Toril Moi Essay - Critical Essays

Moi, Toril


Toril Moi 1953-

Norwegian critic, essayist, editor, and biographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Moi's career through 2001.

A controversial voice among contemporary feminist academics, Moi is best known as the author of the provocative Sexual/Textual Politics (1985), which coined the term “Anglo-American feminism.” The book surveys the development of feminist cultural theory and posits two distinct literary discourses—Anglo-American and French—characterizing the French as the more intellectually rigorous and politically relevant of the two schools. In subsequent works that reflect this perspective, Moi continued to expand her analytical theories as well as editing the writings of such notable French feminists as Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. She also published Simone de Beauvoir (1994), a critical biography of the feminist theorist. However, in the essay collection What Is a Woman? (1999), which owes much to Beauvoir's seminal theories, Moi revisits and revises some of her earlier arguments originally put forth in Sexual/Textual Politics. Although Moi's literary debut garnered a severe response from American feminist academics, many commentators have applauded Moi's efforts to rehabilitate the reputation of Beauvoir despite most feminists' lingering reservations about the relevance of Beauvoir's thought to contemporary gender issues.

Biographical Information

Born in Norway in 1953, Moi attended the University of Bergen, earning her doctorate degree in 1980. In 1983 she began her academic career at Oxford University in England where she researched and lectured on issues concerning sexuality, sex, gender, and the body, culminating in the publication of Sexual/Textual Politics. Moi returned to the University of Bergen in 1985, serving as the director of the Centre for Feminist Research in the Humanities and as an adjunct professor of comparative literature until 1988. While at Bergen, Moi focused on the intersections between literature and philosophy, editing the essay collections The Kristeva Reader (1986) and French Feminist Thought (1987). In 1989 Moi joined the faculty of the literature and romance studies department at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. During the 1990s, Moi extensively researched Beauvoir's life and career, calling the French critic the most important feminist of the twentieth century. Consequently, Moi published her findings in Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir (1990) and Simone de Beauvoir. After the publication of What Is a Woman?, Moi received a 2001 Guggenheim fellowship and a 2002-03 fellowship at Harvard University, where she began researching Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.

Major Works

Moi's theoretical interests include feminist theory, psychoanalytic theory, French phenomenology, and linguistic philosophy. Sexual/Textual Politics provides an overview of twentieth-century feminist literary theory and groups its development into two distinct schools. Divided into two sections, the book contrasts the underlying “methods, principles, and politics” that inform Anglo-American and French feminism. The first section of Sexual/Textual Politics surveys Anglo-American feminism, which is characterized by the works of such theorists as Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, Kate Millet, and Annette Kolodny, as well as prominent feminists of the African American and lesbian communities. According to Moi, Anglo-American feminism articulates an empirical and essential conception of the female self, which is characteristic of liberal humanism. Moi argues that Anglo-American feminism adopts the same assumptions and methods of Western critical practice and, therefore, does not effectively engage the politics of the patriarchal culture. The second section of Sexual/Textual Politics surveys French feminist discourse and critical practice as characterized by the works of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. According to Moi, French feminism articulates an anti-essential conception of the female self, which is characteristic of poststructuralist critical practice. Moi asserts that the text-based methodology of French feminism effectively deconstructs patriarchal constructions of gender, and, therefore, actively challenges the patriarchal culture on its own terms. In The Kristeva Reader, Moi presents a selection of writings by Kristeva over the course of her career. The pieces range from the noted essays “Women's Time” and “Psychoanalysis and the Polis” to extracts from Kristeva's Revolution in Poetics Language (1974), About Chinese Women (1977), and Histories d'amour (1983). Moi's introduction to the volume discusses the development of Kristeva's thought with respect to her multiple social roles as a “foreigner in Paris,” a mother, a psychoanalyst, and in terms of the political changes she witnessed by her affiliation with the Tel Quel group.

All of Moi's writings on Beauvoir aim to rehabilitate Beauvoir's reputation among contemporary feminists, who have generally discounted her contributions. Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir is comprised of a critical overview of Moi's literary theory, an interview with Moi, and two essays on Beauvoir written by Moi. Adopting an interdisciplinary perspective, Simone de Beauvoir examines the personal and intellectual development of Beauvoir within the historical and cultural context of her life. The biography is divided into three parts, each marked by a distinct “textual” moment in Beauvoir's literary career. In the first part, Moi focuses on a 1929 garden conversation between Beauvoir and existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, which Beauvoir describes in her autobiography, Memoires d'une juene fille rangee. The second part of Moi's biography centers on another conversation with Sartre in 1946 when Beauvoir began analyzing the intellectual effects of being a woman in a patriarchal society. The rest of this section studies the philosophical and psychological principles of Beauvoir's mid-century work that culminated in the publication of The Second Sex, which Moi regards as a landmark in feminist literature. The third part of the biography examines the sadness and disappointment that Beauvoir attributes to old age in the conclusion of her La Force des choses. What Is a Woman? represents Moi's first engagement with original feminist theory since the publication of Sexual/Textual Politics. In addition to reprinting previously published essays from Moi's career, the collection also contains original essays that revise some of the positions advocated by Sexual/Textual Politics regarding contemporary feminism. Inspired by Beauvoir's critical theories, the essays address prevailing trends in contemporary cultural definitions of feminism and femininity.

Critical Reception

Sexual/Textual Politics has been and continues to be greeted with open hostility by many Anglo-American feminists, whose discourse and objectives are questioned by the text. Some academics have criticized Moi's work for oversimplifying Anglo-American feminist thought, while others have charged that it neglects the measurable effects of French influence on Anglo-American feminism. Additionally, scholars have objected to Moi's views on the effort to define a feminist literary tradition and the political agendas of African American and lesbian feminists. In contrast, several commentators have applauded Sexual/Textual Politics for provoking dynamic dialogue and healthy debate among feminist academics, noting that Moi's Anglo-American/French dialectic itself speaks to the weaknesses of contemporary feminism. Nonetheless, Sexual/Textual Politics has become a standard text in undergraduate feminist curricula at American universities. Moi's subsequent writings have generally received a more positive critical response than her first work. Several academics have commended Moi's efforts to rehabilitate the work of Beauvoir, frequently calling Simone de Beauvoir an important contribution to the cultural history of feminism. Critics have praised the biography's intertextual approach, complimenting the way Moi underscores the intellectual significance of Beauvoir's relationship with Sartre. Reviewers have also lauded the essays in What Is a Woman? not only as an encouraging sign of Moi's development as a feminist theorist, but also as a practical demonstration of the relevance of Beauvoir's thought to contemporary gender studies.

Principal Works

Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (criticism) 1985

The Kristeva Reader [editor] (essays and criticism) 1986

French Feminist Thought: A Reader [editor] (essays and criticism) 1987

Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir (essays, interviews, and criticism) 1990

Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman (criticism and biography) 1994

What Is a Woman?: And Other Essays (essays and criticism) 1999


Ellen Cronan Rose (review date February 1986)

SOURCE: Rose, Ellen Cronan. “Discourse and Ideology.” Women's Review of Books 3, no. 5 (February 1986): 17-18.

[In the following review, Rose evaluates the themes of Sexual/Textual Politics in the context of comparison to Gayle Greene's Making a Difference.]

It hasn't been much more than a decade since the first, ground-breaking anthologies of feminist literary criticism appeared, bravely claiming The Authority of Experience, heralding nothing short of a revolution in pedagogy, publishing and canon (re)formation. Yet three years ago as I was putting together a reading list for a course in Feminist Literary Theory, I thought I could glimpse outlines of...

(The entire section is 2087 words.)

Donna Landry (essay date winter 1987)

SOURCE: Landry, Donna. “The Word According to Moi: Politics and Feminist Literary Theory.Criticism 29, no. 1 (winter 1987): 119-32.

[In the following essay, Landry addresses the political implications of Sexual/Textual Politics in the context of contemporary feminist theory.]

“In our country culture has become so complex, this complexity is reflected in our literature. It takes a certain level of education to understand our novelists. The ordinary man cannot understand them. …”

… And she reeled off a list of authors, smiling smugly. It never occurred to her that those...

(The entire section is 5208 words.)

Pamela McCallum (review date summer 1987)

SOURCE: McCallum, Pamela. Review of Sexual/Textual Politics, by Toril Moi. Signs 12, no. 4 (summer 1987): 822-23.

[In the following review, McCallum outlines Sexual/Textual Politics, praising the work as illuminating and provocative.]

Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics takes as its theme “the methods, principles and politics” (xiii) that inform contemporary feminist literary theory. This provocative and wide-ranging book is not concerned with a conventional survey of contributions to feminist critical practice. Rather, it is concerned with a critical reexamination or decoding of the numerous theoretical models and political strategies that...

(The entire section is 732 words.)

Linda Anderson (review date September 1987)

SOURCE: Anderson, Linda. “Review Article: Questions of Feminist Criticism.” Prose Studies 10, no. 2 (September 1987): 225-30.

[In the following review, Anderson compares the feminist theory that informs The Kristeva Reader with that of two others, concluding that Moi's collection represents an ongoing process of questioning within feminist criticism in relation to other critical theories.]

“The problem is not only who is speaking and how she is speaking but to whom is she speaking and on behalf of whom is she speaking.” (Mary Eagleton in Feminist Literary Criticism, 5)

Literary criticism is necessarily framed (both produced and...

(The entire section is 2692 words.)

Jane Marie Todd (review date fall 1987)

SOURCE: Todd, Jane Marie. Review of Sexual/Textual Politics, by Toril Moi. Comparative Literature 39, no. 4 (fall 1987): 364-66.

[In the following review, Todd maintains that Sexual/Textual Politics succeeds in uncovering the theoretical assumptions of feminist theory, but finds some weaknesses in the second half of the book.]

Published as part of the New Accents series, Sexual/Textual Politics presents itself as an introduction for the general reader to “the two main approaches to feminist literary theory, the Anglo-American and the French” (xiii). This is not quite an accurate picture, however. Although Moi does indeed discuss the major texts...

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Catherine Slawy-Sutton (review date October 1987)

SOURCE: Slawy-Sutton, Catherine. Review of Sexual/Textual Politics, by Toril Moi. French Review 61, no. 1 (October 1987): 101-02.

[In the following review, Slawy-Sutton praises Sexual/Textual Politics, asserting that Moi's ideas are brilliant, thought-provoking, and well-documented.]

In this stimulating and well-documented introduction to feminist literary theory [Sexual/Textual Politics], Moi posits as a core idea that no reading of literary texts is politically “innocent” and, therefore, that the political implications of feminist critical study should be made clear. She proceeds to a detailed examination of the best known Anglo-American and...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

Carol H. Smith (review date March 1988)

SOURCE: Smith, Carol H. “The Literary Politics of Gender.” College English 50, no. 3 (March 1988): 318-22.

[In the following review, Smith outlines the feminist scholarship of Sexual/Textual Politics, comparing it to the political and social concerns of Making a Difference and Rewriting English, two other gender studies.]

These books [Sexual/Textual Politics, by Toril Moi, Making a Difference, by Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn, and Rewriting English, edited by Janet Batsleer, Tony Davis, and Rebecca O'Rourke], all part of the Methuen “New Accents” series, edited by Terence Hawkes, represent the offerings on gender in a...

(The entire section is 2507 words.)

June Howard (review date spring 1988)

SOURCE: Howard, June. “Feminist Differings: Recent Surveys of Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 1 (spring 1988): 167-90.

[In the following review, Howard surveys various volumes of feminist thought, including Sexual/Textual Politics, praising Moi's book for showing “an extraordinary range, sophistication, and power.”]

The title of one of the books I review in this essay—Making a Difference—evokes some crucial elements of the situation of feminist literary criticism and theory at this moment. Feminist critics, like those of other persuasions, necessarily write these days in dialogue with (whether from or against)...

(The entire section is 8944 words.)

Diana Fuss (essay date winter 1989)

SOURCE: Fuss, Diana. “Getting into History.” Arizona Quarterly 45, no. 4 (winter 1989): 95-108.

[In the following essay, Fuss discusses Sexual/Textual Politics in terms of recent feminist approaches to historicism that emphasize histories of feminism instead of feminist theories of history.]

The problem may be not how to get into history, but how to get out of it.

—Hayden White, “Getting Out of History”

While historians like Hayden White have busily been trying to get out of history, feminist literary critics have been just as energetically trying to get into...

(The entire section is 4987 words.)

Elizabeth Fallaize (review date January 1991)

SOURCE: Fallaize, Elizabeth. Review of Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. French Studies 45, no. 1 (January 1991): 102-03.

[In the following review, Fallaize outlines the themes of Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir.]

This volume [Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir] has a rather curious format, drawing together an overview of Toril Moi's well-known work on feminist literary theory by Michael Payne, an interview with Moi by Laura Payne, and two new essays by Moi on Simone de Beauvoir. In the second of her essays Moi addresses the question of why it is that readers of ‘La Femme rompue’ frequently refuse to read the story in...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

Deborah Cameron (essay date fall 1993)

SOURCE: Cameron, Deborah. “Is There an Anglo-American Feminist Linguistics?” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 12, no. 2 (fall 1993): 223-27.

[In the following essay, Cameron contrasts different feminist theories of language in terms of Moi's linguistic analysis in Sexual/Textual Politics.]

Since I am a linguist rather than a literary critic, I want to consider the term “Anglo-American” in terms of its application to feminist theories of language: theories that arguably hold a central place in the more general project of feminist criticism. So, is there an Anglo-American feminist linguistics?1

Toril Moi, of course, implies that there...

(The entire section is 2247 words.)

Susan Stanford Friedman (essay date fall 1993)

SOURCE: Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Relational Epistemology and the Question of Anglo-American Feminist Criticism.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 12, no. 2 (fall 1993): 247-61.

[In the following essay, Friedman analyzes the dialectical implications of the term “Anglo-American feminist criticism” in Sexual/Textual Politics, surveying the American feminist/academic milieu.]

Is there an Anglo-American feminist criticism? The question of this forum contains a host of other questions about the meaning of the question itself. What does “Anglo-American” mean in the context of feminist criticism? Does it imply a “school,” with a coherent system of...

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Felicity A. Nussbaum (essay date fall 1993)

SOURCE: Nussbaum, Felicity A. “(White) Anglo-American Feminism in Non-US/Non-us Space.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 12, no. 2 (fall 1993): 263-70.

[In the following essay, Nussbaum discusses the historical significance of the term “Anglo-American feminist criticism” nearly twenty years after the publication of Sexual/Textual Politics.]

That the history of Anglo-American feminism's conflict within and without itself is being written and rewritten testifies to its power as an originary moment for feminism in the 1990s. The nostalgia for the apparent solidarity of Moers and Showalter, Gilbert and Gubar, Ellmann and Millett, Jehlen and Kolodny, Chodorow and...

(The entire section is 3272 words.)

Christina M. Howells (review date 6 May 1994)

SOURCE: Howells, Christina M. “The Making of Beauvoir.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4753 (6 May 1994): 22.

[In the following review, Howells treats the multiple approaches to biography in Simone de Beauvoir.]

Toril Moi's subtitle [of Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman] gives a clear indication of the substance of her work. Professor Moi examines what Simone de Beauvoir made of what had been made of her—what Sartre, in his study of Flaubert, calls the stages of “constitution” and “personalization”, or, in terms closer to Engels, how Beauvoir made history on the basis of what history had made her. And Simone de Beauvoir would...

(The entire section is 913 words.)

Deborah Knight (essay date winter 1995)

SOURCE: Knight, Deborah. “The Rhetoric of Theory: Responses to Toril Moi.” New Literary History 26, no. 1 (winter 1995): 63-70.

[In the following essay, Knight analyzes the antithetical relationship between “theory” and “feminist theory,” comparing the critical practices of both kinds of thought.]

In “Women, Subjectivity, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Humanism in Feminist Film Theory,” I investigate some of the ways in which feminist (film) theory relates itself to, and distinguishes itself from, theory in general. If one imagines that feminist theory is something that is distinct from theory due to a specifically political causal history, then...

(The entire section is 3281 words.)

Catherine A. Civello (review date winter 1996)

SOURCE: Civello, Catherine A. Review of Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. Southern Humanities Review 30, no. 1 (winter 1996): 87-90.

[In the following review, Civello praises the insights and organization of Simone de Beauvoir.]

Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics has become required reading in the area of feminist theory. Her latest work, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman, equals the excellence of the first, but for different reasons. The former brilliantly surveys French and Anglo-American theory, comparing both while sacrificing the heterogeneity of neither. The latter concentrates on one French theorist, Simone de...

(The entire section is 1154 words.)

Meryl Altman (review date January 1996)

SOURCE: Altman, Meryl. “Taking Thinking Seriously.” Women's Review of Books 13, no. 4 (January 1996): 9-10.

[In the following review, Altman surveys the project to rehabilitate Beauvoir's reputation in such works as Simone de Beauvoir.]

“But what exactly were you looking for in The Second Sex? A theory, or the voice and support of a big sister?” “What are we looking for in any philosophical text if not the theoretical support of a forerunner? Although, of course, we may not find it.”

(Hipparchia's Choice, p. 133)

The Second Sex is to Western feminism as the Bible...

(The entire section is 3939 words.)

Margaret Atack (review date April 1996)

SOURCE: Atack, Margaret. Review of Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. Modern Language Review 91, no. 2 (April 1996): 485-86.

[In the following review, Atack assesses the strengths of Simone de Beauvoir.]

Although the corpus devoted to her work is not large compared to that of Sartre or Camus, Simone de Beauvoir has recently been gaining the critical attention she deserves as writer and philosopher. Toril Moi's book [Simone de Beauvoir] is particularly orientated towards the latter dimension, but the interdisciplinary framework she is mobilizing also encompasses the autobiography, some of the fiction, and the life. Her aim is to analyse how Beauvoir came to...

(The entire section is 852 words.)

Elizabeth Fallaize (review date April 1996)

SOURCE: Fallaize, Elizabeth. Review of Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. French Studies 50, no. 2 (April 1996): 230-31.

[In the following review, Fallaize comments on the historical significance of Simone de Beauvoir in terms of its subject and its analysis.]

This eagerly-awaited book [Simone de Beauvoir] comes as a beacon in Beauvoir studies, presenting a forceful case for Beauvoir as the greatest feminist theorist of our century whilst simultaneously identifying in her intellectual and emotional trajectory a series of emblematic dilemmas which patriarchy continues to pose to intellectual women today. Thus in an illuminating investigation of the...

(The entire section is 566 words.)

M. Carmela Epright and Laura Hengehold (review date fall 1996)

SOURCE: Epright, Carmela M., and Laura Hengehold. Review of Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. NWSA Journal 8, no. 3 (fall 1996): 177-80.

[In the following review, Epright and Hengehold evaluate Simone de Beauvoir in the context of rehabilitating Beauvoir's critical reputation.]

Until very recently, studies of Simone de Beauvoir have presented the French thinker either as the lifelong confidant, editor, and companion of Jean-Paul Sartre or as an early (and, some argue, dated and privileged) feminist and author of The Second Sex. Although Beauvoir's own philosophical writings include two monographs and numerous essays, articles, and letters, her...

(The entire section is 1434 words.)

Catherine R. Montfort (review date October 1996)

SOURCE: Montfort, Catherine R. Review of Simone de Beauvoir, by Toril Moi. French Review 70, no. 1 (October 1996): 125-26.

[In the following review, Montfort provides a brief overview of the three main subsections of Moi's Simone de Beauvoir, concluding that the book is a powerful and significant contribution to feminist cultural history.]

The normal posthumous reevaluation of the work of Simone de Beauvoir has been eagerly anticipated, in part because of startling new facts about her private life unveiled in her Journal de Guerre, her Lettres à Sartre (1990), and Bianca Lamblin's Mémoires d'une jeune fille dérangée (1993). Lynne...

(The entire section is 774 words.)

Rey Chow (essay date fall 1999-2000)

SOURCE: Chow, Rey. “When Whiteness Feminizes … : Some Consequences of a Supplementary Logic.” Differences 11, no. 3 (fall 1999-2000): 137-68.

[In the following essay, Chow analyzes the effects of the rhetorical strategies used in Sexual/Textual Politics on the book's premises.]


Since the introduction of poststructuralist theory into the English-speaking academic world, a point of tension between feminists sympathetic toward poststructuralism and feminists hostile toward it has been the controversy over the status of the term...

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Lorna Sage (review date 18 May 2000)

SOURCE: Sage, Lorna. “Mother's Back.” London Review of Books 22, no. 10 (18 May 2000): 37-8.

[In the following review, Sage contrasts Moi's early feminist theories with the themes of What Is a Woman?]

Feminism is fiftysomething if you start counting from The Second Sex, and, like Toril Moi, a lot of academic women are taking stock. The good news is that wherever positive discrimination in favour of men has been suspended, there are many more women in universities than there used to be, as students, teachers and even tenured professors. What's been lost is the sense of connection with utopian politics. Part of the fiftyish feeling is to do with having to...

(The entire section is 2467 words.)

Diana Knight (review date September 2000)

SOURCE: Knight, Diana. Review of What Is a Woman?, by Toril Moi. Modern Language Notes 115, no. 4 (September 2000): 827-30.

[In the following review, Knight evaluates the themes of What Is a Woman?]

Faced with the less than warm American reception of her Sexual/Textual Politics (1985), Toril Moi always denied that she had set out to advance the claims of high French feminism (abstract, theoretical) at the expense of its more lowly Anglo-American counterpart (pragmatic, empirical). Rather, she thought she had written a critique of both in the light of a politically committed materialist feminism. Nevertheless, a number of American...

(The entire section is 1736 words.)

Meryl Altman (review date October 2000)

SOURCE: Altman, Meryl. “Reality Check.” Women's Review of Books 18, no. 1 (October 2000): 6-7.

[In the following review, Altman assesses the themes and style of What Is a Woman?, noting the relevance of Moi's readings of Beauvoir's thought to current feminist theory.]

What we need today more than ever is a feminism committed to seeking justice and equality for women, in the most ordinary sense of the word. … That feminism, I am happy to say, exists. Moreover, usually even the most anti-metaphysical feminist theorists support it in practice. No feminist I know is incapable of understanding what it means to say that the Taliban are...

(The entire section is 2166 words.)

Mechthild E. Nagel (review date summer 2001)

SOURCE: Nagel, Mechthild E. Review of What Is a Woman?, by Toril Moi. NWSA Journal 13, no. 2 (summer 2001): 213-17.

[In the following review, Nagel criticizes the politics of What Is a Woman?]

The three books under review [What Is a Woman? by Toril Moi, Whiteness: Feminist Philosophical Reflections, edited by Chris Cuomo and Kim Hall, and Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics, by Joy James] highlight the diversity of commitments to feminist “practice” in contemporary U.S. academia. Moi's liberal feminist analysis argues that the definition of woman is at stake in much of feminist theory, and she is intent on showing...

(The entire section is 1734 words.)

Further Reading


Bedient, Calvin. “How I Slugged It Out with Toril Moi and Stayed Awake.” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 3 (spring 1991): 644-49.

Bedient responds to Moi's criticism of an essay he wrote on Kristeva, defending his original positions.

Fallaize, Elizabeth. “De Beauvoir Embodied.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5069 (26 May 2000): 31.

Fallaize evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of What Is a Woman?

Huffer, Lynne. Review of What Is a Woman?, by Toril Moi. SubStance 30, nos. 1-2 (2001): 262-66.

Huffer asserts the relevance of What Is a Woman? to...

(The entire section is 185 words.)