege men—it seeks to trace how such power relations in society are reflected, supported, or questioned by literary texts and expression.

One of the founders of this kind of approach was Virginia Woolf, who showed in her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own how women’s material and intellectual deprivation were obstacles to authorship. Woolf illustrated her case with the abortive artistic aspirations of Shakespeare’s fictitious sister Judith. In another essay, “Professions for Women,” Woolf also announced the necessity for women writers to kill the “angel in the house,” taking her cue from Coventry Patmore’s mid-Victorian poem of the same name that glorified a domestic (or domesticated) femininity devoid of any critical spirit.

Another important source of inspiration has been Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 The Second Sex. Here de Beauvoir wrote that “one is not born a woman, one becomes one.” De Beauvoir’s point behind her muchquoted comment was that “ ‘woman’ is a cultural construction, rather than a biological one.” As Ruth Robbins notes, this remark is important because it highlights the fact that “the ideas about male and female roles which any given society may have come to regard as natural are not really so and that given that they are not natural they may even be changed” (118). All three texts provided ammunition for the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s and are useful starting points for discussions of short stories that take women and the feminine as central concerns.

The ensuing critical response may best be described as bifurcating into an Anglo-American and a French strand. The former was defined by the greater importance British feminists such as Sheila Rowbotham, Germaine Greer, and Michèle Barrett attached to class. Literary critics working in this school were interested in representations of women in literary texts, an approach most famously encapsulated in Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970)—probably the world’s best-selling doctoral thesis. Groundbreaking as the book turned out to be in reading canonized authors (e.g., Charles Dickens, D. H. Lawrence) against the grain and in drawing attention to their suffocating (and often misogynist) representations of women, it was also criticized for its insistence on a male conspiracy. There were objections that its readings were too often based on the assumption that literature simply mirrors reality.

Left, Susan Gubar. Right, Sandra M. Gilbert. | Left, Eli Setiya. Right, Peter Basmajian. Via Vox

Subsequent critics sought to redress the gaps in Millet’s book by setting out to discover and reevaluate neglected female writing. Among those mapping this dark continent (in Sigmund Freud’s trope) was Ellen Moers, whose Literary Women (1976) is often seen as pioneering in its attempts to focus on noncanonical women writers such as Mary Shelley. The book has since been criticized on account of its unqualified appraisal of “heroinism,” an appraisal that leaves the concept of the “great writer”—a central category of male literary historiography—intact. One of the terms used by Elaine Showalter in A Literature of Their Own (1977) is “gynocriticism,” a term intended to indicate her concern with the history of women as authors. In A Literature of Their Own Showalter posited the idea of a “feminine” period of literary history (1840–80) in which the experiences of women such as the Brontës, Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and George Eliot—notably their use of male pseudonyms and imitation of male standards—demonstrate the obstacles women writers have tended to face. Showalter then described a second phase (1880–1920) that comprised so-called New Woman writers (e.g., Vernon Lee, George Egeron, Ella D’Arcy) dedicated to protest and minority rights. After 1920, this feminist stage was transcended by a female phase whose major representatives, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf are said to move beyond mimicry or opposition by asserting feminine identities, no matter how fragile or provisional these might be. Their narratives explore allegedly minor yet personally significant, even epiphanic moments and experiment with gender roles including androgyny and homosexuality. Literary texts of this period can also be said to anticipate postmodernist views of gender in their emphasis on the cultural interpretation of the body as distinguished from the physical characteristics that make people male or female.

Further landmarks in the field of feminist research were provided by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination (1979) and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985). The Madwoman, runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize in 1980, attributed an “anxiety of authorship” to writers such as Jane Austen, the Brontës, and George Eliot. It also posited the widespread imagery of guilt or rage in texts by 19th-century women writers as part of a specifically female aesthetic—an aesthetic whose distinctness from male writers was emphasized in the canon of women’s literature as established by the 1985 Norton Anthology. Gilbert and Gubar have remained extremely influential, although some critics have questioned the clearcut separatism of their canon (male versus female) on the grounds that it unconsciously validates the implicit patriarchal ideology.

French feminism shifted the focus onto language. Its proponents drew on Freudian models of infant development that the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan had connected with processes of language acquisition and the construction of sexual difference. Lacan’s disciples Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray started from the premise that a child’s entry into language coincides with the disruption of its dyadic relationship with the mother. Language then reflects a binary logic that works through oppositions such as male/female, nature/culture. This pattern connecting oppression and language tends to group positive qualities with the masculine side. Woman, it is argued, is therefore alienated from linguistic structures and is liable to turn to a different discourse, derived from a preoedipal, “semiotic” period of fusion of mother and child. As so-called écriture feminine, this form of writing disturbs the organizing principles of “symbolic” masculinized language. It dissolves generic boundaries, causal plot, stable perspectives, and meaning in favor of rhythmic and highly allusive writing. Such transgression, though, is not gender-specific but can be performed by anyone—indeed, James Joyce is cited as the major representative of “writing one’s body” on the margins of dominant culture.

Both the French celebration of disruptive textual pleasure and the Anglo-American analysis of textual content have come under attack for their underlying assumption that all women—African slave and European housewife—share the same oppression. Postcolonial feminism, as advanced by Alice Walker, bell hooks, Gayatri Spivak, and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, took issue with the reductive ways of representing nonwhite women as sexually constrained, uneducated, and in need of being spoken for. They also objected to feminism’s insistence that women needed to reinforce their homogeneity as a sex, because they felt that this thinking demonstrated an ignorance of plurality and in fact perpetuated the very hierarchies on which patriarchy and Western imperialism had thrived.

From today’s perspective, so much has been done to improve female presence that some commentators have suggested that we live in an age of postfeminism. However, there are many who would argue that even in a postfeminist age much needs to be done to highlight the importance of interrogating seemingly natural signs of male/female difference. Critics following Judith Butler have begun to entertain the idea that the very assumption of an innate biological sex might itself be a cultural strategy to justify gender attributes. Whether one accepts this position or not, seeing identities as the embodiments of cultural practices may prompt change. This, in turn, might pave the way for a correspondingly flexible critical approach to identities as things that are entwined with other categories: ethnicity, sexual orientation, social status, health, age, or belief. In this sense, the prefix post- should not be read as meaning after feminism or as suggesting a rejection of feminism; rather, it should suggest a more self-reflexive working on the blind spots of former readings.

Key Ideas of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar

Post-Feminism: An Essay

Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics

Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex

Feminism: An Essay

Analysis of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1999.
Eagleton, Mary. Working with Feminist Criticism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
Gamble, Sarah, ed. The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism. London: Routledge, 2001.
Hanson, Clare, ed. Re-reading the Short Story. New York: St. Martin’s, 1989.
Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. Feminist Literary Theory. London: Methuen, 1985.
Ruth Robbins, “Feminist Approaches.” in Literary Theories, edited by Julian Wolfreys and William Baker, 103–126. London: Macmillan, 1998.
Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Categories: British Literature, Gender Studies, Literary Terms and Techniques, Literature, Queer Theory

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