At Issue

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Feminist literary criticism recognizes that since literature both reflects culture and shapes it, literary studies can either perpetuate the oppression of women or help to eliminate it. Thus, feminist literary critics are motivated to raise questions about literature and literary criticism that are basic to women’s struggle for autonomy: How does literature represent women and define gender relations? Why has literary criticism ignored or devalued women’s writing? How does one’s gender alter the way in which one reads literature? Is there a feminine mode of writing?

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Diversity in Practices and Common Beliefs

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Unlike other schools of critical theory, feminist literary criticism does not trace its roots to a single author who established a unified theory. In fact, it is more appropriate to speak of feminist literary practices than of a practice. As an interdisciplinary study borrowing heavily from a broad range of disciplines, including history, sociology, psychology, and linguistics, feminist literary criticism is really a number of feminist approaches to literature, each embracing its own critical school or combination of methodologies. For example, sociohistorical feminist critics examine literature in an effort to understand its representations of women and the culture and writers that produced them, Marxist feminist critics study literature for instances of female oppression, psychoanalytic critics focus on the unconscious, and linguists attempt to discern if differences exist between male and female uses of language. Also contributing to the eclectic nature of feminist literary criticism are its multiple positions, including lesbian and African American feminism, and its particular developments, such as socialist feminism in Great Britain.

Despite the variety of feminist approaches to literary study, practitioners of feminist literary criticism do share common beliefs. First, feminist literary critics accept the basic tenet of feminism: that the injustice of women’s oppression must be eliminated. Second, feminist critics believe literary history is shaped by androcentric biases, and, since men and women read differently, that gender is a crucial factor in the creation and interpretation of literary texts. Third, feminist critics argue that all literary study is subjective and value-driven, even that which pretends to be most objective. Finally, feminist critics acknowledge their political agenda and through feminist readings of literature hope to redress the marginalization of women in literary history and thereby to serve the larger aim of feminism—to subvert patriarchy and to change the world.

Stages of Development

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In her introduction to The New Feminist Criticism, Showalter identifies three phases of the feminist critical movement. The first phase, which exposed the misogyny of literary practice, either explored female stereotypes as they appeared in works by male authors, as does Millett’s Sexual Politics, or exposed the biased critical treatment of female writers. Mary Ellmann’s Thinking About Women (1968) identifies common attributes that male writers and reviewers associate with women (including formlessness, passivity, instability, piety, and irrationality) and coins the phrase “phallic criticism” to describe the male critic’s habit of discussing the female writer’s work in the context of her sex.

Critics turned to the writing of women in the second stage of feminist scholarship in order to uncover women’s literary history. Tracing the writing of English, American, and French women from the late eighteenth to the twentieth century, Ellen Moers’s Literary Women: The Great Writers (1976) constructs a tradition of women’s literature and reveals its distinct features, including the category of “Female Gothic.” In A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1977), Showalter identifies three stages of development in the literary history of English women novelists: The “Feminine” period (1840- 1880) was a time of imitation, the “Feminist” (1880- 1920) saw a demand for autonomy, and the “Female” (1920-1970) entailed a search for identity. Nina Auerbach studies female social space in selected women’s novels in Communities of Woman: An Idea in Fiction (1978), while another important analysis of women’s writing, Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, argues that a number of nineteenth century female authors, including Emily Dickinson, suffered from “anxiety of authorship,” which stemmed from society’s belief that artistic creativity is the male gift.

The study of women’s literary traditions naturally led to the third stage of feminist criticism, which challenged the whole enterprise of literary studies as it had been conceived and taught. As interpretative strategies of criticism came to be understood as products of culture and not universal truths, assumptions about literary historical periods and genres were reexamined. For example, Nina Baym’s Women’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and About Women in America, 1820-1870 (1978) raises the question of the place of popular fiction in the literary canon, and Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance (1982) provides a serious study of Harlequin romances, female gothics, and soap operas.

Debate over Theory

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Feminist literary criticism in the United States has long been attacked for its lack of unified theory, a point that many feminist critics conceded and addressed in the 1980’s. Acknowledging that feminist politics is the bedrock of feminist criticism and pointing to the diversity of the women’s movement itself, leading feminist theorist Annette Kolodny, in a 1980 article published in Feminist Studies, argued against adopting a single theory and urged instead that feminist criticism maintain a “playful pluralism.” In the 1981 article “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” published in Critical Inquiry, however, Showalter rejected Kolodny’s pluralism and declared that only the practice of examining women’s writing and women’s creativity, which she called “gynocritics,” would yield a much-needed theoretical consensus for feminist literary criticism, the essential question being “What is the difference of women’s writing?” Showalter argued that only by abandoning male critical theory and the feminist critique of male texts and adopting a truly “woman-centered” criticism could American feminism claim a coherent critical theory.

Practice in the 1990’s

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The gynocritics’ view that the feminist reader should be concerned only with women’s texts gave way in the mid- 1980’s to the more inclusive gender studies, and once again feminist critics began to examine male texts—this time, however, not with an eye to misogynistic representations of women but to discern the ways in which all literature is marked by gender. Examples are studies of the works of William Shakespeare, such as Peter Erickson’s Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare’s Drama (1985), which examines male characters’ allegiances to men. A development particularly appealing to male scholars influenced by feminist criticism, this “new phase in feminist criticism,” so acknowledged by Showalter in Speaking of Gender (1989), developed concurrently with male studies and gay studies and marked a distinctive shift for feminist literary studies in the 1990’s.

Also, feminist literary criticism, which had been charged with being racist and homophobic, was enlarged by the multiple voices of African American, Third World, and lesbian feminist critical theories in works such as This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color (1981), edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, and became more conscious of the need to address issues of race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality.


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In Great Britain, feminist literary criticism has been tied to the socialist movement; in France to avant-garde theorizing. Only in the United States have feminist literary studies developed within the academy and become an integral part of higher education. Although American academic feminism has been criticized for its failure to speak to the masses of American women, the transformation of the college curriculum is remarkable and holds great potential for societal change. In only a few years, the literary canon taught to millions of students was revised to include works by and about women, and this new exposure to women’s writing, feminist critics hope, will do much to forward the cause of feminism.


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Belsey, Catherine, and Jane Moore, eds. The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989. Presents twelve essays by leading African American, American, British, and French feminist theorists, whose concerns run the gamut of feminist literary practice. Provides a useful glossary for the initiate.

Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon Press, 1985. Includes seventeen of Christian’s essays and lectures on the practice of black feminist criticism, with subjects ranging from class in the novels of Toni Morrison to themes of lesbianism and motherhood in selected works.

Eagleton, Mary, ed. Feminist Literary Criticism. New York: Longman, 1991. Pairs essays by such notable theorists as Elaine Showalter and Toril Moi to highlight debates among feminist literary critics. Includes a partially annotated list of essential reading.

Greene, Gayle, and Coppelia Kahn, eds. Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism. New York: Routledge, 1985. Addresses a wide range of topics in nine essays by prominent feminist literary critics, including Nelly Furman on the politics of language, Ann Rosalind Jones on French theories of the feminine, Bonnie Zimmerman on lesbian feminist criticism, and Susan Willis on black women writers.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. New York: Methuen, 1985. Surveys both Anglo- American feminist criticism and French theory, providing detailed discussions of key critics on both sides of the Atlantic, and offers a critique of American empiricism.

Showalter, Elaine, ed. The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985. Collects eighteen groundbreaking essays that cover the full range of feminist literary criticism, including black, lesbian, and French feminist criticism. Concludes with an extensive bibliography with more than three hundred entries divided by topic.

Todd, Janet. Feminist Literary History. New York: Routledge, 1988. Outlines the development of feminist literary criticism from the 1960’s to the late 1980’s and defends American sociohistorical feminist criticism from its detractors.

Warhol, Robyn R., and Diane Price Herndl, eds. Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991. Reprints fifty-eight essays written by fifty-three well-known scholars between 1975 and 1990. Offers comprehensive coverage of feminist literary studies.

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Critical Essays