Feminist Literary Criticism

Feminism Definition

Female symbol as key to a puzzle
anne de Haas / E+ / Getty Images

edited and with significant additions by Jone Johnson Lewis

Also known as: Feminist Criticism

Feminist literary criticism is literary analysis that arises from the viewpoint of feminism, ​feminist theory and/or feminist politics. Basic methods of feminist literary criticism include:

  • Identifying with female characters: This is a way to challenge the male-centered outlook of authors. Feminist literary criticism suggests that women in literature were historically presented as objects seen from a male perspective.
  • Reevaluating literature and the world in which literature is read: This involves questioning whether society has predominantly valued male authors and their literary works because it has valued males more than females.

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.

Feminist literary criticism assumes 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 precede a formal naming of the school of literary criticism. In so-called first-wave feminism, the Woman's Bible 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.

Feminist literary criticism may bring in tools from other critical disciplines: historical analysis, psychology, linguistics, sociological analysis, economic analysis, for instance.

 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 are described, especially if the author is male.  This applies to both fictional characters in novels, stories, and plays, and women characters in nonfiction including biography and history.
  • 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" vs. "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.  The retrieval of Zora Neale Hurston's writing by Alice Walker is an example. Another example: raising up the contributions of early playwright ​Aphra Behn, showing how she was treated differently than male writers from her own time forward.
  • 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

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.

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. Elaine Showalter felt that feminist criticism still worked within male assumptions, while gynocriticism would begin a new phase of women’s self-discovery.

Feminist Literary Criticism: Books

Just a few books written from the perspective of feminist literary criticism:​

  • Barr, Marleen S. ​​Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond. 1993.
  • Burke, Sally. American Feminist Playwrights: A Critical History. 1996.
  • Carlin, Deborah. Cather, Canon, and the Politics of Reading. 1992.​
  • ​Castillo, Debra A. Toward a Latin American Feminist Literary Criticism. 1992.
  • Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar, ed. Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism: a Norton Reader. 2007.
  • Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar, ed. Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets. 1981.
  • Lauret, Maria. Liberating Literature: Feminist Fiction in America. 1994.
  • Lavigne, Carlen. Cyberpunk Women, Feminism and Science Fiction: A Critical Study. 2013.
  • Lorde, Audre and Cheryl Clarke. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. 2007.
  • Perreault, Jeanne. Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autography. 1995.
  • Plain, Gill, and Susan Sellers. A History of Feminist Literary Criticism. 2013.
  • Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson, ed. De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography. 1992.
  • Stern, Madeleine B., ed. The Feminist Alcott: Stories of a Woman's Power. 1996