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Feminist Critical Theory Essay

The Agony of Feminism: Why Feminist Theory Is Necessary After All*
Nina Baym

New Historicists believe that everything is complicit with everything else; history is what had to happen. Old historicists like me believe that history is what didn't have to happen--but it did. Even an old historicist, however, should not have imagined that feminist criticism might escape the sweeping attack launched on traditional academic literary criticism by theory. Yet, some of us doing feminist criticism in the 1970s did just that. We thought that since feminist criticism was already critical of traditional literary criticism, it would be exempted from theory's general dismissal of criticism as parochial, naive, and primitive. We also supposed that a specifically feminist theory would support rather than dismiss our work.

Alas. High theory in general paid little attention to feminist criticism, leaving the job to feminist theory, which did not address the false universalism, misogyny and gender asymmetry of mainstream literary criticism so much as it anatomized the shortcomings of a specifically feminist criticism. Feminist theory applied theory's general contempt for criticism to feminist criticism in particular: it was naive, parochial, primitive. Jane Gallop, belatedly reading the 1972 critical anthology Images of Women in Fiction, registers surprise at finding it "much more diverse, sophisticated, complex, and interesting than I had imagined." She continues, "Usually cited as the first phase of feminist literary study, considerations of Images of Women in literature are generally treated as juvenilia, of archival value at best," representations of what though perhaps a heroic time, was also a "simpler time, when we were bold but crude" (79).

To be sure, feminist theory might have been interpreted sympathetically as a well-meant albeit patronizing attempt to refashion feminist criticism for the increasingly high-toned ambiance of English, French, and Comparative Literature departments. But empirical feminist literary critics like myself were more distressed by the put-down than grateful for the help. Feminist theory's main point--that no coherent definition of that crucial feminist term woman underlay our diverse undertakings--was undoubtedly correct. But feminist theory's obsessive complaints over, alternately, the dearth or surplus of concepts of woman in our work seemed to reanimate the disabling essentialism that our practical feminism had hoped to escape.

Feminist critics coming to voice in the 1970s were also alarmed by feminist theory's peculiar affinity for the misogynist psychoanalytic determinisms that we were implicitly or explicitly trying to discredit. (Freudianism and Lacanianism are both misogynistically determinist. Whether anatomical or linguistic, psychoanalysis excludes women from civilization and its discontents, indeed makes civilization dependent on that exclusion.) Many of us had been severely damaged or at least painfully threatened by psychoanalytic pseudo-explanations that pathologized our intellectual aspirations as penis envy or masculinity complexes. Many of us had experienced the terrifying reality of father-figures whose need to seduce us far exceeded our desire to seduce them. And (to return to Gallop's dichotomy) without granting that boldness is necessarily crudeness, many of us thought that boldness was still very necessary. Anne Snitow has written that "when basic rights are under attack, liberalism feels necessary again" (27). Again! Some of us have never known a time when basic rights for women have not been under attack.

A collective (although not collectively produced) expression of our feminist dismay appeared in a special issue of Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature (1984), reissued in book form as Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship (Benstock, 1987). This book immediately became, and has remained, a target of feminist theorists, some of whom have attacked it as antifeminist, focusing on my essay subtitled "Why I don't do Feminist Literary Theory" (see Finke, "Rhetoric"; Meese). The agony of feminism in my title, then, refers to the agonizing reality of this feminist discord.

Since discord exists, feminists have neither the luxury nor the option of overlooking it. Not only do we come into conflict with many women in the population at large whose true interests we presume to speak for, we differ profoundly and intractably among ourselves. So who is this "we," who are "ourselves?" Discord characterizes and has characterized feminism within the academy--and outside of it--from the first (see Echols). Discord undercuts any idea of all women as partaking of one essence, unless quarrelsomeness is part of the essence, as indeed many misogynists do gleefully maintain. I think of quarrelsomeness, rather, as an intrinsically human quality.

Discord also erodes the ideal of a somnolent but rousable sisterhood underlying the worlds of diverse women, the ideal to which so many feminists passionately subscribe. Nor is their agony to be evaded by renaming discord 'dialogic,' as implied in the title of an important recent reader, Feminisms (Warhol and Herndl). The name of a another collection, the 1990 Conflicts in Feminism (Hirsch and Keller), better expresses the current atmosphere in academic feminism. Reviewing this book, Sara Lennox refers to the "chilly politeness or persistent antagonism" in many women's studies programs, and hopes that "vigorous debate conducted with sympathy, solidarity, and respect will become a vehicle to move feminists past the positions in which we are presently mired" (654).

Her language forlornly invokes the ideal of sisterhood whose absence in practice is, I think, what feminist theory is all about. For, as Lennox observes, the subject of Conflicts in Feminism is not feminism in general but feminist theory--more precisely, feminist theory as elaborated mainly in the English departments of American colleges and universities. I suppose therefore that feminist theory has defined itself as the study of feminist discord, and that its practice, while attempting to mediate that discord, must of necessity refer to and possibly also exacerbate it. While furiously debating each other, feminist theorists agonize over their belief that feminism ought to be particularly characterized by cooperative, supportive behavior among its adherents: that, in a phrase, feminism ought to represent the "different voice" of women (Gilligan). Put more theoretically, feminist theory constantly analyzes and destabilizes every feminist attempt to ground practice in one definition of woman, while nevertheless clinging to a notion of women as a single group on behalf of whom it is doing its work. Ultimately the greatest agony of feminist theory in particular, as opposed to feminism in general, may be that it has been unable to develop theoretical practice in a different voice, but only does theory as usual.

That any aggregation of individual examples of feminist literary criticism will comprise an incoherent and unstable body of work is not contested here. The empirical literary historian Martha Banta has cleverly written of the impression left by a collection of feminist criticism, as being:

For essentialism, and against it. For women gaining power through art's politics by means of usurping masculine modes, and against women who succeed at the cost of picking up the vile habits involved in the making of patriarchal art. For women inspired by the domestic arts of "the mothers," and against a woman's art that regresses to the trivia of painted china and embroidery needles. For women who gain access to art's inspiration through joining the community of sisters, and against the notion that women who struggle alone reinscribe Romantic images of male genius. (399)

Feminist theorists like Gallop might see in this incoherence a lamentable lack of sophistication, i.e., an innocence of theory.

But one might argue otherwise: feminist literary criticism is indeed theory-based. It depends, however, on the one school of theory that all other varieties of feminist theory (in common with most forms of current academic critical theory) oppose. That is, liberal theory. I want therefore to stress that the feminism we know today originates in western Enlightenment liberalism, that is, in a new conception of human nature as universal, and in a conjoined movement for human rights in particular cases based on that universal. Enlightenment liberalism holds that all human beings possess the capacity of reason; so does liberal feminism. And in spite of announced hostility to reason as a tool of western male imperialism, antiliberal feminist theorists operate with hair-splitting logical exactness, pillorying the opposition above all for lack of analytical rigor; it is impossible to conceive of more rationalist criteria than these.

Enlightenment liberalism believes that all human beings have a kind of selfhood that implies their right to possess their bodies and the results of that body's labor; all feminist political and social initiatives today depend on these tenets. I cite Anne Snitow again: "It's not that we haven't gone beyond classical liberalism in theory; but that in practice we cannot live beyond it" (27). I share this perspective, and question any theory that disregards the imperatives of practice.

Against this historical background, feminism may be interpreted as a bid to extend membership in universal human nature, and hence eligibility for human rights, to that category of beings named women. This is the point conveyed by Mary Wollstonecraft's title: "A vindication of the rights of woman." Like many other Enlightenment radicals, Wollstonecraft asks thinkers to accept the imperatives of their own reasoning. In defining women as human beings, therefore, liberal feminism has not failed to define 'woman' in a consistent or rigorous manner; it has positively refused to do so. It categorically insists on assimilating women to the class 'human.' It maintains that any definition of woman-as-such can only be arrived at by differentiating us from the human, and therefore provide a basis for arguments denying us our human rights, whatever these rights might, at any particular historical time and place, consist of. Note that liberal feminism makes no a priori commitments to any particular definition of the human, always excepting the category of rationality. Its claim is that, whatever it is to be human, women are that too, and therefore eligible for the rights of human beings.

Our society, of course, does not guarantee to women all the rights--not to mention privileges--that it considers appropriate to the status of being human. Liberal feminists hold indeed that universally, whatever any culture values, women get less of it than men. If, conversely, you want to know what a culture--any culture, not merely western late capitalism--does not value, you should look at what it gives or ascribes or leaves to its women. Arguments to the contrary are just mystification. The hand that rocks the cradle, rocks the cradle. In societies where it is prestigious to wear skirts, the men are skirted. This is not to say that women are never and nowhere allowed any power, pleasure, property, or prestige at all: this would be a recipe for mass suicide. Nor is it to say that deprivations fall on all women equally either within or across cultures. Disparities among and between women have been so agonizingly conducive to feminist splits and conflicts that we clearly may not maintain that all women are equally culturally delegitimated. Neither, however, can we maintain illiberally that only the most delegitimated women are really women.

In demanding for women the same rights as those available to subjects already understood as human, the liberal position does not perceive women as the same as men, although this frivolous complaint has often been raised against it. Nor, for that matter, does it hold that women are the same as each other, another facile allegation. That is, liberal feminism does not deny differences, but assumes that whatever they may be, they do not justify denying women their rights as human beings, or circumscribing their rights as social and legal subjects, whatever these rights may be. You need not be the same as somebody else to qualify for the enjoyments of the protections and rights that such a somebody else enjoys. From the point of view of liberal theory, everybody is always already somebody's somebody else. The purpose of a liberal feminism is to encompass difference in a non-violent way. And although this is the point of most expressions of liberalism, I think that feminists are particularly sensitive to violence. Women are much more frequently recipients than perpetrators of violence. Women certainly do violence, but they usually aren't very good at it.

So while liberal feminism's unwillingness to say what it means by the term 'woman' certainly involves a lack of a certain kind of theoretical rigor, this lack may involve the presence of liberal theory as much as the absence of feminist theory. And, since feminist theory, like most critical theory, is anti-liberal, its actual target may be feminist criticism's liberalism rather than its theoretical ignorance or naivete. Indeed, whether poststructuralist (e.g., Butler); quasi-Marxist (e.g., Mackinnon); Marxist-poststructuralist (e.g., Benhabib and Cornell, Pateman); deconstructionist (e.g., Moi); or communitarianist (e.g., Fox-Genovese), liberalism is the one shared object of feminist theories' attack.

The presence of this theoretical binarism has not been much noted, partly because there are as yet very few liberal feminist theorists. The liberals in the literary field have been, for the most part, practical critics. And as such a critic, I will not attempt to rise to the sphere of theory by exposing specific shortcomings in particular strands of feminist theory or haranguing harangue against the practice of theory. I will instead offer a modest survey of the achievements of practical, liberal, feminist literary criticism, thereby suggesting why we continue to need this kind of criticism, and why we continue to do it, flawed as it is. This survey is not presented nostalgically. If anything, it is accompanied by a sense of urgency. For while the political right lumps liberalism with the hard left, the political left absurdly lumps liberalism with the right. I believe this situation is dangerous for all academics, not just liberals.

Among the valuables long denied to women as a class in our culture have been access to knowledge and the means of producing knowledge. Feminists also rightly assume that much less knowledge has been produced about women than about men, and that what knowledge exists justifies keeping women away from it: as, for example, the many arguments about women's intellectual inferiority to men. Feminist access to the academy, therefore, has inevitably led to programs to produce new knowledge about women. Literature and literary study were, perhaps, "natural" subjects in which to find and produce such knowledge. On the one hand, representations of women abound in literature; on the other, for the last two centuries in the west literature has been a field open to women. These known facts, along with the proportionately large number of women studying and teaching literature, made the dearth of literary knowledge about women more immediately obvious than might have been the case in some other fields. Claims that everything was known were manifestly false. Claims that everything was known that needed to be known were manifestly political.

Feminist critics proposed to make literary knowledge in two ways. First, they examined representations (or images, as they were then called) of women in standard literary works, and, second, they retrieved and analyzed neglected works by women writers. Neither strategy required a specialized, technical vocabulary. Both were "literary" in a dictionary sense: they worked with literary texts and produced literary commentary. Both were accessible in the classroom, enthusiastically received by women students, and effective enough in logical argumentation and analytic results to force a reconsideration of deeply held beliefs about literature among many academic literary men.

Operating well within the old terms of New Criticism, images-of-women study searches for, describes, and analyzes literary "images"--that is, representations of women in literature, not women directly. There is no need to anchor these representations in any particular belief about what is real. Much of the feminist impact of image study rose precisely from demonstrating that they were not anchored in the real, as traditionary criticism so often held, as though images of women in literature represented women as they really were, while images of flowers, or the moon, or the albatross, were strictly literary devices. Feminists held that representations of women were also strictly literary devices, and studied them for what they revealed about the writer who deployed them and the culture in which that writer worked. Images-of-women study turned out to imply a powerful attack on the received canon, an attack all the more powerful for using the very instruments by which the received canon had been validated. Audre Lourde has memorably written that the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house, but in this much-quoted sentence she used the master's tools quite effectively to make its point. One might ask: what other tools could dismantle the house?

Images-of-women study remains the single most effective academic tool for bringing about feminist awareness in readers. Many so-called great literary works image women only as items in male fantasy, or in ways that confirm or inculcate their social subordination. Because of findings with respect to the obvious fantasy content, or the misogyny, or both, of much male literary representation of women, critics dedicated to the high canon as it existed in, say, the late 1950s, were pushed into increasingly defensive and ever-less-defensible postures. Even radical feminists may feel defensive, as in the case of a radical feminist teacher who loves Shakespeare and was faced with the problem of women students who reached "strikingly negative conclusions" about Shakespeare's plays. One concluded that "Shakespeare was a misogynist"; another said she was "left with a sour impression from Shakespeare as he depicts gender relations only in the framework of . . . maintaining the dominance of males while publicly denouncing the empowerment of women" (Finke, Feminist 148-49).

Now, if this is what Shakespeare--or any other writer--in fact did, why does recognizing it out lead to discomfort? The reason is that the author's hitherto unquestioned greatness is put into question. The criteria for greatness which his work has been held to satisfy are apparently unmet; perhaps the criteria themselves need reexamination. The dilemma is most commonly addressed by teaching Shakespeare, or any other writer similarly compromised, as an example of his time. But this avoids rather than resolves the dilemma. To teach Shakespeare in this way undercuts any particular reason for teaching Shakespeare as opposed to any other person of the age who happens to be handy. One is teaching Shakespeare because he's there, not because he's good. It will not do to say that Shakespeare was, after all, a man of his time, because the traditional reason for studying great artists has been precisely that they transcended their time. (New Historicism, to be sure, maintains that all writers are always, everywhere, and only of their time, that in effect there are no great artists; but New Historicism is about culture not literature, and its adherents would be teaching Shakespeare from the first as culturally exemplary.)

It will not do to say that Shakespeare transcended his time in some, but not all ways, and that (regrettably) on the subject of women he was a man of his time, because this implies that a writer's representations of women should not be really important to the way he is judged; i.e., that representations of women don't matter; i.e., that women don't matter. It will not do to insist that not women but humankind is the writer's subject, because this only repeats the unacceptable argument in a different form, excluding women from humankind, and affirming that the perspective in the work is, indeed, male, that there is, indeed, such a thing as a male perspective in literature.

It will not do to reintroduce the esthetic distance that feminist image study is often criticized for banishing by saying that Shakespeare should be read or studied for his esthetic achievement not his moral vision. Formalist argument will not work, because literary study as such, with or without feminist criticism, has never been really formalist, if formalism means being preoccupied or even more than superficially interested in technique, in craft, in a writer's strategies for achieving literary aims per se.

This point requires more development. So-called formalist criticism, including New Criticism, was always moral and ethical, always looking for an author's vision of "the human condition," always invoking writers as repositories of wisdom, teachers of humankind, individuals gifted with an ability beyond the possession of technical skill. Even when practiced by experts, the language of esthetic value is amateurishly fuzzy and impressionistic. A sophisticated critic pleading for a return to appreciation of the art in literary language can do no better than: "this lovely moment in Hemingway's work is especially vulnerable, in its delicate poise," or "an impassioned--and vividly metaphorical utterance," or even just "extraordinary language" (Pritchard, 728, 727). Even this critic, fatigued by the relentless didacticism of thematic criticism, quickly modulates from observations on George Eliot's language to observations on how she may be "deliberately mocking the conception of women as pure and sacrosanct" (732). This is a commentary about meaning, not about language.

The New Critics may have confined themselves to the limits of a text, or imagined that they did. But they certainly did not ignore themes. They did talk about how great writers projected themes through specifically literary language and purely literary techniques, thereby claiming for literature the status of a mode of knowledge: i.e., as something more than merely esthetic or merely enjoyable. It was the knowledge, however, that they were after. They were formalist in their effort to differentiate literature-as-such from other modes of linguistic discourse, and to celebrate writing as a special kind of human activity. But their ultimate judgment of literary worth depended on thematic significance and complexity.

Moreover, insofar as literature is shaped as a school subject, it necessarily serves the purposes of schooling, which seldom include making esthetes. The main purposes of schooling, as one historian of education after another has demonstrated, have always been civic and hence political in some sense; "literature" entered various curricula at various times and places in support of various public agendas. The new historicist, New Left, or multiculturalist agendas in this respect are totally conventional; supposedly innovative attacks on the principle of "literariness" as elitist actually restate and reinstate the aims of late 19th century advocates of literature in school: it will make good citizens of the nation's children. The specific ideals of citizenship may have changed, but the ideal of making citizens remains. (See the bibliography in Baym, "Early Histories," Guillory.)

Because, then, moral significance has always been the main criterion for literary value, when feminist image study disclosed that revered repositories of transcendent moral value were denigrators of women, these great writers' breadth was rightly compromised, their transcendence rightly undermined. Men as well as women readers and scholars have been influenced by this unimpeachable demonstration of the moral limits of the literary greats. There has been a measurable shift in the literary academy, paralleling shifts in other parts of United States social and political life. The point here, then, is not that the writing of this or that dead white male is politically incorrect in some extremely local sense, but that it fails on precisely the grounds of moral spaciousness by which it has traditionally been justified to clients as worth their close attention and respect.

Finally, it will not do to argue that studying literature in this feminist way imposes on works a politics they do not have. Reading for images showed that works "themselves" often did inculcate or approve situations of power asymmetry as a part of their thematic apparatus, or advanced hatred and fear of women as manly virtues. In a world so structured by gender, how could it have been otherwise?

A still more radical interpretive conclusion might be drawn if it were truly the case that feminist approaches to literature could successfully make a political work out of one that was not "itself" political. The very notion of a work's having a meaning, in the sense of something dependably there for all readers, would be jeopardized. Not merely feminist interpretation, but all interpretation might be seen as rhetorical and political. This seems to be what is at stake, for example, in a much-publicized dispute between John Searle and Gerald Graff in the New York Review. In his letter to the editor marking the end of the debate, Searle comments that

In the study of most great works of literature, the political dimension is minor. You will miss the point of, say, Proust or Shakespeare, if you think that their main interest is the bearing of their work on the sort of political preoccupations that we happen to have today. It is, in short, a vulgarization of the study of literature to suppose that the primary categories for addressing literary works are those to be derived from the "leftist" (or "rightist" or "centrist," etc.) persuasion of the sort espoused by Professor Graff. (63, emphasis mine)

The important words in this paragraph are all rhetorical. Searle is not describing what literature is, but arguing for the way in which literature should be studied. And it could be argued that in saying that most great works have only minor political interest, Searle is simply offering a negative definition of literary greatness. For nobody can dictate the "main interest" of a literary work, let alone most of them. since no "interest" is conceivable without interested parties, whose interests are likely to vary markedly, and may likely as not include politics, why should this interest be excluded? Describing political interests as a 'vulgarization' of literary study, Searle seems to be trying shame critics out of politics, invoking the late Victorian ideal of literature as a genteel avocation rather than a life's work.

Perhaps the interest Searle is invoking is the author's, meaning by "interest" authorial intention. Yet, the possibility of the author's having a political interest cannot be dismissed in advance and a priori. Maybe Proust was apolitical (though not uninterested in class and sexuality, two other preoccupations we happen to have today). But Shakespeare? Surely one can argue convincingly for the centrality of a political interest in plays like Julius Caesar or Coriolanus, or even King Lear and Macbeth, not to mention all Shakespeare's pro-Tudor history plays. Henry V, for instance, with its extended and complex conversations on kingship, citizenship, militarism, patriotism, nationalism, and political eloquence, can hardly be approached except as a political play. Although its politics are Elizabethan, they are also sufficiently kin to those that we happen to have today to make the play interesting to a contemporary audience without falsifying it, to align Shakespeare's interest with ours.

To sum up, it was the effect of feminist image study to put into question the entire range of unexamined premises by which literary value had been assumed or asserted, and hence thoroughly to disrupt the practices of normal literary criticism and normal literary pedagogy. The important insights of feminist image study, however, are not without their limitations. Invariably, the limitations manifest themselves when a pragmatic approach is abandoned for a-prioritism--when, for example, such study assumes that male-authored texts cannot help but represent women invidiously, that "women" in men's texts are therefore always textual victims; or when it assumes that readers will read only from the perspective of a gender whose characteristics are taken to be fixed and known in advance. Image study too often takes for granted a unified female identity that is manifestly inadequate to the variety of women in literature and the material world. In stabilizing gender across time and place, image study may merely substitute two universal readers or transcendent points of view for the one we had before.

Image study has also tended to assume that woman-authored texts would present alternative images to those in works by men. The second strand of feminist criticism, the study of women writers (gynocritics) grew directly from the search for undistorted, realer, more "positive" images of women than those in men's texts. Like image study, gynocritics has been conventionally literary. It has focused on works like novels and poems written for publication; it analyzed its selected works in new critical terms as thematic repositories couched in a particularized literary language; it has worked within accepted paradigms of literary scholarship like biography and literary history. This kind of study often scrutinized unpublished journals, diaries, or letters; but this was not a radical move. Gynocriticism affirmed, even strengthened, the centrality of the author-concept, and it did this at just the time when emergent poststructuralist theories were proclaiming the author's death. Many feminist and postcolonialist critics have noted the disappearance of the subject from high theory at just the moment when formerly silent groups were expressing their subjectivities. Some of us, seeing theory as at least partly an attempt by elite professional males to escape the feminization (or proletarianization) of their domain, think this is no coincidence at all.

Yet, despite its literary orientation, and like image study, the study of women writers was attacked by traditionalists; and indeed its innovations, like those of image study, threatened the status quo. It introduced numerous new authors and works, insisting that they were perhaps objects of equal value, and certainly objects of equal interest, with the canonized greats. It questioned critical claims that the current canon had always existed in the shape it then took, or even that it represented sensitive selection from available works. How could it represent an informed selection from the totality when most defenders of the high canon knew nothing about the many women writers whose works were being retrieved? Some of those women writers, it turned out, had once enjoyed considerable prestige. And so had some men one no longer heard of. In 1860, for example, the American textbook publisher A.S. Barnes advertised "Bond's English Poets. The English Poets, With Critical Notes." These poets were: John Milton, Edward Young ("Night thoughts"), James Thomson ("The Seasons"), William Cowper ("The Task" and "Table Talk") and Robert Pollok ("The Course of Time"). My colleagues of course know, though none of them teach or study, Young, Thomson, and Cowper. But none had ever heard of Pollok.

The language in which Barnes recommended this set of presently obscure writers to the general public strikes so much the note of today's defenses of the (supposedly eternal) high canon that I cannot resist quoting it:

In this age, when the press is covering our land with a frivolous and pernicious literature, there is great danger that the rising generation will too much neglect, if not entirely lose sight of those noble and solid productions of the British Muse which have been familiar to their predecessors. These are worthy, not of a hasty perusal only, but of frequent and profound study--especially by the young--for the varied information which they contain; for the learning and taste, and high order of genius which they display; and for the eminent service which they are adapted to afford in the proper culture of the mind and of the heart.

This spectacle of canonical flux invites one to suppose that the dearth of women writers in the canon eventuated from judgments not purely esthetic. When they focus on women writers, such approaches as reception study, history and analysis of canon-formation, and biographical and literary investigation often reveal not merely how their subjects were thwarted and deformed by sexual prejudice but how the works they managed to produce have been marginalized and minoritized by gender-biased criticism. Tcese findings pointed to the importance of historical contingencies, changes in taste, and a range of non-esthetic institutional factors in determining the canon at any particular moment. Janet Maslin, reviewing the film of The Last of the Mohicans in the New York Times, refers to the novel as "that most stultifying of American classics"; yet any scholar of antebellum American literature knows that the novel was received by its first audience as probably the most exciting work of fiction ever produced. At one and the same time, then, feminist critics were breaking up the canon and demonstrating that the canon had never really existed as such. It could never be anything but a snapshot of the preoccupations we happen to have today, never a monument of our interests throughout time, and never composed of works of self-evident esthetic value judged by unchanging standards.

Gynocritics was not only interested in recovering neglected works by women, it also assumed that there must be connections between the attributes of the recovered work and the writer's gender. Such an assumption, combining with the destabilization of the universal subject implied in image study, could lead to the conclusion that insofar as they were records of experience, women's writings were equally valuable with men's, if women were equally valuable as persons. More obviously, women tended to write about women, so that their works were a reasonable place to look for depictions of female life, thought, and experience. Beside the fact that this interest again put under erasure the so-called universal subject and the allied universal standards of literary value, gynocritics raised the awful specter of a feminized field, where male English professors would not only have to teach mostly women students--this they had been doing for some time--but also teach significant numbers of women authors. And if this seemed a horrible prospect, one wonders why it did not seem equivalently horrible when women professors were expected to teach mostly books by and about men. Of course the answer lies in the sexual asymmetry of our society, which means that women teaching about men are stepping up, men teaching about women are stepping down.

One way for traditional critics to escape this dilemma was to return to the formal by insisting that, through no fault of their own, women writers just haven't been able to write as well as men. Regrettably, they had up to now lacked opportunities equal to men for representing their experience. One could even go so far as to claim that language itself, having been in men's possession for so long, was inherently male in character, so that women's writing in any historical sense was almost a contradiction in terms. And this, indeed, is a point advanced by some varieties of feminist theory as well, although the search for a purely female literary language has proved problematical in the extreme. The best that critics have been able to do is come up with a version of modernist or postmodernist experimentation as a specifically "female" endeavor, which it manifestly is not (see Jardine). But regardless of whether women had or had not hitherto represented themselves in writing, it was impossible to argue any longer that men had done the job for them.

Gynocritics, then, while continuing the disruptive work of image criticism, also led to the inclusion of women's writings in the canon and the literary curriculum. But in this domain, too, a-prioritism marked the limits of its vision. Whenever gynocritic scholars took the step of assuming any fixed correlations between gender and text, they fell like image critics into the essentialist trap, and became fair game for feminist theory. Any fixed correlation involved a temporary universalizing or totalizing of "Woman" in an unusably narrow way, excluding whole classes of women and congeries of individual women from the overclass of woman. On the other hand, whenever this next step was not taken, gynocritic scholars were vulnerable to the charge of theoretical naivete.

Some opponents of gynocritics have argued that women's experience in the typical gynocritical text, as well as the typical gynocritic herself, were at first white, heterosexual, and middle-class. I think this is true, and the defect is being remedied by more gynocritics and more careful, historically specific and culturally nuanced generalization. On occasion, however, opponents of gynocritics have downgraded or invalidated the experience, work, writing, attainments, the very existence of white, middle-class, heterosexual women, and ignored the many differences among women in this large class. The search for women who are more woman than others does not escape essentialism or a-prioritism, but moves it to a different site. To choose the type that is the most woman because the most oppressed not only defines many women as not-women, but patronizingly conceptualizes minority women as nothing but oppressed, as pure, ahistorical victims. This strategy ironically replicates just that long-suffering Victorian angel whose representation played so large a role in repressive Victorian gender ideology.

Gynocritics were also vulnerable to the Utopian expectation that all works by women would be ideologically correct in all particulars--would be completely free of class, race, ethnic, or sexual prejudice. What do to when a (probable) lesbian like Willa Cather turned out to be a committed Anglo-Saxonist? Or when Edith Wharton, attacking the upper class, demonstrated no sympathy for the plight of maidservants or even much awareness of their existence? Or when the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson called the Indians devils incarnate? The hidden gynocritic belief that women were like each other and unlike men by virtue of moral capaciousness, and that a canon of women writers would be a moral canon, could not survive the facts of gynocritic scholarship. The spectacle of policewoman teachers in the classroom is no more inviting and no more liberal than the spectacle of policemen.

Both image study and gynocritics, then, initially launched under the auspices of a liberal agenda, run into theoretical trouble at the point where, attempting to totalize the category woman, they abandon their enabling liberalism. I think both that the number of qualifiers that must hyphenate the material "woman" as she exists in time and space and culture is uncountable, that the task of enumerating them has barely begun. (Just as I think that the task of seriously rethinking literary quality has barely begun.) Hyphenated women are allegories. Ultimately, I believe that the process of specification within the total formulation "woman" can come to rest in literary study only by grounding literature in individual subjectivity, where, to a large extent, traditional literary criticism had placed it. Because this idea is traditional, many feminists find it hard to accept; and because it is liberal, feminist theorists want to repudiateit entirely.

I want to argue that to accept subjectivity and individuality as the basis of feminist practice does not require one to accept the philosophy of Ayn Rand, or accede to an old-style humanistic definition of the individual subject as autonomous, self-made, individually self-consistent, and self-powering. The humanism I adhere to is called "critical humanism" by Tzvetan Todorov. The totally autonomous subject was never anything more than the rhetorical expression of a will to power. Obviously the individual is a complex, ongoing social and genetic product. Obviously subjectivity is more or less determined, in proportions unknown and perhaps unknowable--certainly unknowable if they are denied--by history, society and biology. Obviously subjectivity is not stable; self-awareness is always uncertain, developing, inconsistent. Selves differ from themselves minute by minute, year by year, decade by decade.

The point is that in its particular economy of social and genetic impressions, its particular dynamics of inconsistencies and self-differences, each subjectivity--even as constituted by an accumulating repertory of transient subjectivities--differs from all others. Fingerprints or neural connections are unique to each human being, yet the human thumbprint is recognizable as what it is. Any human being who has been socially classified as female from birth by the appearance of her infant body in the world, who lives in a society that takes this appearance into account--this means all women--must register this classification in her subjectivity. But each will do so in changing ways, ways different from every other woman, although in ways unpredictably more like some women than like some others, and in ways that will align her more with some men than with some women, in some circumstances. Feminist literary critics may try to look at what women share; but woman, though much written about, has never written anything.

My own dilemma, my agony in this context, is that the individualism that attracts me as a feminist is currently rejected in most feminist theories. The recognition of subjectivity that grounds my feminist practice obviously does not ground it for others. We do not think alike. But then I must ask myself what, as a liberal, I could possibly have expected. Liberal theory holds that we do not, cannot, and perhaps ethically must not think alike. Ironically, if the hallmark of classical liberal discourse is acrimonious competitive debate, feminist theory instantiates it perfectly; my own liberalism looks much more like a weak form of communitarianism. Antiliberal feminist theory has shown me that liberal feminism could not avoid difference by pious appeals to pluralism but would rather have to live its pluralism or abandon it. But antiliberal feminist theory also demonstrates, enacts, its own inability to resolve the conflicts it debates so vigorously. These conflicts cannot be resolved by theory; they cannot be resolved. They cannot be resolved because women are individual after all. And that agonizing reality makes feminist theory necessary after all.

*Originally published in The Emperor ReDressed: Critiquing Critical Theory, ed Dwight Eddins. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995, pp. 101-117.

Works Cited

Banta, Martha. Review of Writing the Woman Artist, American Literature, 64 (1992): 399-400.

Baym, Nina. "Early Histories of American Literature: A Chapter in the Institution of New England," Feminism and American Literary History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992), pp. 81-101.

____________. "The Madwoman and Her Languages: Why I Don't do Feminist Literary Theory," in Feminism and American Literary History, pp. 199-213.

Benhabib, Seyla, and Drucilla Cornell, eds. Feminism as Critique: On the Politics of Gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Benstock, Shari, ed. Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Echols, Alice. Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Finke, Laurie A. "The Rhetoric of Marginality: Why I Do Feminist Theory," Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, 5 (1986):251-72.

_______________. Feminist Theory, Women's Writing. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Gallop, Jane. Around 1981. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Gilligan, Carol. In a different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Guillory, John. "Canonical and Non-Canonical: A Critique of the Current Debate," New Literary History, 54 (1987): 483-527.

Hirsch, Marianne, and Evelyn Fox Keller, eds. Conflicts in Feminism. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Jardine, Alice. Gynesis: Configurations of Women and Modernity. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Lennox, Sara. Review of Conflicts in Feminism, Signs 17 (1992): 652-57).

Mackinnon, Catharine A. Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Maslin, Janet. Film review of "The Last of the Mohicans." The New York Times, September 25, 1992.

Meese, Elizabeth A. (Ex)Tensions: Refiguring Feminist Criticism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Methuen, 1985.

Pateman, Carole. The Sexual Contract. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Pritchard, William H. "Ear Training," South Atlantic Quarterly, 91 (1992): 721-38.

Searle, John. Response to Gerald Graff. New York Review of Books, May 16, 1991.

Snitow, Anne. "A Gender Diary." In Hirsch and Keller.

Todorov, Tzvetan. "All Against Humanity," Times Literary Supplement, October 4, 1985.

Warhol, Robyn R., and Diane Price Herndl. Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991.












Feminist literary criticism is literary criticism informed by feminist theory, or more broadly, by the politics of feminism. It uses the principles and ideology of feminism 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.[1] 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 and expanding the canon of what is commonly taught.[2]

Traditionally, feminist literary criticism has sought to examine old texts within literary canon through a new lens. Specific goals of feminist criticism include both the development and discovery female tradition of writing, and rediscovering of old texts, while also interpreting symbolism of women's writing so that it will not be lost or ignored by the male point of view and resisting sexism inherent in the majority of mainstream literature. These goals, along with the intent to analyze women writers and their writings from a female perspective, and increase awareness of the sexual politics of language and style[3] were developed by Lisa Tuttle in the 1980s, and have since been adopted by a majority of feminist critics.

The history of feminist literary criticism is extensive, 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. Before the 1970s—in the first and second waves of feminism— feminist literary criticism was concerned with women's authorship and the representation of women's condition within literature; in particular the depiction of fictional female characters. In addition, feminist literary criticism is concerned with the exclusion of women from the literary canon, with theorists such as Lois Tyson suggesting that this is because the views of women authors are often not considered to be universal ones.[4]

Additionally, feminist criticism has been closely associated with the birth and growth of queer studies. Modern feminist literary theory seeks to understand both the literary portrayals and representation of both women and people in the queer community, expanding the role of a variety of identities and analysis within feminist literary criticism.[5]

Methods employed[edit]

Feminist scholarship has developed a variety of ways to unpack literature in order to understand its essence through a feminist lens. 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- which is considered a 'female' perspective on women's writings - 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.”[6]

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.[7]

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.[8]

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, which analyzes how the dominant ideology of a subject influences societal understanding. It has also considered gender in the terms of Freudian and Lacanianpsychoanalysis, as part of the deconstruction of existing relations of power, and as a concrete political investment.[9] 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.

When looking at literature, modern feminist literary critics also seek ask how feminist, literary, and critical the critique practices are,with scholars such as Susan Lanser looking to improve both literature analysis and the analyzer's own practices to be more diverse.[6]

History and critics[edit]

While the beginning of more mainstream feminist literary criticism is typically considered during second-wave feminism, there are multiple texts prior to that era that contributed greatly to the field. Feminist literary criticism can be traced back to medieval times, with some arguing that Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath could be an example of early feminist literally critics.[2] Additionally, the period considered First wave feminism also contributed extensively to literature and women's presence within it. For example,1929's A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf is undoubtedly considered one of these formative texts. In it, Woolf argues that in order to write creatively and be critically successful, a woman must be able to own her own space`and financial stability. And though the basis of the plot is around a Woolf speaking at a conference for women's literature, she speculates that there is still a long way to go for women and so-called 'women's issues' in creative space, especially based on the differences in educational quality Woolf observed between men and women.[10]

Modern feminist literary criticism finds most of 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.[11]

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.”[6] In a similar vein, Elaine 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.

Additionally, 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.

In 1977 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar published The Madwoman in the Attic, an analysis of women's poetry and prose, and how it fits into the larger feminist literary canon. This publication has become a staple of feminist criticism and has expanded the realm of publications considered to be feminist works, especially in the 19th century. The book specifically argues that women have largely been considered in two distinct categories by men in academia, monsters or angels. Gilbert and Gubar argued that being trapped in these categories regulated women writers to specific areas of literature and writing, leaving the rest open only to men, and causing a distinct anxiety in women's writers to stay specifically within those categories or be ridiculed.[12] Gilbert and Gubar's specific focus on literary criticism in the realm of poetry and other short pieces has expanded the possibilities of feminist literary contributions today, as they were previously seen as less valid than longer works. Today, writers like Gloria E. Anzaldúa have been able to contribute to the feminist canon, while still working with writing forms other than full-sized novels.

In the 1980s, 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 of the period. 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. In this essay McDowell also extensively discussed black women's portrayal in literature, and how it came across as even more negative than white women's portrayal. As time moved forward, the theory began to disperse in ideology. Many decided 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.[13]

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.[14] Current feminist scholars in the field of literature include Hortense Spillers, 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.

Modern Applications[edit]

As with other aspects of feminist theory, over the course of the second half of twentieth century feminist literary criticism has expanded to include a significantly broader spectrum of identities under the umbrella term of 'feminism.' Third wave feminist theory and beyond has striven to include more identities and aspects of intersectionality, and feminist literary criticism has followed suit. Third wave feminism and feminist literary criticism is concerned more with the intersection of race and other feminist concerns.[15] As a result, the variety and nature of texts examined has grown to include more texts from transnational perspective, while still maintaining its roots in analyzing how male dominated society effects the interpretation and creation of literature.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  1. ^Fraiman, Susan (1989). "The Humiliation of Elizabeth Bennett". Refiguring the Father: New Feminist Readings of Patriarchy: 168–87. 
A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
  1. ^"Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism". Purdue OWL. Retrieved 29 January 2016. 
  2. ^ abPlain, Gill; Sellers, Susan (2007). A History of Feminist Literary Criticism. Cambridge University Press. 
  3. ^Tuttle, Lisa: Encyclopedia of feminism. Harlow: Longman 1986, p. 184
  4. ^Tyson, Lois (2006). Critical Theory: A User Friendly Guide 2nd Edition. 270 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10016: Routledge. pp. 107, 108. ISBN 978-0-415-61617-1. 
  5. ^Raman, Selden; Widdowson, Peter (1993). A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory 3rd Edition. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. pp. 238, 239. ISBN 978-0813108162. 
  6. ^ abcLanser, Susan S. "Feminist Literary Criticism: How Feminist? How Literary? How Critical?." NWSA Journal 3.1 (1991): 3. Academic Search Complete.
  7. ^"Bedford / St. Martin's". Archived from the original on 1 September 2015. Retrieved 29 January 2016. 
  8. ^"EBSCO Publishing Service Selection Page". Retrieved 29 January 2016. 
  9. ^Barry, Peter, 'Feminist Literary Criticism' in Beginning theory (Manchester University Press: 2002), ISBN 0-7190-6268-3
  10. ^Woolf, Virginia (2012). A Room of One's Own. Eastford, CT 06242: Martino Fine Books. pp. 17–21. ISBN 978-1614272779. 
  11. ^"Feminist Approaches to Literature | Great Writers Inspire". writersinspire.org. Retrieved 2016-10-10. 
  12. ^Gilbert, Sandra; Gubar (2006). The Madwoman In the Attic 2nd Edition. London: New Haven : Yale University Press. pp. 45–92. ISBN 978-0300084580. 
  13. ^"EBSCO Publishing Service Selection Page". Retrieved 29 January 2016. 
  14. ^"Feminist Approaches to Literature". Retrieved 29 January 2016. 
  15. ^VanNewkirk, Robbin Hillary. "Third Wave Feminist History and the Politics of Being Visible and Being Real". ScholarWorks @ Georgia State University. Georgia State University. Retrieved 10 October 2017. 

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