Feminist Literary Criticism: The First Hundred Years

Feminist literary theory posits that gender is socially constructed rather than biologically determined. For example, why in Western cultures do we associate pink with femininity and blue with masculinity? Why do we assume that men have an instinct to protect and defend while women have instincts to nurture and “mother” children (there is no biological evidence of a maternal instinct, as shown here)? Yet if there is no scientific evidence proving that color preferences, behaviors, and social roles are biologically determined, why do we feel so deeply in our bones that they are?

Feminist literary theory says we need only look at the stories we are told. Literature itself builds this sense of inevitability, of naturalness, of femininity and masculinity as imperatives. Whether we turn to stories from religious texts or fairy tales, we find similar stereotypical representations of gender that reinforce what our families, communities, and social institutions tell us. But, as we have all learned from #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, disability studies, and the LGBTQIA+ justice movement, just because certain biases are widespread does not make them true. We cannot simply take things at face value, especially representations of disenfranchised groups presented by those in power.

Stories are created, told, and re-told in a social context for social purposes, often in ways that reinforce existing prejudices and power structures. Thus, authors and their writing must either resist socialized assumptions about gender, or accept them. Just as with racism, it isn’t possible to be neutral. Doing nothing, questioning nothing, accepting social norms as objective truth is both racist and sexist. And because society privileges masculine authority, experience, and work, feminist literary theory argues that both women authors and the texts they produce are marginalized and devalued. In fact, the absence of women from the Western canon reflects the sexist assumption that women have inferior intellects and therefore belong in the realms of childcare, cooking, housekeeping, and nursing (which are presumed to be less intellectually demanding). Because the very existence of women authors challenges gendered hierarchies and assumptions, these writers face more challenges not only in publishing and recognition but also the act of writing itself, for they too are socialized to view themselves and their peers as inferior, needy, and valued most for their attractiveness to men.

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Given the social construct of gender, the valuation of one gender at the cost of others, and the bias against women’s intellectual work, feminist literary theory sets out to amend women’s exclusion by revising the canon and challenging the presentation of gender in literature. Focusing on both women authors and women characters, this literary theory demonstrates how received notions of gender inform the language, social status, and significance we ascribe to them.

In the 1960s, feminist criticism focused on the treatment of women in men’s literature. Theorists critiqued the passivity of women characters (Dora in David Copperfield), their presence as an object of male desire (Daisy in The Great Gatsby) or an impetus for a male character’s quest or awakening (Sleeping Beauty, the hapless Lois Lane from Superman, and Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State), and their utter lack of interest in anything other than the men characters. This last is best exemplified by the Bechdel Test, developed in 1985, that evaluates a story’s sexism by whether there are at least two women who talk to each other about something other than men.

But this emphasis on the representation of women in fiction later expanded to include the treatment of women authors as well. Theorists in the 1980s proposed an alternative literary history that acknowledges women’s contributions, emphasizes the unique struggles faced by women of color, and their centuries of published work.

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One of the lingering disputes in mainstream feminist criticism is whether feminists have in fact supported patriarchy by accepting essentialist labels from men, such as intuitive and embodied. Theorists question whether merely advocating for the value of such devalued traits can topple existing gender hierarchies. More recent critics have argued for unplugging qualities from gender altogether and have discussed whether “woman” is even a legitimate category. Some, such as Judith Butler, deconstruct gender itself. Using this as a springboard, younger theorists have brought us into the complex, rich fields of gender studies and queer theory, entering most universities by the 1990s.

As these debates rage on among readers, scholars, and writers, feminist literary theory continues to call attention to the ways our socialized biases toward traditional masculinity-as-authority has erased women from literary history, impacted the opportunities of women writers, as well as encouraged authors of all genders to deploy woman characters in support of misogynistic worldviews. Questioning gender, how we form our ideas about it, and the consequences of that remains a productive enterprise for feminist critics, enriching discourse about the novel, the canon, and authors’ negotiation with their own socialization.

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For a deeper dive into feminist theory and literary criticism, here are a few texts to get you started:

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)

“A Black Feminist Statement” by The Combahee River Collective (1977)

A Literature of Their Own by Elaine Showalter (1977)

The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1979)

Borderlands: La Frontera Gloria Anzaldúa (1987)

 “Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism” by Annette Kolodny (1980)

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