Feminist Theory - The Rise of Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Feminist Theory
The Rise of Literary Theory

Modern Feminism began with Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), a work that criticizes stereotypes of women as emotional and instinctive and argues that women should aspire to the same rationality prized by men. A product of the Enlightenment, Wollstonecraft believed that women should enjoy social, legal, and intellectual equality with men and drew for support from the work of progressive social philosophers. Liberal intellectuals like John Stuart Mill and his wife, Harriet Taylor, developed this argument, infusing it with the principles of individualism that Mill had developed out of the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. In 1866, Mill introduced a bill in parliament that called for an extension of the franchise to women and, in 1869, published The Subjection of Women (1869). In that essay he argued that women ought to enjoy equality in the social sphere, especially in marriage, and condemned “forced repression” and “unnatural stimulation” (276): “All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self-will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others” (271). Mill's views, influenced strongly by Taylor, marked a significant advance for women and provided the inspiration for the New Woman movement at the end of the nineteenth- and the early-twentieth-century suffragette movements committed to social equality and individual freedom.

The first phase or “wave” of modern Feminism, then, was concerned primarily with the issue of suffrage (the right to vote). The dominant figures at mid-nineteenth century in the US were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, whose political roots were in anti-slavery activism and, to a lesser degree, temperance movements. Stanton composed the “Declaration of Sentiments” for the Seneca Falls women's rights convention in 1848, a watershed moment in US Feminism. Modeled on the US Constitution, the Declaration asserts “that all men and women are created equal,” and indicts a patriarchal culture for repressing the rights of women: “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her” (Sourcebook). Together with Matilda Joslyn Gage, Stanton wrote the “Declaration of

Rights of the Women of the United States” for the Centennial celebration in Washington in 1876. Though not officially invited, Anthony read the address. Anthony and Stanton later founded the National Woman Suffrage Association, which in 1890 merged with the more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association. These organizations were instrumental in securing suffrage for women - in 1920, with the Susan B. Anthony Amendment - and served as the foundation for modern Feminism.

Not all feminist movements involved political activism in this early period. Literary Modernism produced foundational feminist writers, including preeminently Virginia Woolf, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and Djuna Barnes. Their work dramatized the potentially damaging effects of the rationalism that Wollstonecraft and Mill proffered as the birthright of women and the social entitlement called for by the New Woman movement, which emerged in the late nineteenth century. Woolf's Room of One’s Own (1929) was a landmark work in which representations of women by male authors are roundly criticized and a new model for female IDENTITY and AGENCY is proffered. Woolf also insisted that women be allowed the economic and social freedom to follow their aspirations and to forego the traditional role of serving as an enlarging mirror for male identity. “How is he to go on giving judgement, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?” (60).

A second wave of Feminism, cresting in the 1960s, focused attention on civil rights, specifically social and economic equality. Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949) was a foundational text. Claiming that “one is not born, one becomes a woman,” de Beauvoir challenged the idea that a woman's essence was distinct from a man's, that she was born with certain inherent potentialities and qualities that defined her personal, social, and legal existence. This insight, and the SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONIST thesis it entails, was further developed by US feminists in the 1960s. In The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer, like de Beauvoir, argues that there is no “natural” distinction between the sexes. She is critical of Freud's influence on American culture and rejects his ideas about femininity as largely irrelevant to understanding modern women. Her book begins with a number of quotations from middle-class, suburban housewives she had interviewed, and the picture she paints is of a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction: “i have heard so many women try to deny this dissatisfied voice within themselves because it does not fit the pretty picture of femininity the experts have given them. I think, in fact, that this is the first clue to the mystery; the problem cannot be understood in the generally accepted terms by which scientists have studied women, doctors have treated them, counselors have advised them, and writers have written about them” (27). For Kate Millet, the problem was fundamentally political. Also like de Beauvoir, she argued against the concept of “biologism,” the idea that gender difference is “natural.” But unlike others in the 1960s, Millet took aim at the “power-structured relationships” of domination (23) characteristic of PATRIARCHY, relationships that condition gender and cause the oppression of women. She dismissed the arguments of contemporary science, religion, philosophy, and law that insisted upon patriarchy as the original and therefore most natural form of social organization, calling them the “evanescent delights afforded by the game of origins” (28). Anticipating the work of radical feminists of the 1980s and 1990s, Millet criticized “cultural programming,” especially the infantilization of women perpetuated by social surveillance and the violence directed against them, a “patriarchal force” that is “particularly sexual in character and realised most completely in the act of rape” (42-44).

What all of these women have in common is an interest in exposing patriarchal forms of power as the cause of the unequal and subordinate status of women in Western societies. However, these early feminist theorists speak from the standpoint of white, middle-class privilege - even as they criticize that very privilege in the form of suburban complacency. And while these early critiques are aimed at the patriarchal authority of Enlightenment politics and science, they nevertheless retain something of that Enlightenment heritage, particularly the tendency to think in terms of UNIVERSALS, to presuppose a generalized, abstract idea of “woman.” Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar were instrumental in developing revisionist literary histories of women’s writing, though they concentrated largely on white women writers in the nineteenth century. Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own examines innovative work by the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and writers in the suffragette movement and compares it to the sensationalist “feminine novel” of the day that did little to combat sexist stereotypes. Gilbert and Gubar, too, fought against the tendencies of conventional fiction and the

patriarchal culture that nurtured it. Their landmark work, Madwoman in the Attic, draws on phenomenology and Harold Bloom's theories of influence to describe new relationships between women writers and their audiences and between these writers and their male predecessors. in part by deconstructing or re-visioning male discourses and images of women, in part by exploring the unexplored terrain that sustained women's writing, Gilbert and Gubar examine “the crucial ways in which women's art has been radically qualified by their femaleness” (82).

For some critics, Showalter, Gilbert, and Gubar had not gone far enough. Toril Moi, for example, in her widely-read Sexual/Textual Politics (2002), takes “humanist feminism” to task for its rejection of theory and its adoption of New Critical aesthetics. “What ’knowledge,' ” Moi asks, “is ever uninformed by theoretical assumptions?” (76). For Moi, an alternative can be found in the work of Luce Irigaray, Helene Cixous, and Julia Kristeva, French feminists whose critique of PATRIARCHY and the gendered SUBJECT extends the concerns of second-wave Feminism into the realms of philosophy, Psychoanalysis, linguistics, SEMIOTICS, and radical politics. French feminists critiqued the foundational principles of a patriarchal culture that developed the concept of “rights” as part of a stable, AUTONOMOUS subjectivity. The Centre d'Etudes Feminines at the University of Paris viii (vincennes), founded by Cixous in 1974, provided an institutional structure for the ongoing critique of patriarchal culture, a critique that was to a significant degree fashioned by borrowing concepts and methodologies from poststructuralist discourse written by men. irigaray's critique of Freud exemplifies this approach. Borrowing from Derridean Deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalysis, irigaray calls into question the Freudian discourse on femininity, particularly the role played by the oedipus and castration complexes and their total lack of relevance for little girls. Her chief point is that women are trapped in a masculine world of representation, forced to be the reproductive medium or essence in which men find their ESSENTIAL being, but are themselves debarred from actually possessing essence. “The girl,” she writes, “has no right to play in any manner whatever with any representation of her beginning, no specific mimicry of origin is available to her: she must inscribe herself in the masculine, phallic way of relating to origin, that involves repetition, representation, reproduction. And this is meant to be ’the most powerful feminine wish' ” (78). Cixous and Catherine Clement, in Newly Born Woman (1975), critique the Freudian seduction scene, in which the daughter seduces the father, the “pivotal” point at which the Symbolic order enters into the young girl's life. However, the daughter, though pivotal, is relegated to the margins, sexually and socially, and takes the blame for “fantasiz[ing] a reality that, it seems, is to remain undecipherable” (47). She is thus an unreadable, non-essential ground for masculine sexual identity. As such, the woman's body becomes available for the type of symbolic exchange between men that Gayle Rubin analyzes in “The Traffic in Women” (1975).

Alternatives to PHALLOCENTRIC discourse are offered by Irigaray and a number of other French feminists. Collectively these practices are known as ECRITURE FEMININE (variously translated as “feminine writing” and “writing the body”). This view of Feminism, which Diana Fuss and others have described as a form of strategic essentialism, holds that a woman's body determines not only her identity but also a mode of writing and thinking fundamentally different from and in revolt against masculine modes. Irigaray called it “hysteria scenario, that privileged dramatization of feminine sexuality” (60). This practice is strongly associated with Cixous' literary and theoretical work, especially her influential essay “The Laugh of the Medusa.” “It is impossible to define a female practice of writing,” Cixous claims, but she goes on to insist that such a practice “will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocen- tric system” in part because it lies outside the arena of “philosophico- theoretical domination” (46). The space marked out by this new practice is a woman's body, where her own desires, banned from patriarchal discourse, can find expression. It is also a space defined by the blanks and gaps in that discourse where a woman's voice can find its “silent plasticity” (142). The Lacanian concept of JOUISSANCE is often used to define this inexplicable site of “female writing,” where women's experience can be freed from the unforgiving dialectic of Oedipus and the HEGEMONY of the Symbolic in order to embrace the imaginary realm of mystical and pre-Oedipal experiences, the “oceanic” unity with the body of the mother. (On Lacan, see pp. 158-9, 168-71.) These experiences are linked, in Kristeva's “semanalysis,” to the “semiotic chora’’ the pre-Oedipal dissolution of boundaries. Thus the maternal body becomes the foundation for both a resistance to patriarchal discourse and for a feminist ethical practice (“herethics”) that does not derive from it. Like other French feminists of her generation, Kristeva struggled to lift prohibitions

on the maternal body imposed by the oedipal and castration complexes. In the Preface to Desire in Language (1980), she confesses that “[i]t was perhaps also necessary to be a woman to attempt to take up that exorbitant wager of carrying the rational project to the outer borders of the signifying venture of men” (x). (On Kristeva, see pp. 156-9.)

However, the concerns of many feminists, particularly of lesbians and women of color, were remote from those of straight, white, middle-class intellectuals working in Western universities. These feminists, who began to emerge in the late 1970s, gaining momentum in the 1980s, constituted a third wave of feminist critique that took issue with abstract, UNIVERSALIST notions of the idea of woman that either ignored women of color or relegated them to the status of “third world woman,” yet another form of abstraction. Adrienne Rich has famously critiqued the “compulsory heterosexuality” at the heart of patriarchal cultures and advocated new forms of community based on lesbian desire, which she believed was an unacknowledged and powerful force for social change. in a similar way, Monique Wittig emphasizes the “lesbian body” and lesbian consciousness as a precondition for a more inclusive and politically effective Feminism. Just as Rich and Wittig emphasize sexuality as the key to Feminism, so bell hooks and other women of color insist that the fight against racism is the fundamental conflict, the one that all feminists must fight who desire an end to sexism. hooks, in her landmark work, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), articulated the principal problems with Western Feminism. She took issue, as did Gayatri Spivak and other postcolonial feminists, with the notion that race and class can be ignored or downplayed in the formulation of a feminist politics. “Racism is fundamentally a feminist issue,” hooks argues, “because it is so interconnected with sexist oppression” (53-54). According to hooks, sexist oppression is the foundation of patriarchal culture and should be the chief concern of a progressive Feminism. Violence against women, whether in the form of domestic abuse or ritualized social practices like sati and genital mutilation, is the physical manifestation of this oppression on women's bodies. Responding to what she sees as a dominant trend in uS Feminism towards seeking “social equality with men” (19), hooks advocates a more general critique of male domination and a transformation of social relationships, especially marriage and child rearing. Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga were involved in similar projects at this time, with an emphasis on the way that borders, both geographical and psychological, determine gender and sexual identity. What all of these women have in common is a desire to overcome a two-fold domination, for they are oppressed not only because of their gender but also because of their race.

Most of the trends I have discussed above continued into the 1990s and beyond. Postmodern Feminism, particularly the work of Judith Butler and Nancy Fraser, continue to explore some of the issues that interested the early French feminists and tackle with new theoretical vigor the problem of the gendered SUBJECT. Of critical importance for the study of Gender and Sexuality is Butler's work on PERFORMANCE and PERFORMA- TIVITY (see pp. 104-5). The future of Feminism, and its principal intellectual value, lies in its continued ability to critique its own assumptions and, by doing so, to open up the discourse to the new problems created by the globalization of economies, cultures, and discourse.

Note. For more on Feminism, see entries on Ethnic Studies, Gender and Sexuality, Postcolonial Studies, Postmodernism, and Psychoanalysis.


Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs 1.4 (Summer 1976): 875-93. Rpt. of “Le Rire de la Meduse.” L'Arc 61 (1975): 39-54.

---- and Catherine Clement. The Newly Born Woman. 1975. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. 1979. 2nd ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1970. hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. 1984. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002.

Internet Modern History Sourcebook. “The Declaration of Sentiments, Seneca Falls Conference, 1848.” http://www.fordham.edu/HALLSAL/MOD/ Senecafalls.html.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. 1974. Trans. Gilliam C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. Trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

Mill, John Stuart. “The Subjection of Women.” 1869. In Essays on Equality, Law, and Education. Vol. XXI of The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Ed. John M. Robson. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1984. 259-340.

Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 1985, 2002.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. London: Hogarth Press, 1929.