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. 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 the most general and simple terms, feminist literary criticism before the 1970s—in the first and second waves of feminism—was concerned with the politics of women's authorship and the representation of women's condition within literature, this includes the depiction of fictional female characters. In addition feminist criticism was further concerned with the exclusion of women from the literary canon, and Lois Tyson suggests this is because the views of women authors are often not considered to be universal ones.
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. 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.
Feminist literary critics
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.
History of feminist criticism
Feminists of the 1960s saw it as vital to combat the subservient and often negative images of women in literature to offer women a more equal stance in society. Feminists argued that these representations of women were seen to provide ‘role models’ to men and women as to what constituted ‘acceptable’ versions of the ‘feminine’. Analysis’ of images of women in literature unearthed such stereotypes as the ‘virgin and the whore’; ‘angel and the devil’; ‘the mother’; ‘the submissive wife and the dominant wife’; ‘the bitch’; ‘the seductress’; ‘the sex object’ (possibly as man’s prey); ‘the old maid’; ‘the bluestocking’; ‘the castrating woman’; ‘the pioneer woman’; and ‘the victim’. Throughout the 1970s, the major role of feminist criticism was to expose the cultural ‘mind-set’ within society which perpetrated sexual inequality. This argument however, that literature reflected ‘deep-seated prejudices’ towards women, making them out to be ‘passive and dependent’, after a time seemed to be having an unintended effect. It appeared that the ‘woman-as-victim’ approach in literature and the constant findings of these stereotypes was, in fact, ‘naturalizing women’s position’, and was having a ‘depressive’ effect in society. Thus, rather that elevating the image of women in society, this approach was degrading it. This brought about a change of ‘mood’ within feminist criticism in the 1980s, resulting in a number of debates, disagreements and varied positions within feminist criticism.
Feminists no longer sought to emphasize the negative depiction of women within literature, but to find acceptable, positive affirmations for both women readers and women writers. This shift from ‘androtexts’ (books by men) to ‘gynotexts’, as described by Elaine Showalter, gave rise to the Female Aesthetic: the question of ‘What it really feels like to be woman’, expressing a unique female consciousness and a feminine tradition in literature. But this approach called for an ‘authentic sense of what femininity feels like’, thus narrowing the scope of feminist criticism to a preference for literature that was a source of historical information on the condition of women in reality, over literature that was considered ‘aesthetic’. This implied an expectation that books would depict women as an oppressed group – an expectation that came to be judged as unsophisticated and naïve. This demoted the representation of female role models in literature, with some feminists and women writers feeling excluded by the surreality of the Female Aesthetic.
These traditional approaches to feminist criticism are usually referred to as the ‘Anglo-American’ version of feminism, and are greatly at odds with what is now considered ‘recent’ critical theory: that of the French-derived, post-structuralist and psychoanalytic version of feminist criticism. Post-war feminist criticism, through trying to elevate the position of women to a more egalitarian one within society, had not necessarily displaced the negative and projective images of the feminine by shifting focus from an attack of the male versions of the world to the woman writer and female world  and thus had to re-evaluate their position on feminist criticism. Gender Theory, the question of whether or not women’s writing differs from that of men’s - a form of language that is innately feminine, or the possibility of different feminine and masculine style’s of writing, thus has become the central hypotheses of feminist criticism. The idea of gender difference within writing has created such categories within feminist criticism as ‘black feminist criticism’ and ‘lesbian / gay criticism’.
- Feminist film theory
- Feminist theory
- Literary criticism
- Women's writing in English
- Feminist Exegesis
- Barry, P 2009, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, 3rd edn, Manchester University Press, Manchester.
- Kaplan, C 1990, Encyclopedia of Literary and Criticism, (online Literary Reference Centre).
- Shaw, P 1988, ‘Feminist Literary Criticsm: A Report from the Academy’, American Scholar, vol. 57, no. 4, pp. 495–513, (online Literary Reference Centre).
- Spencer, S 1983, ‘Feminist Criticism and Literature’, Helicon Nine, vol. 9, pp. 8–17, (online Literary Reference Centre).
- Barry, Peter, 'Feminist Literary Criticism' in Beginning theory (Manchester University Press: 2002), ISBN 0-7190-6268-3
- Tuttle, Lisa: Encyclopedia of feminism. Harlow: Longman 1986, p. 184
- (Barry, p. 116)
- Spencer, S 1983, ‘Feminist Criticism and Literature’, Helicon Nine, vol. 9, pp. 8–17, (online Literary Reference Centre)
- (Barry, p. 117)
- (Shaw 1988, p. 497)
- (Barry, p. 118)
- (Kaplan 1990, p. 754)
- (Shaw, pp. 497-498)
- (Barry, pp. 118-119)
- (Kaplan, p. 754)
- (Shaw, p. 499)
- (Kaplan, p. 753)
Tyson, L 2006, Critical Theory: A User-Friendly Guide, Routledge, New York.
- Judith Butler. Gender Trouble. ISBN 0-415-92499-5.
- Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. ISBN 0-300-08458-7.
- Toril Moi. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. ISBN 0-415-02974-0; ISBN 0-415-28012-5 (second edition).
- Rita Felski, "Literature After Feminism" ISBN 0-226-24115-7
- Annette Kolodny. "Dancing through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism."
- Adele Reinhartz. "Jewish Women's Scholarly Writings on the Bible."
- Elisabeth Fiorenza, feminist Bible scholar.
- The "Feminist Theory and Criticism" article series from the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (subscription required):