Feminism

Feminist: political position

Female: a matter of Biology

Feminine: a set of culturally defined characteristics

 

To speak of "Feminism" as a theory is already a reduction. However, in terms of its theory (rather than as its reality as a historical movement in effect for some centuries) feminism might be categorized into three general groups:

1.theories having an essentialist focus (including psychoanalytic and French feminism);

2.theories aimed at defining or establishing a feminist literary canon or theories seeking to re-interpret and re-vision literature (and culture and history and so forth) from a less patriarchal slant (including gynocriticism, liberal feminism); and

3.theories focusing on sexual difference and sexual politics (including gender studies, lesbian studies, cultural feminism, radical feminism, and socialist/materialist feminism).

Further, women (and men) needed to consider what it meant to be a woman, to consider how much of what society has often deemed inherently female traits, are culturally and socially constructed. Simone de Beauvoir's study, The Second Sex, though perhaps flawed by Beauvoir's own body politics, nevertheless served as a groundbreaking book of feminism, that questioned the "othering" of women by western philosophy. Early projects in feminist theory included resurrecting women's literature that in many cases had never been considered seriously or had been erased over time (e.g., Charlotte Perkins Gilman was quite prominent in the early 20th century but was virtually unknown until her work was "re-discovered" later in the century). Since the 1960s the writings of many women have been rediscovered, reconsidered, and collected in large anthologies such as The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.

However, merely unearthing women's literature did not ensure its prominence; in order to assess women's writings the number of preconceptions inherent in a literary canon dominated by male beliefs and male writers needed to be re-evaluated. Betty Friedan's The Feminist Mystique (1963), Kate Millet's Sexual Politics (1970), Teresa de Lauretis's Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (1984), Annette Kolodny's The Lay of the Land (1975), Judith Fetterly's The Resisting Reader (1978), Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own (1977), or Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic (1979) are just a handful of the many critiques that questioned cultural, sexual, intellectual, and/or psychological stereotypes about women.

 

Key Terms:

- Androgyny - taken from Women Studies page of Drew University - "'...suggests a world in which sex-roles are not rigidly defined, a state in which ‘the man in every woman' and the ‘woman in every man' could be integrated and freely expressed'. Used more frequently in the 1970's, this term was used to describe a blurring, or combination of gender roles so that neither masculinity or femininity is dominant."

- Backlash - a term, which may have originated with Susan Faludi, referring to a movement ( ca. 1980s) away from or against feminism.

- Écriture féminine - Écriture féminine, literally women's writing, is a philosophy that promotes women's experiences and feelings to the point that it strengthens the work. Hélène Cixousfirst uses this term in her essay, "The Laugh of the Medusa," in which she asserts, "Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies. Écriture féminine places experience before language, and privileges the anti-linear, cyclical writing so often frowned upon by patriarchal society'.

- Essentialism - taken from Women Studies page of Drew University - "The belief in a uniquely feminine essence, existing above and beyond cultural conditioning...the mirror image of biologism which for centuries justified the oppression of women by proclaiming the natural superiority of men." Tong's use of the term is relative to the explanation of the division of radical feminism into radical-cultural and radical libertarian.

- Gynocentrics - "a term coined by the feminist scholar-critic Elaine Showalter to define the process of constructing "a female framework for analysis of women's literature [in order] to develop new models [of interpretation] based on the study of female experience, rather than to adapt to male models and theories'"

- Jouissance - a term most commonly associated with Helene Cixous (seek-sou), whose use of the word may have derived from Jacques Lacan - "Cixous follows Lacan's psychoanalytic paradigm, which argues that a child must separate from its mother's body (the Real) in order to enter into the Symbolic. Because of this, Cixous says, the female body in general becomes unrepresentable in language; it's what can't be spoken or written in the phallogocentric Symbolic order. Cixous here makes a leap from the maternal body to the female body in general; she also leaps from that female body to female sexuality, saying that female sexuality, female sexual pleasure, feminine jouissance, is unrepresentable within the phallogocentric Symbolic order" (Dr. Mary Klages, "Postructuralist Feminist Theory")

- Patriarchy - "Sexism is perpetuated by systems of patriarchy where male-dominated structures and social arrangements elaborate the oppression of women. Patriarchy almost by definition also exhibits androcentrism, meaning male centered. Coupled with patriarchy, androcentrism assumes that male norms operate through out all social institutions and become the standard to which all persons adhere" (Joe Santillan - University of California at Davis).

- Phallologocentrism - "language ordered around an absolute Word (logos) which is “masculine” [phallic], systematically excludes, disqualifies, denigrates, diminishes, silences the “feminine” (Nikita Dhawan).

- Second- and Third-Wave feminism - "Second-wave feminism refers to a period of feminist thought that originated around the 1960s and was mainly concerned with independence and greater political action to improve women's rights". "Third-wave feminism is a feminist movement that arguably began in the early 1990s. Unlike second-wave feminism, which largely focused on the inclusion of women in traditionally male-dominated areas, third-wave feminism seeks to challenge and expand common definitions of gender and sexuality”.

- Semiotic - "[Julia] Kristeva (kris-TAYV-veh) makes a distinction between the semiotic and symbolic modes of communication:

- Symbolic = how we normally think of language (grammar, syntax, logic etc.)

- Semiotic = non-linguistic aspects of language which express drives and affects

The semiotic level includes rhythms and sounds and the way they can convey powerful yet indefinable emotions" (Colin Wright - University of Nottingham)

 

Some roots of prejudice against women:

- Aristotle's idea that the male is by nature superior and the female inferior.

- Biblical statement of the fall from Eden blamed on Eve.

- St. Augustine and other religious leaders dictating that women are spiritually weak, sensual creatures that tempt men away from spiritual truths.

- Darwin's theory that sees women as a past and lower state of civilization.

 

Early feminist voices:

- Mary Wollstonecraft's A vindication of the Rights of Women (1792): women must stand for their rights and refuse to be labeled by men as inferior.

- Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929): males define what it means to be female as male controls political, economic, social, and literary structures. Women must develop their own discourse to combat these beliefs.

- Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949): in a patriarchal society women are defined as the Other, secondary in nature.

- Kate Millet's Sexual Politics (1969): female is born, woman is created, distinguishes between sex and gender. Millet calls for establishment of female social conventions (literary studies, feminist criticism, etc)

 

Beginnings:

- Women's movement (1960s): literary in the sense that it realized the significance of the images of women presented in literature, and saw the need to question these images.

- 1970s feminism: an attempt to expose the system of patriarchy which promotes sexual inequality, specifically as represented in literature by male writers. Elaine Showalter termed this androtexts.

- 1980s feminism: began to draw on other theories and to focus on exploring the nature of female experience by constructing new canon of women's writing. Showalter termed this gynotexts.

 

Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own

- Feminine phase (1840-80), women writers imitate dominant male artistic standards.

- Feminist phase (1880-1920), radical positions taken, sometime separatist ones.

- Female phase (1920--), focus on female writing and experience.

 

What feminist critics do:

- Rethink the canon, aim to discover texts by women.

- Revalue women's experience.

- Challenge representation of women in literature as 'Other', or 'lack'.

- Argue for essential difference versus a constructed one..

- Explore the question of whether there is a female language (an écriture feminine)

 

Role of Theory:

Anglo-American Feminism: evaluate representation of women in literature.

Voices: Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, dominant in 1970s

 

British Feminism: socialist in nature, aligned with Marxism, relates text to class.

Voices: Cora Kaplan, Catherine Belsey, dominant in 1980s.

 

French Feminist: relies on theories of Lacan, Foucault and Derrida.

Voices: Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray.

 

Language: Is there a language specific to women?

Virginia Woolf: feminine writing uses looser sequences, not as balanced as male writing, as women suffer from having to use a medium fashioned for male writers.

  

Questions for a feminist criticism:

- Are there any stereotypical characterizations of women?

- What are the attitudes toward women held by male characters?

- What is the author's attitude to women in society?

- Do female characters speak often? How often, compared to male characters?

- How is the relationship between men and women portrayed?

- What are the power relationships between men and women (or characters assuming male/female roles)?

- How are male and female roles defined?

- What constitutes masculinity and femininity?

- How do characters embody these traits?

- Do characters take on traits from opposite genders? How so? How does this change others’ reactions to them?

- What does the work reveal about the operations (economically, politically, socially, or psychologically) of patriarchy?

- What does the work imply about the possibilities of sisterhood as a mode of resisting patriarchy?

- What does the work say about women's creativity?

- What does the history of the work's reception by the public and by the critics tell us about the operation of patriarchy?

- What role the work play in terms of women's literary history and literary tradition?