Feminist Theory

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Feminist Theory

Rosanne Kennedy

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of feminist theory on studies of the British and American novel. While women historically have been significant as producers and consumers of the novel, they were neglected by critics prior to feminism. In 1976, Ellen Moers proposed that women writers such as Jane Austen and Harriet Beecher Stowe had been marginalized because they “have written novels, a genre with which literary historians and anthologists are still ill at ease” (1976, Literary Women, xi). The exclusion of writers such as Mary Shelley and the Brontës was compounded by their preference for popular genres such as the gothic, which were considered unworthy of serious analysis. In recovering neglected novelists and genres, feminist critics have offered radically new accounts of the history of the novel and how the novel has produced gendered, raced, and sexualized subjectivities, identities, and spheres of power. They have explored the ideological work of the novel in naturalizing imperialism, and have analyzed the gendered effects of colonialism in novels (see IDEOLOGY). They have pioneered studies of the cultural work of affect and examined the role of popular but discredited “women's genres” such as melodrama and sentimental fiction in producing national identity and belonging (Tompkins; Berlant; see GENRE). The feminist transformation of novel studies has been enabled by the Anglo-American women's movement and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the entry of women into academic positions in the 1970s, and the subsequent development of feminist theory.

Feminist theory is a diverse, transdisciplinary, international field, which resists summary. It encompasses competing theoretical approaches, national and diasporic traditions, and complex debates. Feminist theory is a political analysis: feminist theorists share the desire to transform as well as understand normative meanings and regimes of gender and sexuality, and gendered relations of power. In literary studies, the term “feminist theory” did not gain currency until the 1980s; “feminist literary criticism” was widely used in the 1970s. Criticism offered analysis of the literary language of novels, without interrogating crucial framing concepts such as “woman,” “experience,” “literary,” “tradition,” and the exclusions they produced. By contrast, “theory” aimed to be explicit about the methods and concepts it used and their effects. Feminist theorists interrogated, applied, and extended concepts and approaches from feminism, psychoanalysis (see PSYCHOANALYTIC), post structuralism, critical race theory, new historicism, and postcolonialism. Feminist studies of the novel converge with the broader concerns of feminist theory in exploring how novels produce discourses of gender, race, sexuality, and class, which intersect with and shape cultural, political, scientific, and economic discourses. Consequently, feminist studies of the novel have contributed significantly to the broader development of feminist theory. Feminist theory cannot be neatly mapped onto the field of novel studies, however, since the concerns of feminist theory exceed the novel as a specific cultural form. In summarizing the cross-fertilizations of feminist theory and the novel, this entry will focus primarily on British and American theory and fiction.

Early Period: Recovering a Female Tradition of the Novel

In the 1970s, feminist literary critics initially explored images of women in works by male authors but quickly turned their attention to women's literary production. Elaine Showalter argued that women writers developed and shared feminine metaphors, themes, styles, and plot structures, an approach she later termed “gynocriticism.” Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar explored the challenges and obstacles that confronted women writers in nineteenth-century England. In conflict with their society, women writers inadvertently inscribed in their writings the figure of the author's angry double—the figurative “madwoman in the attic” of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847). In the 1980s these foundational works were reproached for theoretical naivety as feminist theory encountered French feminism and poststructuralism. They were criticized for assuming sexual difference rather than showing how women writers produced and reproduced difference; for falsely universalizing the female experience of white middle-class heterosexual British and American women without attention to race, class, and sexuality; for treating “female experience” as authentic rather than discursively constructed; and for failing to engage with the theoretical insights of French feminism. Showalter later responded to these criticisms in a second edition of A Literature of Their Own (1999).

The 1980s: Gender, Cultural Power, and the Novel

By the 1980s, women of color had compellingly challenged white feminist critical frameworks for perpetuating racial hierarchies; they argued that gender should not be analyzed in isolation from other markers of identity, such as race, class, and sexuality. Feminist critics became more explicit about the theoretical basis of their practice, interrogating categories such as “woman” and “difference.” In her study of nineteenth-century fictional and nonfictional discourses, Mary Poovey argued that “[t]o reveal the artificiality of the Victorian definition of difference ... is implicitly to challenge the importance of the category ’woman’; to give this category a history is ... to call its future into question” (201). Urging feminists to recognize that sexual difference functions as a master-signifier for other differences (see LINGUISTICS), she noted that “articulating difference onto sex has dominated the culture we have inherited and set the terms in which we can work” (201). As a vehicle for circulating meanings, producing new subjectivities, and securing cultural hegemony, the novel has provided fertile ground for investigating the discourses of gender, race, class, and sexuality in a given culture. Hazel Carby, an early proponent of whiteness studies, advocated “feminist work that interrogates sexual ideologies for their racial specificity and acknowledges whiteness, not just blackness, as a racial categorization” (1987, Reconstructing Womanhood, 18).

The 1980s was a rich decade for revisionary feminist analyses of British and American histories of the novel. Developing historicist approaches inspired by Michel Foucault's analysis of discourse, power, and sexuality, feminists challenged the segregation of literary discourse from the discourse of politics, science, and economics. On the basis of her reading of British novels, educational tracts, and conduct books for and about women, Nancy Armstrong proposed that the middle class achieved dominance by securing cultural as well as economic hegemony (9). She argued that the domestic novel, regarded as light entertainment, in fact produced new middle-class subjectivities and domestic spheres in which women wielded power. In a pioneering study of American fiction, Jane Tompkins argued that historically important texts such as Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), tainted by their sentimentality and mass popularity during their own era, wielded cultural power and merited serious analysis. Like other feminists who recuperated popular genres favored by women, Tompkins exposed and challenged the gendered values underpinning the literary canon and the critical assessment of value.

In mapping the historical development of feminist theory and the British novel, two novels have achieved iconic status: Jane Eyre and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). Prior to feminism, these texts were rarely taught, in part because the gothic, which features strongly in both novels, was considered excessively emotional and contrived. Since the 1970s, Jane Eyre has been interpreted through virtually every feminist theoretical framework (Showalter; Gilbert and Gubar; Armstrong; Poovey). Brontë's novel has inspired novelists, filmmakers, and playwrights, who have produced adaptations and revisions, providing additional materials for feminist analysis. The most famous reinscription is Jean Rhys's postcolonial Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which imagines the life and courtship of the Jamaican Creole, Bertha Mason, before she becomes Mrs. Edward Rochester. Bertha, one of the most analyzed figures in British fiction, has inspired sophisticated analyses of race, colonialism, and feminist Orientalism. In an influential essay, Gayatri Spivak reads Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, and Frankenstein for their insights into the “worlding” of the Third World—that is, the role of literature in naturalizing the world order shaped by British imperialism and its colonial hierarchies. Spivak reproaches feminist critics for celebrating Jane Eyre as the “feminist individualist heroine” of British fiction, without recognizing that her liberation was enabled by the politics of imperialism. There is a similarly rich and diverse body of feminist readings of Frankenstein, particularly focusing on the body, sexuality, and reproduction in life and writing (Hoeveler).

The American Tradition: Race, History, and African American Women Novelists

In the U.S., feminist critics have studied a range of genres used by black women writers, including but not limited to the novel, to explore their responses to and interventions in cultural representations of race, gender, and sexuality. Valerie Smith explored the literary connections between the slave narrative and black fiction, arguing that both provided opportunities for narrative self-fashioning. Carby examined the ways in which black women writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries challenged conceptions of “true womanhood” based on a white Southern middle-class conception of femininity. Novels by writers such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison inscribed a powerful cultural memory of slavery. They inspired new readings grounded in African philosophical and spiritual traditions, as well as readings grounded in European paradigms of psychoanalysis, memory, and trauma theory (see PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORY). Along with Morrison's Beloved (1987), previously unknown works such as Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1938) have become iconic texts in feminist theory and American literature.

Feminist theory has been enormously enriched by debates between black and white feminists and their readings of literature by African American women. Barbara Christian (1988) argued that the “race for [Eurocentric] theory” was turning feminist critics away from reading the literature of people of color. She argued that black writers often theorized in narrative forms, in stories, “in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language” (1988, “The Race for Theory,” Feminist Studies 14:8). The tension concerning the status of Eurocentric theories in black and white feminist criticism has been productively explored in a groundbreaking anthology on psychoanalysis, race, and feminist theory (E. Abel, B. Christian, and H. Moglen, eds., 1997, Female Subjects in Black and White). While black feminist critics have been divided on the usefulness of psychoanalysis for analyzing black female subjectivity, white feminists have studied fiction by black women to explore the issue of race in psychoanalysis. Judith Butler argues that Nella Larsen's 1929 novel, Passing, offers a “challenge to psychoanalysis,” to the extent that it is “a theorization of desire, displacement, and jealous rage that has significant implications for rewriting psychoanalytic theory in ways that explicitly come to terms with race” (1997, “Passing, Queering,” in Female Subjects in Black and White, 279). Hortense Spillers productively brings together psychoanalysis and materialist approaches to explore the significance of the psychoanalytic principle of the Law of the Father, in the context of the “captive body” of slavery (1987, “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe,” Diacritics 17). While black slave fathers have been systemically dispossessed, the “paradox” of the slave mother, both “mother and mother-dispossessed,” places her “out of the traditional symbolics of female gender” and challenges us to make space for “this different social subject” (Spillers, 80). Barbara Johnson, trained in the Yale School of deconstruction, stages a tactical engagement between the subjectivist politics of American feminist criticism and the anti-subjectivist approach of deconstruction. Drawing on European theory, she demonstrates the value of a deconstructive reading of the structures of address in Zora Neale Hurston's fiction (1987, A World of Difference).

1990s and Beyond: From the National to the Transnational

The 1990s was a decade of consolidation and expansion as feminists continued to engage with poststructuralist approaches and to develop new methods. Feminist critics of modernism explored the interrelations between gender, modernism, and stylistic innovation in the novel. Virginia Woolf, who inscribed gender in the form as well as the content of the novel, has been a key figure for reconsiderations of gender and modernist form. James Joyce has been associated with the French feminist concept of écriture féminine. Marianne DeKoven examines these and other figures in her analysis of the relations between stylistic innovation, political radicalism, and transformations in gender in modernist literature. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's important work on homosocial desire in Victorian fiction pioneered the field of queer theory in novel studies (1985, Between Men). Building on Sedgwick's analysis, Terry Castle explored the figure of the “apparitional lesbian,” who disappeared from view in studies of eighteenth-century fiction and culture (1993, The Apparitional Lesbian). Feminist critics continued to explore the significance of affect in cultural production. Through historicized and layered readings of women's middlebrow cultural artifacts, Lauren Berlant analyzes the ways in which sentimental and melodramatic forms such as Uncle Tom's Cabin and Fannie Hurst's Imitation of Life (1933) enable women to imagine themselves as part of a feminized “intimate public sphere” in the U.S. (2008, The Female Complaint).

Until the late 1990s, feminists working in the field of novel studies tended to focus on national traditions. In the new millennium, feminist critics have shown a keen interest in the global institutions of literature, and the circulation of writers and their works across national borders. Inderpal Grewal traces some of the ways that diasporic and transnational novels by Bengali American authors participate in producing “postcolonial cosmopolitanisms” (2005, Transnational America, 41). As exemplified in her analysis, the success of feminist theory is precisely the way that it combines with other approaches—cultural studies, cosmopolitanism, postcolonial theory, and world literature—to inform new developments in novel studies. Of course, as Barbara Christian long ago observed, feminist analysis will never be driven solely by academic critics and the concerns of feminist theory. Rather, feminist theory has been and will continue to be fueled and enriched by new novels from diverse traditions. Novelists will continue to inspire and challenge feminists to develop productive tools of critical analysis and engagement, which are sensitive to local, national and transnational sites of production, consumption and circulation.


1. Armstrong, N. (1987), Desire and Domestic Fiction.

2. Berlant, L. (2008), The Female Complaint.

3. Carby, H. (1987), Reconstructing Womanhood.

4. DeKoven, M. (1991), Rich and Strange.

5. Gilbert, S.M. and S. Gubar (1979), Madwoman in the Attic.

6. Johnson, B. (1987), World of Difference.

7. Hoeveler, D.L. (2003), “Frankenstein, Feminism, and Literary Theory,” in Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, ed. E. Schor.

8. Poovey, M. (1988), Uneven Developments.

9. Showalter, E. (1999), Literature of their Own, 2nd ed.

10. Smith, V. (1987), Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative.

11. Spivak, G.C. (1985), “ Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry 12: 243—61.

12. Tompkins, J. (1985), Sensational Designs.