feminism in literatureOverview

Feminism has gradually become more far-ranging and subtle in its attacks on male-dominated society. Many injustices still need to be corrected, but equally necessary is a more down-to-earth, tolerant and compassionate view of fellow human beings.


Many feminists dislike theory. Sharp intellectual categories, argumentation, seeming objectivity, and the whole tradition they grow out of are just what feminists are seeking to escape. And if their reasoning seems unsystematic they can draw support from the psychoanalysis of Lacan and Julia Kristeva, from Derrida's deconstruction, and from Rorty's view that philosophy should model itself on an edifying conversation seeking rapprochement rather than no-holds-barred gladiatorial combat. {1}

Androgynist Poetics

Critics, being generally male, had not generally concerned themselves with gender issues. Most of the world's great literature had been written by men. Sappho, Austen, the Brontës and Emily Dickinson apart, it was difficult to think women really had it in them to write at the highest level. Literature was literature, and critics saw no need to distinguish a specifically feminine way of writing or responding to a text.

Virginia Woolf was herself a refutation of that thesis, though her mental breakdown was perhaps brought on by the strain of balancing male self-realization with female abnegation. But in her essay Professions for Women, Woolf complained only that women's social obligations hindered a writing career. Their lives gave them a different perspective, but women were not fundamentally different from men in their psychological needs and outlooks.


The gathering feminist movement very much disagreed, and argued that women's writing expressed a distinctive female consciousness, which was more discursive and conjunctive than its male counterpart. Such consciousness was radically different, and had been adversely treated. Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex documented the ways "Legislators, priests, philosophers, writers and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of women is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth." Women had been made to feel that they were inferior by nature and, though men paid lip-service to equality, they would resist its implementation. Some men might be sympathetic to women's issues, but only women themselves knew what they felt and wanted. {2}

And perhaps they always knew. The essays collected in Susan Cornillon's 1972 anthology Images of Women in Fiction all suggested that nineteenth and twentieth century fiction was simply untrue to women's experience. Rather than search for the essentially feminine, critics now turned to the social context of women's writing, to the ways a male-orientated society had formed or deformed individual novels, plays and poems written by women. Adventure and romance, whoever written for, seemed to stress the male competitive element, and even the submissive partner of gay literature only imitated the female stereotype.

Not all agreed, of course. Norman Mailer's The Prisoner of Sex: disliked the blanket criticism of Kate Millet's Sexual Politics, arguing its examples were too selective chosen. {3}


Nonetheless, by the early eighties, feminists had advanced to a much more confrontational attack on male hegemony, advocating a complete overthrow of the biased (male) canon of literature. French feminists argued that women should write with a greater consciousness of their bodies, which would create a more honest and appropriate style of openness, fragmentation and non-linearity. Parallel studies in the visual arts stressed a feminine sensibility of soft fluid colours, an emphasis on the personal and decorative, and on forms that evoked the female genitalia.

And the problem lay deeper still, in the language itself. Words had been coined to express a male point of view, and that was indeed misogynist. Some 220 words exist in English for the sexually promiscuous woman, but only 22 for promiscuous men. And in the sexual matters that really concerned them, the vocabulary was hopelessly restricted. {4} Discourse was power, said Foucault, and psychoanalysts like Lacan and Kristeva stressed the liberating role that literature should play, particularly to allow the semiotic flux of the unconscious in early childhood, i.e. before the symbolic world of public discourse imposed its male-favouring rules. Poets worked on the boundaries of the two realms, and Kristeva urged them to engender political and feminist revolutions by dissolving the conventions of normal discourse. {5}

Gender Theory

Five years later the debate had moved on, from exclusively feminine concerns to the wider issues of gender in social and cultural contexts. Patriarchy and capitalism should be examined more closely, perhaps as Althusser had attempted, and sophisticated models built to integrate the larger web of economics, education, division of labour, biological constraints and cultural assumptions.

Michèle Barrett demanded facts, research. How does gender stereotyping arise in various social contexts? How are the canons of literary excellence actually established? What is the practical effect on literature? Shouldn't we remember that attitudes are struck within a fictional framework, and can't be simply pulled out and convicted by a kangaroo court of feminist morals? {6}


Literature will often reflect the cultural assumptions and attitudes of its period, and that of course includes attitudes towards women: their status, their roles, their expectations. But a literature doctored of male-orientated views would be failing in its first requirement, to present a realistic or convincing picture of the world. Moralizing, which includes political correctness, has its dangers.

Feminists have argued for positive discrimination as the only way to correct centuries of bias. Nonetheless, the consensus emerging among black Americans is that positive discrimination is counter-productive. Disadvantaged minorities desperately need the odds levelled, but not patronizingly tilted in their favour. {7}

Psychoanalysis has little scientific standing, and Lacanian theory is further disputed within the psychoanalytical community itself. Feminism does itself few favours by relying on these supports.

A more damaging criticism is the concept of the feminine itself. Does it really exist? There are very real differences in the psychological make-up between the sexes, {8} but testing also indicates what anthropologists have long accepted: the expression of those differences is more determined by cultural factors than sexuality per se. Feminists who argue for a more understanding, fluid, and delicate attitude are not so much advocating qualities native to women but for attitudes still repressed by society. That in turn suggests society itself needs exploring rather than sex differences per se, which is indeed a view more recognized in contemporary feminist studies. {9}

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. Chapter 6 of Raman Selden's A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (1985, 1989), Feminist Criticism entry in David Cooper's (Ed.) A Companion to Aesthetics (1995).
2. Cooper 1995, and Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1974).
3. Kate Millet's Sexual Politics (1977), Gayle Green and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979).
4. pp. 376-384 in Jessie Bernard's The Female World (1981).
5. Toril Moi's Sexual/Textural Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (1985), Helene Cixous's The Laugh of the Medusa (1976), and Dale Spender's Man-Made Language. For psychoanalytical aspects see Juliet Mitchell's Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1975), Elizabeth Wright's (Ed.) Feminism and Psychoanalysis (1992) and Toril Moi's The Kristeva Reader (1986).
6. Michele Barrett's Women's Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis (1980), Judith Newman and Deborah Rosenfelt's (Eds.) Feminist Criticism and Social Change: Sex, Class and Race in Literature and Culture (1985), Elaine Showalter's (Ed.) The New Feminist Criticism: Essays of Women, Literature and Theory (1985), Hester Eisenstein's Contemporary Feminist Thought (1984), Christine Battersby's Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics (1989, 1994), and Ann Garry and Marilyn Pearsall's Women, Knowledge and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy (1989).
7. Bernard 1981, and Janet Radcliffe Richards's The Sceptical Feminist: A Philosophical Enquiry (1980).
8. Donald Symmons's The Evolution of Human Sexuality (1979).
9. Miriam Lewin's (Ed.) In the Shadow of the Past: Psychology Portrays the Sexes (1984) and Janet Spence and Robert Helmreich's Masculinity and Femininity: Their Psychological Dimensions, Correlates, and Antecedents (1978), Sarah Dunant's The War of the Words: The Political Correctness Debate (1994) and Máilín Mac an Ghaill's Understanding Masculinity (1996).

Internet Resources

1. Feminist Theory — An Overview. Elizabeth Lee. 1997. http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/femtheory.html. Short article in The Victorian Web.
2. Feminism and Canons. Cynthia Freeland. Jan. 1999. http://www.uh.edu/%7Ecfreelan/courses/femcan.html. A survey of the movement through topic headings.
3. How Feminism Is Re-writing the Philosophical Canon. Charlotte Witt. 1996. http://www.uh.edu/~cfreelan/SWIP/Witt.html. Essay outline outlining implications.
4. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). Garth Kemerling. Aug. 2002. http://www.philosophypages.com/ph/woll.htm. Short article, references and links.
5. Julia Kristeva. May 2003. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Kristeva. Wikipedia entry, with links.
6. Hélène Cixous. Mary Jane Parrine. 1998. http://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/cixous/index.html. Lectures, articles, bibliography and links.
7. Feminisms and Gender Studies. http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/
. Notes and listings relating to feminism and literature.
8. Topics in Feminism. Sally Haslanger and Nancy Tuana. Feb. 2003. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-topics/. Detailed article with excellent bibliography and listings.
9. Feminism and Women's Studies. http://eserver.org/feminism/index.html. Slow site but extensive resources, including online texts.
10. Women's Studies Resources. Karla Tonella. Jan. 2003. http://bailiwick.lib.uiowa.edu/
. Sites and online articles.
11. Women Writers. Akihito Ishikawa. Sep. 2000. http://www.nagasaki-gaigo.ac.jp/ishikawa/
amlit/general/women.htm. Good listing, part of American Literature on the Web. NNA.
12. Feminist Science Fiction. Laura Quilter. Oct. 2003. http://www.feministsf.org/femsf/. Excellent resources, including guides, bibliographies, videos and teaching material.
13. Gender Inn. http://www.uni-koeln.de/phil-fak/englisch/
. Searchable database of over 7,500 records on feminist theory, criticism and gender studies: listings only.
14. Literary Resources — Feminism and Women's Literature. Jack Lynch. http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Lit/women.html. Short list of sites on women's literature, feminist criticism, and gender studies.
15. Feminism and Literature/Feminist Literary Criticism. http://www.stfx.ca/academic/women-studies/bibliographies/Feminism_Literature.html. Book listing.
16. Feminist Literary Criticism and Theory. Kristin Switala. 1999. http://www.cddc.vt.edu/feminism/lit.html. A good listing by key writers and category.
17. A Celebration of Women Writers. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/. Mary Mark Ockerbloom. Jan. 2004. Literature by women, grouped by author and category.