Any survey of feminist criticism will most likely be fraught with difficulties, the most serious of which is the attempt to avoid reductionism. This introduction to feminist criticism attempts to identify key figures, central concerns, and general movements. Such an attempt is a strategic move to organize a vital and growing body of work into some sort of scheme that can be collated and presented. Despite the existence of American, French, and British feminisms, for example, no such clear-cut schools or movements exist in a fixed way. The various writers included in this essay, and the various trends and movements discussed, share many positions and disagree on many important points. Such agreements and disagreements have less to do with nationality than with the rapid changes occurring in feminist criticism.
Three general perspectives on feminism are summarized here, as reflected in the work of American, French, and British writers. The work of two pivotal feminist writers, Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf, is discussed at some length, and there is also an attempt to isolate a few general trends and issues within the feminist movement.
Feminism has diverse goals, many of which overlap in the work of individual writers. This work is filled with pitfalls and temptations: Because women are participants in their cultures, the thinking (and writing) of women cannot be separated from the methods of the cultures in which they live, nor can women be separated from their races or sexual orientations. Furthermore, feminist criticism may be combined with other methods of criticism, such as deconstruction, psychoanalytic criticism, and Marxist criticism. Generally, however, feminist writers are concerned with the political, social, and cultural equality of women and with researching the effects of gender upon writing—determining how the writing of women differs from the writing of men.