Gynocriticism: A term adapted from the French la gynocritique by Elaine Showalter in A Literature of Their Own (1977) to refer to a type of feminist criticism that arose in the United States in the 1970s and that focuses on literary works written by women. Showalter separated women’s writing since 1840 into three phases, which she referred to as “Feminine,” “Feminist,” and “Female.” During these phases, women first imitated a masculine tradition (1840—80); then protested against its standards and values (1880—1920); and finally advocated their own autonomous, female perspective (1920 on).
Gynocritics focused on so so-called “feminine” subjects, such as domestic life and intimate experiences, which female authors have privileged, as opposed to the subjects male authors have tended to favor, such as adventure, achievement, and other endeavors deemed active and therefore “masculine.” They devised a framework for analyzing female-authored works, whether diaries or letters, poems or novels. As Showalter explained in “Toward a Feminist Poetics” (1979), “the program of gynocritics is to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature, to develop new models based on the study of female experience, rather than to adapt male models and theories.” Thus, instead of critiquing male-authored works or studying women as readers who must resist the patriarchal ideology that most texts reinforce, gynocritics sought to demonstrate that a special and explicitly female tradition exists in literature, a tradition too often ignored or denigrated. In so doing, they broadened the literary canon to include long-overlooked works such as Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) and examined the ways in which female writers have formed and benefited from their own communities and traditions.
Gynocritics also often sought to demonstrate the existence of a special feminine subjectivity, or way of thinking about and experiencing the world. Some gynocritics expanded this view to argue that women’s special mode of perception leads them to speak and, especially, to write in a way different from men. These gynocritics asserted the existence of a distinctive feminine writing, which in French feminist criticism is referred to as écriture féminine. Some critics, including some feminist critics, have objected to gynocriticism insofar as its emphasis on a special feminine language, writing, and aesthetic reflects an essentialist perspective, namely, the view that gender differences are natural or innate. Others have criticized the approach for neglecting issues of class and race in focusing primarily on the works and experiences of white, middle-class women. Influential gynocritics include Showalter, Patricia Meyer Spacks, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar.