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Feminist Criticism: Literature and Theory
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Lorelei Yang,
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Wonky consultant with a passion for words
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Feminist criticism is a form of literary criticism that's based on feminist theories. Broadly, it's understood to be concerned with the politics of feminism, and it uses feminist principles to critique the male-dominated literature. 

Feminist criticism's roots are in women's social, political, economic and psychological oppression. By seeking to view women in a new perspective and discover women's contributions to literary history, feminist criticism aims to reinterpret the old texts and establish the importance of women's writing to save it from being lost or ignored in the male-dominated world. It also seeks to establish female perspectives as being of equal importance relative to male perspectives.

Feminist criticism's major concerns

At its core, feminist criticism concerns itself with stereotypical representations of genders. Thus, although there are many ideas that can be considered through a feminist lens, feminist criticism is primarily concerned with a few ideas and issues that help feminist critics examine gender politics in works, trace the subtle construction of masculinity and femininity and understand gender politics within literary works.

Women's oppression by the patriarchy

Feminist critics argue that women's oppression has gone on for ages in patriarchal cultures. In this view, women's oppression has social, economic, political and psychological aspects and is tied directly to the traditional system of male dominance at the head of the family. Patriarchal family structures are represented in nearly all cultures' old literary works.

The view that women are secondary

Women's oppression has historically been rationalized as being due to supposed to differences in male versus female physical and mental capabilities. In patriarchal cultures, women are often granted few decision-making powers and are considered as secondary — again, this view is seen in many books and literature across cultures and societies.

Cultural discrimination against women

When women are considered as the feminine counterpart to male masculinity, some male authors — especially those who produce religious works — position women as the causes of sin and death. The story of Adam and Eve, in which Eve causes the first man and woman's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, is a classic example of this trope.

Feminist Theory's alignment with the three waves of feminism

Feminist criticism has roughly aligned with the three waves of feminism, so there are three rough periods of feminist criticism, each with their own defining characteristics, that correspond with each phase of women's overall political emancipation. 

First wave feminism: men's treatment of women (late 1700s-early 1900s)

The first wave of feminists largely focused on inequalities between the sexes. This is also the wave of feminism that contains the women's suffrage movement, led by Susan B. Anthony and Victoria Woodhull. 

Thus, the first wave of feminist criticism largely focused on how male authors and novelists view and portray women in their works. Critics in this time considered the ways in which novelists discriminate against and marginalize women characters.

Some key books from this time are Geoffrey Chaucer's "Wife of Bath," Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" (1792), Marry Ellman's "Thinking About Women" (1968) and Kate Millet's "Sexual Politics" (1969). Ellman, Millet and Germaine Greer played an important role in raising questions about the practice of showing feminism in both contemporary and canon literature.

Second wave feminism: gynocriticism (early 1960s-late 1970s)

The second wave of feminism focused on establishing more equal working conditions, which were necessary in the U.S. during World War II, and bringing women together for feminist political activism. 

The feminist criticism during this wave is also called "gynocriticism," and it involves three major aspects: 

  1. Examination and recognition of female writers' work.
  2. Consideration of the treatment of women in literary works by both male and female authors.
  3. Exploring the canon of literature written by female writers in order to understand female writers' contributions in the context of female empowerment and criticizing the ways women have been treated (and mistreated) in various cultures.

During this time, Simone de Beauvoir ("Le Deuxième Sexe", 1949) and Elaine Showalter established the groundwork for feminist theories and helped them spread more broadly. 

In her book "A Literature of Their Own," Showalter proposed three phases of women writing: 

  1. Feminine Phase: women writers try to follow the rules made by male writers, try to avoid debating and questioning women's place in the literature, and try to write as men by using male pseudonyms. 
  2. Feminist Phase: women writers begin criticizing women's treatment in society and literature, and the oppression of women in society is the main theme of gender criticism in their works.
  3. Female Phase: women writers begin moving from merely providing the woman's perspective to having confidence in their work and assuming that whatever they have written is valid and doesn't need aggressive arguments and support to prove its authenticity.

Third wave feminism (early 1990s-present)

This wave of feminism seeks to resist the perceived essentialist (overgeneralized, oversimplified) ideologies and white, heterosexual, middle-class focus of second wave feminism. It borrows from post-structural and contemporary race and gender theories to expand on marginalized populations' experiences. Third wave feminists emphasize individual rights, as well as acceptance of diversity.

The third wave's roots are in the "riot grrl" feminist punk subculture that begin in Olympia, Washington in the early 1990s. That subculture began with the purpose of bringing consciousness and politics together through punk style.

In this time, writers such as Alice Walker work to reconcile feminism with their own minority communities' concerns.  Some key works to understand this wave's feminist criticisms are Deborah McDowell's "New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism" (1980), Alice Walker's "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens" (1983), Lillian S. Robinson's "Treason out Text: Feminist Challenges to the Literary Canon" (1983), and Camille Paglia's "Sexual Personae: The Androgyne in Literature and Art" (1990). Riot grrls and Sarah Dyer's Action Girl Newsletter also played important roles in creating the iconography and style for the zine movement for women in this era.

Changed views towards feminism in the third wave

Third wave feminists, authors and critics argue that feminism's meaning has changed considerably, and needs to now be viewed with a different perspective. They believe that women need to rise above concerns about equality merely in jobs, education or family settings. Instead, third wave feminists argue, women need to raise their voices and fight for their rights. 

Chief Justice Clarence Thomas' appointment to the Supreme Court despite sexual harassment allegations against him by Anita Hill was a major tipping point for this movement. For women in the third wave, Thomas' appointment illustrated the need for more work for feminism.

Key words in feminist criticism

There are a few key words in feminist criticism that one must to understand in order to follow many works. 

  • Patriarchy: traditional male-dominated society.
  • Marginalization: the process or state of being forced to the edges of social and political significance.

The practice of feminist criticism.

Feminist criticism is applied to literature by examining the characters' portrayals, the text's language, the author's attitude, and the inter-character relationships. Feminist critics also consider the author's apparent commentary about society as a whole. 

Some questions that feminist critics may ask include: 

  • How is the relationship between men and women portrayed?
  • What are the power relationships between men and women?
  • How are male and female roles defined?
  • What constitutes masculinity and femininity?
  • What does the work reveal about the operations (economic, political, social, or psychological) of patriarchy?
  • What does the work imply about the possibilities of sisterhood as a mode of resisting patriarchy?
  • What does the work say about women's creativity?
  • What does the history of the work's reception by the public and by the critics tell us about the operation of patriarchy?

Feminist criticism's goals

Ultimately, feminist criticism, like the broader feminist movement itself, asks us to consider the relationships between men and women and their relative roles in society. Much of feminist criticism reminds us that men and women's roles in society are often unequal and reflective of a particular patriarchal ideology, and these realities are often represented in both the production of literature and literary texts themselves. 

Deborah Appleman, a Professor of Education Studies at Carleton College, says, "Feminist theorists ask readers to pay particular attention to the patterns of thought, behavior, values, and power in [male-female] relationships. Feminist literary critics remind us that literary values, conventions, and even the production of literature, have themselves been historically shaped by men. They invite us to consider writings by women , both new and forgotten, and also ask us to consider viewing familiar literature through a feminist perspective."

By considering literature and the world around us from a feminist perspective, feminist critics seek to make us more aware of our societies' attitudes towards women, especially in cases where current attitudes harm or otherwise marginalize women. 

By recognizing women's value and their contributions to literature and society, feminist criticism seeks to elevate women to their rightful place in society as contributors to and important elements of literary works and society writ large.

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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