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A Room of One's Own

Virginia Woolf (1882—1941) writer and publisher

Kate Millett (b. 1934) American feminist

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feminist criticism

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A modern tradition of literary commentary and polemic devoted to the defence of women's writing or of fictional female characters against the condescensions of a predominantly male literary establishment.

The beginnings of this movement are to be found in the journalism of R. West from about 1910. More influential as founding documents are the essays of V. Woolf, notably A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), and S. de Beauvoir's Le Deuxième Sexe (1949, translated as The Second Sex, 1953). In its developed form, the tradition was reborn amid the cultural ferment of the post‐1968 period, especially in the United States. The misogynist or belittling attitudes of male critics and novelists were subjected to ironic scrutiny in Mary Ellmann's Thinking About Women (1968) and to iconoclastic rage in Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1970), the latter work berating D. H. Lawrence and Mailer in particular. Many feminist academics continued the investigation into stereotyped representations of female characters, for example in S. Cornillon (ed.), Images of Women in Fiction (1972).

Concentration upon the offences of male writers tended to give way in the later 1970s to woman‐centred literary histories seeking to trace an autonomous tradition of women's literature and to redeem neglected female authors. Influential examples of such work in America were Ellen Moers, Literary Women (1976), Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own (1977), and Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). By the beginning of the 1980s, feminist criticism was becoming more self‐critical and internally differentiated: the mainstream of American feminist criticism eschewed ‘male’ literary theory and saw its purpose as the affirmation of distinctly female ‘experience’ as reflected in writing; but black‐feminist and lesbian‐feminist critics objected that their own experiences were being overlooked. Meanwhile the value of ‘experience’ as a clue to women's writing was doubted by feminists allied to Marxist criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, and post‐structuralism, especially but not exclusively in Britain and France. One such school, led by the French writers Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray, sought to define an écriture féminine (for which ‘feminine writing’ would be a misleading translation) on the basis of a psychological ‘politics’ of language itself: if language belongs not to women but to masculine social order, the distinctive female literary strategy will be to subvert it with bodily, even orgasmic, pulsations. British feminist criticism, although drawing upon both American and French approaches, has usually been more historical and sociological.

Feminist criticism has thus become a varied field of debate rather than an agreed position. Its substantial achievements are seen in the re‐admission of temporarily forgotten women authors to the literary canon, in modern reprints and newly commissioned studies by feminist publishing houses such as Virago (1977) and the Women's Press (1978), in anthologies and academic courses.

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definition feminist criticism

What Is Feminist Criticism?

Feminist criticism defines a literary theory showing how women were portrayed as less valuable than men in literature throughout history. Usually called feminist literary criticism , it studies how early writings condoned the oppression of women because men dominated society. It also explores how women writers were taken less seriously than male authors from a historical perspective.

Going back hundreds of years, women were shown in literature as imperfect when compared to men, according to feminist criticism. Female stereotypes abound in early literary works, and feminist criticism scholars contend these views kept women from reaching equality socially, politically, and economically. In some instances, women were simply viewed as being different from men but not recognized for any contributions to society.

Feminist literary criticism studies how early writings condoned the oppression of women because men dominated society.

Feminist criticism gender studies typically divide history into three distinct periods. The first era looks at literature from the 1700s through the early 1900s. This is considered the first time women began examining female characters in literature, which were created from a male viewpoint. Virginia Woolf ’s A Room of One’s Own , published in 1929, is studied for its impact on feminist criticism and the obstacles female writers overcame to express their views.

At that time, most women were confined to a house, which became a re-occurring theme in books by female authors of the era. Over time, these writers began developing strong female characters that went against society’s expectations. These early heroines sought independence and followed a quest for knowledge, with literature showing women bucking the system and using their intellect to make personal decisions.

The second wave of feminist criticism arose between the 1960s and late 1970s. The women’s rights movement drew attention to political, economic, and social injustices to the female sex. This era coincided with the civil rights movement that demanded equality for people of color.

During the 1990s, scholars studying feminist criticism actively wrote about the contributions of women to society. Literature included studies of text throughout history that illustrated the debasement of women, especially in works considered classics. The way women were featured in historical works influenced female characters in modern text internationally during this time.

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Discussion Comments

I am a firm believer in the words "The pen is mightier than the sword." Those who control what we read shape history as much as the people who live the events they write about. I am always appalled when I think of some of the history books used in my schools when I was a kid.

I think the portrayal of the American Indian, blacks and women in writing and motion pictures has done a major disservice to us all. With time, the portrayal of women in literature has changed for the better, and I think these changes account for many of the changes we have seen in terms of female equality in the workforce, in government and in the home.

I don't know how much the way women are depicted in literature has to do with the real world. I guess there are good points on both sides of the debate and I have heard enough literary criticism to know that both sides are not likely to come to a common ground of agreement.

However, I do know how important it was for me to be able to go to the library when I was a young girl and check out books about young girls who were like me physically, but who had these great adventures and experiences. There was something encouraging in those books. After all, if those characters could do great things then why couldn't I do great things with my life, too?

If you're writing about the world around you, and you are not writing fantasy then your characters are going to reflect what you see around you. If this is not what happens then that probably says more about your writing ability than anything else. Whether you believe the roles woman have played throughout history are good or bad, you should recognize that women have been more submissive and been have been more dominant throughout history.

For this reason, it is natural that writers would portray men and women accordingly in their works. Literature didn't create the rules and beliefs of our societies. The writings simply reflected the images that were already there, even feminist critics should recognize this.

Post your comments

Feminist literary criticism studies how early writings condoned the oppression of women because men dominated society.

Feminist Literary Criticism

Feminism Definition

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Feminist literary criticism (also known as feminist criticism) is the literary analysis that arises from the viewpoint of feminism , ​ feminist theory , and/or feminist politics.

Critical Methodology

A feminist literary critic resists traditional assumptions while reading a text. In addition to challenging assumptions which were thought to be universal, feminist literary criticism actively supports including women's knowledge in literature and valuing women's experiences. The basic methods of feminist literary criticism include:

  • Identifying with female characters: By examining the way female characters are defined, critics challenge the male-centered outlook of authors. Feminist literary criticism suggests that women in literature have been historically presented as objects seen from a male perspective.
  • Reevaluating literature and the world in which literature is read: By revisiting the classic literature, the critic can question whether society has predominantly valued male authors and their literary works because it has valued males more than females.

Embodying or Undercutting Stereotypes

Feminist literary criticism recognizes that literature both reflects and shapes stereotypes and other cultural assumptions. Thus, feminist literary criticism examines how works of literature embody patriarchal attitudes or undercut them, sometimes both happening within the same work.

Feminist theory and various forms of feminist critique began long before the formal naming of the school of literary criticism. In so-called first-wave feminism, the "Woman's Bible," written in the late 19th century by Elizabeth Cady Stanton , is an example of a work of criticism firmly in this school, looking beyond the more obvious male-centered outlook and interpretation.

During the period of second-wave feminism, academic circles increasingly challenged the male literary canon. Feminist literary criticism has since intertwined with postmodernism and increasingly complex questions of gender and societal roles.

Tools of the Feminist Literary Critic

Feminist literary criticism may bring in tools from other critical disciplines, such as historical analysis, psychology, linguistics, sociological analysis, and economic analysis. Feminist criticism may also look at intersectionality , looking at how factors including race, sexuality, physical ability, and class are also involved.

Feminist literary criticism may use any of the following methods:

  • Deconstructing the way that women characters are described in novels, stories, plays, biographies, and histories, especially if the author is male
  • Deconstructing how one's own gender influences how one reads and interprets a text, and which characters and how the reader identifies depending on the reader's gender
  • Deconstructing how women autobiographers and biographers of women treat their subjects, and how biographers treat women who are secondary to the main subject
  • Describing relationships between the literary text and ideas about power and sexuality and gender
  • Critique of patriarchal or woman-marginalizing language, such as a "universal" use of the masculine pronouns "he" and "him"
  • Noticing and unpacking differences in how men and women write: a style, for instance, where women use more reflexive language and men use more direct language (example: "she let herself in" versus "he opened the door")
  • Reclaiming women writers who are little known or have been marginalized or undervalued, sometimes referred to as expanding or criticizing the canon—the usual list of "important" authors and works (Examples include raising up the contributions of early playwright ​ Aphra Behn and showing how she was treated differently than male writers from her own time forward, and the retrieval of Zora Neale Hurston 's writing by Alice Walker .)
  • Reclaiming the "female voice" as a valuable contribution to literature, even if formerly marginalized or ignored
  • Analyzing multiple works in a genre as an overview of a feminist approach to that genre: for example, science fiction or detective fiction
  • Analyzing multiple works by a single author (often female)
  • Examining how relationships between men and women and those assuming male and female roles are depicted in the text, including power relations
  • Examining the text to find ways in which patriarchy is resisted or could have been resisted

Feminist literary criticism is distinguished from gynocriticism because feminist literary criticism may also analyze and deconstruct literary works of men.


Gynocriticism, or gynocritics, refers to the literary study of women as writers. It is a critical practice exploring and recording female creativity. Gynocriticism attempts to understand women’s writing as a fundamental part of female reality. Some critics now use “gynocriticism” to refer to the practice and “gynocritics” to refer to the practitioners.

American literary critic Elaine Showalter coined the term "gynocritics" in her 1979 essay “Towards a Feminist Poetics.” Unlike feminist literary criticism, which might analyze works by male authors from a feminist perspective, gynocriticism wanted to establish a literary tradition of women without incorporating male authors. Showalter felt that feminist criticism still worked within male assumptions, while gynocriticism would begin a new phase of women’s self-discovery.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Alcott, Louisa May. The Feminist Alcott: Stories of a Woman's Power . Edited by Madeleine B. Stern, Northeastern University, 1996.
  • Barr, Marleen S. Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond . University of North Carolina, 1993.
  • Bolin, Alice. Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession . William Morrow, 2018.
  • Burke, Sally. American Feminist Playwrights: A Critical History . Twayne, 1996.
  • Carlin, Deborah. Cather, Canon, and the Politics of Reading . University of Massachusetts, 1992.
  • Castillo, Debra A. Talking Back: Toward a Latin American Feminist Literary Criticism . Cornell University, 1992.
  • Chocano, Carina. You Play the Girl . Mariner, 2017.
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, editors. Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism: A Norton Reader . Norton, 2007.
  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, editors. Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets . Indiana University, 1993.
  • Lauret, Maria. Liberating Literature: Feminist Fiction in America . Routledge, 1994.
  • Lavigne, Carlen. Cyberpunk Women, Feminism and Science Fiction: A Critical Study . McFarland, 2013.
  • Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches . Penguin, 2020.
  • Perreault, Jeanne. Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autography . University of Minnesota, 1995.
  • Plain, Gill, and Susan Sellers, editors. A History of Feminist Literary Criticism . Cambridge University, 2012.
  • Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson, editors. De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography . University of Minnesota, 1992.

This article was edited and with significant additions by Jone Johnson Lewis

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41 What Are Feminist Criticism, Postfeminist Criticism, and Queer Theory?

definition feminist criticism

Feminist criticism is a critical approach to literature that seeks to understand how gender and sexuality shape the meaning and representation of literary texts.  While feminist criticism has its roots in the 1800s (First Wave), it became a critical force in the early 1970s (Second Wave) as part of the broader feminist movement and continues to be an important and influential approach to literary analysis.

Feminist critics explore the ways in which literature reflects and reinforces gender roles and expectations, as well as the ways in which it can challenge and subvert them. They examine the representation of female characters and the ways in which they are portrayed in relation to male characters, as well as the representation of gender and sexuality more broadly. With feminist criticism, we may consider both the woman as writer and the written woman.

As with New Historicism, one of the key principles of feminist criticism is the idea that literature is not a neutral or objective reflection of reality, but is shaped by the social and cultural context in which it is produced. Feminist critics are interested in gender stereotypes, exploring how literature reflects and reinforces patriarchal power structures, and how it can be used to challenge and transform these structures.

Postfeminist Criticism

Postfeminist criticism is a critical approach to literature that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s as a response to earlier feminist literary criticism. It acknowledges the gains of feminism in terms of women’s rights and gender equality, but also recognizes that these gains have been uneven and that new forms of gender inequality have emerged.

The “post” in postfeminist can be understood like the “post” in post-structuralism or postcolonialism. Postfeminist critics are interested in exploring the ways in which gender and sexuality are constructed and represented in literature, but they also pay attention to the ways in which other factors such as race, class, and age intersect with gender to shape experiences and identities. They seek to move beyond the binary categories of male/female and masculine/feminine, and to explore the ways in which gender identity and expression are fluid and varied.

Postfeminist criticism also pays attention to the ways in which contemporary culture, including literature and popular media, reflects and shapes attitudes towards gender and sexuality. It explores the ways in which these representations can be empowering or constraining, and seeks to identify and challenge problematic representations of gender and sexuality.

One of the key principles of postfeminist criticism is the importance of diversity and inclusivity. Postfeminist critics are interested in exploring the experiences of individuals who have been marginalized or excluded by traditional feminist discourse, including women of color, queer and trans individuals, and working-class women. If you are familiar with t he American Dirt controversy, where Oprah’s book pick was widely criticized because the author was a white woman, is an example of this type of approach.

Queer Theory

Queer theory is a critical approach to literature and culture that seeks to challenge and destabilize dominant assumptions about gender and sexuality. It emerged in the 1990s as a response to the limitations of traditional gay and lesbian studies, which tended to focus on issues of identity and representation within a binary understanding of gender and sexuality. According to Jennifer Miller,

“The film theorist Teresa de Lauretis (figure 1.1) coined the term at a University of California, Santa Cruz, conference about lesbian and gay sexualities in February 1990…. In her introduction to the special issue, de Lauretis outlines the central features of queer theory, sketching the field in broad strokes that have held up remarkably well.”

While queer theory was formalized in 1990, scholars built on earlier ideas from Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, as well as the works of Judith Butler and Eve Sedgewick.

Queer theory is interested in exploring the ways in which gender and sexuality are constructed and performative, rather than innate or essential. As with feminism and post-feminism, queer theory seeks to expose the ways in which these constructions are shaped by social, cultural, and historical factors, but additionally, queer theory seeks to challenge the rigid binaries of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Queer theory also emphasizes the importance of intersectionality, or the ways in which gender and sexuality intersect with other forms of identity such as race, class, and ability. It seeks to uncover the ways in which multiple forms of oppression and privilege intersect in complex and nuanced ways.

Queer theory focuses on the importance of resistance and subversion. Scholars are interested in exploring the ways in which marginalized individuals and communities have resisted and subverted the dominant culture’s norms and values, observing how these acts of resistance and subversion can be empowering and transformative.

Learning Objectives

  • Use a variety of approaches to texts to support interpretations (CLO 1.2)
  • Using a literary theory, choose appropriate elements of literature (formal, content, or context) to focus on in support of an interpretation (CLO 2.3)
  • Be exposed to a variety of critical strategies through literary theory lenses, such as formalism/New Criticism, reader-response, structuralism, deconstruction, historical and cultural approaches (New Historicism, postcolonial, Marxism), psychological approaches, feminism, and queer theory (CLO 4.1)
  • Understand how context impacts the reading of a text, and how different contexts can bring about different readings (CLO 4.3)
  • Demonstrate awareness of critical approaches by pairing them with texts in productive and illuminating ways (CLO 5.5)
  • Demonstrate through discussion and/or writing how textual interpretation can change given the context from which one reads (CLO 6.2)
  • Understand that interpretation is inherently political, and that it reveals assumptions and expectations about value, truth, and the human experience (CLO 7.1)

Scholarship: Examples from Feminist, Postfeminist, and Queer Theory Critics

Feminist criticism could technically be considered to be as old as writing. Since Sappho of Lesbos wrote her famous lyrics, women authors have been an active and important part of their cultures’ literary traditions. Why, then, are we sometimes not as familiar with the works of women authors? One of the earliest feminist critics is the French existentialist philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). In her important book, The Second Sex, she lays the groundwork for feminist literary criticism by considering how in most societies, “man” is normal, and “woman” is “the Other.” You may have heard this famous quote: “One is not born a woman but becomes one.” (French: “On ne naît pas femme, on le devient”). This phrase encapsulates the essential feminist idea that “woman” is a social construct.

Feminist: Excerpt from Introduction to The Second Sex (1949), translated by H.M. Parshley

If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question “what is a woman”?

To state the question is, to me, to suggest, at once, a preliminary answer. The fact that I ask it is in itself significant. A man would never set out to write a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: ‘I am a woman’; on this truth must be based all further discussion. A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man. The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers. In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity. In the midst of an abstract discussion it is vexing to hear a man say: ‘You think thus and so because you are a woman’; but I know that my only defence is to reply: ‘I think thus and so because it is true,’ thereby removing my subjective self from the argument. It would be out of the question to reply: ‘And you think the contrary because you are a man’, for it is understood that the fact of being a man is no peculiarity. A man is in the right in being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong. It amounts to this: just as for the ancients there was an absolute vertical with reference to which the oblique was defined, so there is an absolute human type, the masculine. Woman has ovaries, a uterus: these peculiarities imprison her in her subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature. It is often said that she thinks with her glands. Man superbly ignores the fact that his anatomy also includes glands, such as the testicles, and that they secrete 3 hormones. He thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of woman as a hindrance, a prison, weighed down by everything peculiar to it. ‘The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities,’ said Aristotle; ‘we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness.’ And St Thomas for his part pronounced woman to be an ‘imperfect man’, an ‘incidental’ being. This is symbolised in Genesis where Eve is depicted as made from what Bossuet called ‘a supernumerary bone’ of Adam.

Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. Michelet writes: ‘Woman, the relative being …’ And Benda is most positive in his Rapport d’Uriel: ‘The body of man makes sense in itself quite apart from that of woman, whereas the latter seems wanting in significance by itself … Man can think of himself without woman. She cannot think of herself without man.’ And she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’

The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality – that of the Self and the Other. This duality was not originally attached to the division of the sexes; it was not dependent upon any empirical facts. It is revealed in such works as that of Granet on Chinese thought and those of Dumézil on the East Indies and Rome. The feminine element was at first no more involved in such pairs as Varuna-Mitra, Uranus-Zeus, Sun-Moon, and Day-Night than it was in the contrasts between Good and Evil, lucky and unlucky auspices, right and left, God and Lucifer. Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought.

Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself. If three travellers chance to occupy the same compartment, that is enough to make vaguely hostile ‘others’ out of all the rest of the passengers on the train. In small-town eyes all persons not belonging to the village are ‘strangers’ and suspect; to the native of a country all who inhabit other countries are ‘foreigners’; Jews are ‘different’ for the anti-Semite, Negroes are ‘inferior’ for American racists, aborigines are ‘natives’ for colonists, proletarians are the ‘lower class’ for the privileged.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (translated by H.M. Parshley) is licensed All Rights Reserved and is used here under Fair Use exception.

How do you feel about de Beauvoir’s conception of woman as “Other”? How are her approaches to gender similar to what we have learned about deconstruction and New Historicism? Could feminist criticism, like Marxist, Postcolonial, Critical Race Theory, and Cultural Studies criticism, also be thought of as having “power” as its central concern?

Let’s move on to postfeminist criticism. When you think of Emily Dickinson, sadomasochism is probably the last thing that comes to mind, unless you’re postfeminist scholar and critic Camille Paglia . No stranger to culture wars, Paglia has often courted controversy; a 2012 New York Times article noted that “ [a]nyone who has been following the body count of the culture wars over the past decades knows Paglia.” Paglia, who identifies as transgender, continues to write and publish both scholarship and popular works. Her fourth essay collection, Provocations: Collected Essays on Art, Feminism, Politics, Sex, and Education , was published by  Pantheon in 2018.

This excerpt from her 1990 book, which drew on her doctoral dissertation research, demonstrates Paglia’s creative and confrontational approach to scholarship.

Postfeminist: Excerpt from “Amherst’s Madame de Sade” in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson by Camille Paglia (1990)

Consciousness in Dickinson takes the form of a body tormented in every limb. Her sadomasochistic metaphors are Blake’s Universal Man hammering on himself, like the auctioneering Jesus. Her suffering personae make up the gorged superself of Romanticism. I argued that modern sadomasochism is a limitation of the will and that for a Romantic like the mastectomy-obsessed Kleist it represents a reduction of self. A conventional feminist critique of Emily Dickinson’s life would see her hemmed in on all sides by respectability and paternalism, impediments to her genius. But a study of Romanticism shows that post-Enlightenment poets are struggling with the absence of limits, with the gross inflation of solipsistic imagination. Hence Dickinson’s most uncontrolled encounter is with the serpent of her antisocial self, who breaks out like the Aeolian winds let out of their bag. Dickinson does wage guerrilla warfare with society. Her fractures, cripplings, impalements, and amputations are Dionysian disorderings of the stable structures of the Apollonian lawgivers. God, or the idea of God, is the “One,” without whom the “Many” of nature fly apart. Hence God’s death condemns the world to Decadent disintegration. Dickinson’s Late Romantic love of the apocalyptic parallels Decadent European taste for salon paintings of the fall of Babylon or Rome. Her Dionysian cataclysms demolish Victorian proprieties. Like Blake, she couples the miniature and grandiose, great disjunctions of scale whose yawing swings release tremendous poetic energy. The least palatable principle of the Dionysian, I have stressed, is not sex but violence, which Rousseau, Wordsworth, and Emerson exclude from their view of nature. Dickinson, like Sade, draws the reader into ascending degrees of complicity, from eroticism to rape, mutilation, and murder. With Emily Brontë, she uncovers the aggression repressed by humanism. Hence Dickinson is the creator of Sadean poems but also the creator of sadists, the readers whom she smears with her lamb’s blood. Like the Passover angel, she stains the lintels of the bourgeois home with her bloody vision. “There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House,” she announces with a satisfaction completely overlooked by the Wordsworthian reader (389). But merely because poet and modern society are in conflict does not mean art necessarily gains by “freedom.” It is a sentimental error to think Emily Dickinson the victim of male obstructionism. Without her struggle with God and father, there would have been no poetry. There are two reasons for this. First, Romanticism’s overexpanded self requires artificial restraints. Dickinson finds these limitations in sadomasochistic nature and reproduces them in her dual style. Without such a discipline, the Romantic poet cannot take a single step, for the sterile vastness of modern freedom is like gravity-free outer space, in which one cannot walk or run. Second, women do not rise to supreme achievement unless they are under powerful internal compulsion. Dickinson was a woman of abnormal will. Her poetry profits from the enormous disparity between that will and the feminine social persona to which she fell heir at birth. But her sadism is not anger, the a posteriori response to social injustice. It is hostility, an a priori Achillean intolerance for the existence of others, the female version of Romantic solipsism. Excerpt from Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia is licensed All Rights Reserved and is used here under Fair Use exception.

It’s important to note that these critical approaches can be applied to works from any time period, as the title of Paglia’s book makes clear. In this sense, post-feminist scholarship is similar to deconstruction and borrows many of its methods. After reading this passage, do you feel the same way about Emily Dickinson’s poetry? How does Paglia’s postfeminist approach differ from Simone de Beauvoir’s approach to feminism?

Our final reading is from Judith Butler , who is considered both a feminist scholar and a foundational queer theorist. Her 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity is considered an essential queer theory text. Expanding on the ideas about gender and performativity in that book, Bodies that Matter (2011) deconstructs the binary sex/gender distinctions that we see in the works of earlier feminist scholars such as Simone de Beauvoir.

Queer Theory: Excerpt from “Introduction,”  Bodies that Matter  by Judith Butler (2011)

Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin? -Donna Haraway, A Manifesto for Cyborgs If one really thinks about the body as such, there is no possible outline of the body as such. There are thinkings of the systematicity of the body, there are value codings of the body. The body, as such, cannot be thought, and I certainly cannot approach it. -Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “In a Word,” interview with Ellen Rooney There is no nature, only the effects of nature: denaturalization or naturalization. -Jacques Derrida, Donner le Temps Is there a way to link the question of the materiality of the body to the performativity of gender? And how does the category of “sex” figure within such a relationship? Consider first that sexual difference is often invoked as an issue of material differences. Sexual difference, however, is never simply a function of material differences that are not in some way both marked and formed by discursive practices. Further, to claim that sexual differences are indissociable from discursive demarcations is not the same as claiming that discourse causes sexual difference. The category “sex” is, from the start, normative; it is what Foucault has called a “regulatory ideal.” In this sense, then, “sex” not only functions as a norm but also is part of a regulatory practice that produces the bodies it governs, that is, whose regulatory force is made clear as a kind of productive power, the power to produce-demarcate, circulate, differentiate-the bodies it controls. Thus, “sex” is a regulatory ideal whose materialization is compelled, and this materialization takes place (or fails to take place) through certain highly regulated practices. In other words, “sex” is an ideal construct that is forcibly materialized through time. It is not a simple fact or static condition of a body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize “sex” and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms. That this reiteration is necessary is a sign that materialization is never quite complete, that bodies never quite comply with the norms by which their materialization is impelled. Indeed, it is the instabilities, the possibilities for rematerialization, opened up by this process that mark one domain in which the force of the regulatory law can be turned against itself to spawn rearticulations that call into question the hegemonic force of that very regulatory law. But how, then, does the notion of gender performativity relate to this conception of materialization? In the first instance, performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate “act” but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names. What will, I hope, become clear in what follows is that the regulatory norms of “sex” work in a performative fashion to constitute the materiality of bodies and, more specifically, to materialize the body’s sex, to materialize sexual difference in the service of the consolidation of the heterosexual imperative. In this sense, what constitutes the fixity of the body, its contours, its movements, will be fully material, but materiality will be rethought as the effect of power, as power’s most productive effect. And there will be no way to understand “gender” as a cultural construct which is imposed upon the surface of matter, understood either as “the body” or its given sex. Rather, once “sex” itself is understood in its normativity, the materiality of the body will not be thinkable apart from the materializatiqn of that regulatory norm. “Sex” is, thus, not simply what one has, or a static description of what one is: it will be one of the norms by which the “one” becomes viable at all, that which qualifies a body for life within the domain of cultural intelligibility. At stake in such a reformulation of the materiality of bodies will be the following: (1) the recasting of the matter of bodies as the effect of a dynamic of power, such that the matter of bodies will be indissociable from the regulatory norms that govern their materialization and the signification of those material effects; (2) the understanding of performativity not as the act by which a subject brings into being what she/he names, but, rather, as that reiterative power of dis.course to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains; (3) the construal of “sex” no longer as a bodily given on which the construct of gender is artificially imposed, but as a cultural norm which governs the materialization of bodies; (4) a rethinking of the process by which a bodily norm is assumed, appropriated, taken on as not, strictly speaking, undergone by a subject, but rather that the subject, the speaking “I,” is formed by virtue of having gone through such a process of assuming a sex; and (5) a linking of this process of “assuming” a sex with the question of identification, and with the discursive means by which the heterosexual imperative enables certain sexed identifications and forecloses and/ or disavows other identifications. This exclusionary matrix by which subjects are formed thus requires the simultaneous production of a domain of abject beings, those who are not yet “subjects” but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject. The abject designates here precisely those “unlivable” and “uninhabitable” zones of so cial life, which are nevertheless densely populated by those who do not enjoy the status of the subject, but whose living under the sign of the “unlivable” is required to circumscribe the domain of the subject. This zone of uninhabitability will constitute the defining limit of the subject’s domain; it will constitute that site of dreadful identification against which-and by virtue of which-the domain of the subject will circumscribe its own claim to autonomy and to life. In this sense, then, the subject is constituted through the force of exclusion and abjection, one which produces a constitutive outside to the subject, an abjected outside, which is, after all, “inside” the subject as its own founding repudiation. The forming of a subject requires an identification with the normative phantasm of”sex,” and this identification takes place through a repudiation that produces a domain of abjection, a repudiation without which the subject cannot emerge. This is a repudiation that creates the valence of “abjection” and its status for the subject as a threatening spectre. Further, the materialization of a given sex will centrally concern the regulation of identificatory practices such that the identification with the abjection of sex will be persistently disavowed. And yet, this disavowed abjection will threaten to expose the self-grounding presumptions of the sexed subject, grounded as that subject is in repudiation whose consequences it cannot fully control. The task will be to consider this threat and disruption not as a permanent contestation of social norms condemned to the pathos of perpetual failure, but rather as a critical resource in the struggle to rearticulate the very terms of symbolic legitimacy and intelligibility. Lastly, the mobilization of the categories of sex within political discourse will be haunted in some ways by the very instabilities that the categories effectively produce and foreclose. Although the political discourses that mobilize identity categories tend to cultivate identifications in the service of a political goal, it may be that the persistence of disidentification is equally crucial to the rearticulation of democratic contestation. Indeed, it may be precisely through practices which underscore disidentification with those regulatory norms by which sexual difference is materialized that both feminists and queer politics are mobilized. Such collective disidentifications can facilitate a reconceptualization of which bodies matter, and which bodies are yet to emerge as critical matters of concern. Excerpt from Bodies that Matter by Judith Butler is licensed All Rights Reserved and is used here under Fair Use exception.

You can see in Butler’s work how deconstruction plays a role in queer theory approaches to texts. What do you think of her approach to sexuality and gender? Which bodies matter? Why is this question important for literary scholars, and how can we use literary texts to answer the question?

In our next section, we’ll look at some ways that these theories can be used to analyze literary texts.

Using Feminism, Post-feminism, and Queer Theory as a Critical Approach

As you can see from the introduction and the examples of scholarship that we read, there’s some overlap in the concepts of these three critical approaches. One of the first choices you have to make when working with a text is deciding which theory to use. Below I’ve outlined some ideas that you might explore.

  • Character Analysis: Examine the portrayal of characters, paying attention to how gender roles and stereotypes shape their identities. Consider the agency, autonomy, and representation of both male and female characters, and analyze how their interactions contribute to or challenge traditional gender norms.
  • Theme Exploration: Investigate themes related to gender, power dynamics, and patriarchy within the text. Explore how the narrative addresses issues such as sexism, women’s rights, and the construction of femininity and masculinity. Consider how the themes may reflect or critique societal attitudes towards gender.
  • Language and Symbolism: Analyze the language used in the text, including the representation of gender through linguistic choices. Examine symbols and metaphors related to gender and sexuality. Identify instances of language that may reinforce or subvert traditional gender roles, and explore how these linguistic elements contribute to the overall meaning of the work.
  • Authorial Intent and Context: Investigate the author’s background, motivations, and societal context. Consider how the author’s personal experiences and the cultural milieu may have influenced their portrayal of gender. Analyze the author’s stance on feminist issues and whether the text aligns with or challenges feminist principles.
  • Intersectionality: Take an intersectional approach by considering how factors such as race, class, sexuality, and other identity markers intersect with gender in the text. Explore how different forms of oppression and privilege intersect, shaping the experiences of characters and influencing the overall thematic landscape of the literary work.


  • Interrogating Postfeminist Tropes: Examine the text for elements that align with or challenge postfeminist tropes, such as the notion of individual empowerment, choice feminism, or the idea that traditional gender roles are no longer relevant. Analyze how the narrative engages with or subverts these postfeminist ideals.
  • Exploring Ambiguities and Contradictions: Investigate contradictions and ambiguities within the text regarding gender and sexuality. Postfeminist criticism often acknowledges the complexities of contemporary gender dynamics, so analyze instances where the text may present conflicting perspectives on issues like agency, equality, and empowerment.
  • Media and Pop Culture Influences: Consider the influence of media and popular culture on the text. Postfeminist criticism often examines how cultural narratives and media representations of gender impact literature. Analyze how the text responds to or reflects contemporary media portrayals of gender roles and expectations.
  • Global and Cultural Perspectives: Take a global and cultural perspective by exploring how the text addresses postfeminist ideas in different cultural contexts. Analyze how the narrative engages with issues of globalization, intersectionality, and diverse cultural perspectives on gender and feminism.
  • Temporal Considerations: Examine how the temporal setting of the text influences its engagement with postfeminist ideas. Consider whether the narrative reflects a specific historical moment or if it transcends temporal boundaries. Analyze how societal shifts over time may be reflected in the text’s treatment of gender issues.
  • Deconstructing Norms and Binaries: Utilize Queer Theory to deconstruct traditional norms and binaries related to gender and sexuality within the text. Explore how the narrative challenges or reinforces heteronormative assumptions, and analyze characters or relationships that subvert or resist conventional categories.
  • Examining Queer Identities: Focus on the exploration and representation of queer identities within the text. Consider how characters navigate and express their sexualities and gender identities. Analyze the nuances of queer experiences and the ways in which the text contributes to a more expansive understanding of LGBTQ+ identities.
  • Language and Subversion: Analyze the language used in the text with a Queer Theory lens. Examine linguistic choices that challenge or reinforce societal norms related to gender and sexuality. Explore how the text employs language to subvert or resist heteronormative structures.
  • Queer Time and Space: Consider how the concept of queer time and space is represented in the text. Queer Theory often explores non-linear or non-normative temporalities and spatialities. Analyze how the narrative disrupts conventional timelines or spatial arrangements to create alternative queer realities.
  • Intersectionality within Queer Narratives: Take an intersectional approach within the framework of Queer Theory. Analyze how factors such as race, class, and ethnicity intersect with queer identities in the text. Explore the intersections of different marginalized identities to understand the complexities of lived experiences.

Applying Gender Criticisms to Literary Texts

As with our other critical approaches, we will start with  a close reading of the poem below (we’ll do this together in class or as part of the recorded lecture for this chapter). In your close reading, you’ll focus on gender, stereotypes, the patriarchy, heteronormative writing, etc.  With feminist, postfeminist, and queer theory criticism, you might look to outside sources, especially if you are considering the author’s gender identity or sexuality, or you might bring your own knowledge and lived experience to the text.

The poem below was written by Mary Robinson, an early Romantic English poet. Though her works were quite popular when she was alive, you may not have heard of her. However, you’re probably familiar with her male contemporaries William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Keep in mind that reading this poem is thus itself a feminist act. When we choose to include historical voices of woman that were previously excluded, we are doing feminist criticism.

“January, 1795”


definition feminist criticism

Pavement slipp’ry, people sneezing, Lords in ermine, beggars freezing; Titled gluttons dainties carving, Genius in a garret starving.

Lofty mansions, warm and spacious; Courtiers cringing and voracious; Misers scarce the wretched heeding; Gallant soldiers fighting, bleeding.

Wives who laugh at passive spouses; Theatres, and meeting-houses; Balls, where simp’ring misses languish; Hospitals, and groans of anguish.

Arts and sciences bewailing; Commerce drooping, credit failing; Placemen mocking subjects loyal; Separations, weddings royal.

Authors who can’t earn a dinner; Many a subtle rogue a winner; Fugitives for shelter seeking; Misers hoarding, tradesmen breaking.

Taste and talents quite deserted; All the laws of truth perverted; Arrogance o’er merit soaring; Merit silently deploring.

Ladies gambling night and morning; Fools the works of genius scorning; Ancient dames for girls mistaken, Youthful damsels quite forsaken.

Some in luxury delighting; More in talking than in fighting; Lovers old, and beaux decrepid; Lordlings empty and insipid.

Poets, painters, and musicians; Lawyers, doctors, politicians: Pamphlets, newspapers, and odes, Seeking fame by diff’rent roads.

Gallant souls with empty purses; Gen’rals only fit for nurses; School-boys, smit with martial spirit, Taking place of vet’ran merit.

Honest men who can’t get places, Knaves who shew unblushing faces; Ruin hasten’d, peace retarded; Candor spurn’d, and art rewarded.

Questions (Feminist and Postfeminist Criticism)

  • What evidence of gender stereotypes can you find in the text?
  • What evidence of patriarchy and power structure do you see? How is this evidence supported by historical context? Consider, for example, the 1794 contemporary poem “London” by William Blake. These two poems have similar themes. How does the male poet Blake’s treatment of this theme compare with the female poet Mary Robinson’s work? How have these two works and authors differed in their critical reception?
  • Who is the likely contemporary audience for Mary Robinson’s poetry? Who is the audience today? What about the audience during the 1940s and 50s, when New Criticism was popular? How would these three audiences view feminism, patriarchy, and gender roles differently?
  • Do a search for Mary Robinson’s work in JSTOR. Then do a search for William Blake. How do the two authors compare in terms of scholarship produced on their work? Do you see anything significant about the dates of the scholarship? The authors? The critical lenses that are applied?
  • Do you see any contradictions and ambiguities within the text regarding gender and sexuality? What about evidence for subversion of traditional gender roles?

Example of a feminist thesis statement: While William Blake’s “London” and Mary Robinson’s “January, 1795” share similar themes with similar levels of artistry, Robinson’s work and critical reception demonstrates the effects of 18th-century patriarchal power structures that kept even the most brilliant women in their place.

Example of a postfeminist thesis statement: Mary Robinson’s “January, 1975” slyly subverts gender norms and expectations with a brilliance that transcends the confines of her time.

To practice queer theory, let’s turn to a more contemporary text. “The Eyepatch” by transgender author and scholar Cassandra Arc follows a gender-neutral protagonist as they navigate an ambiguous space. This short story questions who sees and who is seen in heteronormative spaces, as well as exploring what it means to see yourself as queer.

“The Eyepatch”

The lightning didn’t kill me, though it should’ve. The bolt pierced my eyes, gifted curse from Zeus or Typhon or God. I remember waking up in that hospital, everything was black. I felt bandages, pain, fire. I tried to sit up, but a hand gently pushed me back into the bed. I heard the shuffling of feet and the sound of scrubs rubbing against each other. I smelled the pungent disinfectant in the air.  I heard the slow methodical beep of a heart rate monitor. That incessant blip-blip-blip was my heart rate. I heard the thunder of my heart beating to the same methodical rhythm. A metronome to a wordless melody of ignorance, an elegy to blindness.

I wasn’t awake long. They put me back to sleep. To salvage my face. My burned face, my charred face. I should’ve died. The next time I woke the bandages were gone. I could see the doctors, but I couldn’t see me. They wouldn’t let me see me, told me they would fix my face, make it look good again. I didn’t trust them. The doctors thought their faces were pretty. They weren’t. I asked to see my face. They wouldn’t let me. I’m lucky to be alive, that’s what they said. I’m lucky I can see.

But some things I can’t see. They left the eyepatch on my left eye. Told me the left eye would never work again. My right eye can’t see everything. It sees the doctors, their heads swathed in sterile caps, their wrinkled noses, their empty eyes. It sees the nurses, their exhaustion, their bitterness. It sees the bleak beige walls and the tiny tinny television hanging in the corner by the laminated wood door. It sees the plastic bag of fluid hanging from the metal rack on wheels, the plastic instruments and the fluorescent light panel above my head. But it can’t see my mom, it can’t see my sister. It can’t see myself. They never believe me.

My mom comes to visit me on the third day I’m awake. I hear her enter, smell her usual perfume, lilac with a hint of dirt and rain. I feel her hand hold mine, warmth and comfort and kindness. My right eye can’t see her. She came from the garden to see me, to make sure I’m okay. My right eye can’t see my mom. The doctors don’t believe me. My mom believes me.

The doctors pull her away from me. They say they need to fix my face. She can see me tomorrow. I smell the anesthesia and hear the spurt of the needle as they test to make sure no air bubbles formed in the syringe. I hear my mom crying. She assures me she’ll come back tomorrow. I can’t see her tears. They put me back to sleep.

In my dreams I can see them, my mother and sister. There is no eyepatch on my left eye; it can see them, and it can see me, reflected in the water. We swim across the pond to the island with the tree in the center. The reeds grow tall along the banks. The water smells of fish shit and moss. the reflection is murky except for the shallow blue eyes.

The reflection is broken by a ripple. My sister swims to me, wraps her arms around me, then splashes water directly into my face. Some droplets stick to my forehead and nose, like beads of cold sweat. She giggles, a grin emerges on her freckled face. Her wet blonde hair has strands of moss hanging from it. I smile back and with a quick flick of my wrist she too is drenched.  I feel peace from the water. My mother calls us to shore. Storm clouds, she says. The lightning might kill you. That’s what she said then. I didn’t believe her. Thunder echoes like the heartbeat of the sky.

The doctors wake me up. They have thunder too. I cannot see them, can’t see anything. Bandages surround my face. My face is fixed. That’s what they claim. I didn’t see anything wrong before. They wouldn’t let me see me. It’s a miracle. I’m lucky to be alive. I don’t believe them. They apologize for not being able to fix my eye.

My sister comes with my mom today. I can’t see her. She believes me, reminds me about the lightning. It could’ve killed me. When she learns I can’t see her, she cackles. She says she’ll have fun when I come home. She asks when I’ll come home.

I don’t know when I’ll come home. The doctors don’t know. I should’ve died. They want to keep me. My mother wants to take me. They shout at each other. My sister holds my left hand. I can’t see her hand, or mine.

The doctors remove the bandages. They show me a mirror. I see behind me, but I don’t see me . I see the eyepatch float. When I try to remove it the doctors stop me. My eye is too damaged. They tell me to never remove the eyepatch. They hold up a vase. My mom brought me flowers.  I can’t see the flowers. They don’t believe me. Their voices are angry. Stop being childish, they say. I lie and say I see the flowers.

Once one of the nurses I can’t see, he brought me food from outside. I saw the bag float in the room. I heard his footsteps. He handed me the brown paper bag and told me to enjoy. He sounded old. I felt a band of metal on his left-hand ring finger when I took the bag. The smell of chicken nuggets and French fries pierced the stale aroma of bleach and disinfectant. I heard the edge of the bed creak, the cushion indented slightly. The invisible nurse told wild tales of dragons and monsters while I ate. He didn’t know when I’ll be home. He watered invisible flowers before leaving. I fell back asleep.

In my dreams I’m still swimming. The sun is blocked by clouds. Drops of rain hit my hair. Mother calls from the cabin on the shore. My sister runs out of the water, her leg kicks water into my eyes. I’m blinded for a moment. I don’t leave. I stay in the water, dropping my eyes level with the water. They both hear the thunder. I don’t hear the thunder. They both see the lightning.

All I feel is heat. I’m blind. The lightning should’ve killed me. The lightning in my eyes, lucky to be alive.  My sister screams for help. Smell the ozone. Pungent and sweet. I don’t scream, I can’t scream. I’m dead. I’m alive. The lightning killed me. I can’t see my mom. I can’t see my sister. I can’t see the flowers. The lightning saved me. I can see the doctors, I can see the nurses, I can see the hospital.

The lightning killed me, that’s what they said. They brought me back with lightning, pads of metal, artificial energy. My eye is broken, the one the lightning struck. Three minutes. That’s what they told me. Three minutes of death. My face was burned. I can’t see it. They fixed it.

The doctors worried my body was broken too. The lightning still might kill me. They say I need to move, I need to walk. Lightning causes paralysis, or weakness. They bring in a special doctor. I can’t see this doctor. The other doctors leave. The invisible doctor takes me to a room for walking practice. I think I walk just fine. They hold me anyway. Crutches line the walls, pairs of metal handrails take up the center, and exercise equipment sits off to the right side. The invisible doctor lets go and I fall. My hands are too slow to catch me. My face hits one of the many black foam squares that make up the floor. I turn my head left and see the eyepatch almost fall off in the mirror on the wall. For a second, I think I see me, but I can’t see me. The invisible doctor fixes it and helps me to my feet. They tell me to be like a tree, that I’ll be okay. That I’ll be able to walk again soon. They tell me when I can walk I will go home. I place my hands on the rails. The metal is cold. The doctor yelps in shock and withdraws their hand; it was just static. My arms are weak but they hold me. My legs move slowly, but I can’t walk without the rails.

The invisible doctor takes me back after a while. They tell me I did good work. It’s a miracle I can still move. They tell me lightning takes people’s movement. The lightning should’ve killed me. That’s what they say. They tell me strength should come back to me. Lightning steals that too. Lightning can’t keep strength like it keeps movement.

My mom comes back again. She brings me the manatee, Juno. I can see Juno. Soft gray fabric, small black plastic eyes. I hold her tightly in my arms. Mom wants me home. The doctors still won’t let her take me. Juno will keep me safe, that’s what she said. She brings me homework too, and videos of teachers explaining how the world works. I can see them. I can’t see my mom.

I miss the smell of earth when my mom leaves. I want to smell her garden again. To swim in the pond and feel the moss brush against my skin. I want to feel the peace of the water and hear the crickets sing their lullaby. The invisible doctor tells me I will. They tell me I need to steal my strength from the lightning. They take me back to that room for walking. I only need one hand to guide me now. They tell me I’ll go home soon. They tell me I’m stronger than lightning. I still can’t see them.

Back in my room I learn about lightning. It’s hotter than the sun. I remember the heat I felt and wonder if that’s how it feels to touch the surface of a star. The video says that direct strikes are usually fatal. I’m lucky to be alive. I hold Juno tightly.

It takes a month to steal my strength back from the lightning. I walk without holding the rails. The invisible doctor applauds me and tells me I’m ready to go home. They call my mom. I still can’t see my mom.

I can’t see the trees with my right eye, my good eye. I know where they should be by the shaded patches of dirt in the ground. I can see the grass, the road, the dirt covered green Volvo Station wagon, Mom’s car. My sister shouts for joy and runs toward me. I fall to the ground. Her arms squeeze Juno into my chest. I can’t see my sister.

Mom drives me to the cabin. I can see the towering buildings of the city. In the reflection of the tinted glass, I see the station wagon. The eyepatch floats in the window right above Juno’s head. Mom tells me about what she’ll make for dinner. She killed one of the chickens and plucked carrots and celery from the ground. Soup gives strength. That’s what she said. She reminds me that I’m lucky to be alive.

I can’t see the reeds. Mom stops the car in front of the cabin. I can’t see the cabin, nor the rustic wood threshold. Mom helps me across it. The hand-carved wooden table is invisible, but I can see the small electric stove. I smell the soup, hear the water boil, guide my hand along the wood of the narrow hallway to help me walk. I can’t see my bedroom, nor the bed alcove carved into the wall. My mattress floats in the air as if by magic. I can see the plastic desk my mom bought me for school, and the lightbulb in the ceiling. I see wires in invisible walls.

My sister wants to play. She tugs on my arm. I set Juno into the bed alcove and feel my way back to the main room. Mom reminds me to be careful. She tells my sister to be gentle. She reminds us both that I can’t take off my eyepatch. We both take off our shoes.

My sister guides me to the shore. I enjoy the sensation of dirt beneath my feet and the occasional pain of a rock. We move slowly, some of my strength still belongs to the lightning. She runs in. I can’t see the pond. I can’t see the moss in the pond. I can’t see my sister. My sister asks about the eyepatch. She wants to know why I can’t take it off. I don’t know. She asks about my eye. The dark one. The one filled with abyss. The right eye. She asks why it’s dark. I don’t know. I put my foot in the invisible water. My sister jumps out. Something shocked her. She thinks I shocked her. She gets back in.

I stay close to the shore I can’t see. I don’t want to drown. I don’t want my eyes near the water. There are no storm clouds today. I fiddle with moss between my toes. Mom calls us in for dinner. My sister runs ahead. I try walking on my own. I trip over a tree root that I couldn’t see. I fall and hit my chin on the ground. The eyepatch slides up a bit. I quickly push it back down before it can come off. I can’t take off my eyepatch.

My mom hears the thud and comes running. She helps me to my feet, guides me back to the cabin, and sits me at the table. She brings me a bowl of soup, tells me I need to be careful. She wants me to stay alive. I sip the soup and listen to her sing while she cleans the soup pot. I can’t see my mom.

When I sleep, I dream of before. Before the lightning stole my left eye. Before it stole my strength. I dream of the pond. I dream of the old willow tree on the island. Its dark drooping branches blossoming every spring. The leaves fall on the pond. Nature’s Navy of little boats. The tree is stronger than lightning. I am the tree. I want to see the tree again.

My sister tells me she’ll guide me to the island. I refuse. I can’t see the tree, or the water. My eyes would have to be close to it. The eyepatch might come off. I spend the day holding Juno. My mom brings me a sandwich and sits with me a while. I only know she’s there from the sound of her bouncing leg. She’s nervous. She doesn’t smell of the garden yet. She won’t smell of the garden today. I want to smell of the garden, but I can’t see the garden.

In the evening I sit outside the cabin and listen to the crickets. I’m lucky to be alive. The lightning didn’t kill me. I scratch at an itch under the eyepatch. I feel a shock in my hand and pull it back. I smell the ozone on my fingertip.  In my mind I’m in the water again. I remember the heat, the pain. My mom comes running when I scream. She puts Juno in my arms. I feel safe again. I am stronger than the lightning. The lightning didn’t kill me.

While I sleep I am the tree, standing tall, guarding my island. The lightning wants to take it. It strikes at the water around me, burning my Navy of leaves. Once it struck me, but the rain extinguished its flames. I grew back stronger. My Navy rebuilt. The lightning always comes back. I am always stronger.

My sister and I play in the lake. I go out deeper today. My legs can tell how deep I am. We go to the tree. The lightning couldn’t steal the ability to swim. I follow the sound of my sister’s splashing. We push through invisible reeds, I feel the plants surround me. My sister holds my hand and guides me through the canopy of branches. I feel the incomplete ships of Nature’s Navy brush against my face. She puts my hand against the tree. I guide my hand along it until I find the once charred wood where lightning burned it. The lightning should’ve killed us.

My sister and I sit under the tree for a while. I feel the bugs occasionally crawl across my hands. She rests her shoulder on mine. I’m lucky to be alive. The lightning didn’t kill us.

We walk back to the shore. I feel the water, and one of Nature’s boats brush against my foot and look down. I still can’t see the water. I can’t see myself. I can see the Navy. The floating leaves atop the tranquil pond. The tears begin to fall. My sister asks why the tears from beneath the eyepatch are white as ash. I wish I knew.

The crickets sing again that evening. Tonight, they sing the ballad of the tree. Loud and harmonic. I whisper my thanks into the wind. The crickets whistle back. They believe me.

In the morning I wake up before anyone else. I shuffle through the halls and out to the porch to listen to the morning bird song. I let my head weave side to side in tune with their melody. I dance across invisible dirt. A laugh escapes my lips. I jump into invisible water. I sail with Nature’s Navy to the tree.

My soul sits atop resilient roots. Hands find the burned wood, where the lightning almost killed it. I bring the left hand to the eyepatch, where the lightning almost killed me. The wind blows through the leaves. Splashes echo from the opposite shore, sounds of someone swimming. Thunder echoes from my stomach, I rise to return home. Gallivanting down the invisible slope back towards my invisible home.

I trip across a root near the water. The eyepatch sinks beneath the surface of the lake. I yank my head back. The eyepatch slips off. My left hand covers my eye. A shock forces me to pull it away. The eyelid flutters opened. I see the lightning. Nature’s Navy set ablaze by my gaze. My eye touches the sun again as the lightning leaves. The tree set ablaze by my gaze. The crickets echo a lament. The birds resound a harmonizing elegy. The drooping branches fall lower, as if bowing. I bow in return.  The splashing water calms.

My left eye sees the water, sees the earth, sees myself. Authentic and whole. It observes my leaves of joy, fingers stretched in shallows. My left eye witnesses my roots of kindness, feet planted on solid shores. It beholds the resilience of my trunk, a beautiful body. The eyepatch floats in the water. I perceive my eyes again, the dark one and the white. my black and white tears drift across the surface of water. Someone shuffles the dirt behind me. I turn with a smile on my face.

Cassandra Arc is an autistic trans woman living in Portland, Oregon. In her writing she likes to focus on themes of healing, gender identity issues, and nature as a means of understanding authenticity. This story was originally published in the Talking River Review and is reprinted here by permission of the author (All Rights Reserved). 

  • Who is the narrator of this story? What do we know about their gender? How do we know this? What does the lightning signify?
  • What does the eyepatch represent? When the narrator says, “I see behind me, but I don’t see me,”  what does this mean? What ideas about social constructs are present in this narrative, and how does the story subvert those social constructs?
  • How do characters navigate and express their gender identities in the text? Does the story expand your understanding of the queer experience? In what ways? What do you think about the way some things can’t be seen and some things can in the story? How might this experience relate to being queer?
  • How are time and space treated in this story?
  • How does the story subvert or resist conventional categories?

Example of a queer theory thesis statement: In “The Eyepatch” by Cassandra Arc, the symbolism of light, darkness, sight, and blindness are used to subvert heteronormative structures, deconstructing artificially constructed binaries to capture the experience of being in the closet and the explosive nature of coming out.

Limitations of Gender Criticisms

While these approaches offer interesting and important insights into the ways that gender and sexuality exist in texts, they also have some limitations. Here are some potential drawbacks:

Feminist Criticism

  • Essentialism: Feminist theory may sometimes be criticized for essentializing gender experiences, assuming a universal women’s experience that overlooks the diversity of women’s lives.
  • Neglect of Other Identities: The focus on gender in feminist theory may overshadow other intersecting identities such as race, class, and sexuality, limiting the analysis of how these factors contribute to oppression or privilege.
  • Overlooking Male Perspectives: In some instances, feminist theory may be perceived as neglecting the examination of male characters or perspectives, potentially reinforcing gender binaries rather than deconstructing them.
  • Historical and Cultural Context: Feminist theory, while valuable, may not always adequately address the historical and cultural contexts of literary works, potentially overlooking shifts in societal attitudes towards gender over time.
  • Oversimplification of Feminist Goals: Post-feminist criticism may be criticized for oversimplifying or prematurely declaring the achievement of feminist goals, potentially obscuring persistent gender inequalities.
  • Individualism and Choice Feminism: The emphasis on individual empowerment in post-feminist criticism, often associated with choice feminism, may overlook systemic issues and structural inequalities that continue to affect women’s lives.
  • Lack of Intersectionality: Post-feminist approaches may sometimes neglect intersectionality, overlooking the interconnectedness of gender with race, class, and other identity factors, which can limit a comprehensive understanding of oppression.
  • Commodification of Feminism: Critics argue that post-feminism can lead to the commodification of feminist ideals, with feminist imagery and language used for commercial purposes, potentially diluting the transformative goals of feminism.
  • Complexity and Jargon: Queer Theory can be complex and may use specialized language, making it challenging for some readers to engage with and understand, potentially creating barriers to entry for students and scholars.
  • Overemphasis on Textual Deconstruction: Critics argue that Queer Theory may sometimes prioritize textual deconstruction over concrete political action, leading to concerns about the practical impact of this theoretical approach on real-world LGBTQ+ issues.
  • Challenges in Application: Queer Theory’s emphasis on fluidity and resistance to fixed categories can make it challenging to apply consistently, as it may resist clear definitions and frameworks, making it more subjective in its interpretation.
  • Limited Representation: While Queer Theory aims to deconstruct norms, some critics argue that it may still primarily focus on certain aspects of queer experiences, potentially neglecting the diversity within the LGBTQ+ spectrum and reinforcing certain stereotypes.

Some Important Gender Scholars

  • Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986): A French existentialist philosopher and writer, de Beauvoir is best known for her groundbreaking work “The Second Sex,” which explored the oppression of women and laid the groundwork for feminist literary theory.
  • Virginia Woolf (1882-1941): A celebrated English writer, Woolf is known for her novels such as “Mrs. Dalloway” and “Orlando.” Her works often engaged with feminist themes and issues of gender identity.
  • bell hooks (1952-2021): An American author, feminist, and social activist, hooks wrote extensively on issues of race, class, and gender. Her works, such as “Ain’t I a Woman” and “The Feminist Theory from Margin to Center,” are essential in feminist scholarship.
  • Adrienne Rich (1929-2012): An American poet and essayist, Rich’s poetry and prose explored themes of feminism, identity, and social justice. Her collection of essays, “Of Woman Born,” is a notable work in feminist literary criticism.
  • Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: An Indian-American literary theorist and philosopher, Spivak is known for her work in postcolonialism and deconstruction. Her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is a key text in postcolonial and feminist studies.
  • Susan Faludi: An American journalist and author, Faludi’s work often explores issues related to gender and feminism. Her book “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women” critically examines the societal responses to feminism.
  • Camille Paglia: An American cultural critic and author, Paglia is known for her provocative views on gender and sexuality. Her work, including “Sexual Personae,” challenges conventional feminist perspectives.
  • Rosalind Gill: A British cultural and media studies scholar, Gill has written extensively on gender, media, and postfeminism. Her work explores the intersection of popular culture and contemporary feminist thought.
  • Laura Kipnis: An American cultural critic and essayist, Kipnis has written on topics related to gender, sexuality, and contemporary culture. Her book “Against Love: A Polemic” challenges conventional ideas about love and relationships.
  • Judith Butler: A foundational figure in both feminist and queer theory, Judith Butler has made profound contributions to the understanding of gender and sexuality. Her work Gender Trouble  has been influential in shaping queer theoretical discourse.
  • Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: An influential scholar in queer studies, Sedgwick’s works, such as Epistemology of the Closet , have contributed to the understanding of queer identities and the impact of societal norms on the construction of sexuality.
  • Michel Foucault: Although not exclusively a queer theorist, Foucault’s ideas on power, knowledge, and sexuality laid the groundwork for many aspects of queer theory. His works, including The History of Sexuality,  are foundational in queer studies.
  • Teresa de Lauretis: An Italian-American scholar, de Lauretis has contributed significantly to feminist and queer theory. Her work Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities  explores the complexities of sexuality and identity.
  • Jack Halberstam: A gender and queer studies scholar, Halberstam’s works, including Female Masculinity and In a Queer Time and Place,  engage with issues of gender nonconformity and the temporalities of queer experience.
  • Annamarie Jagose: A New Zealand-born scholar, Jagose has written extensively on queer theory. Her book Queer Theory: An Introduction  provides a comprehensive overview of key concepts within the field.
  • Leo Bersani: An American literary theorist, Bersani’s work often intersects with queer theory. His explorations of intimacy, desire, and the complexities of same-sex relationships have been influential in queer studies.

Further Reading

  • Aravind, Athulya. Transformations of Sappho: Late 18th Century to 1900. Senior Thesis written for Department of English, Northeastern University. https://www.sfu.ca/~decaste/OISE/page2/files/deBeauvoirIntro.pdf  This is a wonderful example of a student-written feminist approach to English Romantic poetry.
  • Banet-Weiser, Sarah, Rosalind Gill, and Catherine Rottenberg. “Postfeminism, Popular Feminism and Neoliberal Feminism? Sarah Banet-Weiser, Rosalind Gill and Catherine Rottenberg in Conversation.” Feminist Theory  21.1 (2020): 3-24.
  • Butler, Judith.  Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex . Taylor & Francis, 2011.
  • Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble . Routledge, 2002.
  • de Beauvoir, Simone.  The Second Sex.  Trans. H.M. Parshley. 1956.
  • De Lauretis, Teresa. “Eccentric Subjects: Feminist Theory and Historical Consciousness.” Feminist Studies  16.1 (1990): 115-150.
  • Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies  10.2 (2007): 147-166.
  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction.  Trans. Robert Hurley. Vintage, 1990.
  • Foucault, Michel.  The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure . Vintage, 2012.
  • Halberstam, Jack.  Trans: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability . Vol. 3. Univ of California Press, 2017.
  • hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center . Pluto Press, 2000.
  • hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Women, Knowledge, and Reality . Routledge, 2015. 48-55.
  • Jagose, Annamarie.  Queer Theory: An Introduction . NYU Press, 1996.
  • Miller, Jennifer. “Thirty Years of Queer Theory.” In Introduction to LGBTQ+ Studies: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Pressbooks. https://milnepublishing.geneseo.edu/introlgbtqstudies/chapter/thirty-years-of-queer-theory/   
  • Paglia, Camille.  Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson . Yale University Press, 1990.
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky.  Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity . Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky.  Epistemology of the Closet . Univ of California Press, 2008.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty.  The Spivak Reader: Selected works of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak . Psychology Press, 1996.

Critical Worlds Copyright © by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Feminist Criticism

  •   Angela Eward-Mangione

Feminist Criticism is

  • a research method , a type of textual research , that literary critics use to interpret texts
  • a genre of discourse employed by literary critics used to share the results of their interpretive efforts.

Key Terms: Dialectic ; Hermeneutics ; Semiotics ; Text & Intertextuality ; Tone

Foundational Questions of Feminist Criticism

  • Consider stereotypical representations of women as the beloved, mothers, virgins, whores, and/or goddesses. Does the text refer to, uphold, or resist any of these stereotypes? How?
  • What roles have been assigned to the men and women in the text? Are the roles stereotypical? Do gender roles conflict with personal desires?
  • Does the text paint a picture of gender relations? If so, how would you describe gender relations in the text? On what are they based? What sustains them? What causes conflict between men and women?
  • Are gender relations in the text celebrated? Denigrated? Mocked? Mystified? If so, how?

Discussion Questions and Activities: F eminist/Gender Studies

  • Define gender, gender roles, patriarchy, and stereotypical representations of gender in your own words.
  • Describe the relationship between culture and gender roles. How do culture and gender roles inform each another?
  • Read “ Barbie Doll ” by Marge Piercy. Choose the stanza that you think most markedly represents how gender itself is socially constructed. What words, phrases, or lines in the stanza inform your choice?
  • Compare and contrast how society treats and advises the girl in the poem with what she does after her good nature wears out “like a fan belt.” Does the poem present the socially constructed nature of gender as positive?
  • Evaluate the role that the lines “Consummation at last, / To every woman a happy ending” play in the poem. Quote from the poem to support your interpretation.

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Feminist Literary Criticism

This research guide will assist you in finding sources for feminist literary criticism. Briefly, feminist criticism aims to reinterpret literature from a female point of view. This is accomplished in several ways. Some feminist critics seek to interpret the works of male authors, with particular attention to women characters, in order to explore the moral, political and social restrictions women traditionally faced. Other feminist critics choose to analyze the works of women authors that have been previously overlooked by male critics.

To find books that contain critical feminist essays on your topic search the Library Catalog. Use the Subject keyword file. Subject headings to search are : feminist literary criticism, feminist criticism, feminism and literature, women authors, women in literature, English literature - women authors - history and criticism, American literature - women authors - history and criticism, women - psychology, women, sex role in literature, silence in literature, identity in literature and androgyny in literature.

The MLA bibliography (Modern Langauge Association), and to a lesser extent, such electronic databases as the Humanities Index also contain current references to feminist criticism. Once you have the citations (i.e., volume & issue #, year, etc.), and verify that the library owns the issues that you need,  you must go to the Periodicals Desk on the fourth floor to retrieve the journal articles.

Knowing if the author of the article is a feminist critic will be difficult until you gain some experience in feminist literary research. The following list will aid you in recognizing the names of some well-known, contemporary feminist critics:  Kathy Acker, Annette Kolodny, Elaine Showalter, Carolyn Heilbrun, Nancy K. Miller, Sandra Gilbert, Andrea Dworkin, Susan De Salvo, Cynthia Ozick, Luce Irigary,  Julia Kristeva, Catherine Clement, Alicia Ostriker, Helene Cixous, Jane Gallop, Shari Benstock, Coppelia Kahn, Toril Moi, Catherine Belsey, Adrienne Rich, Jacqueline Rose, and Camille Paglia.

Primary Sources on Feminist Theory

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex 301.412 B (5th floor) Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born 306.8473 R (5th floor) Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One 155.3333 I (5th floor) Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own 824 Woolf Nancy K. Miller, The Poetics of Gender 809.892 P Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Female Imagination 820.9 S Toril Moi, ed., The Kristeva Reader 808.0014 K Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur 301.41 D (5th floor) Katherine M. Rogers, The Troublesome Helpmeet: The History of Misogyny in Literature 809.933 R Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory 801.9508 M Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny 809.933 H Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement, The Newly Born Woman 305.4 C (5th floor)

Some Secondary Sources on Feminist Theory

Contemporary Literary Criticism. volume 76, pp. 377-415 Contemporary literary Criticism. volume 65, pp. 312-360 Dictionary of Literary Biography. volume 67. This gives biographical information on Annette Kolodny, Elaine Showalter and Adrienne Rich. For information on modern Critical Terms, Schools and Movements, see pp. 287-307 Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature 809.892 B Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present 820.9 B Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism ed. Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn. 801.9508 M Judith Fetterley, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction 813.009 K Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience in American Life and Letters 810.93 K Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing 823.8 S Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination 820.9 G Armstonrg, Nancy, ed., Literature as Women's History I, a special issue of Genre, vol, 19/20, 1986-87, contains feminist/New Historicist analyses. 4th floor Periodicals Feminist Studies, vol. 14, 1988 is special issue devoted to feminism and deconstruction. 4th floor Periodicals

Voice of the Shuttle: Women's Studies and Feminist Theory

  • Many, many links provided by this well-established site

Cline Library Resources on Women's Studies

  • 4,000 pages of bibliography in 70 categories

Feminism/Literary Criticism

Feminist criticism focuses on how literature has represented women and relationships between women and men, drawing attention to how women have been marginalized and denied a voice of their own in much of canonical literature, and to how literature reflects society's prevailing ideological assumptions with regard to gender and power.

Reading as a Literary Critic [ edit | edit source ]

The most important pre-requisite to literary criticism is the ability to read like a literary critic. You must read not only for content and understanding of the subject, but you must also be careful to read for any and all literary devices , as well as trying to understand the reason and motivation behind every line. This is a difficult habit to get into, but it is helpful to take notes while you read.

In other words, a careful reader does not just read a text for the 'story'. Rather than just being interested in what happens or what is being described by a literary work, a critical reader is interested in how the writer has used language, form and style in order to convey meaning and affect the reader's response to the subject matter. A critical reader pays attention to patterns in texts and to how these establish tone, register, atmosphere and mood.

Reading Novels

Develop a sensitivity to the 'voice' telling the story. From whose perspective is the story being told? Is there a first person narrator? How does the way in which he or she describes events reflect his or her perspective and attitudes, and is his or her narration 'reliable'? If the story is told in the third person, does it focus on describing the thoughts and feelings of one character, does it only describe external actions, or does the author allow us to 'see inside' the thoughts of many different characters?

You must be able to visualize the 'flow' of a story, understanding where the character(s) go, where events happen, how the characters and the plot develop, and the themes within the story.

It is helpful to construct a flow chart after reading showing prominent characters, where they go, what happens to them, how they change (for this you must look very carefully at their actions and dialogue and ask yourself 'Is that what they would have done/said at a previous point in the story?), and what events caused that change.

The most important thing to read for is character development, where you analyze characters to see how they have changed over the course of the story.

Reading Plays The most important thing to remember when studying a play is that most plays were not written to be read but to be performed in front of an audience. It is important to pay attention not just to what is said by characters, but to whom, to who else on stage can overhear this and to how other characters would react. Also pay attention to stage directions and to implicit directions in what characters say so that you can form a mental picture of what characters are doing. Consider how characters' lines might be spoken differently by different actors and how this would affect the meaning.

A good exercise is to look at a play from the perspective of a director, a casting director, a props and scenery manager, a costume-team leader or a lighting engineer. Think about the decisions that all these different people would make in order to bring the script to life on the stage. It is very difficult to understand how plays work as theatre without having first-hand experiences of performances, so if it is at all possible, you should see a live performance of the play that you are studying. Failing this, watching film versions of the play is also helpful. Seeing more than one production is a good way to understand how different directors can interpret the same script in very different ways and will help you to start thinking about what you would do in their position.

Formal Literary Criticism [ edit | edit source ]

Formal literary criticism focuses mainly on the clarity, quality and complexity of the writing of the subject. A formal critic looks primarily at syntax , literary devices , and the flow of the writing. Formalist literary criticism can be divided into two categories: descriptive and prescriptive.

Descriptive formalism focuses on the technical analysis of the literary and linguistic devices in texts, with especial regard for how these make a text 'literary' i.e. how the text uses language in a special way which sets it apart from everyday discourse. Prescriptive formalists advocate a style of literary writing which is as distinct as possible from everyday discourse, as they believe that it is the responsibility of literary writers to make readers see things in a new way.

Prescriptive formalism is often associated with Marxism; the early Soviet critic Shlovsky argued that the function of literature was to "make the stone stonier" i.e. to use the alienating effect of challenging devices in order to avoid offering up an immediate, transparent meaning to readers so that they would have to engage actively with texts and discover new meanings from them, in a way analogous to the development of political consciousness. Bertold Brecht argued that such literary forms as satire operate through a 'Verfremdungseffekt' - i.e. they present the familiar in unfamiliar ways and therefore arouse readers' and audiences' awareness of the ideological nature of their assumptions.

Descriptive formalism was at the heart of the New Criticism school which emerged at Cambridge in the 1930s under F.R. Leavis, William Empson and Cleanth Brooks, and which encouraged students to engage in 'practical criticism', looking at literary texts as self-contained artefacts which should be explained on their own terms rather than by reference to external information such as biographical and historical details. This approach, encouraging close analytical reading, was very similar to that of the structuralist school which emerged after the Second World War and was advocated by figures such as Roland Barthes, Lacan, Bhaktin and Levi-Strauss.

Post-structuralism and deconstructionism emerged from the structuralist school but criticised structuralism's analytical approach as being reductive and simplistic. Post-structuralists drew attention to the relationships between texts and their referents and to the limitless possibilities of reading as a creative process, seeing texts not just as self-contained structures but as structures sitting within the larger meta-structures of society and ideology, with readers equally forming their readings from within these structures. Deconstructionists similarly see textual interpretation as a process which can never arrive at a final, fixed 'authoritative' reading of any text because it takes place within the constraints of readers' ideological assumptions, and also draw attention to the contradictions within texts and to the flawed ideological assumptions of their authors. Derrida, Foucault and Culler are some well-known critics in this field.

definition feminist criticism

  • Book:Feminism

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Feminist Philosophy

This entry provides an introduction to the feminist philosophy section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP). Overseen by a board of feminist philosophers, this section primarily takes up feminist philosophy of the twentieth and tweny-first century. It has three subsections of entries (as can be seen in Table of Contents under “feminist philosophy”): (1) approaches to feminist philosophy, (2) feminist interventions in philosophy, and (3) feminist philosophical topics. By “approaches to feminist philosophy” we mean the main philosophical approaches such as analytic, continental, psychoanalytic, pragmatist, and various intersections. We see these as methodologies that can be fruitfully employed to engage philosophically isssues of feminist concern. The second group of entries, feminist interventions in philosophy, includes entries on how feminist philosophers have intervened in and begun to transform traditional philosopical areas such as aesthetics, ethics, the history of philosophy, metaphysics, and political philosophy. Entries in the third group, feminist philosophical topics, take up concepts and matters that traditional philosophy has either overlooked or undertheorized, including autonomy, the body, objectification, sex and gender, and reproduction. In short, this third group of entries shows how feminist philosophers have rendered philosophical previously un-problematized topics, such as the body, class and work, disability, the family, human trafficking, reproduction, the self, sex work, and sexuality. Entries in this third group also show how a particularly feminist lens refashions issues of globalization, human rights, popular culture, race and racism, and science. Following a brief overview of feminism as a political and intellectual movement, we provide an overview of these three parts of the feminist section of the SEP.

In addition to the feminist philosophy section of the SEP, there are also a number of entries on women in the history of philosophy, for example, on Mary Wollstonecraft , Mary Astell , Jane Addams , Rosa Luxemburg , Simone de Beauvoir , Iris Murdoch , and others. Additionally, dozens of other entries throughout the SEP discuss facets of feminist philosophy, including, to name just a handful, the entries on global justice , respect , contemporary Africana philosophy , multiculturalism , privacy , and Latinx philosophy .

  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. What is Feminism?

3. Approaches to Feminism

4. interventions in philosophy, 5. topics in feminism, other internet resources, related entries, 1. what is feminism.

Broadly understood, feminism is both an intellectual commitment and a political movement that seeks an end to gender-based oppression. Motivated by the quest for social justice, feminist inquiry provides a wide range of perspectives on cultural, economic, social, and political phenomena. It identifies and evaluates the many ways that some norms have been used to exclude, marginalize, and oppress people on the basis of gender, as well as how gendered dentities have been shaped to conform and uphold the norms of a patriarchal society. In so doing, it tries to understand the roots of a system that has been prevalent in nearly all known places and times. It also explores what a just society would look like.

While less frequently than one would think, throughout history women have rebelled against repressive structures. It was not until the late 19th century that feminism coalesced into a movement. In the mid-1800s the term feminism was still used to refer to “the qualities of females.” After the First International Women’s Conference in Paris in 1892, the term feminism , following the French term féministe , was used regularly in English for a belief in and advocacy of equal rights for women based on the idea of the equality of the sexes. Hence the term feminism in English is rooted in the mobilization for women’s suffrage in Europe and the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

As a term, feminism has many different uses and its meanings are often contested. For example, some writers use the term to refer to a historically specific political movement in the United States and Europe; other writers use it to refer to the belief that there are injustices against women, though there is no consensus on the exact list of these injustices. Some have found it useful, if controversial, to think of the women’s movement in the United States as occurring in “waves.” The wave model has some virtues, but it also tends to overlook a great deal of heterogeneity of thought in any given moment. It works well enough for what is thought of as the first wave, identified as the period from the mid-nineteenth century until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. This first wave focused on the struggle to achieve basic political rights. According to the wave model, feminism in the United States waned after women achieved voting rights, to be revived in the late 1960s and early 1970s as “second wave” feminism. In this second wave, the model holds, feminists pushed beyond the early quest for political rights to fight for greater equality across the board, e.g., in education, the workplace, and at home. But in actuality, many feminists during this time were focusing on more than equality. Like the first wave, many of the leaders of the second wave of feminism were white women seeking equal rights. But also, as in the first wave, other voices emerged, broadening the movement. The second wave came to include women of different identities, ethnicities, and orientations. In addition to calling for equal political rights, they called for greater equality across the board, e.g., in education, the workplace, and at home. Transformations of feminism beginning in the 1990s have resulted in a “third wave.” Third Wave feminists often critique earlier feminists for their lack of attention to the differences among women due to class, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and race (see Breines 2002; Springer 2002), and emphasize “identity” as a site of gender struggle. (For more information on the “wave” model and each of the “waves,” see the subsection on Waves of Feminism in the Other Internet Resources section.)

Some feminist scholars object to identifying feminism in terms of waves on the grounds that doing so eclipses differences within each wave as well as continuity of feminist resistance to male domination throughout history and across cultures. In other words, feminism is not confined to a few (white) women in the West over the past century or so. Moreover, even considering only relatively recent efforts to resist male domination in Europe and the United States, the emphasis on “First” and “Second” Wave feminism ignores the ongoing resistance to male domination between the 1920s and 1960s and the resistance outside mainstream politics, particularly by women of color and working class women (Cott 1987). The wave model also cannot account for theoretical work taking place between waves, for example, of the tremendous work done by Simone de Beauvoir in her groundbreaking book of 1949, The Second Sex . Because of these many limitiations of the wave model, the feminist section of the SEP makes little use of it.

Although the term feminism has a history in English linked with women’s activism from the late nineteenth century to the present, it is useful to distinguish feminist ideas or beliefs from feminist political movements, for even in periods where there has been no significant political activism around women’s subordination, individuals have been concerned with and theorized about justice for women. So, for example, it makes sense to ask whether Plato was a feminist, given his view that some women should be trained to rule ( Republic , Book V), even though he was an exception in his historical context (see, e.g., Tuana 1994). Overall, feminism can be understood as not only a social movement but also a set of beliefs, concepts, and theories that seek to analyze, diagnose, and identify solutions to the manifold injustices that people suffer on account of gendered noirms Broadly understood, this is feminism as a intellectual movement. The SEP feminist section aims to chronicle and explain the various theories, concepts, and philosophical tools that feminist philosophers have developed.

Much has been made of the methodological differences or “divides” between various philosophical traditions, namely analytic and continental, but also pragmatist and psychoanalytic. But throughout these entries the reader will find a continuity of descriptions on the meaning of feminism, even with the heterogeneity of the philosophical methodologies these entries’ authors employ. The entry on feminist ethics, written by the analytic feminist philosopher Kathryn Norlock, describes that field in a way that is agreeable to almost any feminist philosopher:

Feminist Ethics aims “to understand, criticize, and correct” how gender operates within our moral beliefs and practices (Lindemann 2005, 11) and our methodological approaches to ethical theory. More specifically, feminist ethicists aim to understand, criticize, and correct: (1) the binary view of gender, (2) the privilege historically available to men, and/or (3) the ways that views about gender maintain oppressive social orders or practices that harm others, especially girls and women who historically have been subordinated along gendered dimensions including sexuality and gender-identity. (entry on feminist ethics , introduction)

Likewise, the entry on feminist perspectives on power, written by the critical theorist Amy Allen, proposes the idea that “although any general definition of feminism would no doubt be controversial, it seems undeniable that much work in feminist theory is devoted to the tasks of critiquing gender subordination, analyzing its intersections with other forms of subordination such as racism, heterosexism, and class oppression, and envisioning prospects for individual and collective resistance and emancipation.” (entry on feminist perspectives on power , introduction)

Even with general overall shared commitments about the meaning of feminism, numerous differences among feminist philosophers do show up in the array of arenas outlined in this section of the SEP. Some of these may be due to different methodological approaches (whether, for example, continental or analytic), but others show up because of different ontological commitments (such as the category of woman) and beliefs about what kind of political and moral remedies should be sought.

Nonetheless, over the decades there has been a lot of frustration, perhaps because as philosophers these feminist theorists often want to get to the (one) truth of the matter, for example, what is “a woman”? What is freedom? What is autonomy? Yet so far any search for a unified or unifying theory of feminism has yet to bear fruit. Consider the seemingly unproblematic claim that feminism is a commitment to women’s equal rights. Perhaps it is, but framing it this way comes with its own presuppositions. The first is that feminism is committed to a liberal model of politics. Although most feminists would probably agree that there is some sense of rights on which achieving equal rights for women is a necessary condition for feminism to succeed, most would also argue that this would not be sufficient. This is because women’s oppression under male domination rarely if ever consists solely in depriving women of political and legal rights, but also extends into the structure of our society and the content of our culture, and the workings of languages and how they shape perceptions and permeate our consciousness (e.g., Bartky 1988, Postl 2017). A second presupposition is that there is some clear and universal definition of what it is to be a woman. The SEP entry, Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender, gives a rich overview of what is problematic about this supposition. Any attempt to define “woman,” according to Judith Butler, is also an attempt to exclude some from that category. More recently this debate shows up in discussions about nonbinary and trans people. Previously, it showed up in suppositions that the typical subject of feminism was white and middle class. While feminism would be easier to theorize if it were clear who its subject is, any attempt to define it runs into trouble. (see the entry on feminist perspectives on trans issues )

Is there any point, then, in asking what feminism is? Rather than looking for a unified field theory of feminism, perhaps feminism can be identified as an engagement precisely where there are contradictions over questions of freedom, identity, and agency. These contradictions are not just logical ones but also historical ones. For example, the question of women’s political equality to men arose precisely at those historical moments when “all men” came to be deemed as equal (McAfee 2021). During the French Revolution, the French settled the matter by saying that “men” meant men and not women. In the American Revolution, “men” was not so clearly gendered but it was certainly raced as white. Equality becomes an issue precisely where there is a disjunct between what seems to be the case normatively and what is happening empirically. Questions about the category of women arise in the context of political diversity and biological malleability, where peoples of many cultures mingle and sexual or gender identity can be altered. Feminist debates over pornography and sex work become heated in the context, respectively, of a free press and economic precarity. In short, feminist inquiry arises in the context of disagreement and contradiction and it produces new ways of approaching issues and asking questions. Thus, that it lacks a cohesive set of answers may be beside the point.

In sum, “feminism” is an umbrella term for a range of views about injustices against women. There are disagreements among feminists about the nature of justice in general and the nature of sexism, in particular, the specific kinds of injustice or wrong women suffer; and the group who should be the primary focus of feminist efforts. Nonetheless, feminists are committed to bringing about social change to end injustice against women, in particular, injustice against women as women.

2. Feminist Scholarship

Contemporary feminist philosophical scholarship emerged in the 1970s as more women began careers in higher education, including philosophy. As they did so, they also began taking up matters from their own experience for philosophical scrutiny. These scholars were influenced both by feminist movements in their midst as well as by their philosophical training, which generally was anything but feminist. Until about the 1990s, one could not go to graduate school to study “feminist philosophy.” While students and scholars could turn to the writings of Simone de Beauvoir or look back historically to the writings of “first wave” feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, most of the philosophers writing in the first decades of the emergence of feminist philosophy brought their particular training and expertise to bear on analyzing issues raised by the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, such as abortion, affirmative action, equal opportunity, the institutions of marriage, sexuality, and love. Additionally, feminist philosophical scholarship increasingly focused on the very same types of issues taken up by mainstream philosophers.

Feminist philosophical scholarship begins with attention to women, and to limitations on their roles and locations and the ways they were valued or devalued. It developed further by considering gender in less binary terms as well as recognizing that gender is only one fact of the complex interactions among class, race, ability, and sexuality. Feminist scholarship asks how attention to these might transform feminist philosophy itself. From here we move to the realm of the symbolic and how it constructs “the feminine.” How is the feminine instantiated and constructed within the texts of philosophy? What role does it play in forming, either through its absence or its presence, the central concepts of philosophy?

Feminist philosophers brought their philosophical tools to bear on these questions. Since these feminist philosophers employed the philosophical tools they knew best and found most promising, feminist philosophy began to emerge from all the traditions of Western philosophy prevalent at the end of the twentieth century, including analytic, continental, and classical American philosophy. While the thematic focus of their work was often influenced by the topics and questions highlighted by these traditions, the larger shared feminist concerns often create as much commonality as difference. Hence, a given question could be taken up and addressed from an array of views in ways that are sometimes divergent and at other times complementary.

As an historically male discipline, many of the leading philosophical journals and societies did not recognize much feminist scholarship as properly philosophical. In response, feminist scholars began founding their own journals and organizations. The first leading feminist journal, Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy , was founded in 1982 as a venue for feminist philosophical scholarship. It embraced a diversity of methodological approaches in feminist philosophy, publishing work from a variety of traditions. Feminist scholarship in each of these traditions is also advanced and supported though scholarly exchange at various professional societies, including the Society for Women in Philosophy, founded in the United States in 1972. Additionally, the Society for Analytical Feminism, founded in 1991, promotes the study of issues in feminism by methods broadly construed as analytic, to examine the use of analytic methods as applied to feminist issues, and to provide a means by which those interested in analytical feminism can meet and exchange ideas. The journal philo SOPHIA was established in 2005 to promote continental feminist scholarly and pedagogical development. The Society for the Study of Women Philosophers was established in 1987 to promote the study of the contributions of women to the history of philosophy. Similar organizations and journals on many continents continue to advance scholarship in feminist philosophy. Often a feminist philosophical society will publish its own journal, just as the International Network on Feminist Approaches to Bioethics publishes the International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics. While the discipline of philosophy in the West remains predominantly white and male, feminist journals and scholarship continues to proliferate.

Important feminist philosophical work has emerged from all the current major philosophical traditions, including analytic philosophy, continental philosophy, and American pragmatist philosophy. It is also emerging from other new areas of inquiry, such as Latin American thought, which arises out of the context of colonialism. Entries in the SEP under the heading “approaches to feminism” discuss the impact of these traditions and constellations of thought on feminist scholarship. The subsection also addresses how some work, such as psychoanalytic feminism, bridges two or more traditions. The editors of the feminist section of the SEP see these different traditions as a rich array of methodologies rather than “continental divides.” The array reflects a variety of beliefs about what kinds of philosophy are both fruitful and meaningful. The different methodologies bring their own ways of asking and answering questions, along with constructive and critical dialogue with mainstream philosophical views and methods and new topics of inquiry.

As the SEP continues to grow, we anticipate that this subsection on approaches to feminism will expand to address other traditions, including Black feminism. But for now, here are links to entries in this subsection:

  • analytic feminism
  • continental feminism
  • Latin American feminism
  • pragmatist feminism
  • intersections between pragmatist and continental feminism
  • intersections between analytic and continental feminism
  • psychoanalytic feminism

Though not included along with these in the table of contents, another relevant approach can be found in the entry on gender in Confucian philosophy .

All these approaches share a set of feminist commitments and an overarching criticism of institutions, presuppositions, and practices that have historically favored men over women. They also share a general critique of claims to universality and objectivity that ignore male-dominated theories’ own particularity and specificity. Feminist philosophies of almost any philosophical orientation will be much more perspectival, historical, contextual, and focused on lived experience than their non-feminist counterparts. Unlike mainstream philosophers who can seriously consider the philosophical conundrums of brains in a vat, feminist philosophers always start by seeing people as embodied. Feminists have also argued for the reconfiguration of accepted structures and problems of philosophy. For example, feminists have not only rejected the privileging of epistemological concerns over moral and political concerns common to much of philosophy, they have argued that these two areas of concern are inextricably intertwined. Part 2 of the entry on analytic feminism lays out other areas of commonality across these various approaches. For one, feminist philosophers generally agree that philosophy is a powerful tool for, as Ann Garry states in that entry, “understanding ourselves and our relations to each other, to our communities, and to the state; to appreciate the extent to which we are counted as knowers and moral agents; [and] to uncover the assumptions and methods of various bodies of knowledge.” As such, philosophy is also a powerful tool for understanding how gender itself has been constructed, that is, why and to whose benefit it is to construct some people as lesser and less capable than others. Along these lines, feminist philosophers are keenly attuned to male biases at work in the history of philosophy, such as those regarding “the nature of woman” and supposed value neutrality, which on inspection is hardly neutral at all. Claims to universality, feminist philosophers have found, are usually made from a very specific and particular point of view, contrary to their manifest assertions. Another orientation that feminist philosophers generally share is a commitment to normativity and social change; they are never content to analyze things just as they are but instead look for ways to overcome oppressive practices and institutions.

Such questioning of the problems of mainstream approaches to philosophy has often led to feminists using methods and approaches from more than one philosophical tradition. As Ann Garry notes in Part 3 of the entry on analytic feminism (2017), it is not uncommon to find analytic feminists drawing on non-analytic figures such as Beauvoir, Foucault, or Butler; and because of their motivation to communicate with other feminists, they are more motivated than other philosophers “to search for methodological cross-fertilization.” Moreover, feminist philosophers are generally inclined to incorporate the perspectives of all those who have been oppressed.

Even with their common and overlapping orientations, the differences between the various philosophical approaches to feminism are significant, especially in terms of styles of writing, influences, and overall expectations about what philosophy can and should achieve. Analytic feminist philosophy tends to value analysis and argumentation, though anyone trained in philosophy does so as well. Continental feminist theory puts more emphasis on interpretation and deconstruction, and pragmatist feminism values lived experience and exploration. Coming out of a post-Hegelian tradition, both continental and pragmatist philosophers usually suspect that “truth,” whatever that is, emerges and develops historically. They tend to share with Nietzsche the view that truth claims often mask power plays. Yet where continental and pragmatist philosophers are generally wary about notions of truth, analytic feminists tend to argue that the way to “counter sexism and androcentrism is through forming a clear conception of and pursuing truth, logical consistency, objectivity, rationality, justice, and the good.” (Cudd 1996: 20).

These differences and intersections play out in the ways that various feminists engage topics of common concern. One key area of intersection, noted by Georgia Warnke, is the appropriation of psychoanalytic theory, with Anglo-American feminists generally adopting object-relations theories and continental feminists drawing more on Lacan and contemporary French psychoanalytic theory, though this is already beginning to change as it becomes clearer that continental psychoanalytic theory is also interested, via Julia Kristeva and Melanie Klein, in object-relations theory (see the entry on intersections between analytic and continental feminism ). The importance of psychoanalytic approaches is also underscored in Shannon Sullivan’s entry on intersections between pragmatist and continental feminism . Given the importance of psychoanalytic feminism for all three traditions, a separate essay on this approach to feminist theory is included in this section.

No topic is more central to feminist philosophy than sex and gender, but even here many variations on the theme flourish. Where analytic feminism, with its critique of essentialism, holds the sex/gender distinction practically as an article of faith (see the entry on feminist perspectives on sex and gender and Chanter 2009), continental feminists tend to suspect either (1) that even the supposedly purely biological category of sex is itself socially constituted (Butler 1990 and 1993) or (2) that sexual difference itself needs to be valued and theorized (see especially Cixous 1976 and Irigaray 1974).

Despite the variety of different approaches, styles, societies, and orientations, feminist philosophers’ commonalities are greater than their differences. Many will borrow freely from each other and find that other orientations contribute to their own work. Even the differences over sex and gender add to a larger conversation about the impact of culture and society on bodies, experience, and pathways for change.

Philosophers who are feminists have, in their work in traditional fields of study, begun to change those very fields. The Encyclopedia includes a range of entries on how feminist philosophies have intervened in conventional areas of philosophical research, areas in which philosophers often tend to argue that they are operating from a neutral, universal point of view (notable exceptions are pragmatism, poststructuralism, and some phenomenology). Historically, philosophy has claimed that the norm is universal and the feminine is abnormal, that universality is not gendered, but that all things feminine are not universal. Not surprisingly, feminists have pointed out how in fact these supposed neutral enterprises are in fact quite gendered, namely, male gendered. For example, feminists working on environmental philosophy have uncovered how practices disproportionately affect women, children, and people of color. Liberal feminism has shown how supposed universal truths of liberalism are in fact quite biased and particular. Feminist epistemologists have called out “epistemologies of ignorance” that traffic in not knowing. Across the board, in fact, feminist philosophers are uncovering male biases and also pointing to the value of particularity, in general rejecting universality as a norm or goal.

Entries under the heading of feminist interventions include the following:

  • feminist aesthetics
  • feminist bioethics
  • feminist environmental philosophy
  • feminist epistemology and philosophy of science
  • feminist ethics
  • feminist history of philosophy
  • liberal feminism
  • feminist metaphysics
  • feminist moral psychology
  • feminist philosophy of biology
  • feminist philosophy of language
  • feminist philosophy of law
  • feminist philosophy of religion
  • feminist political philosophy
  • feminist social epistemology

Feminist critical attention to philosophical practices has revealed the inadequacy of dominant philosophical tropes as well as the need to turn philosophical attention to things that had previously gone unattended. For example, feminists working from the perspective of women’s lives have been influential in bringing philosophical attention to the phenomenon of care and care-giving (Ruddick 1989; Held 1995, 2007; Hamington 2006), dependency (Kittay 1999), disability (Wilkerson 2002; Carlson 2009), women’s labor (Waring 1999; Delphy 1984; Harley 2007), the devaluation of women’s testimonies (see the entry on feminist epistemology and philosophy of science ), and scientific bias and objectivity (Longino 1990). In doing so they have revealed weaknesses in existing ethical, political, and epistemological theories. More generally, feminists have called for inquiry into what are typically considered “private” practices and personal concerns, such as the family, sexuality, and the body, in order to balance what has seemed to be a masculine pre-occupation with “public” and impersonal matters. Philosophy presupposes interpretive tools for understanding our everyday lives; feminist work in articulating additional dimensions of experience and aspects of our practices is invaluable in demonstrating the bias in existing tools, and in the search for better ones.

Feminist explanations of sexism and accounts of sexist practices also raise issues that are within the domain of traditional philosophical inquiry. For example, in thinking about care, feminists have asked questions about the nature of the self; in thinking about gender, feminists have asked what the relationship is between the natural and the social; in thinking about sexism in science, feminists have asked what should count as knowledge. In some such cases, mainstream philosophical accounts provide useful tools; in other cases, alternative proposals have seemed more promising.

In the sub-entries included under “feminism (topics)” in the Table of Contents to this Encyclopedia , authors survey some of the recent feminist work on a topic, highlighting the issues that are of particular relevance to philosophy. These entries are:

  • feminist perspectives on argumentation
  • feminist perspectives on autonomy
  • feminist perspectives on class and work
  • feminist perspectives on disability
  • feminist perspectives on globalization
  • feminist perspectives on objectification
  • feminist perspectives on power
  • feminist perspectives on rape
  • feminist perspectives on reproduction and the family
  • feminist perspectives on science
  • feminist perspectives on sex and gender
  • feminist perspectives on sex markets
  • feminist perspectives on the body
  • feminist perspectives on the self
  • feminist perspectives on trans issues

See also the entries in the Related Entries section below.

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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.

Resources listed below have been chosen to provide only a springboard into the huge amount of feminist material available on the web. The emphasis here is on general resources useful for doing research in feminist philosophy or interdisciplinary feminist theory, e.g., the links connect to bibliographies and meta-sites, and resources concerning inclusion, exclusion, and feminist diversity. The list is incomplete and will be regularly revised and expanded. Further resources on topics in feminism such as popular culture, reproductive rights, sex work, are available within each sub-entry on that topic.

  • Feminist Theory Website
  • Women and Social Movements in the US: 1600–2000
  • The Path of the Women’s Rights Movement: Detailed Timeline 1848–1997
  • Documents from the Women’s Liberation Movement (Duke Univ. Archives)
  • Documenting Difference: An Illustrated & Annotated Anthology of Documents on Race, Class, Gender & Ethnicity in the United States
  • Race, Gender, and Affirmative Action Resource Page


  • The Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP)
  • Association for Feminist Ethics and Social Theory (FEAST)
  • Feminist Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Science Studies (FEMMSS) http://femmss.org/
  • Feminist Theory Website (Introduction)
  • philoSOPHIA: A Feminist Society
  • Society for Analytical Feminism
  • The Society for the Study of Women Philosophers

“Waves” of Feminism

  • “Waves of Feminism” by Jo Freeman (1996).
  • Winning the Vote (Western NY Suffragists).
  • Amendments to the US Constitution: 13th, 14th, 15th, 18th, 19th, 21st
  • NOW’s 1966 Statement of Purpose
  • “The Women’s Liberation Movement: Its Origins, Structures, and Ideals” by Jo Freeman (1971).

Feminism and Class

Marxist, socialist, and materialist feminisms.

  • WMST-L discussion of how to define “Marxist feminism” Aug 1994)
  • Marxist/Materialist Feminism (Feminist Theory Website)
  • A Marxist Feminist Critique

Feminist Economics

  • Feminist Economics (Feminist Theory Website)
  • International Association for Feminist Economics
  • International Center for Research on Women

Women and Labor

  • Rights for Working Women
  • United States Department of Labor
  • United States Department of Labor: Audience – Women , a shortcut to information and services the Department of Labor (DOL) offers for women.

Feminism and Disability

  • Center for Research on Women with Disabilities (CROWD)

Feminism, Human Rights, Global Feminism, and Human Trafficking

  • Global Feminism (Feminist Majority Foundation)
  • NOW and Global Feminism
  • Sisterhood is Global Institute
  • Polaris Project
  • Not For Sale Campaign
  • Human Trafficking Search website

Feminism and Race/Ethnicity

General resources.

  • Office of the Gender and Women’s Studies Librarian (U. Wisconsin)
  • Women of Color Web Sites (WMST-L)

African-American/Black Feminisms and Womanism

  • Feminism and Black Womanist Identity Bibliography (Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library)
  • Black Feminist/Womanist Works: A Beginning List (WMST-L)

Asian-American and Asian Feminisms

  • American Women’s History: A Research Guide (Asian-American Women)
  • South Asian Women’s Studies Bibliography (UC Berkeley)
  • Journal of South Asia Women’s Studies

Chicana/Latina Feminisms

  • Chicano/a Latino/a Movimientos

American Indian, Native, Indigenous Feminisms

  • Native American Studies Program (Dartmouth College)

Feminism, Sex, Sexuality, Transgender, and Intersex

  • Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture (Duke Special Collections)

affirmative action | communitarianism | contractarianism | discrimination | egalitarianism | equality | equality: of opportunity | exploitation | feminist philosophy, approaches: Latin American feminism | feminist philosophy, interventions: epistemology and philosophy of science | feminist philosophy, interventions: ethics | feminist philosophy, interventions: history of philosophy | globalization | homosexuality | identity politics | justice: as a virtue | justice: distributive | legal rights | liberalism | Mill, Harriet Taylor | Mill, John Stuart | multiculturalism | parenthood and procreation | race


Over many revisions, thanks go to Ann Garry, Heidi Grasswick, Elizabeth Harman, Elizabeth Hackett, Serene Khader, Ishani Maitra, Ásta Sveinsdóttir, Leslee Mahoney, and Anita Superson.

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The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Philosophy

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5 Feminist Critical Theory

Allison Weir is a Canadian social and political philosopher who researches and writes about critical theories of freedom, identity and power, feminisms and theories of gender, race, class, and religion, Indigenous philosophies, decolonizing theories, and global care chains. She is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto. Allison Weir co-founded the Institute for Social Justice in Sydney, Australia, where she was Research Professor and Director of the Doctoral Program in Social Political Thought, until the Institute closed in late 2018. Before moving to Australia she held a tenured professorship in Philosophy and in Women and Gender Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. She has held visiting positions at Concordia University in Montreal, the New School in New York, the University of Dundee, Scotland, and the University of Frankfurt, Germany. Her book, Decolonizing Freedom, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2021. She is the author of Identities and Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Sacrificial Logics (Routledge, 1996), as well as many articles in books and journals including Hypatia: An International Journal of Feminist Philosophy, Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory, Philosophy and Social Criticism, Philosophical Topics, and Critical Horizons.

  • Published: 12 May 2021
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This chapter offers an account of central issues and themes in feminist philosophical engagements with critical theory, focusing specifically on critical theory of the Frankfurt School. The chapter’s discussion reflects on examples of important feminist interventions in and contributions to critical theory, debates within feminist critical theory, and the extent to which critical theory can be considered feminist given its critique of power relations and interests in emancipation. The chapter suggests that future directions in the field must go beyond the question of gender inclusion and focus on the transformation of critical theory itself.

There are many kinds of feminist critical theories. Feminist theorists have made extensive contributions to critical legal theory, critical race theory, and critical literary theory. I would argue that feminist theory is by definition critical theory. The scope of this entry, however, is considerably narrower. It will focus on feminist critical theories emerging out of and engaging with the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, which originated with the work of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and others in the 1930s, and continues today with the work of Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, Seyla Benhabib, Nancy Fraser, Rainer Forst, Thomas McCarthy, Amy Allen, and others.

Max Horkheimer defined the aim of critical theory as the emancipation of human beings from slavery (Horkheimer 1972 , 246). The Frankfurt School tradition of critical theory draws on the philosophical tradition of critique from Kant through Hegel and Marx; the social theories of Weber, Durkheim, and Mead; and the psychoanalytic theories of Freud, Klein, and Winnicott, sometimes to consider how human emancipation might be possible, but more often to understand the forces producing our continued enslavement. This has involved critiques of capitalist political economy along with wide-ranging social and cultural analysis and analyses of the self and subjectivity, to understand the complexity of forms of social power and to ask how and why human beings so often seem to desire their own subjection.

The approach of critical theory is, as Horkheimer argued, distinct from both normative and positivist empirical theories. As Amy Allen writes, “Critical theory understands itself to be rooted in and constituted by an existing social reality that is structured by power relations that it therefore also aims to critique by appealing to immanent standards of normativity and rationality. … [W]hat is distinctive about critical theory is its conception of the critical subject as self-consciously rooted in and shaped by the power relations in the society that she nevertheless aims self-reflexively and rationally to critique” (2016, xiii). Iris Young writes, “The method of critical theory, as I understand it, reflects on existing social relations and processes to identify what we experience as valuable in them, but as present only intermittently, partially, or potentially” (2000, 10). Nancy Fraser returns to Marx, to define critical theory as “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age” (1987, 31). The theorists of the original Frankfurt School were Jews in Nazi Germany, some of whom escaped to America, some of whom did not. Their studies of anti-Semitism and the authoritarian personality, and of a strange America apparently dominated by Walt Disney, were acutely attuned to the struggles and wishes of their age. Critical theory, as Wendy Brown writes, “upturned the myth of Enlightenment reason, integrated psychoanalysis into political philosophy, pressed Nietzsche and Weber into Marx, attacked positivism as an ideology of capitalism, theorized the revolutionary potential of high art, plumbed the authoritarian ethos and structure of the nuclear family, mapped cultural and social effects of capital, thought and rethought dialectical materialism, and took philosophies of aesthetics, reason, and history to places they had never gone before” (2006, 2). According to Brown, this involved not only grasping social orders of power but also revisioning thought itself, to develop “new forms of thinking.”

Critical theory, then, would seem to be an approach particularly suited to feminist theory. If critical theory is focused on the “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age,” it should, as Fraser has pointed out, respond to contemporary feminism—and, I would add, to Black Lives Matter, queer politics, Indigenous resistance to colonization, struggles against Islamophobia and Western imperialism, struggles to address climate change and the Anthropocene, and the displacement of peoples in the context of global capitalism and imperialism.

So what’s feminist about critical theory? For many critical theorists, there is nothing feminist whatsoever. The entry for “Critical Theory” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy barely mentions feminism; the entry for “The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy does not mention it at all; and both field overviews include virtually no women (or nonwhite men) in their lists of references. Furthermore, The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Theory (Thompson 2017 ) rarely mentions feminism, and includes only two essays by women, out of a total of thirty-two. One might be forgiven for concluding that only (straight) white men do critical theory, and that feminist critical theory does not exist. But one would be wrong.

Feminist critical theory in the Frankfurt School tradition includes substantial bodies of work by Nancy Fraser, Seyla Benhabib, Iris Young, and Amy Allen, and many other feminist theorists have engaged with critical theory, including Jessica Benjamin, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, Mary Caputi, Jean Cohen, Patricia Hill Collins, Drucilla Cornell, Angela Davis, Jodi Dean, Barbara Fultner, Maria Pia Lara, Claudia Leeb, Robin Marasco, Maria Markus, Lois McNay, Johanna Meehan, Patricia Mills, Linda Nicholson, Kelly Oliver, Georgia Warnke, Allison Weir, Cynthia Willett, Linda Zerilli, and others. Feminist critical theorists have contributed incisive critiques of the effects of the androcentrism and inattention to gender in critical theory, and have developed important analyses of the gendered production of the public and private spheres in the capitalist welfare state, as well as theories of individual and collective subjectivity and agency, power and emancipation.

Yet many feminist theorists have not engaged deeply with the tradition of Frankfurt School critical theory—in part because in the past few decades this school has been dominated by the work of Habermas, oriented toward the establishment of universal norms at a time when these have been thoroughly deconstructed. Contemporary Frankfurt School theory is, ironically, resistant to many of the prevalent forms of critique and critical theory outside the Frankfurt School, including deconstruction and poststructuralism—and to much of the work of the early Frankfurt School. Few critical theorists have engaged much with critical race theory or with postcolonial or decolonial thought.

In this brief chapter, I discuss the historical development of feminist critical theory, beginning with the early interventions in the 1970s and 1980s, noting some of the directions taken since this early work, and then taking up the pivotal debate on agency and the feminist subject in Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange (Benhabib et al. 1995 ). Finally, I discuss the engagements of feminist critical theory with issues of race and colonization.

Early Interventions

Feminist critical theory in the era of second-wave feminism can be traced to Angela Davis’s “Women and Capitalism,” an essay written in the Palo Alto Jail in 1971 (1977). Another important early contribution was a lecture by Herbert Marcuse titled “Marxism and Feminism,” published in the journal Women’s Studies in 1974 (1974). Both argued that the feminist movement could be a force of resistance against capitalism and its “performance principle,” which rationalizes domination in the reduction of human life to the performance of productive labor, and glorifies masculine aggression and competition. Women’s liberation would involve the emancipation of eros from “repressive desublimation” and the emancipation of positive qualities that have been designated as feminine. Davis went on to develop analyses of the intersections of racism and patriarchy with capitalism in Women, Race, and Class (1981). Referencing Marcuse, Wendy Brown notes that the commitment to utopian revolution in this early work, and in much of early feminist theory, has since been replaced by more cautious projects. As she writes, feminist theory has abandoned its radicalism: ambitions to overthrow relations of domination have been replaced by “projects of resistance, reform, or resignification, on the one hand, and normative political theory abstracted from conditions for its realization, on the other” (2006, 2). Brown suggests that this abandoned radicalism is commensurate with feminist disengagement with critical theory. However, I would argue that much of feminist critical theory tends to fall into the two camps she describes here.

The 1987 collection Feminism as Critique sets out the key interventions and debates in contemporary feminist critical theory in the 1980s and early 1990s (see, e.g., Nicholson 1986 ; Fraser 1989 ; Butler 1990 ; Young 1990 ; Cornell 1991 ; and Benhabib 1992 ). In what follows, I will take up some of the central themes in this work.

Theorizing the Public and Private Spheres

Linda Nicholson and Nancy Fraser analyze the effects of the failure of Marx and Habermas to consider gender as a category of analysis, focusing on their failure to problematize the gendered nature of paid work and work in the capitalist private sphere of the family and their tendency to naturalize the capitalist division of public and private realms. Nicholson notes the importance of the work of feminists who have criticized Marx’s focus on production to the exclusion of reproduction, but also notes Iris Marion Young’s critique of the “dual systems theory” of Marxist feminism: while it is important to include reproductive work in social analysis, the danger is that this can be simply additive, failing to challenge the framework of Marxist theory. Nicholson argues that Marx’s historical analysis is undermined by his designation of the categories of production and of the economy as ahistorical universals. Thus, she writes, “The Marxist tendency to employ categories rooted in capitalist social relations and its failure in comprehending gender are deeply related. In so far as Marxists interpret ‘production’ as necessarily distinct from ‘reproduction,’ then aspects of capitalist society are falsely universalized and gender relations in both precapitalist and capitalist societies are obscured” (1987, 29). Nancy Fraser argues that while Habermas’s analysis of modern capitalist society in terms of four domains—economy, state, public participation, and family—usefully problematizes the public/private binary, his failure to comprehend gender systems severely limits his analysis. Habermas assumes, for example, that the nuclear family is primarily a domain of the “lifeworld,” organized through communicative relations, as opposed to spheres governed by functional imperatives of a “system” (the state, the economy). Fraser points out that in capitalist societies “the household, like the paid workplace, is a site of labor” and “families are thoroughly permeated with, in Habermas’s terms, the media of money and power. They are sites of egocentric, strategic and instrumental calculation as well as sites of usually exploitative exchanges of services, labor, cash, and sex, not to mention sites, frequently, of coercion and violence” (1987, 37). As Fraser continues, “By omitting any mention of the childrearer role, and by failing to thematize the gender subtext underlying the roles of worker and consumer, Habermas fails to understand precisely how the capitalist workplace is linked to the modern, restricted, male-headed, nuclear family” (45). Fraser complicates Habermas’s analysis, developing a differentiated account of multiple spheres that takes gendered relations into account.

Elsewhere Fraser develops this analysis in her work on the politics of need interpretations, analyzing the socialist feminist politicization of issues considered “private” (located in capitalist property relations and in the private realm of the family and sexuality) and the ways in which these contesting discourses are met with discourses of reprivatization and depoliticization in the “juridical-administrative-therapeutic state apparatus” (drawing on Foucault and Habermas) of the American welfare state. In this work, Fraser calls the sphere of contesting discourses “the social,” and differentiates it from the public sphere (Fraser 1989 ). Fraser continues to problematize the public/private split in Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition (1997). For example, the chapter “A Genealogy of ‘Dependency’: Tracing a Keyword of the U.S. Welfare State” (coauthored with Linda Gordon) presents an analysis of the raced and gendered histories of the concepts of “independence” and “dependency” in the American welfare state (121–50). Also, in the chapter “After the Family Wage: A Postindustrial Thought Experiment,” Fraser argues that the “ideal typical citizen” should be not just a paid worker but a caregiver (41–68).

Central to this work is the question Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell articulated a decade earlier in their introduction to Feminism as Critique: On the Politics of Gender in Late Capitalist Societies : “What kind of a restructuring of the public/private realms is possible and desirable” (1987). In her essay in this volume, “Impartiality and the Civic Public,” Iris Marion Young ( 1987 ) argues for a reconception of the public realm, critiquing the ideal of impartiality grounded in ideals of universal reason and the identity of the subject (56–76). Within a few years, Nancy Fraser, Seyla Benhabib, Joan Landes, Young, and others criticize the assumption of a single public sphere focused on determining a shared general interest, noting the gendered nature of the division between the public and the social, and the exclusion of modes of reasoning and modes of expression deemed “feminine.” While they commend Habermas’s theory of communicative action and discourse ethics as a better basis for determining shared norms than either liberal or communitarian theories, all argue that Habermas remains wedded to divisions between public and private, reason and affect, justice and the good life, generalizable interests and private need interpretations, public norms and private values—all of which are called into question by feminist analyses (see, e.g., Meehan 1995 ). Fraser ( 2013 ) and Young (1992) argue for a broadening of our understanding of the public sphere to include multiple contesting discourses in multiple spheres. Benhabib ( 2002 ) draws on Hannah Arendt to extend her analysis of public participation, arguing that domains Arendt designated as social spheres, such as eighteenth- to nineteenth-century “salons,” are in fact sites of public political discussion.

The Constitution of the Feminine Subject and the Deconstruction of Gender Identity

In their essays in Feminism and Critique (1987), Seyla Benhabib, Maria Markus, and Isaac Balbus argue, as Marcuse did, that we can find resources in socialized femininity to challenge the patriarchal capitalist performance principle, the masculine model of the atomistic unencumbered self, and androcentric unitary reason. Benhabib ( 1987 ) argues for a conception of the self as situated in relation to concrete, as well as generalized, others. In their contribution to the volume, Drucilla Cornell and Adam Thurschwell ( 1987 ) draw on psychoanalytic theory and argue that “the gender categories themselves retain indelible traces of their Other, belying the rigid identification of one’s self as a fully gender-differentiated subject.” Citing Jacques Derrida and Christie McDonald, they suggest “the immanent potential for a way of relating ‘where the code of sexual marks would no longer be discriminating’ ” (145).

Judith Butler argues instead for a deconstruction of sexed and gendered identity, drawing on Wittig’s argument that human social identities are “structured by a gender system predicated upon the alleged naturalness of binary oppositions and, consequently, heterosexuality” (1987, 135). Hence “the category of ‘sex’ is always subsumed under the discourse of heterosexuality” (136). Unlike Wittig, Butler does not call for the emancipation of the lesbian as the harbinger of a sexless society, which will emerge through the dissolution of the binary framework. Drawing on Foucault, and against Marcuse, Butler argues that the eros that is liberated will be already structured by power dynamics. Instead, she follows Foucault in calling not for transcendence but for subversion of binary opposites through a proliferation of multiple differences. While she cautions that this call can repeat the existentialist ideal of radical self-invention and notes the Lacanian psychoanalytic objection that this proliferation is a preoedipal fantasy, she opens and imagines the possibility of a future proliferation of genders, released from their binary restrictions.

Benhabib and Cornell end their editors’ introduction to Feminism as Critique by identifying a tension between the “deconstructive” critiques of identitarian binary logic in the work of Butler, Cornell and Thurschwell, Young, and Fraser, and the “reconstructive” arguments made by Benhabib, Markus, and Balbus, who “see in present forms of gender constitution utopian traces of a future mode of otherness” (1987, 13). But, in fact, Butler’s essay in the volume, despite her own caveats, imagines a utopian future, as does Cornell and Thurschwell’s essay. The difference lies in the imagined utopias, and in their theoretical and political foundations.

The Subject of Feminism: Theorizing Feminist Agency

The differences thematized here harden into oppositions with the publication of Feminist Contentions (1995) (including responses to an earlier version published in Praxis International in 1990), which focuses on some of the most important political and philosophical questions in contemporary feminist theory: questions of individual and collective agency, the meaning of gender, and the normative and theoretical foundations of feminism. Central to this debate is Benhabib’s position that feminist critical theory must be grounded in normative critical theory, against Butler’s poststructuralist critique of norms.

The debate opens with Benhabib’s critique of the dangers of postmodernist influences in feminist critical theory. Benhabib argues that the postmodernist theses of the death of man, the end of history, and the end of metaphysics (as described by Jane Flax 1990 ) are useful in moderation, but “the postmodernist position(s) thought through to their conclusions may eliminate not only the specificity of feminist theory but place in question the very emancipatory ideals of the women’s movements altogether” (Benhabib et al. 1995 , 20). Benhabib names the feminist versions of these theses as “Demystification of the Male Subject of Reason,” “Engendering of Historical Narrative,” and “Feminist Scepticism Toward the Claims of Transcendent Reason” (18–19, capitalized in the original). Feminism, she argues, would be unthinkable without adherence to normative ideals of autonomy and emancipation. For Benhabib, while the situated and gendered subject is heteronomously determined, she still strives toward autonomy. We necessarily relate to ourselves as the author and character of a narrative that makes sense to us. Hence, any call for the “death of the subject” is incompatible with feminist ideals of emancipation. Similarly, while she agrees with the critique of grand narratives, she argues that we need to hold onto the ideal of historical emancipation. Finally, she argues that feminism as situated criticism requires “philosophy,” which involves an ordering of normative priorities and a clarification of principle, oriented toward a utopian vision of the future. Critical feminist theory requires critique from the perspective of utopian ideals.

Many of these criticisms are directed toward Butler, who responds by questioning the assumption that politics requires philosophical foundations and criticizing the authority of a normative political philosophy that positions itself beyond the play of power. For Benhabib, politics, critical theory, and philosophy require normative grounds; for Butler, the role of philosophy, and particularly critical theory, is to question assumptions, and the practice of politics cannot be constrained by unquestionable certainties. We need to ask what our positions authorize and what they exclude or foreclose. Butler agrees with Benhabib that political action includes working collectively toward the achievement of normative ideals, opposing oppressive regimes. But political action also involves many other forms of action: questioning, subversions, parodies, microresistances, resignifying performances. For Butler the “sphere of the political” is where our agency is produced: political action is where we risk transforming who we are, and the answers to our questions of which way to go and who we will be cannot be known in advance.

Both are making important points that can open up crucial questions. What is the role of philosophy? To propose ideal norms, or to open our certainties to question? And how do we do politics? Butler is, of course, not just arguing that all positions must be opened to question. She’s also arguing for some strong positions. Her argument shifts between two descriptions of the constitution of subjects and identities. On one hand, “subjects are formed through exclusionary operations” (Benhabib et al. 1995 , 48); “identity categories are never merely descriptive, but always normative, and as such, exclusionary” (50). On the other hand, she writes, “If feminism presupposes that ‘women’ designates an undesignatable field of differences, one that cannot be totalized or summarized by a descriptive identity category, then the very term becomes a site of permanent openness and resignifiability” (50). On one hand, language constitutes subjects and identities always and only through an exclusionary identitarian logic; on the other hand, identity categories are fields of differences open to resignification and change. Similarly, she shifts from the claim that all metaphysical claims and normative positions must be questioned to the metaphysical claim that all identities are normative and all norms are predicated on exclusions and are claims to authority.

Fraser contends that Benhabib and Butler are embracing “false antitheses” (Benhabib et al. 1995 ). Both positions are important, and the breadth and complexity of feminist issues require an eclectic, pragmatic feminist critical theory, in which different theories are appropriate to address different questions in different contexts. Both Fraser and Nicholson worry that Benhabib, Butler, and Cornell rely on problematic universals—Benhabib’s universal norms, Butler’s universalized theory of language, and Cornell’s psychoanalytic theory of the symbolic order (also in Benhabib et al. 1995 ). They question Benhabib’s adherence to a philosophy that defends universal validity claims, to a conception of history characterized by a singular historical narrative, and to a theory of a universal process of individuation. And they argue that Butler’s theory of the subject produced through universal norms of language is ahistorical and deterministic. Both argue for a critical theory that is defined by historically situated social critique. Against the charge of linguistic determinism, leveled by Benhabib, Fraser, and Nicholson, Butler argues, “to be constituted by language is to be produced within a given network of power/discourse which is open to resignification, redeployment, subversive citation from within, and interruption and inadvertent convergences with other such networks. ‘Agency’ is to be found precisely at such junctures where discourse is renewed” (135). Cornell’s argument for what she calls “ethical feminism,” characterized by a reworking of the feminine subject position from a psychoanalytic perspective, receives little attention in this debate, apart from the charge of universalism.

The elephant in the room in this discussion is queer theory and politics, which is, weirdly, never mentioned by anyone. The shift from a politics of women’s liberation and gay and lesbian liberation to the queer politics of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) and Queer Nation was co-constitutive with the shift in theory from grand theories and normative commitments, theories of autonomous agency and identity politics, to Foucauldian, poststructuralist, and deconstructivist critiques. But while the terms “postmodern,” “poststructuralist,” and “deconstruction” are hotly contested, and Foucault and Derrida and others are named, the term “queer theory” is never used. 1 Acknowledging queer politics might have had a transformative effect on this debate. For example, if Butler were to point out that her theory is addressing the heterosexist constitution of complementary gender identities that produces “deviant” subjects and oppresses all gendered subjects who are forced to police their identities, and to repress or abject qualities that are not gender normative, that might satisfy the demand for a normative position while maintaining the critique of the constitution of norms and normative identities. If Benhabib were to acknowledge the queer politics of subversion, she could shift her focus from the need to defend a collective feminist subject and the emergence of women’s autonomy to acknowledge the historical diversity of forms of political struggle, and even possibly to acknowledge that philosophy and politics can involve not just defending norms but questioning certainties. As Butler points out, this entire debate excludes the questions and arguments posed by postcolonial theorists and feminists of color, who similarly question claims to a collective feminist subject. For Linda Zerilli ( 2005 ), the whole debate founders on “the subject question” rather than asking how feminists can do politics (see also McNay 2000 ; Brown 2005 ; Allen 2008 ; Weir 1996 and 2013 ; Leeb 2017 ).

The debates between Benhabib, Butler, Cornell, and Fraser in Feminist Contentions continue to inform their later work. Benhabib continues to explore subjectivity and agency, drawing on Arendt to develop a narrative conception of the self. Butler refines her conception of language and resignification, and addresses relational psychoanalytic theories of dependency and theories of otherness. And Fraser turns from pragmatic eclecticism to “comprehensive, normative, programmatic thinking” (1997, 4). In their more recent work, these feminist critical theorists engage with transnational and global issues, with feminism as just one dimension of broader arguments. For example, Benhabib has published extensively on cosmopolitanism and international human rights; Fraser has theorized transnational publics and counterpublics and global capitalism; and Butler has addressed nationalisms, war and Zionism, and the politics of assembly.

Race, Colonization, and Western Imperialism

Frankfurt School critical theorists tend to forget that the aim of critical theory, according to Horkheimer’s founding text, is emancipation from slavery . There has been little analysis by prominent critical theorists of the African slave trade and the continuing legacies of colonization, racialization, and white supremacy in America and worldwide. Nor have many critical theorists addressed the destruction of Indigenous peoples and cultures and the appropriation of land as property in settler colonization. Hence, there has been little analysis of the ways in which global capitalism and modern regimes of power have historically been enabled through the appropriation and commodification of labor and land, and of how these practices have been linked with and facilitated through heteropatriarchal institutions and disciplinary regimes.

To return to a theorist with whom this chapter began, Angela Davis could be said to have invented feminist critical theory with her 1977 essay “Women and Capitalism.” In subsequent work Davis engages directly with the aim of emancipating human beings from slavery, analyzing relationships between capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and white supremacy in the United States. In Women, Race, and Class , Davis addresses the legacies of slavery in the continued exploitation of Black women’s labor in domestic work, but also in the “legacy of tenacity, resistance and insistence on sexual equality” of Black women who worked as equals with Black men and who resisted and fought against slavery (1981, 29). Part of this legacy, Davis argues, was a new standard of women’s equality, which, along with the political experience of white women abolitionists who affirmed solidarity with Black activists, led to the movement for women’s rights. In later work, Davis’s ( 2003 ) analyses of the prison industrial complex focus directly on the incarceration of Black people as a continuation of slavery. White feminist critical theorists have not substantially engaged these analyses, and Davis is not included within the pantheon of contemporary Frankfurt School critical theory.

There are some Frankfurt School feminist critical theorists who have engaged with race issues. For example, Iris Marion Young includes some discussions of racialized oppression and of race and gender identity politics throughout her work. Nancy Fraser ( 1997 ) thematizes the intersecting axes of gender and class in modern capitalism in “A Genealogy of Dependency” and in her work on recognition and redistribution. Both Fraser and Young argue for transformative politics that address the oppression of social groups in relation to normative ideals of justice. Young ( 1990 ) argues for a politics of difference that stresses the importance of recognition, identifying five “faces” of oppression (exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence) and distinguishing among four dimensions of justice (distribution, division of labor, decision-making power, and cultural meanings). Fraser ( 1997 ) argues for a distinction between socioeconomic injustice, requiring a politics of redistribution, and cultural injustice, requiring a politics of recognition. 2 And she distinguishes between “affirmative” forms of redistribution and recognition (the liberal welfare state, multiculturalism policies, and identity politics) and “transformative” forms (socialism, deconstruction of race and gender identities, and queer politics). Ultimately, she argues that justice requires the transformative forms of both redistribution and recognition: the ideal is to transform the political economic system, and to transform our identities, to “change everyone’s sense of self” (24). While both Fraser and Young argue for transformative politics, the framing in terms of the politics of recognition and redistribution situates the debates within the politics and theories of the liberal Western state. Similarly, Benhabib affirms a deliberative democratic politics within the liberal state to adjudicate issues of difference and diversity.

In their more recent work, both Young and Fraser address transnational colonization and imperialism. Before her death in 2006, Young worked on Indigenous anticolonial politics and responsibility for global injustice and had begun to explore postcolonial and anticolonial theories (Young 2007 ; Levy and Young 2011 ). Fraser is currently working on analyses of racialized capitalism, theorizing racialized colonization, accumulation, and expropriation as “background conditions” of an expanded conception of capitalism. Drucilla Cornell has done extensive work drawing on imaginaries and symbolic and legal systems beyond the Eurocentric frame, focusing particularly on the South African idea of uBuntu, to defend normative ideals of freedom and justice and to “decolonize” critical theory. (Cornell 2008 )

While race and colonization are thematized within feminist critical theory, there has been little attention to critical race and postcolonial theories in this work. Charles Mills puts it quite bluntly: “Critical theorists” are white, and “critical race theorists” and postcolonial theorists are black and brown (Mills 2017 ). There has been little engagement in feminist critical theory with postcolonial critiques of Western feminisms and with how ideals of autonomy, rights, and secularism are used to support Western imperialism. In her extensive discussions of the global politics of gender and cultural diversity, Benhabib affirms a deliberative democratic multicultural politics within the liberal democratic state that “does not confine women and children to their communities of origin against their will, but encourages them to develop their autonomous agency vis-à-vis their ascribed identities” (2002, 86). As Amy Allen (2013) points out, Benhabib assumes that the modern Western ideal of autonomy, entailing a distanced reflection on one’s attachments and identities, represents a developmental advance over values and identities affirmed in other forms of life. Feminist critical theorists still tend to regard religion as the opiate of the masses, and cultural identities and attachments as primarily oppressive. This stance fails to address postcolonial and Islamic feminist critiques of Western secularism, and of the use of the discourse of the liberation of women from their oppressive cultures and religions to legitimate American imperialism and perpetuate Islamophobia.

Genuine engagement with all of these issues would require an expansion and transformation of the narrow definition of “critical theory” to include critical race theory and postcolonial theories, and reflection on the Eurocentrism and whiteness of the tradition of critical theory. This will require a transformation of what critical theory is and who it includes. Feminist critical theorists have struggled to expand Frankfurt School critical theory to include gender issues. They are now faced with the challenge of transforming critical theory. 3

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While the term “queer” was just emerging when the first version of this debate was published in 1990, it was well known by the time Feminist Contentions was published in 1995.

Fraser later adds a third dimension: representation.

This work has begun, with the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs, founded in 2016 by Judith Butler and Penelope Deutscher. The Consortium aims to globalize critical theory, to connect disparate projects and programs, and to incite new forms of collaborative research. The Consortium has founded a journal, Critical Times, and a book series, Critical South.

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Feminist Theory and Criticism

While the term black feminism originated in the 1970s, the central tenets of black feminist ideology date back to the mid-nineteenth century. Black feminists in both the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries argued that the intersection of race, class, and gender in their lives, commonly referred to as the "double bind," inevitably shape the political and ideological projects led by and for black women. Late-twentieth-century black feminists have expanded the concept of the "double bind" to include other forms of discrimination — such as sexual harassment and homophobia — that impact the daily lives of African-American women. For example, many black feminists have argued that they cannot fight one form of oppression, be it sexism, racism, classism, or homophobia, but must, because of their intersecting sociopolitical identities, challenge all or some combination of these forms of discrimination. Furthermore, black feminists have resisted for generations the separatism of their white feminist counterparts who have not traditionally included racism and classism as part of the women's rights agenda while simultaneously questioning the patriarchal beliefs of their African-American male leaders who often choose to ignore sexism in the fight for racial justice. Additionally, black feminists argue that their quest to eliminate racism and patriarchy must be deeply rooted in and connected to the freedom of all African-American people. As such, this community-centered concept has led to debates among black feminists to forgo the term black feminist and replace it with the seemingly more holistic, more multicultural term of womanist.

Black feminism has three underlying tenets: first, that black men have often asserted their "rights to be men" by restricting these same rights for black women; second, that black male leaders often consider it inappropriate for black women to playing a leading role in fighting for black freedom and justice; third, that mainstream feminism in the United States , from the suffragists to pro-choice advocates, define feminism by excluding the needs and rights of women of color and poor women. In regards to the first challenge, the emphasis on racial unity has resulted in black women being called "race traitor" when they critique or challenge black male authority. For example, the term "race traitor" was widely applied to black feminists who supported Desiree Washington in the rape trial against Mike Tyson ; who criticized Clarence Thomas 's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court; or who protested the gender exclusion of the Million Man March. In all three cases black feminists who spoke out against sexism and tried to address the multiple forms of oppression evident in these events were accused of forfeiting their racial identity by blindly following white feminists at the expense of black people. In response to the perennial exclusion of black women from positions of leadership in civil rights and social justice programs, black feminists argue that these values stem from deeply patriarchal and heterosexist attitudes in the African-American community regarding "appropriate" women's behavior. Black feminists argue that these sexist belief systems within the African-American community unfairly relegate black women to subservient roles within the fight for racial justice. However, while black feminists contend that sexism and homophobia within the black community creates an antiblack feminist bias, they also articulate the third tenet of black feminism, which argues that mainstream feminism primarily addresses the needs of white, middle-class, well-educated women. As a result, black feminists have challenged white feminists to include the voices and experiences of women of color and working-class women as fundamental to the feminist project.

Black feminism can trace the roots of the "double bind" ideology back to the early-nineteenth century. Because most nineteenth-century African-American women were enslaved, free black women joined the abolitionist movement to help manumit their fellow black sisters. In early 1831, Maria Stewart published the essay titled "Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build" in the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator . This essay was significant not only because it was the first political manifesto written by an African-American woman but also because Stewart revealed that black women faced a unique set of problems in slavery because of their doubly oppressed status as slave and woman. In 1861 Harriet Jacobs, under the pseudonym Linda Brent, published the slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl . Incidents was the first slave narrative to provide a detailed account of the life of a slave woman. In her autobiography Jacobs revealed that she, like most enslaved African-American women and girls, was especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation by her slave master. Moreover, in contrast to Frederick Douglass 's 1845 Narrative of Frederick Douglass , an American Slave , Jacobs also recognized that black women were less likely to escape slavery than black men because they were the primary caretakers of their children. As such, enslaved black women had fewer options than black men and substantially fewer rights than white women. Like Jacobs, abolitionist Sojourner Truth focused on black women's rights in her antislavery speeches. Sojourner Truth is best known for her 1851 speech, popularly referred to as "Ain't I a Woman?" that she delivered at a women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio. In this speech, Sojourner challenged white feminists to expand their definitions of womanhood to include free and enslaved African-American women, while simultaneously critiquing men for refusing to grant all women equal rights. Immediately after the Civil War , Truth continued to politic on behalf of black women, arguing that because black men and women work equally hard, black women and black men should have equal rights and both be guaranteed the right to vote.

By the end of the nineteenth century, black women, like white women, still did not have the right to vote. However, the period 1890 to 1920 is now seen as the "Women's Era" of African-American history because of an increase in activism and political visibility of black women in society. Black women created organizations that demanded women's suffrage and focused on a range of social and political issues that affected black communities. Anti-lynching activism, brought to national attention by journalist and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, opposed not only the widespread lynching of black men but also the sexual stereotyping of black women as immoral in contrast to chaste white women, whom lynching supposedly vindicated. In 1892 Anna Julia Cooper wrote the first black feminist book, A Voice from the South . Cooper's basic premise was that black women and black men experienced severe oppression during slavery, with the result that neither sex had gained any significant advantage over the other. Consequently, Cooper did not believe that men were innately more suited for racial uplift than black women. In fact, she believed that when black women fought against injustice, they framed race issues around the needs of working-class men, women, and children. This was the message behind one of the most famous passages in A Voice from the South : "Only the Black Woman can say 'where and when I enter, in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.'"

In 1896 African-American women founded the National Association of Colored Women 's Clubs (NACWC), in response to a white journalist's insulting letter about African-American women. The NACWC brought together more than one hundred black women's clubs and became the black woman's primary vehicle for race leadership. Clubwomen, who subscribed to the strictest model of "respectability," believed that it was their responsibility to teach poorer African-American women middle-class traits of housecleaning, child care, and etiquette. The national motto, "Lifting as We Climb," addressed concerns of class and social uplift. Leaders in the black women's club movement such as Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Mary Church Terrell , and Anna Julia Cooper, formed the clubs to enact municipal, civic, and educational reform. These activities coalesced with their desire for increased political visibility and the vote. In the end, the "Women's Era" embodied the ideology that the problems of the race revolved around the problems of its women.

Between 1923 and 1926, black women blues singers rose to national prominence. While the African-American woman activists in the "Women's Era" believed that they should model middle-class attitudes for working-class women, black women blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey derived their black feminist identity from and within African-American poor and working-class communities. One significant ideological difference between these two strands of black feminism was the treatment of black women's sexuality. For the most part, black feminists of the "Women's Era" addressed issues of black female sexuality by disproving the stereotypes that black women were innately sexually promiscuous and unrespectable. However, in both their song lyrics and public persona, blues women were significantly more explicit about sexual desire. Given the stringent social norms regarding black female sexuality from both within and outside the African-American community, when artists like Gertrude Rainey and Bessie Smith sang about women's sexuality, they put forth a model of black feminism based on an open defiance of patriarchy and male sexual dominance. By embodying the traits of independence, tenacity, and sexuality, blues women redefined the woman's "sphere" of domesticity to include those women who worked on the road traveling and singing.

Black women's participation in the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s was crucial, although few were recognized for their leadership. In fact, frustration with male dominance in the civil rights and black nationalist movements as well as dissatisfaction with the narrowness of white feminists' agendas were among the reasons that black women continued to confront the impact of gender oppression in their own lives. Even though Ella Baker was one of the most significant civil rights leaders, her pivotal leadership and contributions to the civil rights movement were ignored until very recently. In 1956, Baker, along with Stanley Levinson and Bayard Rustin , formed "In Friendship," a fund-raising group that supported southern civil rights organizations that were spawned by the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Nonetheless, she often felt that the patriarchal attitudes of the black men in the civil rights movement made it substantially harder for her to ascend to and keep her position of leadership. Although Baker was instrumental in organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr . and other black ministers in 1957, she eventually disagreed with their concept of a strong central leadership. In line with the community-centered approach of black feminist thought, Baker was convinced change must begin at the grassroots level rather than through centralized power. As a result, in 1960 Baker helped organize many of the varied student organizations that had been involved in the early sit-in movement, eventually fostering the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). During the early 1960s SNCC became involved in the Freedom Rides, which set out to desegregate buses, and also participated in the voter registration drive, Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were particularly challenging for black women activists who felt alienated by the mainstream feminist movement, civil rights organizations, and the Black Panther Party. As a result, black feminists, much like their early predecessors, realized that they had to create their own organizations and write their own political manifestos in order to challenge the daily discriminations African-American women experienced. On behalf of working- and middle-class black women, in 1973 the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) supported the African-American woman's right to work at a living wage ; argued that she must have access to quality education, job training, and health care; and demanded protection for her reproductive rights, specifically her right to refuse sterilization. Similar to the leaders of the black women's club movement, members of the National Welfare Rights Organization (1967) and the NBFO did not differentiate race, class, and gender but instead focused on their intersections, serving the masses of African-American women who were multiply afflicted by American racism and sexism. In 1977 a group of radical black feminists in Boston, who were inspired by the NBFO, created the Combahee River Collective. The Combahee River Collective, named after the Combahee River that Harriet Tubman used to help more than seven hundred slaves escape slavery, issued a position paper that analyzed the intersection of oppression in black women's lives and asserted the legitimacy of feminist organizing by black women. While the "Black Feminist Statement" continued the black feminist tradition of addressing the exclusion of black women from gender-based or race-based political organizations, the document was an even more radical statement of black feminism because it was explicitly socialist, addressed homophobia, and called for sisterhood among black women of various sexual orientations.

Unlike the black feminists of the "Women's Era" who understandably depicted black women as respectable and virtuous, the black feminists of the late 1960s and early 1970s explicitly, quite like the blues women who preceded them, attended issues of black female sexuality. These modern black feminists expanded the definition of black female sexuality to include issues of birth control , forced sterilization, same-sex relationships, autonomous sexual desire, and sexual assault. As such, these black feminists expanded the definition of black women's oppression from the "double bind" to intersectional and multifaceted. Toni Cade Bambara 's 1970 edited collection The Black Woman explored these themes even more. Her anthology opened up a dialogue about black female sexuality that later books, most notably Toni Morrison 's Sula (1974), Ntozake Shange 's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Was Enuf (1975), Gayl Jones 's Corregidora (1975), Michele Wallace's Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), and Alice Walker 's The Color Purple (1982), explored in-depth. Additionally, the early commitment of black lesbian feminists such as Audre Lorde , Pat Parker, Margaret Sloan, and Barbara Smith were crucial to the foundation of the black feminist movement in the 1970s because they unequivocally argued against the multiple layers of oppression that black women faced both outside of and within the African-American community. Arguing against black nationalist liberation models that African-American families desperately needed to reinstate men as the head, Audre Lorde 's classic text, Sister Outsider , skillfully illustrates that the intersections of sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia in the lives of black women needed to be challenged in order for all African Americans to be free.

In the 1980s, bell hooks and Alice Walker provided pivotal texts on black feminism. bell hooks's Ain't I Woman (1981) provided an extensive historical analysis of how race, gender, and class intersect to shape and to oppress the lives of black women. Like the Combahee River Collective's "Black Feminist Statement," hooks defined black feminism as a survival mechanism that African-American women have and continue to need to use to challenge their multifaceted oppression. In her controversial novel The Color Purple , Alice Walker sparked new debates about sexism in the African-American community. While The Color Purple explored the negative impact of southern segregation on the lives of African-American families, Walker primarily focused on how African-American women survived and confronted the sexism they experienced within their own families and communities. Like Michelle Wallace and Ntozake Shange , Walker was widely criticized for her portrayal of black men as sexist and abusive toward African-American women. In response, Walker addressed the sexism implicit in these critiques, but also argued that The Color Purple explored the variety of relationships — familial, sexual, and platonic — that provided the foundation for contemporary black feminist projects. In Walker's specific case, the woman-centered relationships that she created in The Color Purple inspired her coinage of the term "womanist" to describe the black feminist movement. In the introduction to In Search of Our Mother's Gardens , Walker noted that a womanist is "a Black feminist or feminist of color … . A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women's culture, women's emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women's strength … . Committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not separatist, except periodically, for health."

In the 1990s African-American feminists continued to organize and openly challenge sexism and racism on the national scene and within the African-American community. In 1991 a grassroots group called "African American Women in Defense of Ourselves" gathered more than sixteen hundred signatures for a widely circulated ad in response to the hearings to appoint Clarence Thomas as a justice to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1995, amid controversy, black feminists spoke out about the patriarchal assumptions of the male-only Million Man March. While in the twenty-first century, black feminists continue to view sexism and racism as the major challenges that afflict African-American women, twenty-first-century black feminists, or "third wave" black feminists, now confront popular culture, mass media, and globalization in their black feminist projects. Given the severe criticism that hip-hop music and culture is both misogynistic and homophobic, "hip-hop feminism" appears almost oxymoronic. However, as Joan Morgan skillfully reveals in her 1999 book, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist Breaks It Down , while the black feminism of the hiphop generation is radically different from that of previous generations, the need for black feminism movement is equally as strong. Like its predecessors, hip-hop feminism has a radical critique of how racism and sexism affect the daily lives of black women. However, hip-hop feminists have the privileges of the feminist and civil rights movements while being the "first to have the devastation of AIDS, crack, and Black-on-Black violence" (p. 61). Morgan argues that the result of this paradox of both privilege and despair requires a new type of black feminism, "a feminism committed to 'keeping it real.' We need a voice like our music — one that samples and layers many voices, injects its sensibilities into the old and flips it into something new, provocative, and powerful." In addition to Joan Morgan, filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons (2003) believes that a black feminist movement is needed now more than ever. However, while her definition of black feminism incorporates the central tenets of black feminism, she, like Morgan, grounds her feminism in a critique of popular culture and mass media. She counters the negative depictions of African-American women in music videos, television, and films by implementing her coined term, "Afrolez" which is a "femcentric multimedia arts project committed to using the moving image, the written and spoken word to counteract the negative impact of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism on the lives of marginalized and disenfranchised people, with a particular emphasis black women and girls."

Black feminism is both an ideological and a political project that challenges the varied forms of oppression that impact African-American women. From the nineteenth century to the twenty-first century, African-American feminists have recognized that their unique place in America society as both "woman" and "black" ensures that they will be doubly afflicted by racism and sexism. However, like any other political movement, black feminists hold on to their central tenets while they adapt their rhetoric and create projects that address the changing sociopolitical situations. From the "double bind" model to the multilayered oppression paradigm, black feminists argue that American democracy can only be realized when the most oppressed and marginalized members of society are free from the burden of oppression.

See also Baker, Ella J. ; Bambara, Toni Cade ; Blueswomen of the 1920s and 1930s ; Civil Rights Movement , U.S. ; Lorde, Audre ; National Association of Colored Women 's Clubs ; Truth, Sojourner ; Walker, Alice ; Wells-Barnett, Ida B.


Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York : Oxford University Press, 1987.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment . Boston: Unwin-Hyman, 1991.

Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday . New York : Pantheon Books, 1998.

Dawson, Michael C. Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America . New York: William Morrow, 1984.

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, "African-American Women's History and the Metalanguage of Race." Signs 17 (1992): 251 – 274.

hooks, bell. Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism . Boston: South End Press, 1981.

Lorde, Audre. Sister/Outsider: Essays and Speeches . Freedom, Calif.: The Crossing Press, 1984.

Morgan, Joan. When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist Breaks It Down . New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.

Simmons, Aishah. "Using Celluloid to Break the Silence about Sexual Violence in the Black Community." In Violence in the Lives of Black Women: Battered, Black, and Blue , edited by Carolyn M. West. New York: Haworth Press, 2003.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose . San Diego : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

White, Deborah Gray. Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894 – 1994 . New York: Norton, 1999.

salamishah margaret tillet (2005)

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Literary Theory and Criticism

Home › Elaine Showalter as a Feminist Critic

Elaine Showalter as a Feminist Critic

By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on September 24, 2016 • ( 7 )

Elaine Showalter is an influential American critic famous for her conceptualization of gynocriticism, which is a woman-centric approach to literary analysis, Her A Literature of their Own discusses the -female literary tradition which she analyses as an evolution through three phases. She observes that literary “subcultures” (black, Jewish, Anglo-Indian) tend to pass through these stages: 1) Imitation of the modes of the dominant tradition and internalization of the artistic and social values. 2) Protest against these standards and values and a call for autonomy, 3) Self discovery — turning inward free from’ some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity.


Viewing the women’s literary tradition in terms of these phases, Showalter calls the first phase as “feminine” spanning from 1840 – 1880 (a phase of imitation, when women writers like George Eliot wrote with male pseudonyms); the second phase as the feminist phase (1880-1920, the phase of protest) when women won voting rights; the third phase as the female phase (1920- till around 1960) when women’s  writing entered a new phase of self-awareness.

Showalter points out that although women writers since the beginning have shared a “covert solidarity” with other women writers and their female audience; there was no expressive communality or self-awareness before the 1840s. Even during the feminine phase, women writers did not see their writing as an expression of their female experiences.Yet the repressive circumstances gave rise to innovative and covert ways to express their inner life, and thus we have the mad woman locked in the attic, the crippled artist and the murderous wife. Despite the restrictions,  the novel from Jane Austen to George Eliot talked about the daily lives and values of women within a family and community.

In the feminist phase which denotes political involvement, women writers questioned the stereotypes and challenged the restrictions of women’s  language, denounced the ethic of self-sacrifice and used their fictional dramatization of oppression to bring about social and political changes. They embodied a “declaration of independence” in the female tradition and stood up to the male establishment in an outspoken manner. Challenging the monopoly of the male press, many feminist journals came into being, and some like Virginia Woolf, controlled their own press.

The female phase was marked by courageous self-exploration and a return to more realistic modes of expression. Post 1960 writers like Doris Lessing , Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch and Margaret Drabble undertook an authentic anger and sexuality as sources of creative power, while reasserting their  continuity with women writers of the past.


Showalter also posited that feminist criticism falls into two categories: woman as reader (Feminist Critique) and woman as writer (Gynocriticism). In the first category, women are consumers of a male-produced literature and this aspect of feminist criticism is concerned with the stereotypical representations of women, fissures in male-oriented literary theory and how patriarchy manipulated the female audiences. Gynocriticism attempts to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature and focus on female subjectivity, female language and female literary career.

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Tags: A Literature of their Own , Doris Lessing , Elaine Showalter , Feminism , Feminist Critique , George Eliot , Gynocriticism , Iris Murdoch , Jane Austen , Literary Theory , Margaret Drabble , Muriel Spark , Virginia Woolf

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definition feminist criticism

In her essay Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness (1981), Showalter says, “A cultural theory acknowledges that there are important differences between women as writers: class, race nationality, and history are literary determinants as significant as gender. Nonetheless, women’s culture forms a collective experience within the cultural whole, an experience that binds women writers to each other over time and space”. I want to understand this please ?

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The theory of culture as a factor affecting women’s writing is inclusive of the theories of biology, language and psyche. The influence of all these factors is guided by the cultural situation of a woman. History has not included female experience. Thus, history is inadequate to understand women’s experience. Woman’s culture is not a sub-culture of main culture. They are part of general culture itself. If patriarchal society applies restraints on them, they transform it into complementarity. Thus, women experience duality of culture including general culture and women’s culture. Women form ‘muted group’ in society and men form ‘dominant group’. Ardener suggested a diagram with two circles representing these two groups respectively. All language of the dominant group is all acceptable language. So, the muted group has to follow the same language. The part of the circle representing the muted group which does not coincide with the other circle represents that part of women’s life which has not found any expression in history. It represents the activities, experiences and feelings of women which are unknown to men. Since they do not form part of men’s life, they do not get representation in history. This ‘female zone’ is also known as ‘wild zone’ since it is out of the range of dominant boundary. Women could not write on experiences belonging exclusively on the wild zone. They have to give representation to the dominant culture in their texts. There are other muted groups as well than women. For instance, literary identity of a black American poet is forced upon her by the trends of the dominant group. Feminist critics try to identify the aspects of women writers which do not follow the trends established by the male writers. For instance, Woolf’s works show tendencies other than those of modernism. However, these tendencies are visible in the sections which have so far been considered obscure or imperfect. Feminist critics should attempt ‘thick description’ of women’s writings. It is possible only when effect of gender and female literary tradition are considered among the various factors that affect the meaning of the text. Showalter concludes that the ‘promised land’ or situation when there would be no difference in the texts written by man and woman could not be attained. Attainment of that situation should not be the aim of feminist critics.

Thank you so much sir for generous help but does Showalter refer that women would be writing alike ? By having the same female literary tradition, would they supposedly write alike ?

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What is value of gynocriticism in the context of feminist criticism?


  •  Gynocriticism A Brief Note – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
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Feminist Criticism Theory in Literature

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