Feminist literary criticism

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Feminist literary criticism is literary criticism informed by feminist theory, or by the politics of feminism more broadly. It can be understood as using feminist principles and ideological discourses to critique the language of literature, its structure and being. This school of thought seeks to describe and analyze the ways in which literature reinforces the narrative of male domination in regard to female bodies by exploring the economic, social, political, and psychological forces embedded within literature.[1]

Its history has been broad and varied, from classic works of nineteenth-century women authors such as George Eliot and Margaret Fuller to cutting-edge theoretical work in women's studies and gender studies by "third-wave" authors. In general, feminist literary criticism before the 1970s—in the first and second waves of feminism—was concerned with women's authorship and the representation of women's condition within literature; including the depiction of fictional female characters. In addition, feminist criticism was concerned with the exclusion of women from the literary canon.

Lois Tyson suggests this is because the views of women authors are often not considered to be universal ones.[citation needed]

Since the development of more complex conceptions of gender and subjectivity and third-wave feminism, feminist literary criticism has taken a variety of new routes, namely in the tradition of the Frankfurt School's critical theory. It has considered gender in the terms of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, as part of the deconstruction of existing relations of power, and as a concrete political investment.[2] It has been closely associated with the birth and growth of queer studies. The more traditionally central feminist concern with the representation and politics of women's lives has continued to play an active role in criticism. More specifically, modern feminist criticism deals with those issues related to the patriarchal programming within key aspects of society including education, politics and the work force.

Lisa Tuttle has defined feminist theory as asking "new questions of old texts." She cites the goals of feminist criticism as: (1) To develop and uncover a female tradition of writing, (2) to interpret symbolism of women's writing so that it will not be lost or ignored by the male point of view, (3) to rediscover old texts, (4) to analyze women writers and their writings from a female perspective, (5) to resist sexism in literature, and (6) to increase awareness of the sexual politics of language and style.[3]

Methods Employed[edit]

Feminist scholarship has developed a multitude of ways to unpack literature in order to understand its essence. Scholars under the camp known as Feminine Critique sought to divorce literary analysis away from abstract diction-based arguments and instead tailored their criticism to more “grounded” pieces of literature (plot, characters, etc.) and recognize the implicit misogyny of the structure of the story itself. Others schools of though such as gynocriticism uses a historicist approach to literature by exposing exemplary female scholarship in literature and the ways in which their relation to gender structure relayed in their portrayal of both fiction and reality in their texts.

More contemporary scholars attempt to understand the intersecting points of femininity and complicate our common assumptions about gender politics by accessing different categories of identity (race, class, sexual orientation, etc.) The ultimate goal of any of these tools is to uncover and expose patriarchal underlying tensions within novels and interrogate the ways in which our basic literary assumptions are contingent on female subordination. In this way, the accessibility of literature broadens to a far more inclusive and holistic population. Moreover, voices that were once lost to the sands of time, given the constraints around female authorship, are able to be heard in their original form and unabridged. This creates a richer collection of literature for all readers insofar as all great works of literature are given their fair share of exposure and not simply those that are privileged by the patriarchy.[4]

Women have also begun to employ Anti-Patriarchal themes to celebrate that which was once denied. The rise of decadent feminist literature in the 1990s was meant to directly challenge the sexual politics of the patriarchy. By employing a wide range of female sexual exploration and lesbian and queer identities by those like Rita Felski and Judith Bennet, women were able to recapture intellectual space for their own.[5]

History and Notable critics[edit]

Rebecca West's work on women's suffrage from approximately 1910, can be traced as the beginning of the feminist criticism movement. In addition to West's work, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own from 1929 is an integral text to the movement. Prominent feminist literary critics include Isobel Armstrong, Nancy Armstrong, Barbara Bowen, Jennifer DeVere Brody, Laura Brown, Margaret Anne Doody, Eva Figes, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Annette Kolodny, Anne McClintock, Anne K. Mellor, Nancy K. Miller, Toril Moi, Felicity Nussbaum, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Hortense Spillers, Gayatri Spivak, Irene Tayler, Marina Warner.

Modern feminist literary criticism finds its roots in the 1960s second-wave feminist movements. Beginning with the interrogation of male-centric literature that portrayed women in a demeaning and oppressed model, theorist such as Mary Ellman, Kate Millet and Germaine Greer challenged past imaginations of the feminine within literary scholarship.

Elain Showalter became a leading critic in the gynocritical method with her work A Literature of their Own in 1977. By this time, scholars were not only interested in simply demarcating narratives of oppression but also creating a literary space for past, present and future female literary scholars to substantiate their experience in a genuine way that appreciates the aesthetic form of their works.

French scholars such as Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray introduced psychoanalytic discourses into their work by way of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan as a way to truly “get to the root” of feminine anxieties within text to manifest broader societal truths about the place of woman.[6] Current feminist scholars in the field of literature include Hortense Spillers, Susan Gubar, Nancy Armstrong, Annette Kolodny and Irene Tayler who all come from a variety of backgrounds who use their own nuanced and subjective experiences to inform their understanding of feminist literature. Currently, several university scholars all employ the usage of literary feminism when critiquing texts. The mainstreaming of this school has given academia an extremely useful tool in raising questions over the gender relationships within texts.

Black literary feminist scholars began to emerge, in the post-Civil Rights era of the United States, as a response to the masculine-centric narratives of Black empowerments began to stamp out female voices. Although not a ”critical” text, The Black Woman: An Anthology, edited by Cade (1970) is seen as essential to the rise of Black literary criticism and theory. It’s compilation of poems, short stories and essays gave rise to new institutionally supported forms of Black literary scholarship. The literary scholarship also included began with the perception of Black female writers being under received relative to their talent. The Combahee River Collective released what is called one of the most famous pieces in Black literary scholarship known as A Black Feminist Statement (1977), which sought to prove that literary feminism was an important component to black female liberation.

Carby, Barbara Christian, bell hooks, Nellie McKay, Valerie Smith, Splliers, Eleanor Traylor, Cheryl Wall and Sheryl Ann Williams all contributed heavily to the Black Feminist Scholarship during the 1980s. During that same time, McDowell published New Direction for Black Feminist Criticism, a call-to-arms for a more theoretical school of criticism versus the current writings, which she deemed overly practical. As time moved forward, theorist began to disperse in ideology. Many deciding to shift towards the nuanced psychological factors of the Black experience and further away from broad sweeping generalizations. Others began to connect their works to the politics of lesbianism. Some decided to analyze the Black experience through their relationship to the Western world. Regardless, these scholars continue to employ a variety of methods to explore the identity of Black feminism in literature.[7]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

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