Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 628
Although individuals throughout the twentieth century have read from feminist perspectives—such as Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1928) and Simone de Beauvoir in Le Deuxième Sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953)—feminist literary criticism in the United States, having its roots in the second wave of the women’s movement, did not develop until the late 1960’s. As women discovered that they were alienated from sources of political and economic power, those among them who were students of literature turned to their discipline and found in literary history another story of woman’s marginalization. English professor Sandra M. Gilbert has explained that when she and Susan Gubar, the authors of The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979), began reading from a feminist perspective, they discovered that literary history was filled with assumptions about the sexes, a “sexual poetics” that judged women’s writing inferior to men’s.
From the beginning, feminist scholarship has been intensely personal and political. In an article for College English entitled “When We Dead Awaken” (1972), poet Adrienne Rich established the tone for feminist criticism when she called it a “radical critique of literature” which was for women “an act of survival.” A few years later, Judith Fetterley, author of The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (1978), said that the aim of feminist criticism was to change the world “by changing the consciousness of those who read and their relation to what they read.”
Published in 1970, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, a pioneering work in American feminist literary criticism that critiques the literature of Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and D. H. Lawrence and argues that their characterizations of women reflect society’s misogyny, set the stage for the “re-visionary” practice of feminist readings. Millet refused to separate literature from the culture that produced it, thus giving impetus to the feminist challenge of formalist modes of reading that insist on the explications of literary works without consideration of the authors’ lives and the times in which they lived.
Academic recognition of feminist literary criticism in the United States was prompted by the formation of the Modern Language Association’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1970. The commission gave a forum for feminists to exchange ideas, which in turn gave rise to publications such as Female Studies, a series in seven volumes dealing with the teaching of women’s studies. By the mid-1970’s, a number of publications, including the Women’s Studies Quarterly and Feminist Studies, supported the growing body of feminist criticism. In 1981, the fortieth meeting of the English Institute devoted a program to feminist criticism for the first time, and the remainder of the decade gave rise to many more firsts, suggesting that feminist literary criticism had come into its own: The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English (1985), edited by Gilbert and Gubar, the first major anthology of women’s writing; Elaine Showalter’s The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory (1985), the first collection of essays in feminist critical theory; and The Longman Anthology of World Literature by Women (1989), edited by Marian Arkin and Barbara Shollar, the first collection of the writings of women worldwide, containing the work of three hundred writers from fifty countries.
One would not expect so radical a critical movement that questions the foundations of literary studies to be quickly embraced by the traditional academy, and it was not. Feminist readers of literature were charged with misreading and oversimplifying texts and were attacked for being polemical and unsophisticated. Yet by 1990, with hundreds of women’s studies programs established in colleges and universities across the United States, American feminist literary criticism became a respected academic endeavor with a considerable body of scholarship.
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