Gynocriticism is a late-twentieth century feminist reframing of literary criticism. It began in the 1970s, and its aims include focusing on literature as understood wholly from a woman's perspective and discovering and reclaiming lost women's writings. It challenged male constructions of the female, especially the female experience of sexuality, and particularly focused on debunking Freud's theories about women.
Gynocriticism, sometimes leaning into Lacan, fought back against Freud's definition of women as defined by the lack of a phallus. As Lacan pointed out, to define women this way was a logical fallacy: as women were never meant to have a phallus, it makes no sense to define them by this "lack" any more than it would be to define elephants as deficient for not having feathers. Gynocriticism thus pushes back on the male attempt to define a woman as a "lesser man" or to see her in terms of how she fulfills male desire.
Gynocriticism looked to women, such as writer Doris Lessing, to explain women's experience of sexuality and sexual pleasure from a woman's, not a man's, point of view. Lessing can, for example, explain female orgasm in a way a man cannot because she has actually experienced it.
A good example of gynocriticism occurs in Judith Herman's introduction to her classic work Trauma and Recovery. In it, she says we can only understand Freud's mistake in repudiating women's experience of childhood sexual abuse as fantasy by understanding it through his masculine anxiety: he, not women, is the one with the problem. If he had accepted the ubiquitousness of male family members abusing girls, he would have had to profoundly question the institution of the patriarchal family, something he was unwilling to do because of his own investment in patriarchal privilege.
Gynocritism righted a gap in the critical world by adding to it an assertively female perspective.
Gynocriticism is an the idea of re-examining history, particularly literature in history, in light of a better understanding of women. Because of historical gender bias, women have typically been disregarded and their works maligned. In light of the cultural views of women, gynocriticism attempts to go back and examine the true cultural impact of female authors and historical figures to understand both what they truly accomplished and how they were oppressed in the process.
Of particular emphasis is the disregard for women's emotions and physical health. The concept of hysteria is heavily examined because of the supposition that women would temporarily lose their minds, when in reality there were other medical issues or simply an expression of emotion in play. Gynocriticism attempts to rewrite the historical narrative of women being less important than men in world affairs and, in particular, literature.
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.