A Feminist Approach


Feminist literary criticism is literary criticism informed by feminist theory, or by the politics of feminism more broadly. Its history has been broad and varied, from classic works of nineteenth-century women authors such as George Eliot and Margaret Fuller to cutting-edge theoretical work in women’s studies and gender studies by “third-wave” authors. In the most general and simple terms, feminist literary criticism before the 1970s—in the first and second waves of feminism—was concerned with the politics of women’s authorship and the representation of women’s condition within literature, this includes the depiction of fictional female characters. In addition feminist criticism was further concerned with the exclusion of women from the literary canon, Lois Tyson suggests this is due to the views of women authors not be consider as universal.

Since the development of more complex conceptions of gender and subjectivity and third-wave feminism, feminist literary criticism has taken a variety of new routes, namely in the tradition of the Frankfurt School’s critical theory. It has considered gender in the terms of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, as part of the deconstruction of existing relations of power, and as a concrete political investment. It has been closely associated with the birth and growth of queer studies. The more traditionally central feminist concern with the representation and politics of women’s lives has continued to play an active role in criticism. More specifically, modern feminist criticism deals with those issues related to the patriarchal programming within key aspects of society including education, politics and the work force.

Lisa Tuttle has defined feminist theory as asking “new questions of old texts.” She cites the goals of feminist criticism as: (1) To develop and uncover a female tradition of writing, (2) to interpret symbolism of women’s writing so that it will not be lost or ignored by the male point of view, (3) to rediscover old texts, (4) to analyze women writers and their writings from a female perspective, (5) to resist sexism in literature, and (6) to increase awareness of the sexual politics of language and style.



Rebecca West’s work on women’s suffrage from approximately 1910, can be traced as the beginning of the feminist criticism movement. In addition to West’s work, Virginia Wolf’s A Room of One’s Own from 1929 is an integral text to the movement. Prominent feminist literary critics include Isobel Armstrong, Nancy Armstrong, Barbara Bowen, Jennifer DeVere Brody, Laura Brown, Margaret Anne Doody, Eva Figes, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Anotgnette Kolodny, Anne McClintock, Anne K. Mellor, Nancy K. Miller, Toril Moi, Felicity Nussbaum, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Hortense Spillers, Gayatri Spivak, Irene Tayler, Marina Warner.



The Traditions of Feminist Criticism

According to Yale Professor Paul Fry in his lecture The Classical Feminist Tradition from 25:07, there have been several prominent schools of thought in modern feminist literary criticism:

1.   First Wave Feminism: Men’s Treatment of Women

In this early stage of feminist criticism, critics consider male novelists’ demeaning treatment or marginalisation of female characters. First wave feminist criticism includes books like Marry Ellman’s Thinking About Women (1968), Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1969), and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970). An example of first wave feminist literary analysis would be a critique of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew for Petruchio’s abuse of Katherina.

2.  Second Wave Feminism: Gynocriticism

Elaine Showalter pioneered gynocriticism with her book A Literature of Their Own (1977). Gynocriticism involves three major aspects. The first is the examination of female writers and their place in literary history. The second is the consideration of the treatment of female characters in books by both male and female writers. The third and most important aspect of gynocriticism is the discovery and exploration of a canon of literature written by women; gynocriticism seeks to appropriate a female literary tradition. In Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own, she proposes the following three phases of women’s writing:

  • The ‘Feminine’ Phase – in the feminine phase, female writers tried to adhere to male values, writing as men, and usually did not enter into debate regarding women’s place in society. Female writers often employed male pseudonyms during this period.
  • The ‘Feminist’ Phase – in the feminist phase, the central theme of works by female writers was the criticism of the role of women in society and the oppression of women.
  • The ‘Female’ Phase – during the ‘female’ phase, women writers were no longer trying to prove the legitimacy of a woman’s perspective. Rather, it was assumed that the works of a women writer were authentic and valid. The female phase lacked the anger and combative consciousness of the feminist phase.

3.   The Madwoman Thesis

Made famous by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), the eponymous madwoman is Bertha Jenkins of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Rochester’s mad wife hidden away in the attic of Thornfield Hall. Gilbert and Gubar’s thesis suggests that because society forbade women from expressing themselves through creative outlets, their creative powers were channelled into psychologically self-destructive behaviour and subversive actions. A great example of the madwoman thesis in action is in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper.

4.   French Feminism

French Feminism, led by critics such as Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixousx, and Luce Irigaray, relies heavily on Freudian psychology and the theory of penis envy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penis_envy). French feminists postulate the existence of a separate language belonging to women that consists of loose, digressive sentences written without use of the ego.
Dr. Simon Swift of the University of Leeds gives a podcast titled ‘How Words, Form, and Structure Create Meaning: Women and Writing’ that uses the works of Virginia Woolf and Silvia Plath to analyse the form and structural aspects of texts to ask whether or not women writers have a voice inherently different from that of men (podcast part 1 and part 2).

In Professor Deborah Cameron’s podcast English and Gender, Cameron discusses the differences and similarities in use of the English language between men and women.

In another of Professor Paul Fry’s podcasts, Queer Theory and Gender Performativity, Fry discusses sexuality, the nature of performing gender (14:53), and gendered reading (46:20).



Feminist literary criticism is the critical analysis of literary works based on the feminist perspective. In particular, feminist literary critics tend to reject the patriarchal norms of literature “that privileges masculine ways of thinking/points of view and marginalizes women politically, economically and psychologically,” according to Paul Ady, associate professor of English at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Instead, feminist critics approach literature in a way that empowers the female point-of-view instead, typically rejecting the patriarchal language that has dominated literature.


Historical Origins of the Movement

  • Modern feminist literary criticism had its roots in the post-World War II feminist movement that spilled over into the intellectual circles of America’s colleges and universities. The true origins of the movement can be traced as far back as the late 18th century with Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” (1792). Other writers such as John Stuart Mill, Margaret Fuller and Simone de Beauvoir followed suit from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. From the 1960s onward, feminist literary critics proliferated. The approaches of feminist literary critics vary according to the personal interests of each writer. In fact, as Timothy H. Scherman, associate professor of English at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago has noted, “there are no ‘rules’-no ‘recipe’-­to doing feminist criticism.”

Challenges to the Literary Canon

  • One major approach to feminist literary criticism revolves around the desire to challenge or redefine the literary canon that has been dominated by men. In particular, as Scherman again notes, “feminist criticism makes space for and listens to women’s voices previously muted or drowned out by dominant patriarchal literary-critical practices.” In this sense, feminist literary criticism takes a particular stand against what the academic community has considered to be the norm for what it considers to be “literature.” This critique of traditional scholarship is an approach that rejects traditional norms on the assumption that traditional literary analysis has a political and ethical agenda biased against women. For this reason, writers like Josephine Donovan hope to recapture the radical basis for feminist literary criticism by reinvigorating it with both the political and ethical components inherent in the inception of the movement. By exploring previously ignored writers and studying the women’s literary tradition, critics hope to unveil previously held assumptions that marginalize the place of women in society.

Textual Analysis

  • Another popular approach to feminist literary criticism is to examine closely what the text says, or as the case may be, does not say. In other words, what the text leaves out says much about the writer, literature in general, and society as a whole. By using this “hermeneutics of suspicion” literary critics hope to reveal how women are marginalized in the language of literature, according to Ady. In some ways, this approach to literary criticism assumes that there is an unconscious transference of previously held assumptions to the text through the act of writing. What is written reveals what society believes. Influenced by the rise of post-modernism, feminist literary critics believe that the act of writing is not neutral, instead it is influenced by the values of the writer who then transfers those values to the text, often unintentionally. By understanding these values, feminist literary critics hope to reveal these subconscious ideas to show how women have been marginalized in literature.


Timothy H. Scherman: Feminist Literary Criticism

“Feminist Literary Criticism: Explorations in Theory”; Josephine Donovan; 2nd ed.; University of Kentucky Press, 1989

NWSA Journal; “Feminist Literary Criticism: How Feminist? How Literary? How Critical?”; Susan S. Lanser; Winter, 1991


Virginia Tech Center for Digital Discourse and Culture: Bibliography of Feminist Literary Criticism

Paul Ady: Feminist Literary Criticism




Feminist criticism is concerned with “…the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women” (Tyson). This school of theory looks at how aspects of our culture are inherently patriarchal (male dominated) and “…this critique strives to expose the explicit and implicit misogyny in male writing about women” (Richter 1346). This misogyny, Tyson reminds us, can extend into diverse areas of our culture: “Perhaps the most chilling example…is found in the world of modern medicine, where drugs prescribed for both sexes often have been tested on male subjects only” (83).

Feminist criticism is also concerned with less obvious forms of marginalization such as the exclusion of women writers from the traditional literary canon: “…unless the critical or historical point of view is feminist, there is a tendency to under-represent the contribution of women writers” (Tyson 82-83).


Common Space in Feminist Theories

Though a number of different approaches exist in feminist criticism, there exist some areas of commonality. This list is excerpted from Tyson:

  1. Women are oppressed by patriarchy economically, politically, socially, and psychologically; patriarchal ideology is the primary means by which they are kept so.
  2. In every domain where patriarchy reigns, woman is other: she is marginalized, defined only by her difference from male norms and values.
  3. All of western (Anglo-European) civilization is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideology, for example, in the biblical portrayal of Eve as the origin of sin and death in the world.
  4. While biology determines our sex (male or female), culture determines our gender (masculine or feminine).
  5. All feminist activity, including feminist theory and literary criticism, has as its ultimate goal to change the world by prompting gender equality.
  6. Gender issues play a part in every aspect of human production and experience, including the production and experience of literature, whether we are consciously aware of these issues or not (91).


Feminist criticism has, in many ways, followed what some theorists call the three waves of feminism:

  1. First Wave Feminism – late 1700s-early 1900’s: writers like Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792) highlight the inequalities between the sexes. Activists like Susan B. Anthony and Victoria Woodhull contribute to the women’s suffrage movement, which leads to National Universal Suffrage in 1920 with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment.
  2. Second Wave Feminism – early 1960s-late 1970s: building on more equal working conditions necessary in America during World War II, movements such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), formed in 1966, cohere feminist political activism. Writers like Simone de Beauvoir (Le Deuxième Sexe, 1972) and Elaine Showalter established the groundwork for the dissemination of feminist theories dove-tailed with the American Civil Rights movement.
  3. Third Wave Feminism – early 1990s-present: resisting the perceived essentialist (over generalized, over simplified) ideologies and a white, heterosexual, middle class focus of second wave feminism, third wave feminism borrows from post-structural and contemporary gender and race theories (see below) to expand on marginalized populations’ experiences. Writers like Alice Walker work to “…reconcile it [feminism] with the concerns of the black community…[and] the survival and wholeness of her people, men and women both, and for the promotion of dialog and community as well as for the valorization of women and of all the varieties of work women perform” (Tyson 97).




 Feminist theory/perspective reflects the thinking across the feminist movement that focuses on:

1.  The inequality of power between men and women in society and in family life.

2.  The feminist perspective – is about choice and about equally valuing the choices individuals make.


Feminist theories are a group of theories which focus on four important themes (Avis, 1986)

1.    A recognition of women’s oppression.

2.    An examination of what contributes to the maintenance of that oppression.

3.    A commitment to ending the unjust subordination.

4.    A futuristic vision of equality.


Historical Background

  • Women’s subordination appears in works of Plato, who believed that men were more virtuous by nature, and others who believed men had more intellectual and reasoning capabilities.
  • Following the industrial revolution, the women’s movement emerged in the 19th century.
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton established the National Organization of Women (NOW).
  • Susan B. Anthony was chosen to represent the Suffragists because of her less radical views. By the 1880s there was widespread support for obtaining the vote.
    • Many believed women deserved the vote due to their maternal virtues while others believed women and men were equal in endowments.
    • A major accomplishment in 1920 was the right to vote. In the 1960s there was a resurgence of the feminist movement which grew from the movement for the rights of African Americans.
    • Major themes were:
      • oppression
      • liberation
    • Contributors included:
      • Betty Frieden:
        • who wrote The Feminine Mystique which described dissatisfaction and depression among American housewives, and
      • Simone de Beauvoir:
        • who formulated the idea that power is central to the social construction of gender in the book, The Second Sex.

In 1972 the ERA was approved by the U.S. Congress, however, it failed to become law.


Assumptions of Feminist Theories

  1. Women are oppressed.
  2. Must focus on the centrality, normality and importance of women’s experience.
  3. Gender is socially constructed.
  4. The analyses of gender should include the larger socio-culture context.
  5.  The term “family” supports women’s oppression because it contains class, cultural, and heterosexual biases.
  6. Social change and methodological approaches should be value committed.
  7. Women need to succeed and change the oppression.


Feminist Theories 

There is no ONE feminist theory, although all of the theories share common assumptions and values.

1.     Liberal Feminists

  • Believe gender should not be a barrier since men and women are endowed with the same rational and spiritual capacities.

Liberal feminists are committed to:

  • social and legal reforms that will create equal opportunities for women” (Osmond & Thorne, 1993, p. 594),
  • ending sex discrimination and
  • challenging sex stereotyping.

2.     Social Feminists

  • Believe women are oppressed by capitalism.
  • The focus is on redefining capitalism in relation to women’s work.

3.     Radical Feminist Theories

  • Insist the oppression of women is fundamental.
  • Radical feminists believe the current patriarchal system must be eliminated.
  • Attention is directed towards issues of the body such as:
    • men’s control over women’s sexuality and reproduction,
    • men’s use of rape and violence to violate women.


Concepts and Terms


  • The hierarchical social structure through which men dominate and manipulate women (Avis 1986).


  • A person’s learned masculine or feminine status apart from ones biological male or female makeup.
  • Gender is analyzed in terms of the socialization process; gender identity; the social structure of the family, state, education, religion and other institutions; cultural or symbolic notions; and gender-power relationships.

The Person is Political

  • Women’s personal lives are an expression of their subordination within society (Avis, 1986).


  • The imposition of constraints by one group over another (Osmond & Thorn, 1993).

Important values of feminism include:

  • mutuality
  • cooperation
  • equality
  • democratic use of power
  • enjoyment of body and work
  • peace


Applications of Feminist Theory

·     Critiquing of other perspectives on families as ignoring or misrepresenting power structure and paying insufficient attention to socio-culture and historical contexts.

·    Challenging the traditional approaches to the study of families.

  •  Focusing on gender as a theoretical construct instead of as a variable.
  • Advocating the use of “household” as opposed to “family” due to the term family’s biases.
  • Emphasizing the harmful effects of the traditional family roles, economic exploitation, and social inequalities.
  • Refuting the stereotypes of the women as dependent and economically unproductive.
  • Focusing on the influence of capitalism and patriarchy on the organization of work, including work within the family.
  • Viewing motherhood as an experience as opposed to a role.
  • Challenging the structure of heterosexuality as the norm.
  • Recognizing the public-private dichotomy where men are recognized with public society and women with private family.


Current Focus of Feminist Theory:

  • Emphasis on women’s experiences.
  • Focus on ending the subordination of individuals based on class, ethnicity, race, age and gender.
  • Current feminism has a commitment to change (Osmond & Thorne, 1993).
  • Feminist research attempts to understand gender-power relationships.
  • A major feminist tenet, according to Walker (1993), is the need to deal with familial conflict, competition, and structural arrangements which increase the probability that family processes will be harmful.
  • Feminism reveals harmful effects traditional family roles, economic exploitation, and social inequalities have on women’s general well being.


Feminist Theories and Political Movement:

Are inextricably interwoven as demonstrated by the many efforts to apply feminism to political actions such as:

  • Changing policies that economically weaken female headed households.
  • Changing laws that support heterosexual and men dominated nuclear family arrangements over alternative family types.
  • Making laws to combat sexual and physical violence against women and children.
  • Supporting women’s reproductive freedom.
  • Reinforcing women’s unpaid work.


Strengths of Feminist Theories

  • Can be applied to a broad range of issues.
  • Provides valuable critique of other theories and perspectives.


Limitations of Feminist Theories

  • Research and practice are emotionally charged.
  • Overemphasis on gender and power.

Feminist theory is one of the major contemporary sociological theories, which analyzes the status of women and men in society with the purpose of using that knowledge to better women’s lives. Feminist theorists have also started to question the differences between women, including how race, class, ethnicity, and age intersect with gender. Feminist theory is most concerned with giving a voice to women and highlighting the various ways women have contributed to society.


There are four main types of feminist theory that attempt to explain the societal differences between men and women:

  • Gender Differences:

The gender difference perspective examines how women’s location in, and experience of, social situations differ from men’s. For example, cultural feminists look to the different values associated with womanhood and femininity as a reason why men and women experience the social world differently. Other feminist theorists believe that the different roles assigned to women and men within institutions better explain gender difference, including the sexual division of labor in the household. Existential and phenomenological feminists focus on how women have been marginalized and defined as the “other” in patriarchal societies. Women are thus seen as objects and are denied the opportunity for self-realization.

  • Gender Inequality:

Gender-inequality theories recognize that women’s location in, and experience of, social situations are not only different but also unequal to men’s. Liberal feminists argue that women have the same capacity as men for moral reasoning and agency, but that patriarchy, particularly the sexist patterning of the division of labor, has historically denied women the opportunity to express and practice this reasoning. Women have been isolated to the private sphere of the household and, thus, left without a voice in the public sphere. Even after women enter the public sphere, they are still expected to manage the private sphere and take care of household duties and child rearing. Liberal feminists point out that marriage is a site of gender inequality and that women do not benefit from being married as men do. Indeed, married women have higher levels of stress than unmarried women and married men. According to liberal feminists, the sexual division of labor in both the public and private spheres needs to be altered in order for women to achieve equality.

  • Gender Oppression:

Theories of gender oppression go further than theories of gender difference and gender inequality by arguing that not only are women different from or unequal to men, but that they are actively oppressed, subordinated, and even abused by men. Power is the key variable in the two main theories of gender oppression: psychoanalytic feminism and radical feminism. Psychoanalytic feminists attempt to explain power relations between men and women by reformulating Freud’s theories of the subconscious and unconscious, human emotions, and childhood development. They feel that conscious calculation cannot fully explain the production and reproduction of patriarchy. Radical feminists argue that being a woman is a positive thing in and of itself, but that this is not acknowledged in patriarchal societies where women are oppressed. They identify physical violence as being at the base of patriarchy, but they think that patriarchy can be defeated if women recognize their own value and strength, establish a sisterhood of trust with other women, confront oppression critically, and form female separatist networks in the private and public spheres.

  • Structural Oppression:

Structural oppression theories posit that women’s oppression and inequality are a result of capitalism, patriarchy, and racism. Socialist feminists agree with Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels that the working class is exploited as a consequence of the capitalist mode of production, but they seek to extend this exploitation not just to class but also to gender. Intersectionality theorists seek to explain oppression and inequality across a variety of variables, including class, gender, race, ethnicity, and age. They make the important insight that not all women experience oppression in the same way. White women and black women, for example, face different forms of discrimination in the workplace. Thus, different groups of women come to view the world through a shared standpoint of “heterogeneous commonality.”



Anderson, M.L. and Taylor, H.F. (2009). Sociology: The Essentials. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Ritzer,G. and Goodman, D.J. (2004). Sociological Theory: Sixth Edition. Columbus, OH: McGraw Hill.



Electronic Sources:

http://www.csun.edu/~whw2380/542/Feminist%20Family%20Theory.htm (Taken on Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at 11.14 a.m.)

http://www.ehow.com/way_5819656_feminist-approach-literary-criticism_.html (Taken on Monday, June 3, 2013 at 12.53.)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminist_literary_criticism (Taken on Monday, June 3, 2013 at 12.40.)

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/722/11/ (Taken on Monday, June 3, 2013 at 14.14.)

http://writersinspire.podcasts.ox.ac.uk/content/feminist-approaches-literature (Taken on Monday, June 3, 2013 at 13.38.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s