Gynocriticism, frequently cited in the work of Elaine Showalter, is the study of writing and criticism that reinterprets women’s literary history. It is the study of women’s literary history by women.
Showalter called this “hystory” in attempts to also reinterpret the misguided concept of hysteria of women in literary history. Historically, (prior to the 20th century) women were largely excluded from the public sphere. Thus their writing was symbolic of that seclusion and tended to be about matters of the home. Writers like Virginia Woolf attempted to break free of these limitations literarily, but also in attempts to formulate a feminine identity free of male control.
Gynocriticism is the study of women’s literature as a distinct branch: as a minority literature. The goal is to interpret women’s literature free of the patriarchal or misogynist tendencies of classical criticism which tended to praise men’s writing over women’s.
Showalter traces the development of feminine identity through literature in three phases. Prior to the 20th century, women were the “idealized female,” as the object of male desire. Objectification and subjugation were the primary methods of patriarchal suppression. The next phase was feminism and this was a reaction to that patriarchy. This occurred in the 20th century and was highlighted by the theoretical writing and Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s. The most recent phase is “female.” This phase defines the female identity free from those past identities under male-dominated criticism. Gynocriticism is the reinterpreting of women in literature and history and this is a type of feminism. This type of criticism supplemented the historical liberation of women and was significant in that it was carried out and interpreted by women.
As a side note, part of this field of criticism was a reaction to recent literary theories which were also perceived as a masculine practice. It certainly was a reaction to the phallocentric theory from Freudian psychoanalysis that suggested women felt, or were, inferior to men and that, to be creative (to produce seed), women had to “act masculine.” So, gynocriticism (and other relevant theories) dispelled this idea as a socially constructed gender bias.