Feminist Criticism - Poetry Analysis

Gender systems

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Feminist critics have produced a variety of models to account for the production, reproduction, and maintenance of gender systems. They discuss the female writer’s problems in defining herself in the conventional structures of male-dominated society, structures that restrict the possibilities of women and impose standards of behavior upon women personally, professionally, and creatively. Again, to generalize, once women experience themselves as subjects, they can attempt to undermine the social, cultural, and masculine subject positions offered them.

Feminist critics may, for example, reexamine the writing of male authors (an approach associated with American feminists) and, in particular, reexamine the great works of male authors from a woman’s perspective in an attempt to discover how these great works reflect and shape the ideologies that subjugate women. Through this reexamination, feminist critics carefully analyze the depictions of female characters to expose the ideology implicit in such characterizations. They may also seek to expose the patriarchal ideology that permeates great works and to show how it also permeates the literary tradition. This particularly American approach is seen in the works of Kate Millett, Judith Fetterley, and Carolyn Gold Heilbrun.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Feminist writers may also focus on language, defining it as a male realm and exploring the many ways in which meaning is created. This language-based feminism is typically associated with French feminism. Such feminists may conceive of language as phallocentric, arguing that language privileges the masculine by promoting the values appreciated and perpetuated by male culture. Such a language-based approach typically attempts to reveal a relationship between language and culture, or, more specifically, the way the politics of language affects and even determines women’s roles in a culture. Radical French feminists may associate feminine writing with the female body, so that the repression of female sexual pleasure is related to the repression of feminine creativity in general. French feminists insist that once women learn to understand and express their sexuality, they will be able to progress toward a future defined by the feminine economy of generosity as opposed to the masculine economy of hoarding. Such a position has drawn criticism from other feminists, because it seems to reduce women to biological entities and fosters (though it reverses) a set of binary oppositions—female/male. French feminists include Julia Kristeva, Annie Leclerc, Xaviere Gauthier, and Marguerite Duras.

Interestingly, differences between the French and English languages involve complicated feminist issues. The English language distinguishes between sex and gender, so that human beings are either female or male by sex and feminine or masculine by gender. The feminine/masculine opposition permits some fluidity, so that androgyny can become a central, mediating position between the two extremes. The distinction between male and female, however, is absolute. The way the English language categorizes people has itself created a debate within feminism, about naming. In the French language, by comparison, the concepts of femininity and femaleness are included in the same word.

Political and social agendas

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Finally, British feminists have tended to be more historically oriented than have French and American feminists. British critics tend to be materialistic and ideological; they look carefully at the material conditions of historical periods and consider such conditions as central to understanding literature. Literature, in this model, is culturally produced. Some British feminists consider that an American opposition to male stereotypes has produced a feminine reaction that has led to an ignorance of real differences among women’s races, social classes, and cultures. British feminists also emphasize that women’s development of individual strategies to obtain real power within their political, social, or creative arenas is actually a negative move. They argue that such examples mystify male oppression and perpetrate the myth that, somehow, male oppression creates for women a world of special opportunities.

Generally, the British position encourages historical and political engagement to promote social change. This model of activism contrasts with the American and French models, which focus primarily on sexual difference. A typical strategy of the British approach is to examine a text by first placing the text in its historical context and then exposing the patriarchal ideologies that structure the text and govern the depiction of women characters. Because of historical oppression, the women characters tend either to be silent or to be mouthpieces for men’s myths. British feminists include Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt.

Gender rules and relations

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Since the time of Beauvoir and Woolf, the naming and interrogating of phallocentrism has become more assured. Feminist critics are challenging stereotypical masculine virtues, no longer accepting them as measures of virtue and excellence. One strategy many feminist critics adopt is to locate both men and women within a larger context; men and women are both captives of gender, in interrelated, but in vastly different, ways. Though men may appear to be the masters under the rules of gender, they are not therefore free, for like women, their gender expression is tightly controlled by sociocultural “rules.”

If both men and women are influenced by gender, then the conceptualizations of women and the conceptualizations of men must be examined in terms of gender relations. Feminist critical models are complex and often contradictory. Claims about the centrality of gender relations in the formation of self, knowledge, and power relations, and the relationships of these areas to one another, continue to be debated. Feminist critics have developed many theories of how gender systems are created and perpetuated, how they dominate, and how they maintain themselves. Each of the theories, however, identifies a single process or set of processes as vital to gender relations. Influential feminist theorists have suggested the centrality of the sexual division of labor, childbearing and child-rearing practices, and various processes of representation (including aesthetic and language processes, for example). Such positions address the meanings and nature of sexuality and the relationship of sexuality to writing, the importance and implications of differences among women writers, and the effects of kinship and family organizations. Each of these many theories and debates has crucial implications for an understanding of knowledge, gender, power, and writing.

Juliet Mitchell has argued for the importance of Freudian theories to feminist theories of gender relations. Her work entails a defense of Lacanian psychoanalysis. She argues that Freud’s work on the psychology of women should be read as a description of the inevitable effects on feminine psychic development of patriarchal social power. Dorothy Dinnerstein and Nancy Chodorow contribute to this psychoanalytical approach a larger account of the unconscious and its role in gender relations. They also examine the traditional sexual division of labor in the West, how this tradition has been passed on, and how it influences male-female relations.

Male versus female discourse

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray find fundamental psychological differences between men and women. They have concluded that women are more influenced by pre-Oedipal experience and believe that the girl retains an initial identification with her mother, so that the relationship between mother and daughter is less repressed than that of the mother and son. This retention affects women’s selves, so that they remain fluid and interrelational. As a result of this difference between men and women, masculine writing has an ambivalent response to women. Women tend to remain outside or on the fringes of male discourse, and feminine pleasure poses the greatest challenge to masculine discourse. Masculine discourse is also logocentric and binary; its meaning is produced through hierarchal, male-dominated, binary oppositions. Masculine discourse creates a situation in which feminine discourse is characterized by omissions and gaps. Latent in these gaps and omissions are conflicting feelings regarding sexuality, motherhood, and autonomy.

An important question raised by feminist criticism is whether there is a gender-based women’s language that is significantly and inevitably different from the language of men. In Language and Woman’s Place (1975), Robin Lakoff argues that there is more to “speaking like a woman” than simply vocabulary. Examining syntactical patterns of a typical female and evaluating the frequency with which women use tag questions,...

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Differences among women

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Another concern that has become important in feminist criticism is the differences among women themselves. A model that presumes a universal feminine experience requires that women, unlike men, be free from cultural and racial determination. Under such a model, the barriers to shared experience created by race, class, gender, and sexuality are somehow cleared away when one is a woman. Women of color, such as critic Barbara Smith, argue that one cannot assume that there is one universal feminine experience or writing. For example, the sexuality of black women tends to be represented as natural, primitive, and free from traditional cultural inhibitions; this assumption has been invoked both to justify and to deny the sexual abuse of black women and the lack of respect given to them. In general, Smith criticizes other feminists for excluding or ignoring women of color. She also observes that both black and white male scholars working with black authors neglect women.

Furthermore, it is not possible to discuss a universal experience of motherhood. Racism affects women of color differently from the way it affects white women, especially in the effort to rear children who can be self-sufficient and self-respecting. These troubles are inherent in a culture that holds as natural the binary opposition white/black, wherein white is the privileged term. This opposition is deeply rooted in the colonial history of Western civilization. Women of color cannot be exempt from the insidious consequences of this binary opposition, and white women cannot participate in productive dialogue with women of color whenever this traditional opposition is ignored.

Reading differences

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In regard to women reading men and one another, Annette Kolodny investigated methodological problems from an empiricist stance. She concludes that women do read differently from men. Her essay “A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts” (1980) examines how the two contrasting methods of interpretation appear in two stories and how the differences between masculine and feminine perspectives are mirrored in the reaction of readers to the two stories (Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” 1892, and Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers,” 1927). Judith Fetterley’s work also presents a model for gender differences in reading. In The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (1978), she argues against the position that the primary works of American fiction are intended, and written, for a universal audience and that women have permitted themselves to be masculinized in order to read these texts. One of the first steps, Fetterley contends, is for women to become resisting, rather than assenting, readers.

Varieties of feminism

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Feminism has engaged in and with other branches of criticism, including Marxist criticism and deconstruction. Nancy K. Miller and Peggy Kamuf, for example, have incorporated deconstructive approaches in their work. Judith Lowder Newton and Lillian Robinson have incorporated Marxism.

The movement toward alternative ways of writing, however, involves drastic changes in the relationship between public and private and the traditional opposition between emotional and rational. Such an attempt in literature was heralded by Woolf’s writing (for example, The Waves in 1931 and To the Lighthouse in 1927) and may be read in the work of Muriel Spark (The Hothouse by the East River, 1973), Angela Carter (The Passion of New Eve, 1977), Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye, 1970), Alice Walker (Meridian, 1976), Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time, 1976), Margaret Atwood (The Edible Woman, 1969), Joanna Russ (The Female Man, 1975), and Fay Weldon (The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, 1983), among others.

Perhaps the most agreed-upon accomplishment of feminist criticism (though even in this agreement there is caution) has been finding and identifying a variety of feminine traditions in literature. Numerous women writers have been “rediscovered,” introduced into the literary canon, and examined as important to the literary tradition. This interest in expanding the study of literature by women has had a significant impact in colleges and universities. Indeed, feminist criticism, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, had joined with other traditions—Native American, African American, Asian American, lesbian and gay—in an ongoing effort to celebrate and express diversity in investigations of identity.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. 1949. Reprint. Introduction by Deirdre Blair. New York: Random House, 1990. In this famous work, the author considers thoughtfully just what it means to be a woman, thus setting the stage for the modern feminist movement. Includes an index.

Christian, Barbara. New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985-2000. Edited by Gloria Bowles, M. Guilia Fabi, and Arlene R. Keizer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007. A collection of essays and reviews by one of the founders of black feminist literary criticism, ranging in subject matter from pedagogical issues and questions of definition to analyses of...

(The entire section is 784 words.)