Toril Moi 1953-
Norwegian critic, essayist, editor, and biographer.
The following entry presents an overview of Moi's career through 2001.
A controversial voice among contemporary feminist academics, Moi is best known as the author of the provocative Sexual/Textual Politics (1985), which coined the term “Anglo-American feminism.” The book surveys the development of feminist cultural theory and posits two distinct literary discourses—Anglo-American and French—characterizing the French as the more intellectually rigorous and politically relevant of the two schools. In subsequent works that reflect this perspective, Moi continued to expand her analytical theories as well as editing the writings of such notable French feminists as Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. She also published Simone de Beauvoir (1994), a critical biography of the feminist theorist. However, in the essay collection What Is a Woman? (1999), which owes much to Beauvoir's seminal theories, Moi revisits and revises some of her earlier arguments originally put forth in Sexual/Textual Politics. Although Moi's literary debut garnered a severe response from American feminist academics, many commentators have applauded Moi's efforts to rehabilitate the reputation of Beauvoir despite most feminists' lingering reservations about the relevance of Beauvoir's thought to contemporary gender issues.
Born in Norway in 1953, Moi attended the University of Bergen, earning her doctorate degree in 1980. In 1983 she began her academic career at Oxford University in England where she researched and lectured on issues concerning sexuality, sex, gender, and the body, culminating in the publication of Sexual/Textual Politics. Moi returned to the University of Bergen in 1985, serving as the director of the Centre for Feminist Research in the Humanities and as an adjunct professor of comparative literature until 1988. While at Bergen, Moi focused on the intersections between literature and philosophy, editing the essay collections The Kristeva Reader (1986) and French Feminist Thought (1987). In 1989 Moi joined the faculty of the literature and romance studies department at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. During the 1990s, Moi extensively researched Beauvoir's life and career, calling the French critic the most important feminist of the twentieth century. Consequently, Moi published her findings in Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir (1990) and Simone de Beauvoir. After the publication of What Is a Woman?, Moi received a 2001 Guggenheim fellowship and a 2002-03 fellowship at Harvard University, where she began researching Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.
Moi's theoretical interests include feminist theory, psychoanalytic theory, French phenomenology, and linguistic philosophy. Sexual/Textual Politics provides an overview of twentieth-century feminist literary theory and groups its development into two distinct schools. Divided into two sections, the book contrasts the underlying “methods, principles, and politics” that inform Anglo-American and French feminism. The first section of Sexual/Textual Politics surveys Anglo-American feminism, which is characterized by the works of such theorists as Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, Kate Millet, and Annette Kolodny, as well as prominent feminists of the African American and lesbian communities. According to Moi, Anglo-American feminism articulates an empirical and essential conception of the female self, which is characteristic of liberal humanism. Moi argues that Anglo-American feminism adopts the same assumptions and methods of Western critical practice and, therefore, does not effectively engage the politics of the patriarchal culture. The second section of Sexual/Textual Politics surveys French feminist discourse and critical practice as characterized by the works of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. According to Moi, French feminism articulates an anti-essential conception of the female self, which is characteristic of poststructuralist critical practice. Moi asserts that the text-based methodology of French feminism effectively deconstructs patriarchal constructions of gender, and, therefore, actively challenges the patriarchal culture on its own terms. In The Kristeva Reader, Moi presents a selection of writings by Kristeva over the course of her career. The pieces range from the noted essays “Women's Time” and “Psychoanalysis and the Polis” to extracts from Kristeva's Revolution in Poetics Language (1974), About Chinese Women (1977), and Histories d'amour (1983). Moi's introduction to the volume discusses the development of Kristeva's thought with respect to her multiple social roles as a “foreigner in Paris,” a mother, a psychoanalyst, and in terms of the political changes she witnessed by her affiliation with the Tel Quel group.
All of Moi's writings on Beauvoir aim to rehabilitate Beauvoir's reputation among contemporary feminists, who have generally discounted her contributions. Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir is comprised of a critical overview of Moi's literary theory, an interview with Moi, and two essays on Beauvoir written by Moi. Adopting an interdisciplinary perspective, Simone de Beauvoir examines the personal and intellectual development of Beauvoir within the historical and cultural context of her life. The biography is divided into three parts, each marked by a distinct “textual” moment in Beauvoir's literary career. In the first part, Moi focuses on a 1929 garden conversation between Beauvoir and existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, which Beauvoir describes in her autobiography, Memoires d'une juene fille rangee. The second part of Moi's biography centers on another conversation with Sartre in 1946 when Beauvoir began analyzing the intellectual effects of being a woman in a patriarchal society. The rest of this section studies the philosophical and psychological principles of Beauvoir's mid-century work that culminated in the publication of The Second Sex, which Moi regards as a landmark in feminist literature. The third part of the biography examines the sadness and disappointment that Beauvoir attributes to old age in the conclusion of her La Force des choses. What Is a Woman? represents Moi's first engagement with original feminist theory since the publication of Sexual/Textual Politics. In addition to reprinting previously published essays from Moi's career, the collection also contains original essays that revise some of the positions advocated by Sexual/Textual Politics regarding contemporary feminism. Inspired by Beauvoir's critical theories, the essays address prevailing trends in contemporary cultural definitions of feminism and femininity.
Sexual/Textual Politics has been and continues to be greeted with open hostility by many Anglo-American feminists, whose discourse and objectives are questioned by the text. Some academics have criticized Moi's work for oversimplifying Anglo-American feminist thought, while others have charged that it neglects the measurable effects of French influence on Anglo-American feminism. Additionally, scholars have objected to Moi's views on the effort to define a feminist literary tradition and the political agendas of African American and lesbian feminists. In contrast, several commentators have applauded Sexual/Textual Politics for provoking dynamic dialogue and healthy debate among feminist academics, noting that Moi's Anglo-American/French dialectic itself speaks to the weaknesses of contemporary feminism. Nonetheless, Sexual/Textual Politics has become a standard text in undergraduate feminist curricula at American universities. Moi's subsequent writings have generally received a more positive critical response than her first work. Several academics have commended Moi's efforts to rehabilitate the work of Beauvoir, frequently calling Simone de Beauvoir an important contribution to the cultural history of feminism. Critics have praised the biography's intertextual approach, complimenting the way Moi underscores the intellectual significance of Beauvoir's relationship with Sartre. Reviewers have also lauded the essays in What Is a Woman? not only as an encouraging sign of Moi's development as a feminist theorist, but also as a practical demonstration of the relevance of Beauvoir's thought to contemporary gender studies.
Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (criticism) 1985
The Kristeva Reader [editor] (essays and criticism) 1986
French Feminist Thought: A Reader [editor] (essays and criticism) 1987
Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir (essays, interviews, and criticism) 1990
Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman (criticism and biography) 1994
What Is a Woman?: And Other Essays (essays and criticism) 1999
(The entire section is 55 words.)
SOURCE: Rose, Ellen Cronan. “Discourse and Ideology.” Women's Review of Books 3, no. 5 (February 1986): 17-18.
[In the following review, Rose evaluates the themes of Sexual/Textual Politics in the context of comparison to Gayle Greene's Making a Difference.]
It hasn't been much more than a decade since the first, ground-breaking anthologies of feminist literary criticism appeared, bravely claiming The Authority of Experience, heralding nothing short of a revolution in pedagogy, publishing and canon (re)formation. Yet three years ago as I was putting together a reading list for a course in Feminist Literary Theory, I thought I could glimpse outlines of an emerging “history,” as “Images of Women” produced “Resisting Readers” who called for a “Literature of Their Own” until reminded of Archimedes. And then New French Feminisms changed the language and the name of the game. Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics is the book I might have wished to write, had some grant-giving fairy godmother provided me an opportunity to develop my casual observation into an analytic critique of that reading list.
Moi's book begins with Virginia Woolf. Where else? As she says, our goal as feminists must be a critical theory that does “both justice and homage to its great mother and sister.” Moi's book also begins with Elaine Showalter, who accuses Woolf of a...
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SOURCE: Landry, Donna. “The Word According to Moi: Politics and Feminist Literary Theory.” Criticism 29, no. 1 (winter 1987): 119-32.
[In the following essay, Landry addresses the political implications of Sexual/Textual Politics in the context of contemporary feminist theory.]
“In our country culture has become so complex, this complexity is reflected in our literature. It takes a certain level of education to understand our novelists. The ordinary man cannot understand them. …”
… And she reeled off a list of authors, smiling smugly. It never occurred to her that those authors had ceased to be of any value whatsoever to their society—or was it really true that an extreme height of culture and the incomprehensible went hand in hand?
Bessie Head, A Question of Power1
It is hardly a startling revelation that feminist theorists have tended to write essays rather than books. Indeed, something of a feminist orthodoxy has developed from this preference for the open arena, in which the dialogue is never forced into anything but a provisional closure, unlike the monumental silences that mark the endings and shuttings of books. Besides, essays are modest and bespeak collectivity and community: published articles are said to have a half-life of...
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SOURCE: McCallum, Pamela. Review of Sexual/Textual Politics, by Toril Moi. Signs 12, no. 4 (summer 1987): 822-23.
[In the following review, McCallum outlines Sexual/Textual Politics, praising the work as illuminating and provocative.]
Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics takes as its theme “the methods, principles and politics” (xiii) that inform contemporary feminist literary theory. This provocative and wide-ranging book is not concerned with a conventional survey of contributions to feminist critical practice. Rather, it is concerned with a critical reexamination or decoding of the numerous theoretical models and political strategies that underpin received feminist discourse. Moi argues that both the theoretical and practical limitations of feminist criticism derive from a weakening of critical discussion within the women's movement. Once subversive emancipatory slogans such as “sisterhood” and “being a woman” have been unexpectedly co-opted and neutralized by a homogenizing humanist/essentialist discourse.
The first section of Moi's book—a lucid and concise account of Anglo-American empirical studies—will be quite familiar to readers of Signs. Rather less familiar is her close reading of the new French feminist texts in the second half of the volume. She begins by emphasizing that an empirically minded methodology has stood in the way of a...
(The entire section is 732 words.)
SOURCE: Anderson, Linda. “Review Article: Questions of Feminist Criticism.” Prose Studies 10, no. 2 (September 1987): 225-30.
[In the following review, Anderson compares the feminist theory that informs The Kristeva Reader with that of two others, concluding that Moi's collection represents an ongoing process of questioning within feminist criticism in relation to other critical theories.]
“The problem is not only who is speaking and how she is speaking but to whom is she speaking and on behalf of whom is she speaking.” (Mary Eagleton in Feminist Literary Criticism, 5)
Literary criticism is necessarily framed (both produced and limited) by the questions we ask of it and which we are prepared to make it ask. Over the last fifteen years feminist criticism—drawing its energies from the politics of feminism—has put forward a series of challenging questions to the literary-critical establishment which have done much to widen the frame of literary studies. Foregrounding women as readers, writers or written—which must be the starting premise of all feminist criticism—does more than provide a new or “different” critical perspective, it also undermines the old claims to universality and neutrality: the recognition of women writers' exclusion from the literary canon exposes the idea of the canon itself as a construct, culturally and historically determined; the...
(The entire section is 2692 words.)
SOURCE: Todd, Jane Marie. Review of Sexual/Textual Politics, by Toril Moi. Comparative Literature 39, no. 4 (fall 1987): 364-66.
[In the following review, Todd maintains that Sexual/Textual Politics succeeds in uncovering the theoretical assumptions of feminist theory, but finds some weaknesses in the second half of the book.]
Published as part of the New Accents series, Sexual/Textual Politics presents itself as an introduction for the general reader to “the two main approaches to feminist literary theory, the Anglo-American and the French” (xiii). This is not quite an accurate picture, however. Although Moi does indeed discuss the major texts and authors of feminist criticism in the United States and French theoretical writings on woman in France, her book does not so much “introduce” an already-existing discipline or critical theory as argue for the pressing need for one. For, as Moi realizes, feminist literary theory does not yet exist, not in the United States, where feminist critics have been suspicious of theory, nor in France, where women philosophers and psychoanalysts have rarely concerned themselves with literary issues. Moi's discussions—incisive, critical but admirably well-balanced—uncover the theoretical assumptions at work in both Anglo-American feminist criticism and French theory and reveal how those assumptions are often in conflict with the political...
(The entire section is 1584 words.)
SOURCE: Slawy-Sutton, Catherine. Review of Sexual/Textual Politics, by Toril Moi. French Review 61, no. 1 (October 1987): 101-02.
[In the following review, Slawy-Sutton praises Sexual/Textual Politics, asserting that Moi's ideas are brilliant, thought-provoking, and well-documented.]
In this stimulating and well-documented introduction to feminist literary theory [Sexual/Textual Politics], Moi posits as a core idea that no reading of literary texts is politically “innocent” and, therefore, that the political implications of feminist critical study should be made clear. She proceeds to a detailed examination of the best known Anglo-American and French theorists, and, after bringing the reader to a full grasp of their arguments, she cleverly moves on to a deconstruction of their underlying assumptions. She is particularly critical of the Anglo-American feminists who, she thinks, have largely ignored the form of the texts, thereby reducing female literature to realist autobiographies. Moi attempts to show how their aesthetics are really inherited from the values and canon defined by bourgeois patriarchy. Elaine Showalter's reading of Virginia Woolf, for instance, overlooks the novelist's “theory of the relations between sexism and fascism,” and Kate Millett's rejection of Freud ignores the power of the unconscious. Other flaws of such theorists are: 1) they assume that...
(The entire section is 668 words.)
SOURCE: Smith, Carol H. “The Literary Politics of Gender.” College English 50, no. 3 (March 1988): 318-22.
[In the following review, Smith outlines the feminist scholarship of Sexual/Textual Politics, comparing it to the political and social concerns of Making a Difference and Rewriting English, two other gender studies.]
These books [Sexual/Textual Politics, by Toril Moi, Making a Difference, by Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn, and Rewriting English, edited by Janet Batsleer, Tony Davis, and Rebecca O'Rourke], all part of the Methuen “New Accents” series, edited by Terence Hawkes, represent the offerings on gender in a series intended to respond to a time of radical social change. All three explore significant aspects of gender studies; one in particular is important because it reflects a current debate within feminist literary criticism. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, by Toril Moi, which appears at first to be an introductory survey of the major figures of literary feminism from Kate Millett and Simone de Beauvoir to the present, is, in fact, a critique of two major strands of feminist thought, American feminist criticism and French feminist theory, from the viewpoint of a new generation of feminists impatient for social change and critical of both the “humanism” of an earlier generation of American critics and the...
(The entire section is 2507 words.)
SOURCE: Howard, June. “Feminist Differings: Recent Surveys of Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 1 (spring 1988): 167-90.
[In the following review, Howard surveys various volumes of feminist thought, including Sexual/Textual Politics, praising Moi's book for showing “an extraordinary range, sophistication, and power.”]
The title of one of the books I review in this essay—Making a Difference—evokes some crucial elements of the situation of feminist literary criticism and theory at this moment. Feminist critics, like those of other persuasions, necessarily write these days in dialogue with (whether from or against) a theoretical perspective in which “difference” is a privileged term. From Ferdinand de Saussure's “in language there are only differences” to Jacques Derrida's “différance” and since, the recognition of the way in which meaning is constituted through difference, and the way in which our apparently stable world is ceaselessly constituted and reconstituted through language, has become pervasive. That perspective has proved more compatible with feminist thought than many in the United States first expected and has opened up (as is repeatedly demonstrated in these books) fascinating explorations of the linguistic construction of sexual difference, providing a new way of understanding the ways in which woman and women are not born...
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SOURCE: Fuss, Diana. “Getting into History.” Arizona Quarterly 45, no. 4 (winter 1989): 95-108.
[In the following essay, Fuss discusses Sexual/Textual Politics in terms of recent feminist approaches to historicism that emphasize histories of feminism instead of feminist theories of history.]
The problem may be not how to get into history, but how to get out of it.
—Hayden White, “Getting Out of History”
While historians like Hayden White have busily been trying to get out of history, feminist literary critics have been just as energetically trying to get into it.1 Since women as historical subjects are rarely included in “History” to begin with, the strong feminist interest in forging a new historicity that moves across and against “his story” is not surprising. What is more surprising perhaps is the particular form these new feminist approaches to historicism are taking: feminism enacts its engagement with history through a fetishistic fascination with its own historical roots both as a theory and as a practice. But this may be precisely the problem: histories of feminist theory have come to stand in for more rigorous feminist theories of history. Feminism's vexed relation to historicism is not so much alleviated as exacerbated by these recent attempts to deal with the category of...
(The entire section is 4987 words.)
SOURCE: Fallaize, Elizabeth. Review of Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. French Studies 45, no. 1 (January 1991): 102-03.
[In the following review, Fallaize outlines the themes of Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir.]
This volume [Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir] has a rather curious format, drawing together an overview of Toril Moi's well-known work on feminist literary theory by Michael Payne, an interview with Moi by Laura Payne, and two new essays by Moi on Simone de Beauvoir. In the second of her essays Moi addresses the question of why it is that readers of ‘La Femme rompue’ frequently refuse to read the story in the way that Beauvoir intended. Moi offers a series of brilliant analyses, converging on her central proposition that to share Beauvoir's position is to share her investment in epistemological control, and to condemn the narrator as incapable of generating stable versions of events. The reader resistant to authorial strategies, on the other hand, takes up the role of reader—victim, identifying with the narrator and accusing society and the husband of refusing the woman access to knowledge. However, Moi opens up a third position, that of the reader—analyst, who, accepting the treacherous nature of all knowledge, perceives both the blind intensity of the author's negative transference on to her character and the textual effects working...
(The entire section is 490 words.)
SOURCE: Cameron, Deborah. “Is There an Anglo-American Feminist Linguistics?” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 12, no. 2 (fall 1993): 223-27.
[In the following essay, Cameron contrasts different feminist theories of language in terms of Moi's linguistic analysis in Sexual/Textual Politics.]
Since I am a linguist rather than a literary critic, I want to consider the term “Anglo-American” in terms of its application to feminist theories of language: theories that arguably hold a central place in the more general project of feminist criticism. So, is there an Anglo-American feminist linguistics?1
Toril Moi, of course, implies that there is. She uses the phrase as part of a section heading in chapter eight of Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (1985), explicitly contrasting what she calls the Anglo-American empirical approach to language with the Lacanian approach as reworked by Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva.2 She does not consider whether there is a further contrast between the Anglo and the American: in Saussurean terms she treats these as allophones of a single phoneme (and, one might add, the unmarked form of this phoneme is American, not British).3
Theories of language are different from phonemes. They are neither arbitrary nor devoid of substantive content. So it is neither senseless nor vulgar to inquire...
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SOURCE: Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Relational Epistemology and the Question of Anglo-American Feminist Criticism.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 12, no. 2 (fall 1993): 247-61.
[In the following essay, Friedman analyzes the dialectical implications of the term “Anglo-American feminist criticism” in Sexual/Textual Politics, surveying the American feminist/academic milieu.]
Is there an Anglo-American feminist criticism? The question of this forum contains a host of other questions about the meaning of the question itself. What does “Anglo-American” mean in the context of feminist criticism? Does it imply a “school,” with a coherent system of ideas, common project, and related methodologies? Or does it more loosely suggest a confederation of “family resemblances” based in two cultures whose dominant language is English? Does the term imply a specific body of critics who identify themselves as “Anglo-American feminists”? Or is “Anglo-American” a term applied to certain feminist critics after the fact, as descriptor of what has unself-consciously evolved? Who uses the term? In what context and for what purpose? Since categories inevitably highlight some and mute others in the pool to be described, who and what are emphasized or suppressed in this name, “Anglo-American”? In the context of the politics of location, what is the relevance to the question of my status as...
(The entire section is 6815 words.)
SOURCE: Nussbaum, Felicity A. “(White) Anglo-American Feminism in Non-US/Non-us Space.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 12, no. 2 (fall 1993): 263-70.
[In the following essay, Nussbaum discusses the historical significance of the term “Anglo-American feminist criticism” nearly twenty years after the publication of Sexual/Textual Politics.]
That the history of Anglo-American feminism's conflict within and without itself is being written and rewritten testifies to its power as an originary moment for feminism in the 1990s. The nostalgia for the apparent solidarity of Moers and Showalter, Gilbert and Gubar, Ellmann and Millett, Jehlen and Kolodny, Chodorow and Gilligan, both celebrates Anglo-American feminism's significance and cautions us to reconsider the simplified narratives that have evolved about this early stage of feminism. While the work of these pioneering scholars cannot be ignored, the term “Anglo-American feminism” has outlasted its usefulness and should only be invoked now as an historically coded concept. Evelyn Fox Keller aptly points out, “A focus on the supposed coherence of seventies feminism obscures the fact that, from its earliest days, feminist theory was in fact characterized by a marked multiplicity in its goals, and in its stated functions.”1 The extent of that multiplicity has not yet been fully analyzed, recorded, and assimilated into feminism's...
(The entire section is 3272 words.)
SOURCE: Howells, Christina M. “The Making of Beauvoir.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4753 (6 May 1994): 22.
[In the following review, Howells treats the multiple approaches to biography in Simone de Beauvoir.]
Toril Moi's subtitle [of Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman] gives a clear indication of the substance of her work. Professor Moi examines what Simone de Beauvoir made of what had been made of her—what Sartre, in his study of Flaubert, calls the stages of “constitution” and “personalization”, or, in terms closer to Engels, how Beauvoir made history on the basis of what history had made her. And Simone de Beauvoir would surely have liked Moi's historical, even dialectical, method—to be the object of an intellectual biography written with both acumen and empathy. Beauvoir's own biographies are all of her own life, making her both the subject and the object of study, the analytic and sympathetic observer of her psychological development, always split yet never distanced from herself. Beauvoir and Sartre both allowed posterity access to their personal letters—written, perhaps, with posterity in mind as the ultimate recipient?—in the interests of scholarship, and with an explicit distaste for intimate secrets, the inner life and private journals (the recourse of virgins and priests, as Roquentin dismissively commented).
Moi's own most...
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SOURCE: Knight, Deborah. “The Rhetoric of Theory: Responses to Toril Moi.” New Literary History 26, no. 1 (winter 1995): 63-70.
[In the following essay, Knight analyzes the antithetical relationship between “theory” and “feminist theory,” comparing the critical practices of both kinds of thought.]
In “Women, Subjectivity, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Humanism in Feminist Film Theory,” I investigate some of the ways in which feminist (film) theory relates itself to, and distinguishes itself from, theory in general. If one imagines that feminist theory is something that is distinct from theory due to a specifically political causal history, then feminist theory will be inclined to relate itself to theory confrontationally. If on the other hand feminist theory is understood as something which follows from, or responds to, work done in a prior or dominant theoretical domain, then it might be condemned in perpetuity to being asymmetrically dependent upon that prior domain. Both these possibilities—that feminist theory confronts another theoretical discourse, or that feminist theory is inevitably subordinated to a prior theoretical discourse—risk leaving feminist theory in just the sort of disadvantaged, marginalized position vis-à-vis that prior domain that women occupy within patriarchy. One of my objectives in this paper is to dissolve the exclusionary,...
(The entire section is 3281 words.)
SOURCE: Civello, Catherine A. Review of Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. Southern Humanities Review 30, no. 1 (winter 1996): 87-90.
[In the following review, Civello praises the insights and organization of Simone de Beauvoir.]
Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics has become required reading in the area of feminist theory. Her latest work, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman, equals the excellence of the first, but for different reasons. The former brilliantly surveys French and Anglo-American theory, comparing both while sacrificing the heterogeneity of neither. The latter concentrates on one French theorist, Simone de Beauvoir, calling her “the greatest feminist theorist of our century.”
In the introduction to Simone de Beauvoir, Moi defines her terms, reveals her assumptions, and describes her methodology. “Intellectual woman” means one who “refuses to accept the dichotomy between mind and body, sense and seduction.” Along with a mini-essay in the afterword, the concept of the intellectual woman in love not only frames the book but also provides the context for argumentation—effective organization since Moi assumes no distinction between life and text, literature and philosophy. My quarrels with the book are small, but I am relieved that Moi drops the label “personal genealogy” early on; her explanation of it...
(The entire section is 1154 words.)
SOURCE: Altman, Meryl. “Taking Thinking Seriously.” Women's Review of Books 13, no. 4 (January 1996): 9-10.
[In the following review, Altman surveys the project to rehabilitate Beauvoir's reputation in such works as Simone de Beauvoir.]
“But what exactly were you looking for in The Second Sex? A theory, or the voice and support of a big sister?” “What are we looking for in any philosophical text if not the theoretical support of a forerunner? Although, of course, we may not find it.”
(Hipparchia's Choice, p. 133)
The Second Sex is to Western feminism as the Bible is to Western culture: it's been an undeniably powerful text, but even the faithful can't agree about what it says. How can a single text lie behind Sherry Ortner and Gayle Rubin, Dorothy Dinnerstein and Judith Butler? But it does. Its author, more mysterious with every revelation, serves as a screen on which many Western feminists project our utopian hopes and desires, our anxieties and angers and fears. Sometimes we have yearned to see Simone de Beauvoir as half of the perfect intellectual couple, sometimes as the model of perfect rebellion and freedom, sometimes even as a lesbian foremother. We recognize, if uneasily, the authoritative status of The Second Sex, if not for us, for someone. We quote some of its best lines over and...
(The entire section is 3939 words.)
SOURCE: Atack, Margaret. Review of Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. Modern Language Review 91, no. 2 (April 1996): 485-86.
[In the following review, Atack assesses the strengths of Simone de Beauvoir.]
Although the corpus devoted to her work is not large compared to that of Sartre or Camus, Simone de Beauvoir has recently been gaining the critical attention she deserves as writer and philosopher. Toril Moi's book [Simone de Beauvoir] is particularly orientated towards the latter dimension, but the interdisciplinary framework she is mobilizing also encompasses the autobiography, some of the fiction, and the life. Her aim is to analyse how Beauvoir came to be ‘the emblematic intellectual woman of the twentieth century’ (p. 1). Moi argues that she was able to produce Le Deuxième Sexe as a result of being placed at the centre of a unique configuration of discourses and situations and that the crucial moment was her realization that she was an intellectual woman. Moi traces the forging of this identity through Beauvoir's personal and sociological history, paying particular attention to the career trajectory of agrégation, teacher, and writer, and the relationships with Sartre and her parents. Like Michele Le Doeuff in her pathbreaking L'Etude et le rouet (1989), Moi is concerned both to take Beauvoir seriously as an important thinker and to theorize her...
(The entire section is 852 words.)
SOURCE: Fallaize, Elizabeth. Review of Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. French Studies 50, no. 2 (April 1996): 230-31.
[In the following review, Fallaize comments on the historical significance of Simone de Beauvoir in terms of its subject and its analysis.]
This eagerly-awaited book [Simone de Beauvoir] comes as a beacon in Beauvoir studies, presenting a forceful case for Beauvoir as the greatest feminist theorist of our century whilst simultaneously identifying in her intellectual and emotional trajectory a series of emblematic dilemmas which patriarchy continues to pose to intellectual women today. Thus in an illuminating investigation of the making of Simone de Beauvoir, Moi shows how Beauvoir's speaking position was constrained by the educational capital it was open to her to amass, and demonstrates why Beauvoir needed her fantasy of unity with Sartre. The question which Angela Carter asked—why ‘a nice girl like Simone wasted her time sucking up to a boring old fart like J. P.’ (p. 253)—thus receives a rather more satisfactory answer than hitherto. As a female philosophy agrégée with close contacts with the male elite Normaliens, Beauvoir was an exceptional woman but a marginalized intellectual. In Le Deuxième Sexe she was thus in the curious position of ‘investigating her own marginality from a position of centrality’ (p. 68). The tension...
(The entire section is 566 words.)
SOURCE: Epright, Carmela M., and Laura Hengehold. Review of Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. NWSA Journal 8, no. 3 (fall 1996): 177-80.
[In the following review, Epright and Hengehold evaluate Simone de Beauvoir in the context of rehabilitating Beauvoir's critical reputation.]
Until very recently, studies of Simone de Beauvoir have presented the French thinker either as the lifelong confidant, editor, and companion of Jean-Paul Sartre or as an early (and, some argue, dated and privileged) feminist and author of The Second Sex. Although Beauvoir's own philosophical writings include two monographs and numerous essays, articles, and letters, her contribution to the discipline has largely been ignored or dismissed as a mere footnote to Sartrean existentialism. Her novels, though immensely popular, have only begun to be approached in the same scholarly manner as the literary works of her male existentialist comrades.
Several factors, however, have contributed to a resurgence of philosophical and feminist interest in Beauvoir's work. Much of Beauvoir's correspondence with Sartre and some of her personal notebooks have been released by her adopted daughter, Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir. The publication of this material, as well as the publication of some of Sartre's own letters and notebooks, has facilitated new research into the intellectual and emotional character of the...
(The entire section is 1434 words.)
SOURCE: Montfort, Catherine R. Review of Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. French Review 70, no. 1 (October 1996): 125-26.
[In the following review, Montfort provides a brief overview of the three main subsections of Moi's Simone de Beauvoir, concluding that the book is a powerful and significant contribution to feminist cultural history.]
The normal posthumous reevaluation of the work of Simone de Beauvoir has been eagerly anticipated, in part because of startling new facts about her private life unveiled in her Journal de Guerre, her Lettres à Sartre (1990), and Bianca Lamblin's Mémoires d'une jeune fille dérangée (1993). Lynne Kaufman's latest play, Shooting Simone is a case in point, in which a young female American reporter soon discovers that her idealized picture of Beauvoir does not correspond to reality.
Toril Moi's fascinating new book [Simone de Beauvoir] attempts to capture Beauvoir's unique position in our century. While Moi takes into account both Beauvoir's life and her writing, the subtitle of the book stresses that she sees Beauvoir as a distillation of different discourses and determinants. Consequently Moi's analysis relies on reception studies, the sociology of culture, philosophical analysis, psychoanalytic inquiry and feminist theory.
The book is divided into three parts, each focusing on a...
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SOURCE: Chow, Rey. “When Whiteness Feminizes … : Some Consequences of a Supplementary Logic.” Differences 11, no. 3 (fall 1999-2000): 137-68.
[In the following essay, Chow analyzes the effects of the rhetorical strategies used in Sexual/Textual Politics on the book's premises.]
IS “WOMAN” A WOMAN, A MAN, OR WHAT?: THE UNSTABLE STATUS OF WOMAN IN CONTEMPORARY CULTURAL CRITICISM
Since the introduction of poststructuralist theory into the English-speaking academic world, a point of tension between feminists sympathetic toward poststructuralism and feminists hostile toward it has been the controversy over the status of the term “woman” in representational politics. Whereas for Anglo-American feminist critics, the individual woman, woman author, or woman critic continues to be understood in terms of the agency derived from the philosophical foundation of individualism, of the gendered person as an ultimate reality, the pivot of French poststructuralism has been precisely to put such foundationalist thinking into question through theories of language, text, signification, and subject, so that what is hitherto considered as an irrefutable certainty, including the individual self, now becomes known more often as a referent, a point in signification that is always “en procès”—that is, constantly disrupted, deferred, dislocated, postponed, if not altogether...
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SOURCE: Sage, Lorna. “Mother's Back.” London Review of Books 22, no. 10 (18 May 2000): 37-8.
[In the following review, Sage contrasts Moi's early feminist theories with the themes of What Is a Woman?]
Feminism is fiftysomething if you start counting from The Second Sex, and, like Toril Moi, a lot of academic women are taking stock. The good news is that wherever positive discrimination in favour of men has been suspended, there are many more women in universities than there used to be, as students, teachers and even tenured professors. What's been lost is the sense of connection with utopian politics. Part of the fiftyish feeling is to do with having to recognise that the future—that future, the classless, melting-pot, unisex, embarrassing one—is now in the past. Or, more painfully, that it has been hijacked by obscurantism and academic careerism, which often amount to the same thing.
What Is a Woman?: And Other Essays deplores this development. Moi is in a tricky position, however, for she herself is widely seen as one of the villains of the piece: the woman who trashed sisterhood in her 1985 book Sexual/Textual Politics by preaching post-structuralist demolition of the whole person, and dismissing American feminists as naive empiricists. ‘With friends like these, does feminism need enemies?’ Susan Gubar asks with uncharacteristic bitterness in her new...
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SOURCE: Knight, Diana. Review of What Is a Woman?, by Toril Moi. Modern Language Notes 115, no. 4 (September 2000): 827-30.
[In the following review, Knight evaluates the themes of What Is a Woman?]
Faced with the less than warm American reception of her Sexual/Textual Politics (1985), Toril Moi always denied that she had set out to advance the claims of high French feminism (abstract, theoretical) at the expense of its more lowly Anglo-American counterpart (pragmatic, empirical). Rather, she thought she had written a critique of both in the light of a politically committed materialist feminism. Nevertheless, a number of American feminists—unappreciative perhaps of an academic style that Moi associates with Britain in the early eighties, where pleasurable intellectual friendships could be marked by “intense intellectual disagreements carried over from the seminar room to the pub” (261)—chose to remain offended, equating female-authored critique with unsisterly betrayal. With hindsight Moi identifies an institutionally determined context of “fears and anxieties” that confused professional and emotional support with intellectual agreement. As long as ideas are treated with respect and not reduced to the person advancing them (the ad feminam mode of debate to which Moi, herself its occasional victim, remains “particularly allergic”), “feminists do each other a service...
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SOURCE: Altman, Meryl. “Reality Check.” Women's Review of Books 18, no. 1 (October 2000): 6-7.
[In the following review, Altman assesses the themes and style of What Is a Woman?, noting the relevance of Moi's readings of Beauvoir's thought to current feminist theory.]
What we need today more than ever is a feminism committed to seeking justice and equality for women, in the most ordinary sense of the word. … That feminism, I am happy to say, exists. Moreover, usually even the most anti-metaphysical feminist theorists support it in practice. No feminist I know is incapable of understanding what it means to say that the Taliban are depriving Afghan women of their most elementary human rights just because they are women.
Yes. But can “today” really be the year 2000? And can the author of these words really be Toril Moi? Maybe there's hope for feminist theory after all.
Toril Moi's first book, a little primer of feminist literary criticism called Sexual/Textual Politics (1983), sold a lot of copies and made a lot of people very angry, including me. Moi's scathing dismissals of most American approaches to criticism, including lesbian studies and the critiques offered by women of color, as “phallogocentric” and tied to naïvely undeconstructed conceptions of “the unified self,”...
(The entire section is 2166 words.)
SOURCE: Nagel, Mechthild E. Review of What Is a Woman?, by Toril Moi. NWSA Journal 13, no. 2 (summer 2001): 213-17.
[In the following review, Nagel criticizes the politics of What Is a Woman?]
The three books under review [What Is a Woman? by Toril Moi, Whiteness: Feminist Philosophical Reflections, edited by Chris Cuomo and Kim Hall, and Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics, by Joy James] highlight the diversity of commitments to feminist “practice” in contemporary U.S. academia. Moi's liberal feminist analysis argues that the definition of woman is at stake in much of feminist theory, and she is intent on showing that Simone de Beauvoir is too quickly dismissed as essentialist by poststructuralist feminists such as Judith Butler. Moi gives lipservice to integrated approaches which are cited in footnotes. But her analysis falls back to the additive approach, i.e., that oppressions can be added on, which is characteristic of many white feminist texts, including Beauvoir's. Cuomo and Hall's anthology, on the other hand, shares Joy James's political commitment to an integrative analytic of race and sexual politic (as opposed to Moi's additive approach), and both texts are accessible to a general political audience; they seem especially useful to antiracist feminist activists. However, they follow a different conceptual path. Whiteness gives the...
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Bedient, Calvin. “How I Slugged It Out with Toril Moi and Stayed Awake.” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 3 (spring 1991): 644-49.
Bedient responds to Moi's criticism of an essay he wrote on Kristeva, defending his original positions.
Fallaize, Elizabeth. “De Beauvoir Embodied.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5069 (26 May 2000): 31.
Fallaize evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of What Is a Woman?
Huffer, Lynne. Review of What Is a Woman?, by Toril Moi. SubStance 30, nos. 1-2 (2001): 262-66.
Huffer asserts the relevance of What Is a Woman? to contemporary feminist thought.
Nell, Little. “Used Books: Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, by Toril Moi.” Critical Quarterly 36, no. 2 (summer 1994): 115-19.
Nell discusses the hostile American academic response to Sexual/Textual Politics.
Thomas, Lyn. Review of Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. Feminist Review, no. 60 (autumn 1998): 105-08.
Thomas highlights the formal and academic contributions of Simone de Beauvoir, comparing its insights with Claire Duchen's Women's Rights and Women's Lives in France.
Additional coverage of Moi's life and career is contained in the...
(The entire section is 185 words.)