Feminist literary criticism
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Feminist literary criticism is literary criticism informed by feminist theory, or, more broadly, by the politics of feminism. It uses feminist principles and ideology to critique the language of literature. This school of thought seeks to analyze and describe the ways in which literature portrays the narrative of male domination by exploring the economic, social, political, and psychological forces embedded within literature. This way of thinking and criticizing works can be said to have changed the way literary texts are viewed and studied, as well as changing the canon of what is taught.
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.
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 perceived intentional and unintentional 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.
Susan Lanser thinks about feminist literary critique as asking how feminist, literary, and critical the critique practices are, and how the practices are feminist, literary, and critical.
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 perceived implicit misogyny of the structure of the story itself. Others schools of thought 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. Gynocriticism was introduced during the time of second wave feminism. Elaine Showalter suggests that feminist critique is an “ideological, righteous, angry, and admonitory search for the sins and errors of the past,” and says gynocriticism enlists “the grace of imagination in a disinterested search for the essential difference of women’s writing.”
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 about such novels are contingent on female subordination. In this way, the accessibility of literature broadens to a far more inclusive and holistic population. Moreover, works that historically received little or no attention, given the historical constraints around female authorship in some cultures, are able to be heard in their original form and unabridged. This makes a broader collection of literature for all readers insofar as all great works of literature are given exposure without bias towards a gender influenced system.
Women have also begun to employ anti-patriarchal themes to protest the historical censorship of literature written by women. 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 attract more attention about feminist topics in literature.
History and critics
Feminist literary criticism can be traced back to medieval times. Some argue that Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath could be an example of this. While the beginning of “proper” feminist literary criticism is typically considered during second wave feminism, there are multiple texts prior to this era that contributed greatly to the field. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is undoubtedly one of these formative texts.
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. Within second-wave feminism, three phases can be defined: the feminine phase, the feminist phase, and the female phase. During the feminine phase, female writers adhered to male values. In the feminist phase, there was a theme of criticism of women's role in society. And in the female phase, it was now assumed that women's works were valid, and the works were less combative than in the feminist phase.
Susan Lanser suggested changing the name of feminist literary criticism to “critical literary feminism” to change the focus from the criticism to the feminism, and points out that writing such works requires “consciousness of political context.”
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 women. 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 gain momentum over 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.
Hazel Carby, Barbara Christian, bell hooks, Nellie McKay, Valerie Smith, Hortense Spillers, Eleanor Traylor, Cheryl Wall and Sheryl Ann Williams all contributed heavily to the Black Feminist Scholarship during the 1980s. During that same time, Deborah E. McDowell published New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism, which called for a more theoretical school of criticism versus the current writings, which she deemed overly practical. As time moved forward, theory 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.
- "Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism". Purdue OWL. Retrieved 29 January 2016.
- Plain, Gill; Sellers, Susan (2007). A History of Feminist Literary Criticism. Cambridge University Press.
- 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
- Lanser, Susan S. "Feminist Literary Criticism: How Feminist? How Literary? How Critical?." NWSA Journal 3.1 (1991): 3. Academic Search Complete.
- "Bedford / St. Martin's". Retrieved 29 January 2016.
- "EBSCO Publishing Service Selection Page". Retrieved 29 January 2016.
- "Feminist Approaches to Literature | Great Writers Inspire". writersinspire.org. Retrieved 2016-10-10.
- "Feminist Approaches to Literature". Retrieved 29 January 2016.
- "EBSCO Publishing Service Selection Page". Retrieved 29 January 2016.
- 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.
- Susan Fraiman "The Humiliation of Elizabeth Bennett"
- The "Feminist Theory and Criticism" article series from the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (subscription required):
- Fraiman, Susan (1989). "The Humiliation of Elizabeth Bennett". Refiguring the Father: New Feminist Readings of Patriarchy: 168–87.