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Feminist Literary Criticism and its Distinct Developmental Phases.

The emergence of feminist literary criticism is one of the major developments in literary studies in the past forty years or so. Feminist literary criticism seeks to study and advocate the rights of women in the following ways. Women are oppressed by patriarchy economically, politically, socially, and psychologically. Patriarchal ideology is the primary means by which they are kept so. In every domain where patriarchy reigns, woman is other: she is marginalized, defined only by her difference from male norms and values. All of western (Anglo-European) civilization is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideology, for example, in the biblical portrayal of Eve as the origin of sin and death in the world. While biology determines our sex (male or female), culture determines our gender (masculine or feminine).All feminist activity, including feminist theory and literary criticism, has as its ultimate goal to change the world by prompting gender equality. Gender issues play a part in every aspect of human production and experience, including the production and experience of literature, whether we are consciously aware of these issues or not.

To understand the nature of feminist literary criticism and its alternative approach to literature, we must first understand its long history expanding at least 200 years back. It is Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindica-ton of the Rights of woman (1792) which marks the first modem awareness of women's struggle for equal rights, and therefore it is the first milestone for the equality of the sexes. Seventy seven years later, The Subjection of Women (1869) by John Stuart Mill marked another development in feminism. Sixty years later Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929) developed and enhanced feminist views with a strong female sensibility and criticism. A Room of One 's Own became an important precursor of femi-nist literary criticism. Here, Virginia Woolf argues that the male domi-nated ideas of the patriarchal society prevented women from realizing their creativity and true potential. Another important name is Simone de Beauvoir whose The Second Sex(1949) has an important section on the portrayal of women in the novels of D.H.Lawrence. 

3 Phases of feminism 

The feminist literary criticism of today is the direct product of the ‘women’s movement’ of the 1960s.This movement was, in important ways, literary from the start, in the sense that it realized the significance of the images of women promulgated by literature, and saw it as vital to combat them and question their authority and their coherence. In this sense the women’s movement has always been crucially concerned with books and literature, so that feminist criticism should not be seen as an off-shoot or a spin-off from feminism which is remote from the ultimate aims of the movement, but as one of its most practical ways of influencing everyday conduct and attitudes.

The concern with ‘conditioning’ and ‘socialization’ underpins a crucial set of distinctions-that between the terms ‘feminist’, ‘female’, and ‘feminine’. As Toril Moi explains, the first is ‘a political position’, the second ‘a matter of biology’, and the third ‘a set of culturally defined characteristics’. Particularly in the distinction between the second and third of these lies much of the force of feminism. Other important ideas are explained in the appropriate part of the remainder of this section.

The representation of women in literature, then, was felt to be one of the most important forms of ‘socialisation’, since it provided the role models which indicated to women, and men, what constituted acceptable versions of the ‘feminine’ and legitimate feminine goals and aspirations. Feminists pointed out, for example, that in nineteenth-century fiction very few women work for a living, unless they are driven to it by dire necessity. Instead, the focus of interest is on the heroine’s choice of marriage partner, which will decide her ultimate social position and exclusively determine her happiness and fulfillment in life, or her lack of these.

Thus, in feminist criticism in the 1970s the major effort went into exposing what might be  called the mechanisms of patriarchy, that is, the cultural ‘mind-set’ in men and women which perpetuated sexual inequality. Critical attention was given to books by male writers in which influential or typical images of women were constructed. Necessarily, the criticism which undertook this work was combative and polemical.


In the 1980s, in feminism as in other critical approaches, the mood changed. Firstly, feminist criticism became much more eclectic, meaning that it began to draw upon the findings and approaches of other kinds of criticism-Marxism,structuralism,linguistics, and so on. Secondly, it switched its focus from attacking male versions of the world to exploring the nature of the female world and outlook, and reconstructing the lost or suppressed records of female experience. Thirdly, attention was switched to the need to construct a new canon of women’s writing by rewriting the history of the novel and of poetry in such a way that neglected women writers were given new prominence.

Such distinct phases of interest and activity seem characteristic of feminist criticism. Elaine Showalter, for instance, described the change in the late 1970s as a shift of attention from ‘androtexts’ (books by men) to ‘gynotexts’(books by women).She coined the term ‘gynocritics’, meaning the study of gynotexts, but gynocriticism is a broad and varied field, and any generalizations about it should be treated with caution. The subjects of gynocriticism are, she says, ‘the history, styles, themes, genres, and structures of writing by women; the psychodynamics of female creativity; the trajectory of the individual or collective female career; and the evolution or laws of a female literary tradition’.

Showalter also detects in the history of women’s writing a feminine phase(1840-80),in which women writers imitated dominant male artistic norms and aesthetic standards; then a feminist phase(1880-1920),in which radical and often separatist positions are maintained; and finally a female phase(1920 onwards)which looked particularly at female writing and female experience. The reasons for this liking for ‘phasing’ are complex: partly, it is the  result of the view that feminist criticism required a terminology if it was to attain theoretical respectability. More importantly, there is a great need, in all intellectual disciplines, to establish a sense of progress, enabling early and cruder examples of (in this case) feminist criticism to be given their rightful credit and acknowledgement while at the same time making it clear that the approach they represent is no longer generally regarded as a model for practice.

But feminist criticism since the 1970s has been remarkable for the wide range of positions that exist within it. Feminist criticism also began to take its methodological inspiration from theories as varied as Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis, or deconstruction. However, the main debates and disagreements in feminist criticism have centered on three particular areas, these being: 1.the role of theory;2.the nature of language, and 3.the value or otherwise of psychoanalysis.

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