In her introduction to The New Feminist Criticism, Showalter identifies three phases of the feminist critical movement. The first phase, which exposed the misogyny of literary practice, either explored female stereotypes as they appeared in works by male authors, as does Millett’s Sexual Politics, or exposed the biased critical treatment of female writers. Mary Ellmann’s Thinking About Women (1968) identifies common attributes that male writers and reviewers associate with women (including formlessness, passivity, instability, piety, and irrationality) and coins the phrase “phallic criticism” to describe the male critic’s habit of discussing the female writer’s work in the context of her sex.
Critics turned to the writing of women in the second stage of feminist scholarship in order to uncover women’s literary history. Tracing the writing of English, American, and French women from the late eighteenth to the twentieth century, Ellen Moers’s Literary Women: The Great Writers (1976) constructs a tradition of women’s literature and reveals its distinct features, including the category of “Female Gothic.” In A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1977), Showalter identifies three stages of development in the literary history of English women novelists: The “Feminine” period (1840- 1880) was a time of imitation, the “Feminist” (1880- 1920) saw a demand for autonomy, and the “Female” (1920-1970) entailed a search for identity. Nina Auerbach studies female social space in selected women’s novels in Communities of Woman: An Idea in Fiction (1978), while another important analysis of women’s writing, Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, argues that a number of nineteenth century female authors, including Emily Dickinson, suffered from “anxiety of authorship,” which stemmed from society’s belief that artistic creativity is the male gift.
The study of women’s literary traditions naturally led to the third stage of feminist criticism, which challenged the whole enterprise of literary studies as it had been conceived and taught. As interpretative strategies of criticism came to be understood as products of culture and not universal truths, assumptions about literary historical periods and genres were reexamined. For example, Nina Baym’s Women’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and About Women in America, 1820-1870 (1978) raises the question of the place of popular fiction in the literary canon, and Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance (1982) provides a serious study of Harlequin romances, female gothics, and soap operas.