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feminist criticism


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A modern tradition of literary commentary and polemic devoted to the defence of women's writing or of fictional female characters against the condescensions of a predominantly male literary establishment.

The beginnings of this movement are to be found in the journalism of R. West from about 1910. More influential as founding documents are the essays of V. Woolf, notably A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), and S. de Beauvoir's Le Deuxième Sexe (1949, translated as The Second Sex, 1953). In its developed form, the tradition was reborn amid the cultural ferment of the post‐1968 period, especially in the United States. The misogynist or belittling attitudes of male critics and novelists were subjected to ironic scrutiny in Mary Ellmann's Thinking About Women (1968) and to iconoclastic rage in Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1970), the latter work berating D. H. Lawrence and Mailer in particular. Many feminist academics continued the investigation into stereotyped representations of female characters, for example in S. Cornillon (ed.), Images of Women in Fiction (1972).

Concentration upon the offences of male writers tended to give way in the later 1970s to woman‐centred literary histories seeking to trace an autonomous tradition of women's literature and to redeem neglected female authors. Influential examples of such work in America were Ellen Moers, Literary Women (1976), Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own (1977), and Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). By the beginning of the 1980s, feminist criticism was becoming more self‐critical and internally differentiated: the mainstream of American feminist criticism eschewed ‘male’ literary theory and saw its purpose as the affirmation of distinctly female ‘experience’ as reflected in writing; but black‐feminist and lesbian‐feminist critics objected that their own experiences were being overlooked. Meanwhile the value of ‘experience’ as a clue to women's writing was doubted by feminists allied to Marxist criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, and post‐structuralism, especially but not exclusively in Britain and France. One such school, led by the French writers Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray, sought to define an écriture féminine (for which ‘feminine writing’ would be a misleading translation) on the basis of a psychological ‘politics’ of language itself: if language belongs not to women but to masculine social order, the distinctive female literary strategy will be to subvert it with bodily, even orgasmic, pulsations. British feminist criticism, although drawing upon both American and French approaches, has usually been more historical and sociological.

Feminist criticism has thus become a varied field of debate rather than an agreed position. Its substantial achievements are seen in the re‐admission of temporarily forgotten women authors to the literary canon, in modern reprints and newly commissioned studies by feminist publishing houses such as Virago (1977) and the Women's Press (1978), in anthologies and academic courses.

Subjects: Literature.


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