Table of Contents

Collaboration, information literacy, writing process, feminist criticism.

  • © 2023 by Angela Eward-Mangione - Hillsborough Community College

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.

Brevity - Say More with Less

Brevity - Say More with Less

Clarity (in Speech and Writing)

Clarity (in Speech and Writing)

Coherence - How to Achieve Coherence in Writing

Coherence - How to Achieve Coherence in Writing


Flow - How to Create Flow in Writing

Inclusivity - Inclusive Language

Inclusivity - Inclusive Language


The Elements of Style - The DNA of Powerful Writing


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Other Topics:

Citation - Definition - Introduction to Citation in Academic & Professional Writing

Citation - Definition - Introduction to Citation in Academic & Professional Writing

  • Joseph M. Moxley

Explore the different ways to cite sources in academic and professional writing, including in-text (Parenthetical), numerical, and note citations.

Collaboration - What is the Role of Collaboration in Academic & Professional Writing?

Collaboration - What is the Role of Collaboration in Academic & Professional Writing?

Collaboration refers to the act of working with others or AI to solve problems, coauthor texts, and develop products and services. Collaboration is a highly prized workplace competency in academic...


Genre may reference a type of writing, art, or musical composition; socially-agreed upon expectations about how writers and speakers should respond to particular rhetorical situations; the cultural values; the epistemological assumptions...


Grammar refers to the rules that inform how people and discourse communities use language (e.g., written or spoken English, body language, or visual language) to communicate. Learn about the rhetorical...

Information Literacy - Discerning Quality Information from Noise

Information Literacy - Discerning Quality Information from Noise

Information Literacy refers to the competencies associated with locating, evaluating, using, and archiving information. In order to thrive, much less survive in a global information economy — an economy where information functions as a...


Mindset refers to a person or community’s way of feeling, thinking, and acting about a topic. The mindsets you hold, consciously or subconsciously, shape how you feel, think, and act–and...

Rhetoric: Exploring Its Definition and Impact on Modern Communication

Rhetoric: Exploring Its Definition and Impact on Modern Communication

Learn about rhetoric and rhetorical practices (e.g., rhetorical analysis, rhetorical reasoning,  rhetorical situation, and rhetorical stance) so that you can strategically manage how you compose and subsequently produce a text...


Style, most simply, refers to how you say something as opposed to what you say. The style of your writing matters because audiences are unlikely to read your work or...

The Writing Process - Research on Composing

The Writing Process - Research on Composing

The writing process refers to everything you do in order to complete a writing project. Over the last six decades, researchers have studied and theorized about how writers go about...

Writing Studies

Writing Studies

Writing studies refers to an interdisciplinary community of scholars and researchers who study writing. Writing studies also refers to an academic, interdisciplinary discipline – a subject of study. Students in...

Featured Articles

Student engrossed in reading on her laptop, surrounded by a stack of books

Academic Writing – How to Write for the Academic Community

feminist criticism guide questions

Professional Writing – How to Write for the Professional World

feminist criticism guide questions

Authority – How to Establish Credibility in Speech & Writing

guide to feminist literary theory

#metoo in the classroom or book club: how to read unreliable female narrators like a feminist.

According to recent bestseller lists, unreliable female narrators are having a heyday. Popular titles like A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl are set in the present moment, but they contain echoes of much older works of literature commonly used in the classroom, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper . 

In all of these works of literature, and many more, a female narrator goes through a confusing experience; her reactions to the experience are documented in her narration, but something about her renders her voice untrustworthy to the reader. Sometimes, she is too young to be taken seriously, or she is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or physically unwell. Often, however, her most unreliable quality may be her gender, which is why these works of literature (see the Book List at the end of this article) make for rich study when discussed through the lens of feminist literary theory. 

What is Feminist Literary Theory?

Readers unfamiliar with literary theory, or literary criticism, as an academic pursuit may benefit from learning that literary theory is simply the practice of applying a specific frame of reference to the study of a work of literature. Anyone can engage in this scholarly practice and discover new meaning in the books they read. If you’re looking for more guidance, see our Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism . 

Here, we’ll examine how to apply established principles of feminist theory to works of literature. Feminist literary theory is the practice of examining a book from a feminist perspective — that is, with issues of gender inequities in mind. In the 1960s and 70s, feminism, a political and social movement that advocated for women’s rights, gathered momentum in America; this movement continues to inspire scholars to examine literature as a reflection of both society at large and of the political and social ideology of specific writers. Here’s how:

  • Feminist critics examine literary portrayals of women to expose the ways in which writers misrepresent, underrepresent, or marginalize women. The writers need not always be male. 
  • Feminist critics explore the nature of being female, seeking to illuminate the experiences of women who have been suppressed, silenced, or ignored.
  • Feminist literary theory also concerns itself with power; in the case of female unreliable narrators, they lack power because their voices are considered inconstant or untrue.


  • Feminism : Get your bearings with this definition and history of feminism.
  • Literary Theory : This comprehensive discussion includes examples of several different literary theories.
  • Feminist Literary Theory : Here, learn about what feminist theory is and how it is often applied to literature.  
  • Key Events in the History of Feminism : See this timeline for a broad overview of the feminist movement in America.
  • Feminist Approaches to Literature : Peruse this essay to learn about the traditions of feminist literary criticism.

Conversation Starter : Ask a group of readers or students to write down what they think of when they think of a feminist. Group members can continue writing independently, or, if they prefer, discuss with a partner what it might feel like to talk about feminism in a group setting. What worries them about the process and what excites them?

What is an Unreliable Narrator?

According to literary critic Wayne C. Booth , who coined the term, an unreliable narrator is the narrator of a work of literature who does not speak or act “in accordance with the norms of the work” ( The Rhetoric of Fiction, pages 158–59).

The norms of a literary work might involve the reporting of events and conversations, the interpretation of characters’ acts and behaviors, and/or the evaluation of situations that involve the narrator.

Clues that you’re in the hands of an unreliable narrator:

  • The narrator’s reports of events include a subtext that may or may not accurately reflect the thoughts and feelings of the individuals involved, such as in Ian McEwan’s Atonement . 
  • The narrator interprets another character’s behavior as dangerous or transgressive though the circumstances surrounding the behavior appear anodyne to others, or vice versa.
  • The narrator evaluates an objectively positive situation as negative, or, as in Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller , an objectively negative situation as positive. The unreliability of the narrator is compounded by the unexpected or “inappropriate” nature of the narrator’s evaluation as viewed by other characters. 
  • What is Subtext? Read this thorough definition and set of examples of subtext.
  • Lesson Plan: Evaluating Legitimate Sources : Common Sense Education offers this set of teaching resources for evaluating the reliability of sources in real-world media.
  • Lesson Plan: Women in Literature : This resource provides inspiration for classroom activities that examine how women are portrayed in literature.
  • The Cult of the Unreliable Female Narrator Must Be Stopped : In this opinion piece, the author discusses the phenomenon of unreliable female narrators in a real-world setting.
  • “ What Does It Mean to Be a Woman? It's Complicated ”: This thought-provoking Time article examines the experience of being a woman in modern society.

Conversation Starter : Have the group reflect on the notion of “norms” for a few minutes. In a classroom setting, students can write their responses in journals or discuss the questions with a partner. Ask: What norms do you observe in school, at work, or in other community settings? And what happens when someone violates those norms?

Feminism, Power, and Voice

Feminist literary scholars often explore a work of literature in terms of power. In the case of an unreliable female narrator, her power, or rather, her lack of power, lies in the matter of her voice. She lacks authority over her own story, so when she uses her own voice to seek help, for example, she is often denied the assistance she needs. 

When a female narrator’s judgment is impaired, she becomes more vulnerable: drugs or alcohol, or emotions like fear and anger, or other concerns like mental health problems or physical illness often afflict female narrators, which weaken them in the eyes of the male characters and sometimes, the readers themselves. In many cases, the male characters of a novel have more authority, more knowledge, and, therefore, more confidence and credibility than their female counterparts.

  • Power as a resource or an asset: Some unreliable female narrators are deemed unworthy of a voice while others find that when they talk, no one listens. See discussion of The Yellow Wallpaper in the “Book List” section below.
  • Power as a controlling force: At times, when an unreliable female narrator attempts to impact a person or a situation, her attempts may appear incoherent, sloppy, ineffectual, or even disastrous. See discussion of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine in the “Book List” section below.
  • Power as having the potential to act: Unreliable female narrators sometimes seize power in ways that upset or offend other characters, and their energy is sometimes misconstrued as melodrama, a form of attention-seeking, or female emotion gone awry. See discussions of Gone Girl and My Sister, the Serial Killer in the “Book List” section below.
  • Feminist Perspectives on Power : This academic paper discusses power as domination, as resource, and as tool of empowerment.
  • A Guide to Feminist Pedagogy: Power & Authority : The Vanderbilt Center for Teaching provides this resource for applying key feminist theory questions such as “Who has the power here?” in a classroom setting.
  • How Power Makes People Selfish : In this brief video, University of California Berkeley psychologist Dacher Kelter explains the “The Cookie Monster Study” and what he’s learned about power in society.
  • How “Strong Female Characters” Still End Up Weak And Powerless : This article explores how to write female characters, and poses: “Do they pass the action figure test?”
  • #MeToo Brought Down 201 Powerful Men. Nearly Half of Their Replacements Are Women : The New York Times has documented how #MeToo actually shifted power dynamics.

Conversation Starter : Ask the group to reflect on the idea of power within the context of relationships: Think of a relationship that can exist between two people (younger brother/older sister, boss/employee, etc.) and how power might impact that relationship. For example, what does it mean for the older sister to have power over her little brother?

Reading the #MeToo Movement

Many feminists assert that the phenomenon of the unreliable female is not just a literary one, especially in light of the revelations of the #MeToo Movement. Despite an increased awareness around the world of the oppression of women, past and present, the words of women are often still doubted, dismissed, and denigrated, especially when the women are involved in conflicts with men. 

By applying tenets of feminist literary criticism to the sampling of titles discussed in the next “Book List” section , students and the general reader will be better able to appreciate the links between literature and real-world issues of gender discrimination, abuse, and harassment.

  • Do Works by Men Implicated by #MeToo Belong in the Classroom? ( New York Times, October 7, 2019)
  • Two Years on, the Literature of #MeToo Is Coming of Age ( The Guardian , October 14, 2019)
  • One Year of #MeToo: ‘He Said, She Said’ Is a Literary Problem, Too ( The New Yorker , October 10, 2018)
  • #MeToo Is All Too Real. But To Better Understand It, Turn To Fiction (New York Times, May 1, 2019)

Conversation Starter : Present the group with a real-world news article to help individuals understand and reflect on the link between feminist readings of texts and the #MeToo movement. Refer to the list above for ideas; one or more of these articles may prompt rich discussion of the books you are reading.

Book List: Read These 8 Books (and More) Like A Feminist 

All the texts listed below are appropriate for classroom study and book club discussions. Readers will quickly observe that all are narrated in the first person by an unreliable female. In these novels, authored by both men and women, when a woman or a young girl attempts to assert her power with her voice, efforts to discredit her move the events in the plot line forward.

1) The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Synopsis: In ten diary entries, the narrator of this short story writes openly about her postpartum struggles, which are exacerbated by her lack of agency over her own medical treatment. Published in 1892 in New England, the story is semi-autobiographical; Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself was forced to endure the rest cure prescribed to her by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell , and her narrator’s mental decline reflects Gilman’s own struggle to have some authority over her experience as a patient. 

Power dynamic: The narrator experiences a severe mental decline, and as she writes about her symptoms, they increase in severity and the details in her written narrative grow more terrifying. The narrator documents how her husband, a doctor, ignores her when she expresses what she needs, demonstrating to readers that her voice has been muted. 

Discussion point: What do the consequences of the narrator’s silencing reveal about the gender norms of the author’s time? 

Quote: “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.” (Page 131)

The narrator appears to accept disrespectful treatment as a condition of marriage. Her resigned tone reveals the writer’s negative attitude toward marriage, a social institution at this time in American history that Gilman herself found unsatisfactory ; she divorced her husband soon after writing “The Yellow Wallpaper,” inviting criticism and disparagement from members of her society.

2) Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Synopsis: This 2012 thriller by author Gillian Flynn is often described as “ domestic ,” which is a term budding feminist scholars might enjoy exploring in its own right. The enraged anti-heroine, Amy Dunne, takes turns with her husband Nick to tell the story of Amy’s disappearance five years to the day after their wedding. Neither narrator is being completely honest, so the reader must attempt to read between the lines to find the truth. 

Power dynamic: As the reader learns that Amy’s rage stems from her discovery of Nick’s affair with a young, attractive female student, Amy’s desire to toy with Nick and punish him for his infidelity makes more sense. As well, when Nick narrates his side of the story, his descriptions of Amy reveal that he believes Amy is a hysteric ; Amy uses these assumptions about her character in devious ways, suggesting that the power in their relationship may actually be in her hands.

Discussion point: Does Amy’s rage make her a stronger female character with a more compelling, more authentic story or does she exhibit signs of what the patriarchy might identify as “female problems”? 

Quote: “My wife had a brilliant, popping brain, a greedy curiosity. But her obsessions tended to be fueled by competition: She needed to dazzle men and jealous-ify women: Of course Amy can cook French cuisine and speak fluent Spanish and garden and knit and run marathons and day-trade stocks and fly a plane and look like a runway model doing it. She needed to be Amazing Amy all the time.”  ( Part One, Page 45 )

This passage appears in one of Nick’s sections of the novel, through which he narrates the story of Amy’s disappearance. In his description of Amy, he employs several negative stereotypes of heterosexual women that include an inherent need to impress men and to look attractive as well as a competitive approach to her relationships with other women. Nick does not address the possibility that Amy’s impulse to excel in so many aspects of her life may be fueled by a need to prove to the world that she is not merely an object and that she is, in fact, a capable, intelligent, multi-talented woman.

3) The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn 

Synopsis: Dr. Anna Fox, the protagonist of this 2018 novel, is a smart, well-educated child psychologist. Though she is a mental health professional herself, her self-sabotage and other effects of a traumatic experience lead others in her life to question her attachment to reality when she witnesses a murder. When Anna asks her friends and the police to believe her, they refuse to take her words to heart. Even the reader becomes complicit as Anna’s unreliable narration is fueled by a dangerous mixture of wine and psychotropic medications that renders her voice erratic as the events of the plot unfold.

Power dynamic: Anna is vulnerable and her observations are accurate, but the stigma of mental illness exacerbates her distressing situation. The police detectives and others in her life dismiss her fears as unfounded paranoia, and she is left to fend for herself. Ultimately, Anna’s voice is heard, but only after she saves herself from a potentially fatal attack and the evidence that proves her right is indisputable. 

Discussion point: Does the resolution of the novel suggest that women have the potential to defy convention and be their own rescuers, or is Anna just one of the lucky ones?

Quote: “Once more Jane enters the frame—but walking slowly, strangely. Staggering. A dark patch of crimson has stained the top of her blouse; even as I watch, it spreads to her stomach. Her hands scrabble at her chest. Something slender and silver has lodged there, like a hilt.” ( Chapter 32, Page 144 )

In this passage, Anna sees that Jane has been stabbed in the chest, but she does not yet know that Jane’s killer is her son, Ethan. Later, Anna learns the truth about Ethan, and the location of the stab wound suggests maternal tropes that enhance the shock value of Ethan’s murder of his own mother. For example, Jane is killed after sustaining a wound to the chest, which is the location of both her heart and her breasts; stereotypes of motherhood often place a child’s life at the center of the mother’s emotional world, represented by her heart, and they also often assume that a mother will nourish her child with her body, specifically, with her breasts. Ethan’s attack on his mother is all the more horrifying for the maternal stereotypes in play.

4) Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Synopsis: Kathy is the protagonist and narrator of Never Let Me Go, a work of dystopian literature published in 2005. She tells the story of her past nostalgically, focusing on her personal experience of the events that mark her early life and upbringing. Kathy is a clone, so her understanding of herself and her role in the world has not been shaped by a childhood in a traditional family environment; instead, Kathy is influenced primarily by the adults who run Hailsham, the institution for young clones where she was brought up. 

Power dynamic: In her role as a carer for other clones whose organs have been harvested to save the lives of humans, Kathy falls into a stereotypical gender role , nurturing and caring for others in a maternal way. Kathy has some agency over herself, but her muddled self-perceptions lend her storytelling an untrustworthiness characteristic of unreliable narrators.

Discussion point: Kathy’s depth of emotion and her ability to think philosophically about art and life give her an unexpected humanity, but is her lack of credibility her fault, or the fault of the society that created her?

Quote: “There were other buildings, usually the outlying ones, that were virtually falling down, which we couldn’t use for much, but for which we felt in some way responsible.” ( Chapter 10, Page 71 )

From a young age, Kathy has been trained to be maternal by the guardians at Hailsham who assign her the role of carer. She and other carers look after clones who have been designated as organ donors, establishing that clones who function as mothers are essential to the organ donation industry that created the clones in the first place. When Kathy acknowledges that she and the other residents of the Cottages felt a sense of duty towards buildings that were in disrepair, she suggests that she felt genuine emotion towards the inanimate objects. Her memory of her emotional connection to the outbuildings reveals that Kathy’s impulse to nurture and to take care of others according to culturally-accepted maternal stereotypes has been ingrained into her character. 

5) Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Synopsis: In modern day Glasgow, Eleanor Oliphant, the title character of the novel published in 2017, is an eccentric 29-year-old woman whose mother is apparently in prison. Eleanor has an alcohol problem, a propensity towards social awkwardness, and a crush on a pop star; her infatuation with this singer inspires her to reinvent herself, but when the object of her affection proves to be unreachable, Eleanor is forced to face the reality of her painful past.

Power dynamic: Eleanor describes her experience with loneliness in clear, affecting prose, revealing her mental health struggles with humor and self-deprecation . The reader sees Eleanor as she sees herself, which is often the object of a darkly funny punchline. 

Discussion point: Eleanor’s use of humor to dispel the harshness of her reality may make her less reliable as a narrator, as she seems to protect her sensitivities with the distance of jokes, but what are her other options in a world that judges people who are lonely, preferring to look the other way?

Quote: “A philosophical question: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? And if a woman who’s wholly alone occasionally talks to a potted plant, is she certifiable? I’m confident that it is perfectly normal to talk to oneself occasionally. It’s not as though I’m expecting a reply. I’m fully aware that Polly is a houseplant.” ( Chapter 6, Page 51 )

In this passage from the novel, Eleanor reveals that her houseplant’s name is Polly and that she has one-sided conversations with Polly, which she regards as a “perfectly normal” and acceptable behavior. Eleanor’s choice to anthropomorphize her houseplant by giving the houseplant a stereotypically female name suggests that Eleanor believes that a woman would offer Eleanor, in her loneliness, more sympathy than a man. Women are often stereotyped as talkative, which makes Polly’s role as a sympathetic listener even more poignant; as well, Polly’s inability to respond to Eleanor emphasizes the silence that characterizes Eleanor’s life on weekends, when she speaks to no one else. 

6) My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Synopsis: Korede, the protagonist of this 2019 satirical novel set in Lagos, Nigeria, takes care to cover the bloody tracks of her murderous sister Ayoola, whose sociopathic tendencies may stem from the abuse she sustained at the hands of their father. Braithwaite presents the themes of her debut novel with dark humor, examining the close relationship between the sisters through a love triangle that has the potential to go horribly wrong. 

Power dynamic: Korede’s attachment to Ayoola and her impulse to protect her suggest she is a loving and selfless sister, but her narration of the events concerning Ayoola may not be trustworthy as a result of Korede’s sisterly loyalty. The setting of the story further complicates matters; in Lagos, violence against women is alarmingly commonplace, which means that Ayoola’s murderous impulses could reflect an overreactive fight or flight response to any interaction with any man. 

Discussion point : How much does the culture of abuse and harassment into which the sisters are born contribute to their behaviors? Does the author’s satirical tone enhance the cautionary tone of this novel or detract from it?

Quote: “She didn’t mean to kill him; she wanted to warn him off, but he wasn’t scared of her weapon. He was over six feet tall and she must have looked like a doll to him, with her small frame, long eyelashes and rosy, full lips.

(Her description, not mine.)

She killed him on the first strike, a jab straight to the heart. But then she stabbed him twice more to be sure. He sank to the floor. She could hear her own breathing and nothing else.”

( Chapter 4, Page 7 )

In this passage, Koreda recalls Ayoola’s comparison of herself to a doll. This comparison juxtaposes Ayoola’s violent act of stabbing with what she believes is her perceived weakness as a young woman. By focusing the reader’s eye on stereotypically feminine details like her diminutive size in comparison to most men and her delicate, sexually alluring facial features, Koreda shocks the reader into realizing that this seemingly vulnerable young woman is actually a cold-hearted killer. Ayoola defies many stereotypes that surround women, all of which suggest that femininity is weakness. 

7) Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Synopsis: This 2012 novel opens as a young woman named Queenie, which is another alias for the protagonist also known as Verity and as Lady Julie Beaufort-Stuart, acknowledges to the reader, and to her Nazi captors, that she has a particular skill: pretending. From the start of the novel, Lady Julie warns the reader that she may or may not be telling the truth, which is a direct circumstance of her wartime duties as a spy. In this young adult novel set during World War II, unreliability and untrustworthiness are Julie’s superpowers and the keys to Julie’s survival. 

Power dynamic : As Julie writes the confession that makes up the entirety of the epistolary novel , she manipulates her Nazi captors, demonstrating that her ability to work as a double-agent is not merely a stereotypical feminine wile, but a life-saving strength. As well, the novel’s focus on Lady Julie’s friendship with another heroic young woman, Maddie examines the role of power between two equals.

Discussion point: Is the focus on the friendship between Lady Julie and Maddie enough to label Code Name Verity a feminist novel ? What other elements of the novel make it feminist?

Quote: “I am no longer afraid of getting old. In fact I can’t believe I ever said anything so stupid. So childish. So offensive and arrogant.

But mainly, so very, very stupid. I desperately want to grow old.” ( Part 1, Page 114 )

Verity scolds her younger self in this passage for being so vain as to worry about the natural processes of aging; she criticizes her own youthful arrogance and her immature assumption that old age would negatively affect her. Young Verity’s fears can be explained by her existence in a culture that places inordinate amounts of value on a woman’s youth and appearance . As a product of that culture, Verity understandably places value on her own youth and appearance, lamenting the time when her youth will fade. Now, at this point in the novel, when Verity understands that her life is in danger, she finally appreciates the fact that living to an old age is a blessing. 

8) We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Synopsis: Cady, the rebellious 17-year-old narrator of this young adult novel published in 2014, is 15 years old when she suffers a mysterious accident she cannot remember. As she struggles with painful headaches in the years that follow her injuries, her mother refuses to tell her what happened to her, forcing Cady to draw up hazy memories of the incident on her own. 

Power dynamic : Cady’s resistant attitude towards her upbringing mirrors, in some ways, the experience of all young people as they seek to individuate themselves from their families. Cady’s unwillingness to live according to the norms set by her grandfather, however, diverges from typical adolescence when her rebellious ways cause a disaster from which she will never wholly recover.

Discussion points : What effect does Cady’s patriarchal family have on her development from a young girl into a woman with her own opinions about the world? Some critics describe Cady’s voice as authentic for its messiness, but does this reading of her character support difficult stereotypes of young women or challenge them?

Quote: “He married Tipper and kept her in the kitchen and the garden. He put her on display in pearls and on sailboats. She seemed to enjoy it.” ( Chapter 3, Page 6 )

Cady describes the relationship between her grandparents with cynicism, revealing her awareness that her grandfather’s treatment of her grandmother as a decorative object is objectionable. Cady scorns her grandmother for “enjoying” her life as a stereotypical “trophy wife,” which is a sexist term in its own right; that Cady describes her grandmother without using the term reflects her thoughtfulness and her resistance to the patriarchal norms that characterize the society of her grandparents. 

Social Media and Digital Resources

  • On Twitter, follow feminist authors Roxane Gay ( @rgay ) and Margaret Atwood ( @MargaretAtwood ), among others — as well as hashtags associated with feminist discussion, such as #WomensReality and #EverydaySexism.
  • Follow #Readwomen and the push for equal treatment for women writers.
  • Find inspiration among these “ 6 Blogs And Podcasts For Book-Loving Feminists ” — including the Reading Women Podcast .
  • View this TED Talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “ We Should All Be Feminists .”
  • The documentary This Changes Everything explores underrepresentation of women in the entertainment industry.

feminist criticism guide questions

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4.5: Feminist and Gender Criticism: A Process Approach

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Feminist and gender criticism are powerful literary methods that you can use to analyze literature. Be guided by the following process as you write your feminist or gender criticism paper.

  • Carefully read the work you will analyze.
  • Formulate a general question after your initial reading that identifies a problem—a tension—that addresses a key issue relevant to feminist, queer theory, or masculnity studies.
  • Reread the work , paying particular attention to the question you posed. Take notes , which should be focused on your central question. Write an exploratory journal entry or blog post that allows you to play with ideas.
  • What does the work mean?
  • How does the work artistically demonstrate a theme?
  • “So what” is significant about the work? That is, why is it important for you to write about this work? What will readers “learn” from reading your interpretation?
  • Reread the text to gather textual evidence for support. What literary devices are used to achieve the theme?
  • Construct an informal outline that demonstrates how you will support your interpretation.
  • Write a first draft.
  • Receive feedback from peers and your instructor via peer review and conferencing with your instructor (if possible).
  • Revise the paper , which will include revising your original thesis statement and restructuring your paper to best support the thesis. Note: You probably will revise many times, so it is important to receive feedback at every draft stage if possible.
  • Edit and proofread for correctness, clarity, and style.

We recommend that you follow this process for every paper that you write from this textbook. Of course, these steps can be modified to fit your writing process, but the plan does ensure that you will engage in a thorough reading of the text as you work through the writing process, which demands that you allow plenty of time for reading, reflecting, writing, reviewing, and revising.

Feminist Literary Criticism

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  • J.D., Hofstra University
  • B.A., English and Print Journalism, University of Southern California

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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Feminist theory.

  • Pelagia Goulimari Pelagia Goulimari Department of English, University of Oxford
  • Published online: 19 November 2020

Feminist theory in the 21st century is an enormously diverse field. Mapping its genealogy of multiple intersecting traditions offers a toolkit for 21st-century feminist literary criticism, indeed for literary criticism tout court. Feminist phenomenologists (Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Marion Young, Toril Moi, Miranda Fricker, Pamela Sue Anderson, Sara Ahmed, Alia Al-Saji) have contributed concepts and analyses of situation, lived experience, embodiment, and orientation. African American feminists (Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Hortense J. Spillers, Saidiya V. Hartman) have theorized race, intersectionality, and heterogeneity, particularly differences among women and among black women. Postcolonial feminists (Assia Djebar, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Florence Stratton, Saba Mahmood, Jasbir K. Puar) have focused on the subaltern, specificity, and agency. Queer and transgender feminists (Judith Butler, Jack Halberstam, Susan Stryker) have theorized performativity, resignification, continuous transition, and self-identification. Questions of representation have been central to all traditions of feminist theory.

  • continuous transition
  • heterogeneity
  • intersectionality
  • lived experience
  • performativity
  • resignification
  • self-identification
  • the subaltern

Mapping 21st-Century Feminist Theory

Feminist theory is a vast, enormously diverse, interdisciplinary field that cuts across the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. As a result, this article cannot offer a historical overview or even an exhaustive account of 21st-century feminist theory. But it offers a genealogy and a toolkit for 21st-century feminist criticism. 1 The aim of this article is to outline the questions and issues 21st-century feminist theorists have been addressing; the concepts, figures, and narratives they have been honing; and the practices they have been experimenting with—some inherited, others new. This account of feminist theory will include African American, postcolonial, and Islamic feminists as well as queer and transgender theorists and writers who identify as feminists. While these fields are distinct and while they need to reckon with their respective Eurocentrism, racism, misogyny, queerphobia, or transphobia, this article will focus on their mutual allyship, in spite of continuing tensions. Particularly troubling are feminists who define themselves against queer and transgender theory and activism; by way of response, this article will be highlighting feminist queer theory and transfeminism.

On the one hand, literary criticism is not high on the agenda of many 21st-century feminist theorists. This means that literary critics need to imaginatively transpose feminist concepts to literature. On the other hand, a lot of feminist theorists practice literature; they write in an experimental way that combines academic work, creative writing, and life-writing; they combine narrative and figurative language with concepts and arguments. Contemporary feminist theory offers a powerful mix of experimental writing, big issues, quirky personal accounts, and utopian thinking of a new kind.

Feminists have been combining theory, criticism, and literature; Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Hélène Cixous, and Alice Walker have written across these genres. In African Sexualities: A Reader ( 2011 ), Sylvia Tamale’s decision to place academic scholarship side by side with poems, fiction, life-writing, political declarations, and reports is supported by feminist traditions. 2 Furthermore, the border between feminist theory, literature, and life-writing has been increasingly permeable in the 21st century , hence the centrality of texts in hybrid genres: theory with literary and life-writing elements, literature with meta-literary elements, and so on. Early 21st-century terms such as autofiction and autotheory register the prevalence of the tendency. This is at least partly a question of addressing different audiences—aiming for public engagement and connection with activism outside universities and bypassing the technical jargon of academic feminist theory. Another reason is that feminist theorists, especially those from marginalized groups, have found some of the conventions of academic scholarship objectionable or false—for example, the assumption of a universal, disembodied, or unsituated perspective.

Nevertheless, recent feminist experiments with genre—for example, by Anne Carson, Paul B. Preciado, Maggie Nelson, or Alison Bechdel—nod toward an integral part of women’s writing and feminist writing. 3 Historic experiments in mixed genre, going back to Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s poem-novel Aurora Leigh , include: Virginia Woolf’s critical-theoretical-fictional A Room of One’s Own ; Julia Kristeva’s poetico-theoretical “Stabat Mater”; Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time , oscillating between speculative science fiction and naturalist novel; Audre Lorde’s “biomythography,” Zami ; the mix of theory, fiction, and life-writing in Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues and Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick ; or Qurratulain Hyder’s Fireflies in the Mist , hovering between historical fiction and romance. 4

Twenty-first-century feminist theory also tends to be thematically expansive and more than feminist theory narrowly understood, in that it is not only about “women” (those assigned female at birth or socially counted as women or self-identifying as women). It is a mature field that addresses structural injustice, social justice, and the future of the planet. As a result, cross-fertilization with other academic fields abounds. Relatively new academic fields such as feminist theory, postcolonial theory, and critical race theory—emerging since the 1960s, established in the 1980s, and having initially to cement their distinctiveness and place within the academy—have been increasingly coming together and cross-fertilizing in the 21st century . Distinct feminist perspectives (phenomenological, poststructuralist, African American intersectional, postcolonial, Islamic, queer, transgender) have also been coming together and variously informing 21st-century feminist theory. While this article will introduce these perspectives, it will aim to show that feminist theorists are increasingly difficult to put in a box, and this is a good thing.

Feminist Phenomenology (Beauvoir, Young, Moi, Fricker, Anderson, Ahmed, Al-Saji): Situation, Lived Experience, Embodiment, Orientation

Simone de Beauvoir initiates feminist phenomenology, her existentialism emerging within the broader tradition of phenomenology. While the present account of feminist theory begins with Beauvoir, it is important to acknowledge the continuing influence of older feminists and proto-feminists, as “feminism” only acquired its current ( 20th- and 21st-century ) meaning in the late 19th century , according to the Oxford English Dictionary. See, for example, Christine de Pizan, “Jane Anger,” Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, Mary Astell, Anne Finch, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Jacobs, Emily Davies, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, and Virginia Woolf.

All contemporary feminist theory has been influenced by Beauvoir, in some respect or other. Her famous claim that “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman,” opening volume 2 of The Second Sex ( 1949 ), points to the asymmetrical socialization of men and women. 5 In her philosophical terms, man is the One, the universal, subject, freedom, transcendence, mind, spirit, culture; woman is the Other, the particular, object, situation, immanence, body, flesh, nature. Patriarchy for Beauvoir is a system of binary oppositions, whose terms are mutually exclusive: the One/the Other, the universal/the particular, subject/object, freedom/situation, transcendence/immanence, mind/body, spirit/flesh, culture/nature. Men have been socialized to aim for—indeed to become—the valued terms in each binary opposition (the One, the universal, subject, freedom, transcendence, mind, spirit, culture); while the undesirable terms (the Other, the particular, object, situation, immanence, body, flesh, nature) are projected onto women, who are socialized to become those terms—to become object, for example. Emerging from this system is the illusion of a transhistorical feminine essence or a norm of femininity that misconstrues, disciplines, and oppresses actual, historical women. Women for Beauvoir are an oppressed group, and her aim is their liberation. 6

Beauvoir critiques the social aims and myths of patriarchy, pointing to the pervasiveness of patriarchal myths in philosophy, literature, and culture. But she also critiques the very forms of patriarchy—binary opposition, dualistic thinking, essentialism, universalism, abstraction—while not completely able to free her own analysis from them. Instead of them, Beauvoir advocates attention to concrete situation and close phenomenological description; indeed The Second Sex abounds in vivid and richly detailed descriptions of early 20th-century French women’s lives. Such close attention and description allow her to demonstrate that all humans are, potentially, both subject and object, free and situated, transcendent and immanent, spirit and flesh, hence the ambiguity of the human condition. 7

The philosophy of existentialism and the broader philosophical movement of phenomenology, within which Beauvoir situates her work, claim to offer radical aims and methods. Phenomenology (Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon) is committed to the phenomenological description of the particular in order to avoid the abstractions of scientism. It aims to avoid traditional philosophical dualisms such as mind/body. It re-describes human beings not as disembodied minds but as intentional beings engaged with the world, being-in-the-world (Heidegger’s term), situated in a particular time and place; as lived bodies that are centers of perception, action, and lived experience rather than mere objects; and as being-with and being-for others in inter-subjective relationships rather than just subject/object relationships. Human beings immerse themselves in their projects, using the world and their own bodies—with all their acquired skills, competencies, and sedimented habits—as instruments. While these instruments are indispensable to their projects, they are usually unperceived and remain in the background. They are the background against which objects of perception and action objectives come into view. And yet what is backgrounded can always come to the foreground, suddenly and rudely—when the world resists one, when a blunt knife does not cut the bread, when one’s body is in pain or sick and intrudes, interrupting one’s vision and plans. 8

Without minimizing the novelty of Beauvoir’s theorization of patriarchy, the present quick sketch of phenomenology ought to have highlighted its suitability for feminist appropriations. Nevertheless, Sartre, Beauvoir’s closest collaborator, for example, continues to think that one is distinctively human only to the extent that they transcend their situation. This arguably universalizes Sartre’s particular situation as a member of a privileged group determined to be free, while effectively blaming the situation of oppressed groups on their members, blaming the victims for lacking humanity. 9 By contrast, Beauvoir sheds light on women’s social situation and lived experience: men have “far more concrete opportunities” to be effective; women experience the world not as tools for their projects but as resistance to them; their “energy” is “thrown into the world” but “fails to grasp any object”; a woman’s body is not the “pure instrument of her grasp on the world” but painfully objectified and foregrounded. 10 Beauvoir goes on to distinguish between a variety of unequal social situations with different degrees of freedom inherent in them. Yes, on the whole, French men are freer, less constrained than French women. But Beauvoir discusses the “concrete situation” of other groups “kept in a situation of inferiority”—workers, the colonized, African American slaves, her contemporary African Americans, Jews—while explicitly acknowledging that women themselves are socially divided by class and race. 11

Beauvoir outlines impediments to women’s collective and individual liberation and sketches out paths to collective action and to the “independent woman” of the future, placing literature center stage. She claims that women lack the “concrete means” to organize themselves “in opposition” to patriarchy, in that they lack a shared collective space, such as the factory and the racially segregated community for working-class and black struggles, instead living dispersed private lives. 12 While white middle-class women “are in solidarity” with men of their class and race, rather than with working-class and black women, Beauvoir calls for solidarity among women across class and race boundaries. 13 She addresses white middle-class women like herself, who benefit materially from their connection to white middle-class men, asking them to abandon these benefits for the precarious pursuit of women’s solidarity and freedom. To the extent that women lack freedom by virtue of their social situation qua women, they need to claim their freedom in collective “revolt.” 14 Beauvoir’s 1949 call to organized political action was “the movement before the movement,” according to Michèle Le Doeuff. 15

However, Beauvoir also advocates writing literature as a means of liberation for women and considers all her writing—philosophical, literary, life-writing—a form of activism. Beauvoir devotes considerable space to literary criticism throughout The Second Sex . She shows how writers have reproduced patriarchal myths, often unwittingly. 16 But her future-oriented, crucial chapter “The Independent Woman” centers on a discussion of women writers and even addresses women writers. Having sketched out a history of women’s writing, she turns to young writers to offer advice, based on her analysis of women’s “situation.” 17 To overcome women’s socially imposed apprenticeship in “reasonable modesty,” they need to undertake a counter-practice of “abandonment and transcendence,” “pride” and boldness; they need to become “women insurgents” who feel “responsible for the universe.” 18 Her call, “The free woman is just being born” energizes new women writers to live and write freely—and has been answered by many. 19 But this is not triumphalist empty rhetoric; women writers also need to understand the “ambiguity” of the human condition and of truth itself. 20

Iris Marion Young returns to Beauvoir’s description of women’s social situation and lived experience in “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility, and Spatiality” ( 1980 ). Young takes Beauvoir’s description as the starting point for her own phenomenology of women’s project-oriented bodily movement in “contemporary advanced industrial, urban, and commercial society,” arguing that their movement is inhibited, ambiguous, discontinuous, and ineffective. 21 Women exhibit a form of socially induced dyspraxia. Young contends that women’s movement “exhibits an ambiguous transcendence, an inhibited intentionality, and a discontinuous unity with its surroundings.” 22 Young turns to women’s bodies in their “orientation toward and action upon and within” their surroundings, particularly the “confrontation of the body’s capacities and possibilities with the resistance and malleability of things” when the body “aims to accomplish a definite purpose or task.” 23 It will be remembered that the phenomenological tradition theorizes the human body as a lived body that is the locus of subjectivity, perception, and action, a capable body extending itself into the world rather than a thing; this is especially the case with Merleau-Ponty. Young’s description of the deviation of women’s bodily experience from this norm is a powerful indictment of women’s social situation.

Firstly, Young identifies that women experience their bodies as ambiguously transcendent: both as a “capacity” and as a “ thing ”; both striving to act upon the world and a “burden.” 24 Secondly, they experience an inhibited intentionality: while acting, they hesitate, their “hesitancy” resulting in “wasted motion . . . from the effort of testing and reorientation.” 25 Thirdly, they experience their bodies as discontinuous with the world: rather than extending themselves and acting upon their surroundings, which is the norm, they live their bodies as objects “ positioned in space.” 26 Or rather, the “space that belongs to her and is available to her grasp and manipulation” is experienced as “constricted,” while “the space beyond is not available to her.” 27 In other words, she experiences her surroundings not as at-hand and within-reach for her projects but as out-of-reach. This discontinuity between “aim and capacity to realize” it is the secret of women’s “tentativeness and uncertainty.” 28 Even more ominously, they live the “ever-present possibility” of becoming the “object of another subject’s . . . manipulations.” 29 In the very exercise of bodily freedom—for example, in opening up the “body in free, active, open extension and bold outward-directedness”—women risk “objectification,” Young argues. 30

Young describes the situation of women as one in which they have to learn “actively to hamper” their “movements.” 31 If this has been the norm of genderization in modern Western urban societies, is it still at work and is it lived differently depending on one’s class, race, sexuality, and so on? 32 Similarly with Beauvoir’s theorization of the situation of women: does it continue to be relevant and useful?

The emergence of “sexual difference” feminism or écriture féminine in France in the mid-1970s, with landmark publications by Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, brought with it a critique of Beauvoir. 33 In view of the present discussion of Beauvoir, one might argue that Beauvoir’s aim is the abolition of gender. Her horizon is the abolition of gender binarism and an end to the oppression of women. However, in “Equal or Different?” ( 1986 ) Irigaray reads this as a pursuit of equality through women’s adoption of male norms, at a great cost, that of “suppress[ing] sexual difference.” 34 In Irigaray’s eyes, Beauvoir’s work is assimilationist, while her own work is radical—it aims to redefine femininity in positive terms. Irigaray insists on the political autonomy of women’s struggles from other liberation movements and, controversially, the priority of feminism over other movements because of the priority of gender over class, race, and so on. Gender is “the primary and irreducible division.” 35

In 1994 feminist literary critic Toril Moi compares Beauvoir to Irigaray and Frantz Fanon, one of the founders of postcolonial theory. Like Fanon who redefined blackness positively and viewed anticolonial struggles as autonomous, Irigaray aims to redefine femininity and mobilize it autonomously, while Beauvoir failed to “grasp the progressive potential of ‘femininity’ as a political discourse” and also “vastly underestimated the potential political impact of an independent woman’s movement.” 36 However, Moi sides with Beauvoir against Irigaray and other “sexual difference” feminists, when comparing their aims. Beauvoir’s ultimate aim is the disappearance of gender, while difference feminists “focus on women’s difference, often without regard for other social movements,” claiming that “women’s interests are best served by the establishment of an enduring regime of sexual difference.” 37

Aiming toward the disappearance of gender does not mean blinding oneself to the situation and lived experience of women. In a 2009 piece on women writers, literature, and feminist theory, Moi turns to Beauvoir to analyze the social situation of women writers. Importantly, Beauvoir focuses on what happens “ once somebody has been taken to be a woman ”—the woman in question might or might not be assigned female at birth and might or might not identify as a woman. 38 While the body of someone taken to be a man is viewed as a “direct and normal connection with the world” that he “apprehends objectively,” the body of someone taken to be a woman is viewed as “weighed down by everything specific to it: an obstacle, a prison.” 39 Concomitantly, male writers and their perspectives and concerns are associated with universality—women writers associated with biased particularity. But if women writers adopt male perspectives and concerns to lay claim to universality, they are alienated from their own lived experience. This is how a “sexist (or racist) society” forces “women and blacks, and other raced minorities, to ‘eliminate’ their gendered (or raced) subjectivity” and “masquerade as some kind of generic universal human being, in ways that devalue their actual experiences as embodied human beings in the world.” 40 All too often women writers have declared “I am not a woman writer,” but this has to be understood as a “ defensive speech act”: a “ response ” to those who have tried to use her gender “against her.” 41

In 2001 feminist philosopher and Beauvoir scholar Michèle Le Doeuff announces a renaissance in Beauvoir studies, in her keynote for the Ninth International Simone de Beauvoir Conference: “It is no longer possible to claim, in the light of a certain New French Feminism, that Beauvoir is obsolete.” 42 She prioritizes the need for scholarship on the conflicts between Sartre and Beauvoir, with a view to making the case for Beauvoir’s originality as a philosopher, in spite of Beauvoir’s self-identification as a writer and reluctance to clash with Sartre philosophically.

Feminist philosopher Miranda Fricker returns more than once to the question of whether Beauvoir is a philosopher or a writer. In 2003 Fricker locates Beauvoir’s originality in her understanding of ambiguity and argues that life-writing has been the medium most suited to her thought, focusing on Beauvoir’s The Prime of Life ( La Force de l’age , 1960 ). 43 Beauvoir found in the institution of philosophy, as she experienced it, a pathological, obsessional attitude—a demand for abstract theorizing that divorces thinkers from their situation to lend their thought universal applicability. This imperious, sovereign role was seriously at odds with Beauvoir’s sense of reality, history, and the self. For Beauvoir, reality is “full of ambiguities, baffling, and impenetrable” and history a violent shock to the self: “History burst over me, and I dissolved into fragments . . . scattered over the four quarters of the globe, linked by every nerve in me to each and every other individual.” 44 Beauvoir uses narrative, particularly life-writing, to connect with her past selves but also to appeal to the reader: “self-knowledge is impossible, and the best one can hope for is self-revelation” to the reader. 45 Fricker claims that Beauvoir primarily addresses female readers; and Beauvoir’s alliance-building with her readers—her “feminist commitment to female solidarity”—promises to bring out, through the reader, “the ‘unity’ to that ‘scattered, broken’ object that is her life.” 46

An example of the role of the reader is Fricker’s 2007 reading of Beauvoir’s under-written account of an early epistemic clash with Sartre. 47 Beauvoir’s first-person narrative voice doesn’t quite say that Sartre undermined her as a knower, but Fricker interprets this incident as an epistemic attack by Sartre that Beauvoir had the resilience to survive, and which contributed to her self-identification as a writer rather than a philosopher. Here the violence of history and the institution of philosophy take very concrete, embodied, intimate form. But the incident also serves as a springboard for Fricker’s concept of epistemic injustice and its two forms: testimonial injustice, and hermeneutical injustice and lacunas. For Fricker, Sartre in this instance does Beauvoir a “testimonial injustice” in that he erodes her confidence and her credibility as a knower. 48 This process might also be “ongoing” and involve “persistent petty intellectual underminings.” 49 Hermeneutical (or interpretive) injustice, on the other hand, has to do with a gap in collective interpretative resources, where a name should be to describe a social experience. 50 For example, the relatively recent term “sexual harassment” has described a social experience where previously there was a hermeneutic lacuna, according to Fricker. Such lacunas are often due to the systemic epistemic marginalization of some groups, and any progress (for example, in adopting a proposed new term) is contingent upon a “virtuous hearer” who will try to listen without prejudice but also requires systemic change. 51 In George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss Maggie Tulliver suffers both testimonial and hermeneutical injustice. 52

This article will now turn to feminist phenomenology within queer theory and critical race theory. Sara Ahmed, in Queer Phenomenology ( 2006 ), offers not a phenomenology of queerness but rather a phenomenological account of heteronormativity as well as a feminist queer critique of phenomenology. In an important reversal of perspective, Ahmed denaturalizes being straight—denaturalizes heteronormativity—by asking: how does one become straight? This is not simply a matter of sexual orientation and choice of love-object. Rather heteronormativity is itself “something that we are oriented around, even if it disappears from view”; “bodies become straight by ‘lining up’” with normative “lines that are already given.” 53 Being straight is “an effect of being ‘in line.’” 54 Unlike earlier phenomenologists such as Heidegger, what is usually being backgrounded and thus invisible is a naturalized system that Ahmed hopes to foreground and bring “into view”: heteronormativity. 55 Ahmed thus extends Beauvoir’s and Young’s analyses of the systematic oppression and incapacitation of women, respectively. 56 Ahmed puts Young’s language to use in order to talk about lesbian lives: heteronormativity “puts some things in reach and others out of reach,” in a manner that incapacitates lesbian lives. Ahmed searches for a different form of sociality, “a space in which the lesbian body can extend itself , as a body that gets near other bodies.” 57 Her critique of even the most promising phenomenologists is that in their work “the straight world is already in place” as an invisible background. 58

Ahmed extends her analysis of the production of heteronormativity to the production of whiteness in “A Phenomenology of Whiteness” ( 2007 ), asking: how does one become white? Ahmed thus furthers her critique of phenomenology from within. Phenomenologists such as Husserl and Merleau-Ponty define the body as “successful,” as “‘able’ to extend itself (through objects) in order to act on and in the world,” as a body that “‘can do’ by flowing into space.” 59 However, far from this being a universal experience, it is the experience of a “bodily form of privilege” from which many groups are excluded. 60 Ahmed does not here acknowledge Young’s analysis of women’s socially induced dyspraxia but turns instead to Fanon’s “phenomenology of ‘being stopped.’” 61 Ahmed calls “discomfort” the social experience of being impeded and goes on to outline its critical potential in “bringing what is in the background, what gets over-looked” back into view. 62 More than a negative feeling, discomfort has the exhilarating potential of opening up a whole world that was previously obscured. 63 Ahmed’s subsequent work has focused on institutional critique, especially of universities in their continuing failure to become inclusive, hospitable spaces for certain groups, in spite of their managerial language of diversity. 64

Where Ahmed calls for critical and transformative “discomfort,” Alia Al-Saji calls for a critical and transformative “hesitation” in “A Phenomenology of Hesitation” ( 2014 ). Al-Saji’s concept of hesitation revises the work of Beauvoir and Young and enlarges their focus on gender to include race. Beauvoir’s analysis of patriarchy as a system that projects and naturalizes fixed, oppositional, hierarchical identities is redeployed toward a “race-critical and feminist” project, though Al-Saji does not acknowledge Beauvoir explicitly but credits Fanon’s work. 65 The systematic and “socially pathological othering” of fluid, relational, contextual, contingent differences into rigid, frozen, naturalized hierarchies remains “hidden from view.” 66 Experience, affect, and vision, in their pathological form, are closed and rigid; in their healthy form, they have a “creative and critical potential . . . to hesitate”—they are ambiguous, open, fluid, responsive, receptive, dynamic, changing, improvisational, self-critical. 67 Al-Saji argues that the “paralyzing hesitation” analyzed by Young can be “mined” to extract a critical hesitation, as Young’s own work exemplifies. 68 By contrast, the “normative ‘I can’ – posited as human but in fact correlated to white, male bodies”—rigidly “excludes other ways of seeing and acting”; it is “objectifying – racializing and sexist[,] . . . reifying and othering .” 69 The alternative to both thoughtless action and paralyzing inaction is: “ acting hesitantly ” and responsively. 70

Feminist philosopher Pamela Sue Anderson’s last writings on “vulnerability” build on Michèle Le Doeuff’s critique of unexamined myths and narratives underlying the Western “imaginary.” One values and strives for invulnerability and equates vulnerability with exposure to violence and suffering. One projects vulnerability onto “the vulnerable” to disavow their own vulnerability: “a dark social imaginary continues to stigmatize those needing to be cared for as a drain on an economy, carefully separating ‘the cared for’ from those who are thought to be ‘in control’ of their lives and of the world.” 71 Furthermore, members of privileged groups often exhibit a “wilful ignorance” of systemic forms of social vulnerability and social injustice. 72 But Anderson also outlines “ethical” vulnerability as a capability for a transformative and life-enhancing openness to others and mutual affection—occasioned by ontological vulnerability. Ethical vulnerability is envisaged as a project where reason, critical self-reflexivity, emotion, intuition and imagination, concepts, arguments, myths and narrative all have a role to play, while also needing to be reimagined and rethought.

African American Feminisms (Morrison, Lorde, Walker, Spillers, Hartman): Race, Intersectionality, Differences among Women and among Black Women

African American and postcolonial feminists have struggled to create space for themselves, caught between a predominantly white women’s movement on the one hand, and male-led civil-rights and anticolonial struggles and postcolonial elites on the other hand. They have fought against assumptions that “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men” and that white women are “saving brown women from brown men.” 73 African American and postcolonial writers and thinkers (from Toni Morrison to Chandra Talpade Mohanty) have hesitated to self-identify with a primarily white movement that, they argued powerfully, effectively excluded them in unthinkingly prioritizing the concerns of white, middle-class women. Some have avoided self-identifying as a feminist, self-identifying as a “black woman writer” instead. Alice Walker invented the term “womanism” to signal black feminism. “Intersectionality” was coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, and other African American feminists to highlight the intersections of gender and race, feminist and antiracist struggles, creating a space between the white women’s movement and the male-led civil-rights movement. 74 Postcolonial feminists (Assia Djebar, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Chandra Talpade Mohanty) similarly created a space between Western feminists and male-led anticolonial struggles and postcolonial elites.

African American feminists have been critical of Beauvoir and of the women’s movements of the 1960s. They have been reconstructing oral, written, and activist traditions of black women such as abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Harriet Jacobs, and modernists Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen—all previously neglected and marginalized. 75 These traditions prioritize: collectivism; the need to critique and resist internalized but unlivable white middle-class norms; waywardness or willfulness rather than individualism; differences among women; difference among black women; and friendship and solidarity among black women across their differences. (By contrast, contemporary white American feminist critics such as Elaine Showalter emphasized self-realization and self-actualization. 76 ) African American women writers—rather than literary critics—have led the way, inspired by orators, musicians, and collective oral forms, as critics have acknowledged. 77

Toni Morrison, as a self-identified black woman writer, announces these strategic priorities in her first novel, The Bluest Eye ( 1970 ). 78 In The Bluest Eye she revises Beauvoir’s analysis of patriarchy as a binary opposition—man/woman—that projects onto “woman” what men disown in themselves. She examines a related binary opposition: white, light-skinned, middle-class, beautiful, proper lady vs. dark-skinned, poor, ugly girl (the racialized opposition between angelic and demonic woman). The first novel to focus on black girls, The Bluest Eye shows the systemic propagation and internalization of white norms of beauty and femininity, leading to hierarchical oppositions between black and white girls as well as between black girls (light-skinned middle-class Maureen, solidly working-class Claudia and Frieda, and precariously poor Pecola). The projection, by everyone, of all ugliness onto poor, dark-skinned Pecola, combined with white norms that are impossible for her, lead to Pecola’s madness. Her attempts at existential affirmation are crushed by the judgment of the world. Pecola’s Bildungsroman turns out naturalist tragedy. However, Claudia, the narrator, develops anagnorisis and shares her increasingly complex critique with the readers.

In “What the Black Woman Thinks about Women’s Lib” ( 1971 ) Morrison uses Beauvoir’s language to bring attention both to the situation of African American women and to their traditions of resistance. Reminding readers of two segregation-era signs—“White Ladies” and “Black Women”—she asserts that many black women rejected ladylike behavior and “frequently kicked back . . . [O]ut of the profound desolation of her reality” the black woman “may very well have invented herself.” 79 Black women have been working and heading single-parent households in a hostile world. If ladies are all “softness, helplessness and modesty,” black women have been “tough, capable, independent and immodest.” 80

Audre Lorde explores similar themes. Her poem, “Who Said It Was Simple” ( 1973 ) illustrates the hierarchy between white “ladies,” in their feminist struggle for self-realization, and black “girls” on whose work they rely. Sister Outsider , Lorde’s essays and speeches from 1976 to 1984 , theorizes intersections of race, sexuality, class, and age that are particularly binding and threatening for black lesbian women. 81 White feminists are ignorant of racism and wrongly assume their concerns to be universally shared by all women, thus replicating the patriarchal elevation of men to the universal analyzed by Beauvoir; they need to drop the “pretense to a homogeneity of experience,” educate themselves about black women, read their work, and listen. 82 In “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” delivered during a Beauvoir conference, Lorde argues that Beauvoir’s call to know “the genuine conditions of our lives” must include racism and homophobia. 83 Black men misdirect their anger for the racism they encounter toward black women, who, paid less and more socially devalued, are easy targets. Falsely equating anti-sexist with anti-Black, black men are hostile to black feminists and especially lesbians; so black men’s sexism is different from the sexism of privileged white men analyzed by Beauvoir. 84 Black women have also been hostile toward each other, due to internalized racism and sexism, projected toward the most marginalized among them; identifying with their oppressors, black women suffer a “misnaming” and “distortion” in their understanding of their situation. 85

But Lorde also exalts traditions of black women’s solidarity across their differences. Once differences among women and among black women are properly understood and named, they can be creative and generative. To achieve this, she extols recording, examining, and naming one’s experience, perceptions, and feelings, as a path to clarity, precision, and illumination, leading to concepts and theories but also to empowerment. Anger, unlike hatred, is potentially both full of information and generative. 86 Affect, more broadly, can be a path to understanding, as affect and rationality are not mutually exclusive: “I don’t see feel/think as a dichotomy.” 87 Particularly innovative is Lorde’s theorization of the “erotic.” In contrast to the pornographic, the erotic is a power intrinsically connected to (and cutting across) love, friendship, self-connection, joy, the spiritual, creativity, work, collaboration, and the political—especially among black women. 88 But relations of interdependence and mutuality among women are only possible in a context of non-hierarchical differences among equals and peers, Lorde stresses repeatedly. 89

Alice Walker attends to many of these themes in Color Purple ( 1982 ). 90 In her collection of essays, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose ( 1983 ), she pays tribute to black women’s traditions of resistance, due to which “womanish” connotes “outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior.” 91 Her term “womanism” honors these collectivist traditions and their commitment to the “survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.” 92 But she also calls for the reconstruction of a written tradition of forgotten black women writers, resurrecting Zora Neale Hurston from oblivion in “Looking for Zora,” initially published in Ms . magazine in 1975 . 93

In 1979 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination established the enforced privatization and entrapped idleness of 19th-century white middle-class women. 94 In 1987 Hortense J. Spillers powerfully added that this was made possible by the enforced hard labor of black women, as house or field slaves and later as domestic servants who often headed single-parent households. 95 Furthermore, the gender polarization within the white middle-class family was accompanied by the ungendering of African American slaves, who were not allowed to marry and raise their children, and the structural rape of black women. In the late 1980s Crenshaw and Collins formally introduced the concept of intersectionality, though intersectionality-like ideas—that the black woman is the “mule uh de world”—have been a part of black women’s thought for a long time. 96

“Slavery and gender” has been a core topic since the 1980s, with publications such as Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death ( 1982 ), Toni Morrison’s Beloved ( 1987 ) and Playing in the Dark ( 1992 ), and Saidiya V. Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection ( 1997 ). 97 Hartman’s abiding topic has been a lost history of black girls and women that can only partially be retrieved and that requires new methodologies. Archives and official records are full of gaps, systematically “dissimulate the extreme violence” of slavery, and “disavow the pain” and “deny the sorrow” of slaves. 98 Even while reading them “against the grain,” Hartman underlines the “ impossibility of fully recovering the experience of the enslaved.” 99 In Lose Your Mother ( 2006 ) Hartman’s concept of the “afterlife of slavery” describes the persistence of “devalued” and “imperiled” black lives, racialized violence, “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. I, too, am the afterlife of slavery.” 100 In “Venus in Two Acts” ( 2008 ), Hartman defines her method as “critical fabulation”: mixing critical use of archival research, theorization, and multiple speculative narratives, in an experimental writing that acknowledges its own failure and refuses “to fill in the gaps” to “provide closure.” 101 This writing is:

straining against the limits of the archive . . . and . . . enacting the impossibility of representing the lives of the captives precisely through the process of narration . . . [in order] to displace the . . . authorized account, . . . to imagine what might have happened[,] . . . to listen for the mutters and oaths and cries of the commodity[,] . . . to illuminate the contested character of history, narrative, event, and fact, to topple the hierarchy of discourse, and to engulf authorized speech in the clash of voices. 102

In “The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner” ( 2018 ) Hartman returns to “critical fabulation” and offers a “speculative history” of Esther Brown, her friends, and their life in Harlem around 1917 . 103 Their experiments in “free love and free motherhood” were criminalized as “Loitering. Riotous and Disorderly. Solicitation. Violation of the Tenement House Law. . . . Vagrancy.” 104 Questions such as “ Is this man your husband? Where is the father of your child ?”—meant to detect the “likelihood” of their “future criminality” and moral depravity—might render them “three years confined at Bedford and . . . entangled with the criminal justice system and under state surveillance for a decade.” 105 In official records, these measures were narrated as rescuing, reforming, and rehabilitating, therapeutic interventions for the benefit of young black women.

Reading such records against the grain, Hartman tells the story of a “ revolution in a minor key ”: of “ too fast girls and surplus women and whores ” as “social visionaries, radical thinkers, and innovators.” 106 Their “wild and wayward” collective experiments, at the beginning of the 20th century , were building on centuries of black women’s “mutual aid societies” conducted “in stealth.” 107 Their aspiration has been “singularity and freedom”—not the “individuality and sovereignty” coveted by white liberal feminists. 108

Hartman’s work emerges out of African American feminist traditions but also out of postcolonial feminists, whose work pays particular attention to impossibility, failure, aporia, and the limits of representing the subaltern, as well as the heterogeneity and specificity of women’s agency.

Postcolonial Feminisms (Djebar, Spivak, Mohanty, Stratton, Mahmood, Puar): The Subaltern, Specificity, Agency

Colonized women had to contend not only with the “imbalances of their relations with their own men but also the baroque and violent array of hierarchical rules and restrictions that structured their new relations with imperial men and women.” 109 Furthermore, they were central to powerful orientalist fantasies that rendered their actual lives invisible. The relation of colonized land to colonizer was figured as that of a nubile, sexually available woman waiting for her lover, as in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines where the map of the land centers around “Sheba’s Breasts” and “Mouth of treasure cave.” 110 Algerian writer Assia Djebar exposes this colonial fantasy in Fantasia ( 1985 ). 111 The city of Algiers is seen by the arriving colonizers as a virginal bride waiting for her groom to possess her. She is an “Impregnable City” that “sheds her veils,” as if this was “mutual love at first sight” and “the invaders were coming as lovers!” 112 The Victorian patriarchal, hierarchical nuclear family, ruled by a benign and loving husband and father, was key to the colonial “civilizing mission” because it was the perfect metaphor for the relation between colonizer and colonized in colonial ideology. 113 However, in Women of Algiers in Their Apartment ( 1980 ; mirroring the title of Eugène Delacroix’s orientalist paintings) Djebar reminds her readers that women took part in large numbers in the Algerian anticolonial struggle and suffered torture, rape, and loss of life, but that their contribution was marginalized in post-independence narratives, while they were expected to return to a patriarchal mold ostensibly for the good of the new nation. 114 By contrast, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment foregrounds Algerian women’s heterogeneity but also the intergenerational transmission of their socially repressed, traumatic history, which cannot be fully recovered—hence the self-conscious aporia of Djebar’s project.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” ( 1983 , 1988 , 1999 ) is a subtle theorization of what remains outside colonial, anticolonial, postcolonial, neocolonial, and even “liberal multiculturalist” elites and discourses. 115 Spivak’s starting point is the unpresentability of the “subaltern” (those most marginalized and excluded). The subaltern exceeds any representation treating it as a full identity with a fixed meaning. The subaltern is an inaccessible social unconscious that can only be ethically presented in its unpresentability—fleetingly visible in fragments.

Rather than documenting “subaltern” resistance in its “taxonomic” difference from the elite and rather than assuming that political forces are self-conscious and already constituted identities, Spivak assumes that political identities are being constituted through political action. 116 Many subaltern groups are highly articulate about their aims and their relations to elites and other subaltern groups, but Spivak understands the “subaltern” as singular acts of resistance that are “irretrievably heterogeneous” in relation to constituted identities. 117 Rather than asking for the recognition of “subjugated” and previously “disqualified” forms of knowledge, Spivak is intent on acknowledging her privileged positionality and insists that what she calls the “subaltern” is irretrievably silenced; the “subaltern” is what escapes—or is excluded from—any discourse. 118

Spivak’s heterogeneous subaltern is a (Derridean) singularity that cannot be translated fully or repeated exactly but can only be repeated differently. 119 The singularity in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is Talu’s suicide, as retold by Spivak. Spivak interprets it as a complex political intervention, by a young middle-class woman activist, that remained illegible as such. Entrusted with a political assassination in the context of the struggle for Indian independence, Spivak claims that Talu’s suicide was a complex refusal to do her mission without betraying the cause. Talu questioned anticolonial nationalism, sati suicide, and female “imprisonment” in heteronormativity, but her “Speech Act was refused” by everyone because it resisted translation into established discourses. 120 Spivak iterates Talu’s singularity differently: as a postcolonial feminist heroine. She does not present her version of Talu’s story as restoring speech to the subaltern. Speech acts are addressed to others and completed by others; they involve “distanced decipherment by another, which is, at best, an interception.” 121 To claim that Talu has finally spoken through Spivak would be a neocolonial “missionary” claim of saving the subaltern. 122 To avoid this, Spivak self-dramatizes her privileged institutional “positionality” and calls for “unlearning” one’s privilege. 123

Postcolonial feminists have been telling the story of the marginalization of women of color within anticolonial movements, postcolonial states, and within Western feminist movements. In “Three Women’sTexts and a Critique of Imperialism” ( 1985 ), Spivak argues that Gilbert and Gubar, in their reading of Jane Eyre in Madwoman in the Attic , unwittingly reproduce the “axioms of imperialism.” 124 For Spivak, in Jane Eyre Bertha, a dark colonial woman, sets the house on fire and kills herself so that Jane Eyre “can become the feminist individualist heroine of British fiction”; she is “sacrificed as an insane animal” for her British “sister’s consolidation” in a manner that is exemplary of the “epistemic violence” of imperialism. 125 Gilbert and Gubar fail to see this and only read Jane and Bertha in individual, “psychological terms.” 126 By contrast, Jean Rhys’s rewriting of Jane Eyre in Wide Sargasso Sea ( 1966 ) makes this visible and enables Spivak’s critique. 127 Rhys allows Bertha to tell her story and keeps Bertha’s “humanity, indeed her sanity as critic of imperialism, intact.” 128 In “Does the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak articulates the value of postcolonial feminism but refuses to defend it as a redemptive breakthrough. Instead she issues a call for self-reflexivity.

Chandra Talpade Mohanty, in “Under Western Eyes” ( 1984 ), calls for studies of local collective struggles and for localized theorizing by investigators. 129 The category of “Third World Woman” is an essentialist fabrication reducing the irreducible “heterogeneity” of women in the Third World. 130 Mohanty’s call for specificity is a rejection of white middle-class feminists’ generalizations on “women” and “Third World women” as neocolonial:

Women are constituted as women through the complex interaction between class, culture, religion and other ideological institutions and frameworks. . . . [R]eductive cross-cultural comparisons result in the colonization of the conflicts and contradictions which characterize women of different social classes and cultures. 131

Mohanty is here remarkably close to African American feminists. What is at stake for Mohanty is for groups of marginalized women to represent themselves and to retrieve forms of agency within their own traditions. As she stresses in Feminism without Borders ( 2003 ): the “application of the notion of women as a homogeneous category to women in the Third World colonizes and appropriates the pluralities” of their complex location and “robs them of their historical and political agency .” 132

Saba Mahmood, in “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival” ( 2001 ), argues that rather than reading a specific cultural phenomenon through an established conception of agency, agency should be theorized through the specific phenomenon studied. 133 Her target is the Western feminist equation of feminist agency with secularism, resistance, and transgression, which she finds unhelpful when studying the “urban women’s mosque movement that is part of the larger Islamic revival in Cairo.” 134 While in some contexts feminist agency might take the form of “dramatic transgression and defiance,” for these Egyptian women it took the form of active participation and engagement with a religious movement. 135 It would be a neocolonial gesture to understand their involvement as due to “false consciousness” or internalized patriarchy. 136 Mahmood’s “situated analysis” thus endorses plural, local theories and concepts. 137

Florence Stratton focuses on gender in African postcolonial literature and criticism. She analyses the multiplicity of “ways in which women writers have been written out of the African literary tradition.” 138 They have been ignored by critics, marginalized by definitions of the African canon that universalize the tropes and themes of male writers, and silenced by “gender definitions which . . . maintain the status quo of women’s exclusion from public life.” 139 Particularly pernicious has been the “iteration in African men’s writing of the conventional colonial trope of Africa as female.” 140 Stratton discerns a ubiquitous pattern in African postcolonial men’s writing. Women are cast as symbols of the nation, in sexualized or bodily roles: as nubile virgin to be impregnated or as mother (Stratton calls this the “pot of culture” trope); or, alternatively, as degraded prostitute (the “sweep of history” trope). 141 So women are figured either as embodiments of an ostensibly static traditional culture (trope 1) or as passive victims of historical change (trope 2). This is coupled with a male quest narrative, where the male hero and his vision actively transform prostitute into mother Africa. Underlying this is a patriarchal division of active/passive and subject/object, which denies women as artists and citizens and neglects women’s issues (so actual sex work is totally obscured by its metaphorical role). Stratton goes on to show how African women writers have been “initiators” of “dialogue” with African male writers in order to self-authorize their work and make space for it in the African literary canon. 142 Stratton is also critical of white feminists who read African women writers through their own formal and thematic priorities, oblivious to African feminist traditions. 143

Jasbir K. Puar analyses how the “war on terror” and rising Islamophobia in the West, particularly the United States, have coopted feminist and queer struggles. While colonial orientalist fantasies projected sexual license onto the Middle East, 21st-century orientalist fantasies are “Islamophobic constructions” othering Muslims as “homophobic and perverse,” while constructing the West as “‘tolerant’ but sexually, racially, and gendered normal.” 144 On the one hand, Muslims are presented as “fundamentalist, patriarchal, and, often even homophobic.” 145 On the other hand, a “rhetoric of sexual modernization” turns American queer bodies into “normative patriot bodies.” 146 This involves the loss of an intersectional perspective and the “fissuring of race from sexuality.” 147 Muslims are seen as only marked by race and “presumptively sexually repressed, perverse, or both,” while Western queers are seen as only marked by sexuality and “presumptively white,” male, and “gender normative.” 148

Queer and Transgender Feminisms (Butler, Halberstam, Stryker): Performativity, Resignification, Continuous Transition, Self-Identification

Queer theory emerged in the period from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, in the midst of the outbreak of HIV/AIDS. 149 Queer theory, as an academic field, can be located at the intersection of poststructuralism (especially the work of Michel Foucault, but also Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze), Francophone feminism from Beauvoir to Irigaray, and African American feminism. Queer theorists have negotiated this genealogy variously; some are predominantly influenced by Foucault, less by feminist thought. The present account will focus on feminist queer theory, especially the work of Judith Butler, and its relation to earlier and subsequent feminist, queer, and transgender thought. As queer theory evolved, postcolonial feminists also became increasingly influential.

In brief, feminist queer theory, while indebted to “sexual difference” feminists such as Irigaray, critiques them through African American feminism. A core theoretical insight of African American feminism is that gender must not be considered on its own or as primary in relation to other social categories and hierarchies. Queer theorists adopt this insight. For queer theorists, sexual orientation is at least as important as gender. Indeed, they contend that what underpins the gender binary (the polarization of two genders) is the institution of “compulsory heterosexuality” or heteronormativity.

Transgender theory emerged in the mid to late 1990s, within the orbit of queer theory but also through its critique. The crux of this critique is that, despite queer theorists’ best intentions, the queer subject is primarily or implicitly white, Western, gender-normative, and cisgender. In attending to sexual orientation, queer theory neglected the spectrum of gender identities and translated issues of gender identification into issues of sexual orientation. Strands of queer activism—for example, figures such as Sylvia Rivera or Stormé DeLarverie in the United States—were marginalized by a politics of respectability led by affluent, white, cisgender queers. 150 This is particularly ironic, given the aspirations invested in the term “queer.”

In queer theory, the term “queer” was intended as an appropriation and resignification of a term of abuse but also as a floating signifier without a fixed meaning or definition and thus open to multiple and changing uses, in keeping with poststructuralist theory. “Queer” has been defined as beyond definition, transgressive, excessive, beyond polar opposites, and exceeding false polarization. So “queer” is both a particular social identity but also exemplary of a potential for openness, fluidity, and transformation in all identities (what poststructuralist theory calls the infinite deferral of the signified). It is important to point out that Spivak defined the “subaltern” and Irigaray the “feminine” in similar terms, also within a poststructuralist frame. A problem with such terms is that, though they are intended to be inclusive, they are exclusive in some of their effects. The chosen term is privileged as the only term that stands for marginality, potential for change, or openness to the past or future. In the process, the privileged term also loses specificity and becomes a metaphor. This is perhaps replicated in some uses of the term “trans” or “trans*,” where once again the term becomes a metaphor for the element of fluidity and openness in all identities.

Retracing one’s steps back to the beginnings of queer theory, while Beauvoir called for equality and the disappearance of gender, “sexual difference” feminists, such as Irigaray and Cixous, called for autonomous women’s struggles and a radical, utopian revisioning of the “feminine” to be performed by their écriture féminine . Judith Butler in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity ( 1990 ), one of queer theory’s inaugural texts, questions Irigaray’s utopianism and takes as her starting point Beauvoir’s “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” 151 Forty years after The Second Sex , Butler contends that societies continue to systematically produce two “discreet and polar genders,” as a prerequisite of heteronormativity; two “[d]iscreet genders are part of what ‘humanizes’ individuals within contemporary society; indeed, we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right.” 152 One is produced as a recognizably human individual in their very repetition of genderizing practices, performance of gender norms, and iteration of speech acts that bring about gender and its effect of timeless naturalness. But the performativity and iterability of gender show up the “ imitative structure of gender ” and its historical “ contingency .” 153 In spite of the pervasiveness of genderizing practices and the unavailability of a position outside gender, the very performativity and iterability of gender open up the possibility of repeating it slightly differently. Butler hopes for destabilized and constantly resignified genders: “a fluidity of identities,” “an openness to resignification,” and “proliferating gender configurations.” 154 While gender is a normalizing, disciplinary force, it is possible to engage consciously with gender norms and open them to resignification. However, the success or failure of an attempt at resignification also depends on its audience or addressees and the authority they are prepared to attribute to it.

In the context of feminist theory, Butler’s call for continuous resignification takes the form of resignifying “woman” and “feminism” itself. As part of her “radical democratic” feminist politics, she aims to “release” the term “woman” into a “future of multiple significations.” 155 In resignifying feminism, she writes against those feminists who assume that there is an “ontological specificity to women. . . . In the 1980s, the feminist ‘we’ rightly came under attack by women of color who claimed that the ‘we’ was invariably white.” 156 Not only heterogeneity but contentions among feminists ought to be valued: “the rifts among women over the content” of the term “woman” ought to be “safeguarded and prized.” 157 Furthermore, Butler distrusts the utopianism of those feminists who believe they are “beyond the play of power,” asking instead for self-reflexive recognition of feminists’ inevitable embeddedness in power relations. 158

One of the targets of Butler’s critique is Irigaray. Her nuanced reading of Irigaray in Bodies That Matter defends her from accusations of essentialism but rejects the primacy of sexual difference over other forms of difference—race, class, sexual orientation, and so on—in Irigaray’s work. For example, Butler finds that Irigaray’s alternative mythology of two labial lips touching and being touched by each other is a self-conscious textual “rhetorical strategy” intended to counter established understandings of women’s genitals as a lack, a wound, and so on. 159 Rather than describing an essential sexual difference, Irigaray’s reparative, positive figuration of the two lips is a deliberately improper and catachrestic form of mimicry akin to Butler’s resignification; it is “not itself a natural relation, but a symbolic articulation.” 160 Irigaray distinguishes between the false feminine within gender binaries and a true feminine “excluded in and by such a binary opposition” and appearing “only in catachresis .” 161 The true feminine is an “ excessive feminine” in that it “exceeds its figuration”; its essence is to have no essence, to undermine binary oppositions and their essences, and to exceed conceptuality. 162 Irigaray’s textual practice is intended as the “very operation of the feminine in language.” 163 Butler seems to endorse Irigaray’s purely strategic essentialism. However, it is troubling that Irigaray’s true feminine is a name for all that escapes binary oppositions and social hierarchies.

Butler’s critique of Irigaray is that her exclusive focus on the feminine is an implicitly white, middle-class, heterosexual position attending to the marginalization of women qua women but neglecting other forms of social marginalization. Since Irigaray’s true feminine is “exactly what is excluded” from binary oppositions, it “monopolizes the sphere of exclusion,” resulting in Irigaray’s “constitutive exclusions” of other forms of difference. 164 For Irigaray “the outside is ‘always’ the feminine,” breaking its link to race, class, sexual orientation, and so on. 165 By contrast, Butler embraces intersectionality. Whereas for Irigaray sexual difference is “autonomous” and “more fundamental” than other differences, which are viewed as “ derived from” it, for Butler gender is “articulated through or as other vectors of power.” 166

Butler acknowledges her debt to African American literature and feminist thought, in a rare foray into literary criticism, her close reading of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing . She also pays tribute to feminists of color, such as Chicana feminist Norma Alarcón, who similarly theorized women of color as multiply rather than singly positioned and marginalized. In Passing and in related African American literary criticism by Barbara Christian, Hazel Carby, Deborah McDowell, and others, Butler finds valuable theoretical insights that “ racializing norms ” and gender norms are “articulated through one another.” 167 But these texts also identify the value of solidarity among black women and the many obstacles to this solidarity. Versions of “racial uplift” adhering to the white middle-class nuclear family have been obstructive; they have been “masculine uplift” whose disproportionate “cost . . . for black women” has been the “impossibility of sexual freedom” for them. 168 Larsen’s critique of “racial uplift”—and its promotion of white middle-class gender norms, marriage, nuclear family, and heteronormativity—grasps the interimplication of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. By contrast, Larsen’s Passing and Toni Morrison’s Sula uphold the precarious “promise of connection” among black women. 169

If “racial uplift” has been obstructive, Irigaray’s exclusive focus on the feminine is equally obstructive, according to Butler. Irigaray seems to assume that sexual difference is “unmarked by race” and that “whiteness is not a form of racial difference.” 170 By contrast, Larsen highlights historical articulations “of racialized gender, of gendered race, of the sexualization of racial ideals, or the racialization of gender norms.” 171 In Passing Clare passes as white, and Butler’s reading particularly traces the convergence of race and sexuality. Clare’s “risk-taking” takes the dual form of “racial crossing and sexual infidelity” that undermines middle-class norms, questioning both the “sanctity of marriage” and the “clarity of racial demarcations.” 172 Sexual and racial closeting are also interlinked: “the muteness of homosexuality converges in the story with the illegibility of Clare’s blackness.” 173 The word “queering” in Passing is “a term for betraying what ought to remain concealed,” in relation to both race and sexuality. 174

If some early commentators interpreted Butler’s theory of the performativity of gender and her call for gender resignification as a voluntarist, individualist, consumerist lifestyle choice for privileged Westerners, this article has tried to show just how constrained gender resignification is, and how inextricable from other social struggles. In Butler’s more recent work, issues of gender and sexual orientation are situated in interlocking frames of social exclusion and social precarity. Neither gender nor sexual orientation on their own can determine what counts as a human, livable, and grievable life. 175

Susan Stryker, one of the founders of transgender theory, addresses her first publication, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix” ( 1994 ), to feminist and queer communities and exposes their exclusion and abjection of the “transgendered subject” as a monster. 176 Through a close reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein , she expresses her affinity with Frankenstein’s monster. 177 She criticizes the medical discourse that “produced sex reassignment techniques” for its “deeply conservative attempt to stabilize gendered identity in service of the naturalized heterosexual order” and insists on the disjunction between the “naturalistic effect biomedical technology can achieve” and the “subjective experience” of this transformation. 178 She rejects the continuing pathologization of the transgendered subject by psychiatrists, with the effect that “the sounds that come out of my mouth can be summarily dismissed.” 179 Notable here is an emphasis on self-identification and lived experience, which inherits the insights of phenomenological feminists that the body is not an object but a center of perception. To honor this emphasis, Stryker enlists a mixed form that combines criticism, diary entry, poetry, and theory.

Jack Halberstam’s 1998 Female Masculinity is a complex negotiation between feminist theory, queer theory, and the emerging field of transgender theory. While in medical discourse the approved narrative for the authorization of hormones and gender confirmation surgery is that of being in the wrong body and transitioning toward the right body, Halberstam warns that the “metaphor of crossing over and indeed migrating to the right body from the wrong body merely leaves the politics of stable gender identities, and therefore stable gender hierarchies, completely intact.” 180 Indeed he endorses the very “refusal of the dialectic of home and border” in Chicana/o studies and postcolonial studies. 181 Taking a broadly intersectional position, he argues that “alternative masculinities, ultimately, will fail to change existing gender hierarchies to the extent to which they fail to be feminist, antiracist, and queer.” 182

In his 2018 “Preface to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition” of Female Masculinity Halberstam defines “female masculinity” and “the butch” in a manner that bears a family resemblance to Irigaray’s “feminine,” Spivak’s “subaltern,” and queer theory’s “queer.” “Female masculinity” includes “multiple modes of identification and gender assignation” without “stabilizing” their “meanings.” 183 “The butch” is a “placeholder for the unassimilable, for that which remains indefinable or unspeakable within the many identifications that we make and that we claim”; “let the butch stand as all that cannot be absorbed into systems of signification, legitimation, legibility, recognition, and legality.” 184 The butch is “neither cis-gender nor simply transgender” but a “bodily catachresis . . . the rhetorical practice of misnaming something for which there would otherwise be no words.” 185 In Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability ( 2018 ) Halberstam defines trans* in similar terms. In keeping with his commitment to gender identity as “continuous transition,” the term trans* “embraces the nonspecificity of the term ‘trans’ and uses it to open the term up to a shifting set of conditions and possibilities rather than to attach it only to the life narratives of a specific group of people”; the asterisk “keeps at bay any sense of knowing in advance what the meaning of this or that gender variant form may be.” 186 His 2018 “Theory in the Wild,” co-written with Tavia Nyong’o, folds a “range of concerns” in addition to gender and sexuality—“race, coloniality, ecology, anarchy”—in a language that stretches from academic to creative writing. 187

In “Transgender Studies: Queer Theory’s Evil Twin” ( 2004 ), Susan Stryker launches transgender studies as an academic field “born of the union of sexuality studies and feminism” but distinct from them. The rationale for this autonomization is that “all too often queer remains a code word for ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian,’” while “transgender phenomena are misapprehended through a lens that privileges sexual orientation.” 188 Transgender studies is intended to disrupt the “privileged . . . narratives that favor sexual identity labels” at the expense of “gender categories.” 189 But Stryker is keen to acknowledge her own Western privilege: transgender studies is “marked by its First World point of origin” and the new field risks reproducing the “power structures of colonialism by subsuming non-Western configurations of personhood into Western constructs of sexuality and gender.” 190

In “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges: An Introduction to Transgender Studies” ( 2006 ), Stryker continues to argue that, within queer theory, “the entire discussion of ‘gender diversity’” was “subsumed within a discussion of sexual desire—as if the only reason to express gender was to signal the mode of one’s attractions.” 191 While the term transgender “began as a buzzword of the early 1990s,” in the 21st century it is established as the name for a “wide range of phenomena that call attention to the fact that ‘gender,’ as it is lived, embodied, experienced, performed, and encountered, is more complex and varied” than previously thought. 192 As this definition suggests, transgender studies draws on the insights of all the strands of feminist theory discussed in this article—phenomenological, poststructuralist, intersectional, and postcolonial. Stryker reminds readers that, since at least Sojourner Truth, “fighting for representation within the term ‘woman’ has been . . . a part of the feminist tradition,” and “the fight over transgender inclusion within feminism is not significantly different.” 193 As with African American and postcolonial feminisms, transgender theory calls for feminists’ examination of their “exclusionary assumptions.” 194 In turn, transgender theorists need to reckon with the “whiteness” of their academic field and the “First World origin” of the term transgender, as it is being exported globally across “racial, ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic communities.” 195 Arundati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness explores the clash, in India, between the terms of transgender theory—emanating from the United States and disseminated by NGOs, magazines, and other publications—and the terminology, self-understanding, and practices of hijras . 196

Stryker is particularly critical of the modern Western correlation of biological or bodily sex (particularly genital status) and gender identity, where gender is taken to be merely the “representation of an objectively knowable material sex.” 197 Stryker is adamant that “Sex . . . is not the foundation of gender.” 198 Nor is sex as self-evident as it appears to be, in that the different components of sex—chromosomal, anatomical, reproductive, and morphological—do not necessarily line up. (For example, one’s chromosomal status might not line up with their anatomical sex.) This supposedly “objective” correlation is based on the “assumed correlation of a particular” component of “biological sex with a particular,” normative “social gender,” with the result that transgender people (among others) are forever viewed as making “false representations of an underlying material truth.” 199 Many feminist strands have shed light on the correlation of biological sex and “gender normativity,” and Stryker promises that transgender theory will continue to analyze the “operations of systems and institutions that simultaneously produce various possibilities of viable personhood, and eliminate others.” 200 In recognizing diversity beyond “Eurocentric norms,” Stryker notes that “relationships between bodily sex, subjective gender identity, social gender roles, sexual behaviors, and kinship status” have varied greatly. 201 Of central importance to transgender theory is subjective gender identity, which Stryker understands within the tradition of feminist phenomenology.

It is important to distinguish between gender as a social category within social classifications and hierarchies and gender as one’s self-identification and sense of self. Stryker focuses on the latter and connects it to the body, as the “contingent ground of all our knowledge.” 202 The antidote to fake objectivity is the recognition of “embodiment,” “embodied experience,” and “experiential knowledge”; one’s “gendered sense of self” and “lived complexity” of gender are “inalienable.” 203 All voices are embodied and no voice should be allowed to “mask” its “particularities and specificities” under the cloak of “false universality.” 204 It is therefore imperative to either speak from “direct experience” or to represent others “in an ethical fashion.” 205 It is equally vital to include forms of knowledge previously “disqualified as nonconceptual[,] . . . naïve” and “hierarchically inferior.” 206 Once again, Stryker here joins several strands of feminist theory that have practiced formal innovation—for example, in mixing theory, literature, and life-writing—not for its own sake but in the pursuit of truth and justice.


I am very grateful to Julie Rak and Jean Wyatt for their suggestions for revision, John Frow for his comments, and Ian Richards-Karamarkovich for his in-house editorial support.

Further Reading

  • Ahmed, Sara . Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.
  • Al-Saji, Alia . “A Phenomenology of Hesitation: Interrupting Racialized Habits of Seeing.” In Living Alterities: Phenomenology, Embodiment . Edited by Emily S. Lee , 133–172. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014.
  • Anderson, Pamela Sue . “Silencing and Speaker Vulnerability: Undoing an Oppressive Form of (Wilful) Ignorance.” In “Love and Vulnerability: Thinking with Pamela Sue Anderson.” Edited by Pelagia Goulimari . Special issue, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 25, no. 1–2 (February–April 2020): 36–45.
  • Beauvoir, Simone de . The Second Sex . Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier . London: Vintage, 2011.
  • Butler, Judith . Gender Trouble . London: Routledge, 1990.
  • Cixous, Hélène . “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen . Signs 1, no. 4 (Summer 1976): 875–893.
  • Collins, Patricia Hill . Black Feminist Thought . Rev. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2000.
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams . “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (July 1991): 1241–1299.
  • Djebar, Assia . Women of Algiers in Their Apartment . Translated by Marjolijn De Jager . Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992.
  • Fricker, Miranda . Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Gilbert, Sandra , and Susan Gubar . The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination . 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.
  • Halberstam, Jack . Female Masculinity . 20th anniversary ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.
  • Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Irigaray, Luce . This Sex Which Is Not One . Translated by Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke . Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.
  • Lorde, Audre . Your Silence Will Not Protect You . Preface by Reni Eddo-Lodge , introduction by Sara Ahmed . London: Silver Press, 2017.
  • Mahmood, Saba . “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival.” Cultural Anthropology 16, no. 2 (May 2001): 202–236.
  • Mohanty, Chandra Talpade . “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” boundary 2 12–13 (Spring–Autumn 1984): 333–358.
  • Moi, Toril . “‘ I Am Not a Woman Writer’: About Women, Literature and Feminist Theory Today .” Eurozine , June 2009.
  • Morrison, Toni . The Bluest Eye . London: Picador, 1990.
  • Puar, Jasbir K. “Queer Times, Queer Assemblages.” Social Text 23, no. 3–4 (2005): 121–139.
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s May Be: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 64–81.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty . “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present , by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak , 198–311. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Stratton, Florence . “Periodic Embodiments: A Ubiquitous Trope in African Men’s Writing.” Research in African Literatures 21, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 111–126.
  • Stryker, Susan . “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix.” GLQ 1, no. 3 (1994): 237–254.
  • Walker, Alice . In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose . Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.
  • Young, Iris Marion . “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility, and Spatiality.” In On Female Body Experience: “Throwing Like a Girl” and Other Essays , by Iris Marion Young , 27–45. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

1. See also the companion, complementary piece by Pelagia Goulimari, “Genders,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature (March 2020).

2. Sylvia Tamale, ed., African Sexualities: A Reader (Oxford: Pambazuka, 2011).

3. Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006); Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012); Anne Carson, Antigonick , ill. Bianca Stone (Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2012); Maggie Nelson, Jane: A Murder (London: Zed Books, 2019); Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (London: Melville House, 2016); and Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era , trans. Bruce Benderson (New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2013).

4. Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, Aurora Leigh , new ed., ed. Kerry McSweeney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Penguin, 2004); Julia Kristeva, “Stabat Mater,” trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Poetics Today 6.1–2 (January 1985): 133–152; Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (London: Women’s Press, 2000); Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name; A Biomythography (London: Penguin, 2018); Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues: A Novel (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1993); Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2016); and Qurratulain Hyder, Fireflies in the Mist (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2008).

5. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex , trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (London: Vintage, 2011), 293 .

6. For example, the situation of women is a form of “slavery of half of humanity” and Beauvoir calls for its abolition; Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 782.

7. For example, “every existent [human being] is at once immanence and transcendence,” Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 276; if woman is flesh for man, “man is also flesh for woman; and woman is other than a carnal object” (277); “The same drama of flesh and spirit, and of finitude and transcendence, plays itself out in both sexes,” and both sexes should assume the “ambiguity” of their situation (779–780). See also Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity , trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Philosophical Library, 2015).

8. See further Pelagia Goulimari, Literary Criticism and Theory: From Plato to Postcolonialism (London: Routledge, 2015), ch. 10.

9. See Michèle Le Doeuff, Hipparchia’s Choice: An Essay Concerning Women, Philosophy, etc ., trans. Trista Selous (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 60.

10. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 672, 654, 663, 672. This description by Beauvoir is the starting point for Iris Marion Young’s work. Beauvoir adds that, lacking the means to grasp the world, a woman might offer herself as a “gift” (679). Hélène Cixous will return to this offering and reappraise it more positively in “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1, no. 4 (Summer 1976): 875–893.

11. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 4, 12, 15, 654.

12. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 8.

13. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 9.

14. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 680.

15. Le Doeuff, Hipparchia’s Choice , 57.

16. See, for example, the section on D. H. Lawrence in Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 236–244.

17. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 767.

18. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 762, 765, 762, 766.

19. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 767. For example, Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément echo Beauvoir in their book, The Newly Born Woman , trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

20. “[T]ruth itself is ambiguity,” Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 763.

21. Iris Marion Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” in On Female Body Experience: “Throwing Like a Girl” and Other Essays , by Iris Marion Young (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 27–45, 30.

22. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 35.

23. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 29, 35, 30.

24. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 35–36 (emphasis added).

25. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 37. Alia Al-Saji will adopt Young’s discussion of hesitation to build her own phenomenology of hesitation.

26. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 39 (emphasis added).

27. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 40.

28. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 40–41.

29. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 44.

30. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 45.

31. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 43.

32. For example, Dianne Chisholm claims that Young’s phenomenological description is out of date and no longer relevant. Dianne Chisholm, “Climbing Like a Girl: An Exemplary Adventure in Feminist Phenomenology,” Hypatia 23, no. 1 (January–March 2008): 9–40.

33. Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman , trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985); Luce Irigaray, “This Sex Which Is Not One,” in This Sex Which Is Not One , trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke, by Luce Irigaray (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 23–33; Luce Irigaray, “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine,” in This Sex Which Is Not One , trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke, by Luce Irigaray (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 68–85; and Cixous, “Laugh of the Medusa.”

34. Luce Irigaray, “Equal or Different?,” trans. David Macey, in The Irigaray Reader , ed. Margaret Whitford (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 30–33, 32.

35. Irigaray, “Equal or Different?,” 32–33.

36. Toril Moi, “‘Independent Women’ and Narratives of Liberation,” in Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical Reader , ed. Elizabeth Fallaize (London: Routledge, 1998), 72–92, 86.

37. Moi, “Independent Women,” 87–88.

38. Toril Moi, “‘ I Am Not a Woman Writer’: About Women, Literature and Feminist Theory Today ,” Eurozine (June 2009), 8 (emphasis added).

39. Moi, “I Am Not a Woman Writer,” 6, quoting Beauvoir, translation amended by Moi.

40. Moi, “I Am Not a Woman Writer,” 7.

41. Moi, “I Am Not a Woman Writer,” 7 (emphasis added).

42. Michèle Le Doeuff, “Engaging with Simone de Beauvoir,” in The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir , ed. Margaret A. Simons (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 11–19, 12.

43. Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life , trans. Peter Green (London: Penguin, 2001).

44. Beauvoir quoted in Miranda Fricker, “Life-Story in Beauvoir’s Memoirs,” in The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir , ed. Claudia Card (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 208–227, 219, 225.

45. Beauvoir quoted in Fricker, “Life-Story,” 223.

46. Fricker, “Life-Story,” 226.

47. Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 50–51.

48. Fricker, Epistemic Injustice , 50.

49. Fricker, Epistemic Injustice , 51.

50. Fricker, Epistemic Injustice , 150–152; see also 158–159.

51. Fricker, Epistemic Injustice , 169–175.

52. George Eliot, Mill on the Floss , ed. Gordon Sherman Haight (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). See Dorota Filipczak, “The Disavowal of the Female ‘Knower’: Reading Literature in the Light of Pamela Sue Anderson’s Project on Vulnerability,” in “Love and Vulnerability: Thinking with Pamela Sue Anderson,” ed. Pelagia Goulimari, special issue, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 25, no. 1–2 (February–April 2020): 156–164.

53. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 90–91, 23.

54. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology , 66.

55. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology , 87.

56. Ahmed’s work is also informed by Michel Foucault on disciplinary practices producing capable but docile bodies and Pierre Bourdieu on the “habitus” (naturalized socio-cultural habits).

57. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology , 101–102, 105 (emphasis added).

58. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology , 106.

59. Sara Ahmed, “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (August 2007): 149–168, 161.

60. Ahmed, “Phenomenology of Whiteness,” 161.

61. Ahmed, “Phenomenology of Whiteness,” 161.

62. Ahmed, “Phenomenology of Whiteness,” 163.

63. Ahmed, “Phenomenology of Whiteness,” 163.

64. See Sara Ahmed, What’s the Use? (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019).

65. Alia Al-Saji, “A Phenomenology of Hesitation: Interrupting Racialized Habits of Seeing,” in Living Alterities: Phenomenology, Embodiment , ed. Emily S. Lee (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014), 133–172, 138 .

66. Al-Saji, “Phenomenology of Hesitation,” 136.

67. Al-Saji, “Phenomenology of Hesitation,” 142.

68. Al-Saji, “Phenomenology of Hesitation,” 155.

69. Al-Saji, “Phenomenology of Hesitation,” 153 (emphasis added).

70. Al-Saji, “Phenomenology of Hesitation,” 154 (emphasis added).

71. Pamela Sue Anderson, “Creating a New Imaginary for Love in Religion,” in “Love and Vulnerability: Thinking with Pamela Sue Anderson,” ed. Pelagia Goulimari, special issue, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 25, no. 1–2 (February–April 2020): 46–53, 49 .

72. Pamela Sue Anderson, “Silencing and Speaker Vulnerability: Undoing an Oppressive Form of (Wilful) Ignorance,” in “Love and Vulnerability: Thinking with Pamela Sue Anderson,” ed. Pelagia Goulimari, special issue, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 25, no. 1–2 (February–April 2020): 36–45 .

73. See Akasha Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds., All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies , 2nd ed. (New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2015). See also Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present , by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 284 .

74. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (July 1991): 1241–1299 ; and Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought , rev. 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2000) .

75. See Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?,” in Women in Culture: An Intersectional Anthology for Gender and Women’s Studies , ed. Bonnie Kime Scott et al., 2nd ed. (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2017); Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism , ed. Frances Smith Foster and Richard Yarborough, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019); Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God , introd. Zadie Smith, afterword by Sherley Anne Williams (London: Virago, 2018); and Nella Larsen, Passing , ed. Thadious M. Davis (New York: Penguin, 2003).

76. Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing , new ed. (London: Virago, 1999). See further Goulimari, Literary Criticism and Theory , ch. 9.

77. Indeed Barbara Christian argues that black women writers have had to include self-theorizing in their texts, becoming their own critics. Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 1 (April 1988): 67–79.

78. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (London: Picador, 1990) .

79. Toni Morrison, “What the Black Woman Thinks about Women’s Lib,” in What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction , ed. Carolyn C. Denard (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 18–30, 24.

80. Morrison, “What the Black Woman Thinks,” 18, 19.

81. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2007). Also included in Audre Lorde, Your Silence Will Not Protect You , preface by Reni Eddo-Lodge, introd. Sara Ahmed (London: Silver Press, 2017) .

82. Lorde, Your Silence , 96.

83. Lorde, Your Silence , 113.

84. Lorde, Your Silence , 12.

85. Lorde, Your Silence , 29, and see the chapter “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred and Anger.”

86. See “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” in Lorde, Your Silence .

87. Lorde, Your Silence , 78.

88. See “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” in Lorde, Your Silence .

89. See “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” in Lorde, Your Silence .

90. Alice Walker, Color Purple (London: Women’s Press, 1983).

91. Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004) , xi (emphasis added).

92. Walker, In Search , xi (emphasis added).

93. Alice Walker, “Looking for Zora,” in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose , by Alice Walker (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004), 93–118 .

94. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination , 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000) .

95. Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s May Be: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 64–81 .

96. Hurston, Their Eyes , 29.

97. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982); Toni Morrison, Beloved (London: Picador, 1988); Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992); and Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) .

98. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection , 23, 36.

99. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection , 10 (emphasis added).

100. Saidiya V. Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 6.

101. Saidiya V. Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 1–14, 12.

102. Hartman, “Venus,” 11–12.

103. Saidiya V. Hartman, “The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner,” South Atlantic Quarterly 117, no. 3 (July 2018): 465–490, 470, 486.

104. Hartman, “Anarchy,” 471, 473.

105. Hartman, “Anarchy,” 474, 486 (emphasis added).

106. Hartman, “Anarchy,” 471, 470 (emphasis added).

107. Hartman, “Anarchy,” 469, 466, 471.

108. Hartman, “Anarchy,” 471. See further Saidiya V. Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019).

109. Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather (London: Routledge, 1995), 6.

110. H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines , ed. Robert Hampson (London: Penguin, 2007), 24.

111. Assia Djebar, Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade , trans. Dorothy S. Blair (London: Quartet, 1989).

112. Djebar, Fantasia , 6, 8.

113. McClintock, Imperial Leather , 45.

114. Assia Djebar, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment , trans. Marjolijn De Jager (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992) .

115. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 309. Delivered as a lecture in 1983, it was published in different versions of varying length. This article discusses the version in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999) .

116. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 271.

117. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 270.

118. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 267.

119. See Goulimari, Literary Criticism and Theory , ch. 11. See also Hartman on singularity, as discussed in the section “ African American Feminisms (Morrison, Lorde, Walker, Spillers, Hartman): Race, Intersectionality, Differences among Women and among Black Women ” in this article.

120. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 307, 273.

121. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 309.

122. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 310.

123. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 283, 284.

124. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (October 1985): 243–261, 243; and Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre , 3rd ed., ed. Jane Jack and Margaret Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

125. Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts,” 251.

126. Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts,” 248.

127. Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea , ed. Angela Smith (London: Penguin, 1997).

128. Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts,” 249.

129. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” boundary 2 12–13 (Spring–Autumn 1984): 333–358 .

130. Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes,” 333.

131. Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes,” 344.

132. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 39 (emphasis added).

133. Saba Mahmood, “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival,” Cultural Anthropology 16, no. 2 (May 2001): 202–236 .

134. Mahmood, “Feminist Theory,” 202.

135. Mahmood, “Feminist Theory,” 217.

136. Mahmood, “Feminist Theory,” 205.

137. Mahmood, “Feminist Theory,” 224.

138. Florence Stratton, Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender (London: Routledge, 1994), 1.

139. Stratton, Contemporary African Literature , 10.

140. Stratton, Contemporary African Literature , 18.

141. Florence Stratton, “Periodic Embodiments: A Ubiquitous Trope in African Men’s Writing,” Research in African Literatures 21, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 111–126, 112 .

142. Stratton, Contemporary African Literature , 11.

143. Stratton, Contemporary African Literature , 11.

144. Jasbir K. Puar, “Queer Times, Queer Assemblages,” Social Text 23.3–4 (2005): 121–139, 122 (emphasis added).

145. Puar, “Queer Times,” 131.

146. Puar, “Queer Times,” 122, 121.

147. Puar, “Queer Times,” 126.

148. Puar, “Queer Times,” 126.

149. See, for example, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire , 30th anniversary ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

150. See Eileen Myles, “ The Lady Who Appears to Be a Gentleman ,” Harper’s Magazine , June 2019.

151. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 293.

152. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990), 140, 139–140.

153. Butler, Gender Trouble , 137 (emphasis added).

154. Butler, Gender Trouble , 138, 141.

155. Judith Butler, “Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of ‘Postmodernism,’” in Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange , by Seyla Benhabib, et al. (New York: Routledge, 1995), 35–58, 50–51.

156. Butler, “Contingent Foundations,” 49.

157. Butler, “Contingent Foundations,” 50.

158. Butler, “Contingent Foundations,” 39.

159. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter (London: Routledge, 1993), 38; and Luce Irigaray, “When Our Lips Speak Together,” in This Sex Which Is Not One , trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke, by Luce Irigaray (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 205–218 .

160. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 46 (emphasis added).

161. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 37 (emphasis added).

162. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 39, 41 (emphasis added).

163. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 46.

164. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 37, 42.

165. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 49.

166. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 167 (emphasis added).

167. Nella Larsen, Passing , ed. Thadious M. Davis (New York: Penguin, 2003); and Butler, Bodies That Matter , 182 (emphasis added).

168. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 178.

169. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 183; and Toni Morrison, Sula (London: Picador, 1991).

170. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 181–182.

171. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 182.

172. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 169.

173. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 175.

174. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 176.

175. See Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004); and Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2016).

176. Susan Stryker, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix,” GLQ 1, no. 3 (1994): 237–254 , 241. See also 251n2: “transgender” as “an umbrella term that refers to all identities or practices that cross over, cut across, move between, or otherwise queer socially constructed sex/gender boundaries.”

177. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein , 2nd ed., ed. J. Paul Hunter (London: W. W. Norton, 2012).

178. Stryker, “My Words,” 242.

179. Stryker, “My Words,” 244.

180. Jack Halberstam, Female Masculinity , 20th anniversary ed. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 171 .

181. Halberstam, Female Masculinity , 170.

182. Halberstam, Female Masculinity , 173.

183. Halberstam, Female Masculinity , xii.

184. Halberstam, Female Masculinity , xx, xxi.

185. Halberstam, Female Masculinity , xx.

186. Jack Halberstam, Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018), 95, 52–53, 4.

187. Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o, “Introduction: Theory in the Wild,” in “Wildness,” ed. Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o, special issue, South Atlantic Quarterly 117, no. 3 (July 2018): 453–464, 462.

188. Susan Stryker, “Transgender Studies: Queer Theory’s Evil Twin,” GLQ 10, no. 2 (2004): 212–215, 214.

189. Stryker, “Transgender Studies,” 212.

190. Stryker, “Transgender Studies,” 214–215.

191. Susan Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges: An Introduction to Transgender Studies,” in The Transgender Studies Reader , ed. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (London: Routledge, 2006), 1–18, 1.

192. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 3.

193. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 7.

194. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 7.

195. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 14–15.

196. Arundati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2017). On the expression of third-gender and non-normative gender identities in non-Western cultures, see, for example, the Rae-rae (Tahitian trans women), Faʻafafine (Samoan third gender), and Māhū (Polynesian “middle” or third gender).

197. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 8.

198. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 9.

199. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 9.

200. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 13, 3.

201. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 14.

202. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 12.

203. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 12, 13, 10, 7.

204. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 12.

205. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 13.

206. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 13.

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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)

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Feminist approaches to literature.

This essay offers a very basic introduction to feminist literary theory, and a compendium of Great Writers Inspire resources that can be approached from a feminist perspective. It provides suggestions for how material on the Great Writers Inspire site can be used as a starting point for exploration of or classroom discussion about feminist approaches to literature. Questions for reflection or discussion are highlighted in the text. Links in the text point to resources in the Great Writers Inspire site. The resources can also be found via the ' Feminist Approaches to Literature' start page . Further material can be found via our library and via the various authors and theme pages.

The Traditions of Feminist Criticism

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

  • First Wave Feminism: Men's Treatment of Women In this early stage of feminist criticism, critics consider male novelists' demeaning treatment or marginalisation of female characters. First wave feminist criticism includes books like Marry Ellman's Thinking About Women (1968) Kate Millet's Sexual Politics (1969), and Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch (1970). An example of first wave feminist literary analysis would be a critique of William Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew for Petruchio's abuse of Katherina.
  • The 'Feminine' Phase - in the feminine phase, female writers tried to adhere to male values, writing as men, and usually did not enter into debate regarding women's place in society. Female writers often employed male pseudonyms during this period.
  • The 'Feminist' Phase - in the feminist phase, the central theme of works by female writers was the criticism of the role of women in society and the oppression of women.
  • The 'Female' Phase - during the 'female' phase, women writers were no longer trying to prove the legitimacy of a woman's perspective. Rather, it was assumed that the works of a women writer were authentic and valid. The female phase lacked the anger and combative consciousness of the feminist phase.

Do you agree with Showalter's 'phases'? How does your favourite female writer fit into these phases?

Read Jane Eyre with the madwoman thesis in mind. Are there connections between Jane's subversive thoughts and Bertha's appearances in the text? How does it change your view of the novel to consider Bertha as an alter ego for Jane, unencumbered by societal norms? Look closely at Rochester's explanation of the early symptoms of Bertha's madness. How do they differ from his licentious behaviour?

How does Jane Austen fit into French Feminism? She uses very concise language, yet speaks from a woman's perspective with confidence. Can she be placed in Showalter's phases of women's writing?

Dr. Simon Swift of the University of Leeds gives a podcast titled 'How Words, Form, and Structure Create Meaning: Women and Writing' that uses the works of Virginia Woolf and Silvia Plath to analyse the form and structural aspects of texts to ask whether or not women writers have a voice inherently different from that of men (podcast part 1 and part 2 ).

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

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

How do more modern A-level set texts, like those of Margaret Atwood, Zora Neale Hurston, or Maya Angelou, fit into any of these traditions of criticism?

Depictions of Women by Men

Students could begin approaching Great Writers Inspire by considering the range of women depicted in early English literature: from Chaucer's bawdy 'Wife of Bath' in The Canterbury Tales to Spenser's interminably pure Una in The Faerie Queene .

How might the reign of Queen Elizabeth I have dictated the way Elizabethan writers were permitted to present women? How did each male poet handle the challenge of depicting women?

By 1610 Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker's The Roaring Girl presented at The Fortune a play based on the life of Mary Firth. The heroine was a man playing a woman dressed as a man. In Dr. Emma Smith's podcast on The Roaring Girl , Smith breaks down both the gender issues of the play and of the real life accusations against Mary Frith.

In Dr. Emma Smith's podcast on John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi , a frequent A-level set text, Smith discusses Webster's treatment of female autonomy. Placing Middleton or Webster's female characters against those of Shakespeare could be brought to bear on A-level Paper 4 on Drama or Paper 5 on Shakespeare and other pre-20th Century Texts.

Smith's podcast on The Comedy of Errors from 11:21 alludes to the valuation of Elizabethan comedy as a commentary on gender and sexuality, and how The Comedy of Errors at first seems to defy this tradition.

What are the differences between depictions of women written by male and female novelists?

Students can compare the works of Charlotte and Emily Brontë or Jane Austen with, for example, Hardy's Tess of the d'Ubervilles or D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover or Women in Love .

How do Lawrence's sexually charged novels compare with what Emma Smith said about Webster's treatment of women's sexuality in The Duchess of Malfi ?

Dr. Abigail Williams' podcast on Jonathan Swift's The Lady's Dressing-Room discusses the ways in which Swift uses and complicates contemporary stereotypes about the vanity of women.

Rise of the Woman Writer

With the movement from Renaissance to Restoration theatre, the depiction of women on stage changed dramatically, in no small part because women could portray women for the first time. Dr. Abigail Williams' adapted lecture, Behn and the Restoration Theatre , discusses Behn's use and abuse of the woman on stage.

What were the feminist advantages and disadvantages to women's introduction to the stage?

The essay Who is Aphra Behn? addresses the transformation of Behn into a feminist icon by later writers, especially Bloomsbury Group member Virginia Woolf in her novella/essay A Room of One's Own .

How might Woolf's description and analysis of Behn indicate her own feminist agenda?

Behn created an obstacle for later women writers in that her scandalous life did little to undermine the perception that women writing for money were little better than whores.

In what position did that place chaste female novelists like Frances Burney or Jane Austen ?

To what extent was the perception of women and the literary vogue for female heroines impacted by Samuel Richardson's Pamela ? Students could examine a passage from Pamela and evaluate Richardson's success and failures, and look for his influence in novels with which they are more familiar, like those of Austen or the Brontë sisters.

In Dr. Catherine's Brown's podcast on Eliot's Reception History , Dr. Brown discusses feminist criticism of Eliot's novels. In the podcast Genre and Justice , she discusses Eliot's use of women as scapegoats to illustrate the injustice of the distribution of happiness in Victorian England.

Professor Sir Richard Evans' Gresham College lecture The Victorians: Gender and Sexuality can provide crucial background for any study of women in Victorian literature.

Women Writers and Class

Can women's financial and social plights be separated? How do Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë bring to bear financial concerns regarding literature depicting women in the 18th and 19th century?

How did class barriers affect the work of 18th century kitchen maid and poet Mary Leapor ?

Listen to the podcast by Yale's Professor Paul Fry titled "The Classical Feminist Tradition" . At 9:20, Fry questions whether or not any novel can be evaluated without consideration of financial and class concerns, and to what extent Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own suggests a female novelist can only create successful work if she is of independent means.

What are the different problems faced by a wealthy character like Austen's Emma , as opposed to a poor character like Brontë's Jane Eyre ?

Also see sections on the following writers:

  • Jane Austen
  • Charlotte Brontë
  • George Eliot
  • Thomas Hardy
  • D.H. Lawrence
  • Mary Leapor
  • Thomas Middleton
  • Katherine Mansfield
  • Olive Schreiner
  • William Shakespeare
  • John Webster
  • Virginina Woolf

If reusing this resource please attribute as follows: Feminist Approaches to Literature at by Kate O'Connor, licensed as Creative Commons BY-NC-SA (2.0 UK).


Feminist Criticism – (Previous Year Questions NET | GATE)

UPDATE: Now, you can get these 3000+ questions in booklet/hardcopy format. Click here to know more.

Who, from among the following, has NOT been discussed by Simon-de-Bevoir in “The Myth of Woman in Five Authors” in The Second Sex? (A) Montherlant (B) Lawrence (C) Stendhal (D) Kafka Ans: (D)

Who amongst the following belongs to the group of radical feminists ? (A) Helene Cixous (B) Monica Wittig (C) Simone de Beauvoir (D) Luce Irigaray Ans: (A)

The earliest tract on feminism is (A) Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (B) Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (C) Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (D) Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Ans: (D)

The earliest woman novelist of significance in the 18th century is : (A)Mary Edgeworth (B) Aphra Behn (C) Mary Russell (D) Mrs Gaskell Ans: (A)

The term “womanism” was first used by (A) Helene Cixous (B) Gayatri Spivak (C) Kate Millet (D) Alice Walker Ans: (D)

Two among the following critics have dealt with the reproduction of motherhood in feminist theory : I. Nancy Chodorow II. Judith Fetterley III. Catherine R. Stimpson IV. Carol Gilligan The right combination according to the code is (A) Iand II (B) IIand IV (C) I and IV (D) III and IV Ans: (C)

While foregrounding the marginal presence of women in history in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf refers to ______ History of England. (A) Campbell’s (B) Trevelyan’s (C) Sander’s (D) Carter’s Ans: (B)

The author of Gender Trouble is (A) Elaine Showalter (B) Helene Cixous (C) Michele Barrett (D) Judith Butler Answer: D

Which of the following books is written by a woman ? (A) A Vindication of the Rights of Women (B) Social Contract (C) A Treatise of Human Nature (D) The Wealth of Nations Ans: (A)

The “madwoman in the attic” is a specific reference to (A) The narrator of “Goblin Market” (B) Augusta Egg’s 1858 narrative painting (C) The Heroine of The Yellow Wallpaper (D) Bertha Mason of Jane Eyre Ans: (D)

Who of the following White female authors are sympathetic to the cause of the Blacks ? (A) Margaret Drabble (B) Nadine Gordimer (C) Muriel Spark (D) Jean Rhys Ans: (B)

Given below are two statements, one labelled as Assertion (A) and the other labelled as Reason(R). Read the statements and choose the correct answer using the code given below: Assertion (A) : Gender studies do not see an urgent need to help us navigate the various pitfalls of racism, ethnocentrism, cultural relativism, and plain ignorance that flow from using “culture” as an explanatory tool. Reason (R) : Issues relating to Women’s rights, gender roles, sexuality and family obligations are centrally implicated in the so-called clash of civilizations between Christianity or Secularism, and Islaam. (A) (A) is only partly addressed in (R) (B) (R) does not follow logically from (A). (C) (R) is (A) and vice versa (D) (A) and (R) are most logically related. Ans: (B)

In which essay does Virginia Woolf observe that “if a writer were a free man [sic] and not a slave” to the conventions of the literary market-place, there would be “no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest, or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it” ? (A)”How it Strikes a Contemporary” (B) “Modern Fiction” (C) “The Russian Point of View” (D) “Mr. Bennett and Mr. Brown” Ans: (B)

Julia Kristeva’s ‘intertextuality’ derives from. a. Noam Chomsky’s deep structure b. Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogism c. Jacques Derrida’s differance d. Ferdinand de Saussure’s sign The right combination according to the code is : (A) (a) and (b) (B) (b) and (c) (C) (c) and (d) (D) (a) and (d) Ans: (A)

The label ‘material feminism’ refers to the work of those thinkers who study inequality in terms of . (A) gender differences. (B) class differences. (C) both gender and class differences. (D) female consumerism. Ans: (C)

Which of the following works does not have a mad woman as a character in it? (A) The Yellow Wallpaper (B) The Mad Woman in the Attic (C) Jane Eyre (D) Wide Sargasso Sea Ans: (B)

Who among the following displays in her best work the dual influence of feminism and magic realism ? (A) Pat Barker (B) Muriel Spark (C) Angela Carter (D) J. K Rowling Ans: (C)

 Tennyson’s poem about women’s rights and women’s sphere is : (A) Maud (B) In Memoriam (C) Idylls of the King (D) The Princess Ans: (D)

Which among the following titles set a course for academic literary feminism? (A) Nostromo (B) From Ritual to Romance (C) A Room of One’s Own (D) A Dance to the Music of Time Ans: (C)

This was a path-breaking feminist essay written in the 1970s which used hybrid terms like “sext” and “chaosmos.” Identify the author. (A) Luce Irigaray (B) Helene Cixous (C) Julia Kristeva (D) Simon de Beauvoir Ans: (B)

feminist criticism guide questions

Yet it is the masculine values that prevail., observed a famous writer Speaking cruelly, she continued, football and sport are important., the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes trivial. Name the author and the text. (A) Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (B) Audre Lorde Age, Race, Class…. (C) Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (D) Jean Rhys, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie Ans: (C)

Which of the following does not describe some of the practices/beliefs of feminist literary criticism? (A) Feminist criticism recuperates female writers ignored by the canon. (B) Feminist literary critics offer a criticism of the construction of gender. (C) Feminist literary critics argue that the traditional canon is justified. (D) Feminist literary critics mostly reject the essentializing of ‘male’ and ‘female’. Ans: (C)

According to Julia Kristeva, it is the eruption of the ………… within the …………… that provides the creative and innovative impulse of modern poetic language. (A) individual, tradition (B) specific, generic (C) semiotic, symbolic (D) particular, general Ans: (C)

Anna Barbauld, Laetitia Elizabeth London, Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson and Felicia Hemans are (A) first wave feminists (B) women poets of the Romantic period (C) Victorian writers of popular fiction (D) nineteenth century stage artists Ans: (B)

Identify the gynocritics in the following list : I. Alice Jardine II. Elaine Showalter III. Sandra Gilbert IV. Kate Millett The right combination according to the code is (A) I and II (B) II and IV (C) II and III (D) III and IV Ans: (C)

Material feminism studies inequality in terms of (A) only gender (B) only class (C) both class and gender (D) only patriarchy Ans: (C)

Two pioneering feminist tracts, Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch were published in (A) 1969 (B) 1968 (C) 1970 (D) 1967 Ans: (C)

 Who is the author of Mary, and the unfinished The Wrongs of Woman? (A) Mary Wollstonecraft (B) William Godwin (C) Mary Hay (D) Elizabeth Inchbald Ans: (A)

In her essay “Professions for Women” Virginia Woolf finds an analogy between the act of writing and ……………. (A) driving a motor car (B) riding a horse (C) fishing (D) gardening Ans: (C)

Which among the following texts can be characterised as a lesbian Bildungsroman ? (A) Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (B) Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (C) Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (D) Ruth Pawar Jhabvala, Heat and Dust Ans: (C)

Match the title with the author : (a) Sexual Politics (b) A Literature of Their Own (c) Thinking About Women (d) The Laugh of the Medusa (i) Mary Ellman (ii) Elaine Showalter (iii) Helene Cixous (iv) Kate Millet Code : (a) (b) (c) (d) (A) (iv) (iii) (i) (ii) (B) (iv) (ii) (i) (iii) (C) (iii) (iv) (i) (ii) (D) (iv) (i) (ii) (iii) Ans: (B)

Match the works with authors:

a) Bodies that matter

b) A world of difference

c) A literature of their own

d) Vamps and thamps

i. Camille paglia

ii. Elaine Showalter

iii. Barbara Johnson

iv. Judith Butler

Choose the correct option:

(A) (a)-(i), (b)-(ii), (c)-(iii), (d)-(iv)

(B) (a)-(ii), (b)-(iii), (c)-(iv), (d)-(i)

(C) (a)-(iv), (b)-(iii), (c)-(ii), (d)-(i)

(D) (a)-(iii), (b)-(iv), (c)-(i), (d)-(ii)

feminist criticism guide questions

Who among the following proposed that the English Language is “man made”, not “woman made”?

(A) Mary Has

(B) Dorothy L Sayers

(C) Dale Spender

(D) Carol Chomsky

 Which two of the following statements are applicable to feminist criticism?

(A) Recuperate the female writers ignored by the canon

(B) Fully endorse the social construction of gender

(C) Valorize the traditional canon uncritically

(D) Mostly reject the essentialising of ‘male’ and ‘female’

Choose the correct option

(A) (a) and (b)

(B) (b) and (c)

(C) (a) and (d)

(D) (a) and (c)

Who among the following feminist theorists posited a separate realm of female experience captured in a style of writing different from men’s? A. Elaine Showalter B. Luce Irigaray C. Kate Millett D. Simone de Beauvoir E. Helene Cixous

Choose the correct answer from the options given below: (a) A, C and D only (b) B and D only (c) C, D and E only (d) B and E only Ans: (d)

Which two texts among the following are linked to literary feminism? A. A Small Place B. The Yellow Wallpaper C. Emma D. A Room of One’s Own

Choose the correct answer from the options given below: (a) A and D only (b) C and D only (c) B and D only (d) A and C only Ans: (c)

Match the term with the theorist: (Term) (a) Negritude (b) Womanism (c) Interpellation (4) Louis Althusser

(Theorist) (1) Alice Walker (2) Jurgen Habermas (3) Aime Cesaire (d) Public Sphere

(A) (a)-(2), (b)-(1), (c)-(4), (d)-(3) (B) (a)-(3), (b)-(2), (c)-(4), (d)-(1) (C) (a)-(1), (b)-(2), (c)-(4), (d)-(3) (D) (a)-(3), (b)-(1), (c)-(4), (d)-(2) Ans: (D)

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feminist criticism guide questions

23 Texts to Introduce Feminist Criticism in High School ELA

  • Reading Instruction

When I introduce literary criticism to my students, feminist criticism is one of the first lenses we use.

In part, we encounter feminist criticism early on because students know the word “feminist” or “feminism” without always know what those terms mean. Unfortunately, some of my students often have negative attitudes toward “feminist” and “feminism.” Introducing feminist criticism helps students unpack those terms and better understand what it means to be a feminist.

Additionally, at the high school level, feminist criticism is fairly straightforward. When applying feminist criticism, we are basically looking at how a text treats its womxn characters. In other words, we’re asking the same three questions over and over:

  • First, how does the text treat womxn characters?
  • Similarly, what does the treatment of womxn characters reveal about the text, its author, or its historical context?
  • Finally, does the treatment of womxn characters support or undermine the author’s purpose for writing? Why or why not?

Keep reading to check out 23 texts that help students answer these questions!

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Using Mythology to Introduce Feminist Criticism

Anytime I introduce a new critical lens , I like to start with a familiar text. Since literary criticism requires students to evaluate a text from a new angle, it’s helpful to begin with a low-stress text.

By the time students come to me, they have usually read The Odyssey , so that’s oftentimes a good place for us to begin applying literary criticism.

Firstly, I often begin with “Siren Song” by Margaret Atwood. For one, students usually remember Odysseus’ encounter with the sirens. (Even if they don’t, we can quickly re-read the scene here .) As we’re reading or recalling this scene, we can discuss how many of the womxn characters in The Odyssey are vilified, including Circe and Calypso . Then, to take our feminist criticism further, we can read “Siren Song” and evaluate how Atwood’s version of events is different from Homer’s original. To extend this lesson, teachers can do the same thing with the song “Calypso” by Suzanne Vega.

Penelope As a Focal Point for Feminist Criticism

Similarly, there are a variety of poems that reimagine Penelope’s role in The Odyssey . While students may not always remember Penelope, we can quickly remember her by reading Penelope , Penelope’s Suitors , and Penelope’s Test . Once students are more familiar with Penelope’s story, we can use feminist criticism to evaluate the source. Then, we can dive into some more modern reinterpretations of Penelope’s story.

  • First, “Penelope” by Dorothy Parker is a short glimpse into Penelope’s days. This is a great place to begin applying literary criticism, especially since the poem’s first person provides key contrast to the original text. Read it here .
  • Similarly, “Penelope to Ulysses” by Meredith Schwartz also uses the first person. The epistolary nature of this poem adds another layer of complexity. (Plus, teachers can build on this poem by having students write their own letters to Ulysses.) Read it here .
  • Finally, “An Ancient Gesture” by Edna St. Vincent Millay is my favorite of these three poems because it modernizes Penelope’s struggle. Rather than focusing on Penelope, this poem focuses on how her story continues to be re-lived by other womxn today. This poem provides a good opportunity to connect the text to modern times. Read it here .

Grab all three of my resources for teaching these poems in The Odyssey Synthesis Bundle !

Helen as a Focal Point for Feminist Criticism

Like Penelope, Helen is a well-known figure in mythology. Unlike Penelope, fewer of my students are familiar with Helen, so using her as a focal point for feminist criticism is a way to begin leveling up.

  • Firstly, “Helen of Troy” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox has a clear sonnet structure that students understand. For this reason, students can spend more time focused on a feminist reading of the poem. Read it here .
  • Additionally, “Helen” by Nikita Gill is a student favorite! My students are often familiar with Gill’s work from social media, and her book Great Goddesses: Life Lessons from Myths and Monsters is always checked out from the classroom library. The question at the end of this poem makes it a great candidate for feminist criticism!
  • Finally, “Helen” by H.D. is the most challenging of these texts because it is the most ambiguous . Once students have a grip on the poem, they can turn readily to feminist criticism, but they have to nail the poem’s meaning first. Read it here .

Teaching resources and lesson plans for all three of these poems are included in my 11-12 Synthesizing Allusion Across Media Bundle , which helps students synthesize across media by focusing on one central allusion.

Poetry to Teach Feminist Criticism

Beyond mythology, poetry is a good way to introduce feminist criticism. The brevity of poetry makes it an ideal medium for applying new skills and concepts. Here are some of my favorite poems for using feminist criticism:

Firstly, “The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica” by Judith Ortiz Cofer is a good poem to begin with. While this is a longer poem, the language is fairly straightforward, so students can spend less time paraphrasing and more time applying feminist criticism. Read it here .

Secondly, “What I Carried” by Maggie Smith is another great poem for introducing feminist criticism. In this shorter poem, students have to grapple with feminist criticism in the context of motherhood. Another great Smith poem is “You Could Never Take a Car to Greenland.” Read them both in Good Bones , one of my favorite poetry collections.

Similarly, the one word in “One-Word Poem” by David R. Slavitt pairs nicely with either of Maggie Smith’s poems. This offers readers another perspective on motherhood, which is complicated by Slavitt writing the poem without every being a mother. Read it here .

As students become more comfortable with feminist criticism, they’re ready for more challenging poems. To my mind, that means poetry that’s complicated by sarcasm, understatement, and irony. Two great poems for this next level are “I Sit and Sew” by Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson and “I, being born a woman and distressed” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The first time we read these poems, my students almost always giggle a little. In other words, these are engaging poems for students.

Grab four of these poems in the Feminist Criticism Bundle !

Short Stories for Teaching Feminist Criticism

As students continue to develop their skills with feminist criticism, we move on to longer works. Short stories are great tools for literary criticism because they often lend themselves to more than one critical lens. Check out some of my favorite short stories for feminist criticism:

  • Firstly, “A White Heron” by Sarah Orne Jewett is an English classroom staple. When my students are newer to literary criticism, I often choose this text because the plot is fairly simple, but the text lends itself to several critical lenses, including Marxist and feminist criticism. Read it here .
  • Similarly, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a popular text for American literature. Since this text is a little longer and more complex than “A White Heron,” it’s a great level up for students. When teachers couple this short story with the essay “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wall-paper’?” , students have the chance to practice biographical and feminist criticism. Read the short story here .
  • In contrast to the sympathetic protagonists in Jewett and Perkins Gilman’s work, the protagonist of “Editha” by William Dean Howells is not sympathetic. As such, this short story provides a greater challenge to students as they read and annotate. Additionally, this is the first short story recommendation that doesn’t come from a womxn author, which will complicate students’ classroom conversation. Read it here .

Increased Complexity for Criticism

  • Additionally, the protagonist in “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid is sympathetic while the speaker is not. While this story is short, its structure is more complex. Like “What I Carried,” this story also introduces the relationship between mother and daughter. Overall, this text requires a nuanced approach to feminist criticism. Read it here .
  • Next, “Berenice” by Edgar Allan Poe is named after the woman character, but she’s not the speaker nor is she given much agency. As with Howells’ story, the feminist criticism here is complicated by Poe’s writing. Furthermore, the horrifying nature of this text makes it a hard read in some ways. Check it out here .
  • Finally, my favorite short story on this list is “A New England Nun” by Mary E. Freeman. This is such a great read for several types of literary criticism, including Marxist, deconstructionist , and feminist criticism. Overall, the end of this short story makes it a must-read. Check it out here .

To help you bring all of these short stories into your classroom, I’ve put together a 9-12 Short Stories bundle that will save you time and money!

Longer Works for Teaching Feminist Criticism

As students become more adept at literary criticism, they can begin evaluating longer and more complex works.

Oftentimes when teachers think of longer works, we think of novels. While I do have some novel recommendations, dramas are also an amazing tool for literary criticism. Because drama is performed, it really lends itself to the kind of dialogue in which literary criticism thrives. Check out these three dramas for incorporating feminist criticism:

  • Firstly, many English teachers first think of Lady Macbeth when considering womxn in drama. Indeed, Macbeth by William Shakespeare is a great opportunity for feminist criticism.
  • Similarly, Julius Caesar is another Shakespearean drama ripe for literary criticism! The fact that there are so few womxn characters in this text provides students with a great sense of focus.
  • If Shakespeare is not the dramatist for you, The Crucible by Arthur Miller is a good play for applying literary criticism. The treatment of Elizabeth Proctor and Abigail Williams makes for strong discussion.

Beyond classroom dramas, novels are always a good place to apply literary criticism. In this case, my two recommendations are diametrically different.

  • Firstly, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald features womxn characters who are not empowered. When the womxn characters in the text do have agency, it’s always coupled with wealth and privilege. Reading this novel alongside Fitzgerald’s short story “Winter Dreams” also provides a rich conversation about how Fitzgerald treats womxn characters.
  • On the other hand, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen features womxn characters with varied levels of privilege and agency. The diverse motivations of the womxn characters also factors into classroom conversations about feminist criticism.

Further Reading

Since literary criticism is one of my passions, I’ve written quite a bit about it. Check out these related posts and resources:

  • 5 Reasons to Include Literary Criticism, and 5 Ways to Make it Happen
  • How to Introduce Deconstructionist Literary Criticism
  • Teaching at the Intersection of History and Literature
  • 8 Ways to Bring Creativity into the Classroom
  • 40 Texts for Teaching Literary Criticism
  • Historical and Biographical Criticism
  • Deconstructionist Criticism Bundle
  • All Literary Criticism Resources
  • Introducing Literary Criticism
  • Feminist Criticism Bundle
  • Historical Criticism

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Literary Theory and Criticism

Home › British Literature › Feminist Literary Criticism

Feminist Literary Criticism

By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on October 7, 2022

Feminist literary criticism has its origins in the intellectual and political feminist movement. It advocates a critique of maledominated language and performs “resistant” readings of literary texts or histories. Based on the premise that social systems are patriarchal—organized to privilege men—it seeks to trace how such power relations in society are reflected, supported, or questioned by literary texts and expression.

One of the founders of this kind of approach was Virginia Woolf , who showed in her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own how women’s material and intellectual deprivation were obstacles to authorship. Woolf illustrated her case with the abortive artistic aspirations of Shakespeare’s fictitious sister Judith. In another essay, “Professions for Women,” Woolf also announced the necessity for women writers to kill the “angel in the house,” taking her cue from Coventry Patmore’s mid-Victorian poem of the same name that glorified a domestic (or domesticated) femininity devoid of any critical spirit.

Another important source of inspiration has been Simone de Beauvoir ’s 1949 The Second Sex . Here de Beauvoir wrote that “one is not born a woman, one becomes one.” De Beauvoir’s point behind her muchquoted comment was that “ ‘woman’ is a cultural construction, rather than a biological one.” As Ruth Robbins notes, this remark is important because it highlights the fact that “the ideas about male and female roles which any given society may have come to regard as natural are not really so and that given that they are not natural they may even be changed” (118). All three texts provided ammunition for the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s and are useful starting points for discussions of short stories that take women and the feminine as central concerns.

The ensuing critical response may best be described as bifurcating into an Anglo-American and a French strand. The former was defined by the greater importance British feminists such as Sheila Rowbotham, Germaine Greer, and Michèle Barrett attached to class. Literary critics working in this school were interested in representations of women in literary texts, an approach most famously encapsulated in Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970)—probably the world’s best-selling doctoral thesis. Groundbreaking as the book turned out to be in reading canonized authors (e.g., Charles Dickens, D. H. Lawrence) against the grain and in drawing attention to their suffocating (and often misogynist) representations of women, it was also criticized for its insistence on a male conspiracy. There were objections that its readings were too often based on the assumption that literature simply mirrors reality.

feminist criticism guide questions

Left, Susan Gubar. Right, Sandra M. Gilbert. | Left, Eli Setiya. Right, Peter Basmajian. Via Vox

Subsequent critics sought to redress the gaps in Millet’s book by setting out to discover and reevaluate neglected female writing. Among those mapping this dark continent (in Sigmund Freud’s trope) was Ellen Moers, whose Literary Women (1976) is often seen as pioneering in its attempts to focus on noncanonical women writers such as Mary Shelley. The book has since been criticized on account of its unqualified appraisal of “heroinism,” an appraisal that leaves the concept of the “great writer”—a central category of male literary historiography—intact. One of the terms used by Elaine Showalter in A Literature of Their Own (1977) is “ gynocriticism ,” a term intended to indicate her concern with the history of women as authors. In A Literature of Their Own Showalter posited the idea of a “feminine” period of literary history (1840–80) in which the experiences of women such as the Brontës, Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and George Eliot—notably their use of male pseudonyms and imitation of male standards—demonstrate the obstacles women writers have tended to face. Showalter then described a second phase (1880–1920) that comprised so-called New Woman writers (e.g., Vernon Lee, George Egeron, Ella D’Arcy) dedicated to protest and minority rights. After 1920, this feminist stage was transcended by a female phase whose major representatives, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf are said to move beyond mimicry or opposition by asserting feminine identities, no matter how fragile or provisional these might be. Their narratives explore allegedly minor yet personally significant, even epiphanic moments and experiment with gender roles including androgyny and homosexuality. Literary texts of this period can also be said to anticipate postmodernist views of gender in their emphasis on the cultural interpretation of the body as distinguished from the physical characteristics that make people male or female.

Further landmarks in the field of feminist research were provided by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar ’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination (1979) and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985). The Madwoman, runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize in 1980, attributed an “anxiety of authorship” to writers such as Jane Austen, the Brontës, and George Eliot. It also posited the widespread imagery of guilt or rage in texts by 19th-century women writers as part of a specifically female aesthetic—an aesthetic whose distinctness from male writers was emphasized in the canon of women’s literature as established by the 1985 Norton Anthology. Gilbert and Gubar have remained extremely influential, although some critics have questioned the clearcut separatism of their canon (male versus female) on the grounds that it unconsciously validates the implicit patriarchal ideology.

French feminism shifted the focus onto language. Its proponents drew on Freudian models of infant development that the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan had connected with processes of language acquisition and the construction of sexual difference. Lacan’s disciples Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray started from the premise that a child’s entry into language coincides with the disruption of its dyadic relationship with the mother. Language then reflects a binary logic that works through oppositions such as male/female, nature/culture. This pattern connecting oppression and language tends to group positive qualities with the masculine side. Woman, it is argued, is therefore alienated from linguistic structures and is liable to turn to a different discourse, derived from a preoedipal, “semiotic” period of fusion of mother and child. As so-called écriture feminine , this form of writing disturbs the organizing principles of “symbolic” masculinized language. It dissolves generic boundaries, causal plot, stable perspectives, and meaning in favor of rhythmic and highly allusive writing. Such transgression, though, is not gender-specific but can be performed by anyone—indeed, James Joyce is cited as the major representative of “writing one’s body” on the margins of dominant culture.

Both the French celebration of disruptive textual pleasure and the Anglo-American analysis of textual content have come under attack for their underlying assumption that all women—African slave and European housewife—share the same oppression. Postcolonial feminism, as advanced by Alice Walker, bell hooks, Gayatri Spivak, and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, took issue with the reductive ways of representing nonwhite women as sexually constrained, uneducated, and in need of being spoken for. They also objected to feminism’s insistence that women needed to reinforce their homogeneity as a sex, because they felt that this thinking demonstrated an ignorance of plurality and in fact perpetuated the very hierarchies on which patriarchy and Western imperialism had thrived.

From today’s perspective, so much has been done to improve female presence that some commentators have suggested that we live in an age of postfeminism . However, there are many who would argue that even in a postfeminist age much needs to be done to highlight the importance of interrogating seemingly natural signs of male/female difference. Critics following Judith Butler have begun to entertain the idea that the very assumption of an innate biological sex might itself be a cultural strategy to justify gender attributes. Whether one accepts this position or not, seeing identities as the embodiments of cultural practices may prompt change. This, in turn, might pave the way for a correspondingly flexible critical approach to identities as things that are entwined with other categories: ethnicity, sexual orientation, social status, health, age, or belief. In this sense, the prefix post- should not be read as meaning after feminism or as suggesting a rejection of feminism; rather, it should suggest a more self-reflexive working on the blind spots of former readings.

Key Ideas of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar
Post-Feminism: An Essay
Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics
Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex
Feminism: An Essay
Analysis of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

BIBLIOGRAPHY Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1999. Eagleton, Mary. Working with Feminist Criticism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. Gamble, Sarah, ed. The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism. London: Routledge, 2001. Hanson, Clare, ed. Re-reading the Short Story. New York: St. Martin’s, 1989. Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. Feminist Literary Theory. London: Methuen, 1985. Ruth Robbins, “Feminist Approaches.” in Literary Theories, edited by Julian Wolfreys and William Baker, 103–126. London: Macmillan, 1998. Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.

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Categories: British Literature , Gender Studies , Literary Terms and Techniques , Literature , Queer Theory

Tags: Alice Walker , and George Eliot , bell hooks , Brontës , Chandra Talpade Mohanty , Elaine Showalter , Elizabeth Gaskell , Ella D'Arcy , Ellen Moers , Feminism , Feminism and literary criticism , Feminism and Literary Theory , Feminist literary criticism , Feminist Literary Criticism Analysis , Feminist Literary Criticism history , feminist literary critics , Feminist literary theory , feminist movement , Gayatri Spivak , George Egeron , Key works by Feminist Literary Critics , major Feminist Literary Critics , Mary Elizabeth Braddon , Vernon Lee

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

feminist criticism guide questions

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 and Cultural Studies criticism, 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”


feminist criticism guide questions

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.  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.   
  • 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 © 2024 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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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.


English 102: Literature and Composition

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Literary Theory

“Literary theory” is the body of ideas and methods we use in the practical reading of literature. By literary theory we refer not to the meaning of a work of literature but to the theories that reveal what literature can mean. Literary theory is a description of the underlying principles, one might say the tools, by which we attempt to understand literature. All literary interpretation draws on a basis in theory but can serve as a justification for very different kinds of critical activity. It is literary theory that formulates the relationship between author and work; literary theory develops the significance of race, class, and gender for literary study, both from the standpoint of the biography of the author and an analysis of their thematic presence within texts. Literary theory offers varying approaches for understanding the role of historical context in interpretation as well as the relevance of linguistic and unconscious elements of the text. Literary theorists trace the history and evolution of the different genres—narrative, dramatic, lyric—in addition to the more recent emergence of the novel and the short story, while also investigating the importance of formal elements of literary structure. Lastly, literary theory in recent years has sought to explain the degree to which the text is more the product of a culture than an individual author and in turn how those texts help to create the culture.

Brewton, V. (n.d.).  Literary Theory . Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from

  • Feminist Literary Criticism

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.

Napikoski, Linda. (2021, February 16). Feminist Literary Criticism. Retrieved from

Formalism Theory

“Formalism” is, as the name implies, an interpretive approach that emphasizes literary form and the study of literary devices within the text. The work of the Formalists had a general impact on later developments in “Structuralism” and other theories of narrative. “Formalism,” like “Structuralism,” sought to place the study of literature on a scientific basis through objective analysis of the motifs, devices, techniques, and other “functions” that comprise the literary work. The Formalists placed great importance on the literariness of texts, those qualities that distinguished the literary from other kinds of writing. Neither author nor context was essential for the Formalists; it was the narrative that spoke, the “hero-function,” for example, that had meaning. Form was the content. A plot device or narrative strategy was examined for how it functioned and compared to how it had functioned in other literary works. Of the Russian Formalist critics, Roman Jakobson and Viktor Shklovsky are probably the most well known.

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Gender Studies and Queer Theory

Gender theory came to the forefront of the theoretical scene first as feminist theory but has subsequently come to include the investigation of all gender and sexual categories and identities. Feminist gender theory followed slightly behind the reemergence of political feminism in the United States and Western Europe during the 1960s. Political feminism of the so-called “second wave” had as its emphasis practical concerns with the rights of women in contemporary societies, women’s identity, and the representation of women in media and culture. These causes converged with early literary feminist practice, characterized by Elaine Showalter as “gynocriticism,” which emphasized the study and canonical inclusion of works by female authors as well as the depiction of women in male-authored canonical texts.

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What is historical criticism?

Historical criticism is the historical approach to literary criticism. It involves looking beyond the literature at the broader historical and cultural events occurring during the time the piece was written. An understanding of the world the author lived in (events, ideologies, culture, lifestyle etc.) allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the work.

Traditional Literary Criticism

Academic literary criticism prior to the rise of “New Criticism” in the United States tended to practice traditional literary history: tracking influence, establishing the canon of major writers in the literary periods, and clarifying historical context and allusions within the text. Literary biography was and still is an important interpretive method in and out of the academy; versions of moral criticism, not unlike the Leavis School in Britain, and aesthetic (e.g. genre studies) criticism were also generally influential literary practices. Perhaps the key unifying feature of traditional literary criticism was the consensus within the academy as to the both the literary canon (that is, the books all educated persons should read) and the aims and purposes of literature. What literature was, and why we read literature, and what we read, were questions that subsequent movements in literary theory were to raise.

Brewton, V. (n.d.). Literary Theory . Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from

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Marxism and Critical Theory

Marxist literary theories tend to focus on the representation of class conflict as well as the reinforcement of class distinctions through the medium of literature. Marxist theorists use traditional techniques of literary analysis but subordinate aesthetic concerns to the final social and political meanings of literature. Marxist theorist often champion authors sympathetic to the working classes and authors whose work challenges economic equalities found in capitalist societies. In keeping with the totalizing spirit of Marxism, literary theories arising from the Marxist paradigm have not only sought new ways of understanding the relationship between economic production and literature, but all cultural production as well. Marxist analyses of society and history have had a profound effect on literary theory and practical criticism, most notably in the development of “New Historicism” and “Cultural Materialism.”

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New Criticism Theory

The “New Criticism,” so designated as to indicate a break with traditional methods, was a product of the American university in the 1930s and 40s. “New Criticism” stressed close reading of the text itself, much like the French pedagogical precept “explication du texte.” As a strategy of reading, “New Criticism” viewed the work of literature as an aesthetic object independent of historical context and as a unified whole that reflected the unified sensibility of the artist. T.S. Eliot, though not explicitly associated with the movement, expressed a similar critical-aesthetic philosophy in his essays on John Donne and the metaphysical poets, writers who Eliot believed experienced a complete integration of thought and feeling. New Critics like Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and W.K. Wimsatt placed a similar focus on the metaphysical poets and poetry in general, a genre well suited to New Critical practice. “New Criticism” aimed at bringing a greater intellectual rigor to literary studies, confining itself to careful scrutiny of the text alone and the formal structures of paradox, ambiguity, irony, and metaphor, among others. “New Criticism” was fired by the conviction that their readings of poetry would yield a humanizing influence on readers and thus counter the alienating tendencies of modern, industrial life. “New Criticism” in this regard bears an affinity to the Southern Agrarian movement whose manifesto,  I’ll Take My Stand , contained essays by two New Critics, Ransom and Warren. Perhaps the enduring legacy of “New Criticism” can be found in the college classroom, in which the verbal texture of the poem on the page remains a primary object of literary study.

  • New Criticism Theory & Examples
  • LumenLearning - New Criticism

New Historicism Theory

“New Historicism,” a term coined by Stephen Greenblatt, designates a body of theoretical and interpretive practices that began largely with the study of early modern literature in the United States. “New Historicism” in America had been somewhat anticipated by the theorists of “Cultural Materialism” in Britain, which, in the words of their leading advocate, Raymond Williams describes “the analysis of all forms of signification, including quite centrally writing, within the actual means and conditions of their production.” Both “New Historicism” and “Cultural Materialism” seek to understand literary texts historically and reject the formalizing influence of previous literary studies, including “New Criticism,” “Structuralism” and “Deconstruction,” all of which in varying ways privilege the literary text and place only secondary emphasis on historical and social context. According to “New Historicism,” the circulation of literary and non-literary texts produces relations of social power within a culture. New Historicist thought differs from traditional historicism in literary studies in several crucial ways. Rejecting traditional historicism’s premise of neutral inquiry, “New Historicism” accepts the necessity of making historical value judgments. According to “New Historicism,” we can only know the textual history of the past because it is “embedded,” a key term, in the textuality of the present and its concerns. Text and context are less clearly distinct in New Historicist practice. Traditional separations of literary and non-literary texts, “great” literature and popular literature, are also fundamentally challenged. For the “New Historicist,” all acts of expression are embedded in the material conditions of a culture. Texts are examined with an eye for how they reveal the economic and social realities, especially as they produce ideology and represent power or subversion. Like much of the emergent European social history of the 1980s, “New Historicism” takes particular interest in representations of marginal/marginalized groups and non-normative behaviors—witchcraft, cross-dressing, peasant revolts, and exorcisms—as exemplary of the need for power to represent subversive alternatives, the Other, to legitimize itself.

  • New Historicism: A Brief Note
  • New Historicism Theory: Overview and Examples

Thinking novels as an analogy of dreams seems an excellent natural example. Same as dreams, novels are fictitious inventions of the human mind, which are although reality based but by definition they are not true. Just like a novel, dreams are said to interpret some truth, coming from one’s personal experiences or subconscious mind

A Research Guid e . ( n.d . ) . A Guide to Psychoanalytic Criticis . criticism.htm l

  • Britannica - Freudian Criticism
  • Psychoanalytic Theory used in English Literature: A Descriptive Study
  • A Guide to Psychoanalytic Criticism

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  1. Man Questions Feminism

  2. Othelo feminist criticism

  3. Modern Feminists Be Like: Pt 9

  4. Feminism Has Failed WOMEN

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  1. Feminist Literary Criticism Questions and Answers

    Summary Critical Essays Questions & Answers Analysis Feminist Literary Criticism Questions and Answers What are the basic tenets of feminist criticism? What are the limitations of...

  2. Feminist Criticism

    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?

  3. Guide to Feminist Literary Theory

    Here, we'll examine how to apply established principles of feminist theory to works of literature. Feminist literary theory is the practice of examining a book from a feminist perspective — that is, with issues of gender inequities in mind. In the 1960s and 70s, feminism, a political and social movement that advocated for women's rights ...

  4. 4.5: Feminist and Gender Criticism: A Process Approach

    Feminist and gender criticism are powerful literary methods that you can use to analyze literature. Be guided by the following process as you write your feminist or gender criticism paper. Carefully read the work you will analyze. Formulate a general question after your initial reading that identifies a problem—a tension—that addresses a ...

  5. Feminist Literary Criticism Defined

    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.

  6. Feminist Theory

    Summary. Feminist theory in the 21st century is an enormously diverse field. Mapping its genealogy of multiple intersecting traditions offers a toolkit for 21st-century feminist literary criticism, indeed for literary criticism tout court. Feminist phenomenologists (Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Marion Young, Toril Moi, Miranda Fricker, Pamela Sue ...

  7. Feminist Literary Criticism

    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.

  8. A Readers Guide to Contemporary Feminist Literary Criticism

    This introduction to feminist literary criticism in its international contexts discusses a broad range of complex critical writings and then identifies and explains the main developments and debates within each approach.

  9. Practising Feminist Criticism: An Introduction

    A companion volume to the textbook A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Feminist Literary Criticism (Harvester Wheatsheaf 1994), this book offers practical readings of literary and cultural texts, and shows how literary theory and feminist criticism can be applied to the main developments and debates within each approach. It provides comprehensive and systematic coverage of the main schools of ...

  10. Feminist Approaches to Literature

    First wave feminist criticism includes books like Marry Ellman's Thinking About Women (1968) Kate Millet's Sexual Politics (1969), and Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch (1970). An example of first wave feminist literary analysis would be a critique of William Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew for Petruchio's abuse of Katherina.

  11. Feminist Criticism

    Ans: (A) The earliest tract on feminism is (A) Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (B) Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (C) Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (D) Mary Astell's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Ans: (D) The earliest woman novelist of significance in the 18th century is : (A)Mary Edgeworth (B) Aphra Behn

  12. A Readers Guide to Contemporary Feminist Literary Criticism

    320 Pages by Routledge Description This introduction to feminist literary criticism in its international contexts discusses a broad range of complex critical writings and then identifies and explains the main developments and debates within each approach.

  13. 23 Texts to Introduce Feminist Criticism in High School ELA

    Here are some of my favorite poems for using feminist criticism: Firstly, "The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica" by Judith Ortiz Cofer is a good poem to begin with. While this is a longer poem, the language is fairly straightforward, so students can spend less time paraphrasing and more time applying feminist criticism.

  14. Feminist Literary Criticism

    By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on October 7, 2022 Feminist literary criticism has its origins in the intellectual and political feminist movement. It advocates a critique of maledominated language and performs "resistant" readings of literary texts or histories.

  15. What Are Feminist Criticism, Postfeminist Criticism, and Queer Theory

    Critical Worlds 39 What Are Feminist Criticism, Postfeminist Criticism, and Queer Theory? If you've heard the word "patriarchy" before (or seen the 2023 Barbie movie starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling), you may already be at least a little familiar with feminist criticism.

  16. Feminist Criticism Questions To Ask Flashcards

    Feminist Criticism Questions To Ask How is the relationship between men and women portrayed? Click the card to flip 👆 Question 1 Click the card to flip 👆 1 / 11 Flashcards Learn Test Match Q-Chat Created by shana_jade Students also viewed CH4+5 Understanding Economics Teacher 18 terms NicholasSchuler333 Preview

  17. Feminist literary criticism

    v. t. e. Feminist literary criticism is literary criticism informed by feminist theory, or more broadly, by the politics of feminism. It uses the principles and ideology of feminism to critique the language of literature. This school of thought seeks to analyze and describe the ways in which literature portrays the narrative of male domination ...

  18. What Is Feminist Criticism? (with picture)

    Marlene Garcia. 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 ...

  19. Theories and Criticisms

    Literary Theory. "Literary theory" is the body of ideas and methods we use in the practical reading of literature. By literary theory we refer not to the meaning of a work of literature but to the theories that reveal what literature can mean. Literary theory is a description of the underlying principles, one might say the tools, by which ...

  20. PDF Some questions feminist critics ask about literary texts

    Some questions feminist critics ask about literary texts The questions that follow are offered to summarize feminist approaches to literature. Approaches that attempt to develop a specifically female framework for the analysis of women's writing (such as questions 6, 7, and 8) are often referred to as gynocriticism. 1.