Contemporary Feminist Criticism Essay - Critical Essays

Contemporary Feminist Criticism


Contemporary Feminist Criticism

The following entry presents analysis and criticism of contemporary feminist literary theory through 2002.

Sometimes referred to as “Third-Wave Feminism,” “Postfeminism,” or “Revisionary Feminism,” contemporary feminist criticism is the historical outgrowth of the feminist movement which began in the 1960s and continues to flourish into the twenty-first century. Like their predecessors, contemporary feminists explore the relationship between gender and language and issues of both overt and tacit discrimination against women within the publishing and academic worlds. The writers voicing the concerns of the new generation of feminist critics, however, have increasingly emphasized what they perceive as limitations in the scope of traditional feminist rhetoric and point to a gap in the dialogue between the older and younger schools of feminist theory.

Revisionary feminist critics posit that feminist criticism has traditionally been the bastion of Western, white, intellectual, heterosexual, middle- and upper-class women. These revisionists seek to effect change within the movement by promoting an agenda of multiculturalism, globalism, sensitivity to political and economic issues involving women, and the inclusion of texts by and about non-white and lesbian women. Also, unlike their forebears, contemporary feminist critics profess to be less interested in affirming their equality with men than exploring the differences that make women's position in society unique. They also maintain that feminist criticism has become too theoretical and abstruse due to the influence of structuralism, which has problematized the very notion of language as a means of simple communication. The school of French feminist criticism—largely defined by the works of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva, and once one of the most celebrated branches of the feminist movement—has recently come under attack by postfeminist critics who argue that French feminism never existed as a separate entity at all. These critics assert that the notion of French feminist rhetoric was invented by American and British feminist academics in order to showcase radical ideas that they were not willing to present as their own. Additionally, revisionist feminist critics have accused their older colleagues of defensiveness, dismissiveness, and the suppression of dialogue in the same kind of hierarchical manner—complete with gender-based assumptions—that they so criticized in male literary critics in the 1960s and 1970s.

Representative Works

Gisela Bock and Susan James, editors
Beyond Equality and Difference: Citizenship, Feminist Politics, and Female Subjectivity (essays and criticism) 1992

Ann Brooks
Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory, and Cultural Forms (criticism) 1997

Hélène Cixous
Entre l'ectriture [Coming to Writing and Other Essays] (essays) 1986
Jours de l'an [First Days of the Year] (prose and criticism) 1990

Josephine Donovan, editor
Feminist Literary Criticism: Explorations in Theory (essays and criticism) 1975

Barbara Findlen, editor
Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation (essays) 1995

Susan Gubar
Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century (essays and criticism) 2000

Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake, editors
Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism (essays and criticism) 1997

Christina Hoff Sommers
Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women (criticism) 1994

Luce Irigaray
Speculum de l'autre femme [Speculum of the Other Woman] (criticism) 1974
*Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un [This Sex Which Is Not One] (criticism) 1977
Éthique de la différence sexuelle [An Ethics of Sexual Difference] (criticism) 1983
Sexes et parentés [Sexes and Genealogies] (criticism) 1987

Julia Kristeva
Sèméiotikè (essays and criticism) 1969
Polylogue (essays and criticism) 1977
Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art [edited by Leon S. Roudiez] (essays and criticism) 1980
The Kristeva Reader [edited by Toril Moi] (essays and criticism) 1986

Devoney Looser and E. Ann Kaplan, editors
Generation: Academic Feminists in Dialogue (essays and criticism) 1997

Tania Modleski
Feminism without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age (criticism) 1991

Toril Moi
Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (criticism) 1985
French Feminist Thought: A Reader [editor] (essays and criticism) 1987

Ella Shohat, editor
Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transitional Age (essays and criticism) 1998

Rebecca Walker, editor
To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (essays and criticism) 1995

Naomi Wolf
Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century (criticism) 1993

*In addition to the title essay, this work comprises the essays “The Mirror, from the Other Side,” “Così fan tutti,” “Women on the Market,” “Commodities among Themselves,” “Questions,” “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine,” and “When Our Lips Speak Together.”

†This work contains the essays “The Fecundity of the Caress,” “Sexual Difference,” and “Sorcerer Love: A Reading of Plato's Symposium, Diotima's Speech.”

‡Includes selections from Polylogue and Sèméiotikè.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Robyn Wiegman (essay date winter 1999)

SOURCE: Wiegman, Robyn. “Critical Response I: What Ails Feminist Criticism? A Second Opinion.” Critical Inquiry 25, no. 2 (winter 1999): 362-79.

[In the following essay, Wiegman uses Susan Gubar's article “What Ails Feminist Criticism?” as a point of departure for discussing some of the challenges facing contemporary feminist rhetoric.]

In “Murder without a Text,” Amanda Cross (better known to academics as Carolyn Heilbrun) offers a tale of feminist generational fury and murder that might be of interest to readers of Susan Gubar's “What Ails [formerly “Who Killed”] Feminist Criticism?” (Critical Inquiry 24 [Summer 1998]: 878-902). Cross's...

(The entire section is 8604 words.)

Lisa Maria Hogeland (essay date spring 2001)

SOURCE: Hogeland, Lisa Maria. “Against Generational Thinking, or, Some Things That ‘Third Wave’ Feminism Isn't.” Women's Studies in Communication 24, no. 1 (spring 2001): 107-21.

[In the following essay, Hogeland identifies three distinct phases of feminist writing from the 1960s to the present, noting that the different generations of feminists suffer more from an evasion of dialogue than overt disagreement.]

In the 1980s and 1990s, feminists began to worry about “the next generation” of feminism. In 1983, Ms. Magazine published a “Special Issue on Young Feminists,” and the first of the several books and anthologies asserting a “third wave”...

(The entire section is 6180 words.)

Elizabeth Grosz (essay date spring 2002)

SOURCE: Grosz, Elizabeth. “Feminist Futures?” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 21, no. 1 (spring 2002): 13-20.

[In the following essay, Grosz explores two strands of futurist feminist criticism as expressed through the works of Luce Irigaray and Gilles Deleuze.]

A revolution in thought and ethics is needed if the work of sexual difference is to take place. We need to reinterpret everything concerning the relations between the subject and discourse, the subject and the world, the subject and the cosmic, the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. …

In order to make it possible to think through,...

(The entire section is 3198 words.)

Misha Kavka (essay date spring 2002)

SOURCE: Kavka, Misha. “Feminism, Ethics, and History; or, What Is the ‘Post’ in Postfeminism?” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 21, no. 1 (spring 2002): 29-44.

[In the following essay, Kavka discusses the term “post-feminism,” linking the study of feminism with ethical history studies in such works as Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory and Christina Hoff Sommers's Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women.]

Let us assume for the moment that there is such a thing as feminist history, that is, a history of feminism. This may seem, admittedly, like going backward. In her landmark article “Women's Time,” Julia...

(The entire section is 7426 words.)

Elizabeth A. Flynn (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Flynn, Elizabeth A. “Toward Postmodern-Feminist Rhetoric and Composition.” In Feminism beyond Modernism, pp. 116-34. Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Flynn focuses on various obstacles to the growth of a postmodern feminist viewpoint within the areas of composition and rhetoric.]

[W]e should investigate ways of giving an identity to the sciences, to religions, and to political policies and of situating ourselves in relation to them as subjects in our own right.

—Luce Irigaray, Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference...

(The entire section is 9515 words.)

Ellen Messer-Davidow (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Messer-Davidow, Ellen. “Disciplining Women.” In Disciplining Feminism: From Social Activism to Academic Discourse, pp. 19-48. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Messer-Davidow examines the experiences of women within particular academic fields—utilizing essays from Evelyn Fox Keller, Elaine Showalter, Lillian S. Robinson, and Lise Vogel—and asserts that disciplinary discourse itself negates the feminist point of view.]

Disciplines are institutionalized formations for organizing schemes of perception, appreciation, and action, and for inculcating them as tools of cognition and communication.


(The entire section is 14170 words.)

Criticism: Modern French Feminist Theory

Nicole Ward Jouve (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Jouve, Nicole Ward. “Hélène Cixous across the Atlantic: The Medusa as Projection?” In Traveling Theory: France and the United States, edited by Ieme van der Poel and Sophie Bertho, pp. 99-113. Madison, N.J., and London: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press and Associated University Presses, 1999.

[In the following essay, Jouve discusses Hélène Cixous's theories regarding feminine identity—particularly as expressed in the essay “The Laugh of the Medusa”—and notes how Cixous's critical writings have often been misread or misinterpreted in the United States and abroad.]

In the last thirty years or so, America got used to importing, or shooting, the...

(The entire section is 6092 words.)

Christine Delphy (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Delphy, Christine. “The Invention of French Feminism: An Essential Move.” Yale French Studies, no. 97 (2000): 166-97.

[In the following essay, Delphy presents an overview of “French Feminism,” positing that this term was coined by American feminists who felt the need to displace their own controversial ideas onto another school of criticism.]

“French Feminism” is a baffling topic for everybody, and it is no less so for feminists from France than for feminists from the United States or Britain. There are many aspects to this topic and first of all, of course: what is “French Feminism”?

“French Feminism” is not feminism in...

(The entire section is 13117 words.)

Ruth Robbins (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Robbins, Ruth. “‘Mirror, Mirror … ’: Luce Irigaray and Reflections of and on the Feminine.” In Transitions: Literary Feminisms, pp. 146-67. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Robbins discusses how Luce Irigaray constructs her concept of feminine identity in such works as Speculum of the Other Woman and This Sex Which Is Not One, noting how Irigaray's notion of feminism questions the psychological precepts of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan.]

Luce Irigaray was born in 1930 in Belgium, though she is now a French national. As Margaret Whitford has noted, however, she strongly resists the tendency of criticism...

(The entire section is 8605 words.)

Susan Watkins (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Watkins, Susan. “Poststructuralist Feminism.” In Twentieth-Century Women Novelists: Feminist Theory into Practice, pp. 96-121. Houndmills, England: Palgrave, 2001.

[In the following essay, Watkins explores the critical writings of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva—as well as Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel Orlando—and argues that these works function as poststructuralist critiques of assumptions about the relation of gender to culture.]


This chapter might easily have been called ‘French feminism’, because many early commentators have used this umbrella term when analysing the work of Hélène...

(The entire section is 11293 words.)

Further Reading


Adams, Ann Marie. Review of Destination Biafra, by Buchi Emecheta. Callaloo 24, no. 1 (winter 2001): 287-300.

Adams explores Buchi Emecheta's depiction of the treatment of women both by the British and by Nigerian nationalists in her Destination Biafra, a novel about the Nigerian Civil War.

Brophy, Kevin. “Kristeva, Literature, and Motherhood Statements.” Southerly: A Review of Australian Literature 58, no. 1 (autumn 1998): 34-40.

Brophy examines Julia Kristeva's consideration of motherhood and creativity in relation to Sigmund Freud's views on women.


(The entire section is 311 words.)