Feminist Literary Criticism

How would you expect a female character to be presented in a piece of 18th-century literature, compared to a piece of 21st-century literature? What are the social structures and expectations that influence these portrayals?

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    Feminist literary criticism attempts to answer these questions and critique literature through feminist theory.

    Feminist theory explores gender inequality, aiming to understand its roots and nature. In sociology, feminism is a key conflict theory, which argues that society is in continuous conflict due to the inequalities between men and women.

    Content warning: This article discusses sexual harassment and violence against women.

    Feminist literary criticism: definition

    Feminist literary criticism explores the social relationships and roles of men and women. This form of literary criticism draws on the ideas of feminist theory to critique literature, considering how literature portrays and is influenced by patriarchal narratives.

    The patriarchy refers to a social system where men hold the most power.

    Feminist literary criticism examines a number of elements of a text including;

    • 'Gendered' language and symbols.
    • Stereotypical or unconventional portrayals of female characters.
    • How the gender of a reader can affect their response to a text.

    This form of criticism also acknowledges how traditional literature and its production, has been shaped by men. In response to the patriarchal tradition of literature, feminist literary criticism highlights older, 'forgotten' texts by female writers and re-examines classic texts by male writers with a feminist perspective.

    Feminist Literary Criticism, the female symbol in pink with a clenched fist inside it on a black background, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Feminist literary criticism considers the role of patriarchal narratives in literature.

    A history of feminist literary criticism

    Feminist literary criticism as we know it today emerged during the second wave of feminism. However, texts which contribute to feminist literary criticism can be dated back as far as Geoffrey Chaucer's text 'The Wife of Bath' in his collection of stories The Canterbury Tales (1392).

    In 'The Wife of Bath', the narrator, Alison, is portrayed as a strong-willed woman who subverts traditional expectations of femininity.

    Additionally, there are early stirrings of feminist literary criticism during the first wave of feminism. For instance, in her 1929 novel, A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf argued that a woman needed to control her own space and finances to be a successful writer.

    Virginia Woolf was a 20th-century English writer who lived from 1882 to 1941.

    In 1968, Martha Weinman Lear published an article in the New York Times titled 'The Second Feminist Wave'. This article originated the wave metaphor which categorises feminism into four waves.

    The first wave of feminism is marked by the suffragette movement, beginning in the early 20th century. The key focus of this wave was to obtain equality between men and women through the right to vote.

    The second wave of feminism began in the early 1960s and lasted until the late 1980s. This wave centred on the legal obstacles to gender equality, such as workplace or reproductive rights.

    The third wave of feminism began in the early 1990s and continued until the 2010s. Third-wave feminism expanded the issues the feminist movement worked to address, for instance, intersectionality became a key part of third-wave feminism.

    The fourth wave of feminism emerged in the early 2010s. While the fourth wave continued to tackle issues such as legal equality and intersectionality, it focused heavily on sexual violence against women.

    Intersectional feminism is an approach to feminism that understands how the intersecting identities of individual women impact the oppression they face.

    During the second wave of feminism, feminist theorists began to critique the dominance of male perspectives in literature, focusing on the representation of women in literature, and the works of female authors.

    Important works published during this period include:

    • A Literature of Their Own (1977), Elaine Showalter.
    • The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.
    • New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism (1980), Deborah E. McDowell.

    In his lecture, 'The Classical Feminist Tradition', Paul Fry divided the history of Feminist Literary Criticism into two waves.1

    First wave

    The first wave of feminism is the earliest stage of feminist literary criticism, acting as the foundation for feminist literary theory. This school of thought centred on the treatment of women by men, highlighting the stereotypical presentation of women by male authors.

    In John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937), the character of Curley's Wife is presented in a stereotypical way. She is the only female character in the novella and mainly acts as a plot device, rather than an individual. Her lack of individuality and independence is portrayed through her not having a name, only being known as the wife of Curley.

    Second wave

    The second wave focused on gynocriticism. Gynocriticism provided a new, female-led, framework for literary analysis, creating a new space for the study of women writers.

    Gynocriticism is a term that refers to the study of woman's writing. The term was coined by American feminist and literary critic Elaine Showalter (1941- ) in her work A Literature of Their Own (1977).

    This school of thought focused on three key areas;

    • The place of women writers in literary history.
    • The treatment and portrayal of women in literature.
    • Discovering a literary canon of works written by women.

    Third wave

    The third wave of feminism influenced intersectional literary criticism. This wave recognised the limitations of second-wave feminism, particularly its emphasis on gender and sex when examining the treatment and portrayal of women in literature. Issues such as race, sexuality, and class were brought to the forefront of the third wave of feminist literary criticism, as theorists acknowledged how an individual is defined and impacted by more than their gender.

    Intersectionality is a theory that takes into account people's overlapping identities to understand the interconnected systems of oppression they face. Although the concept of intersectionality originated in the field of gender studies, it is now present in many fields including literary studies.

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie highlighted In her 2009 TEDtalk, 'The danger of a single story', how when she started writing stories at 'about the age of seven' all her characters 'were white and blue-eyed'. This was because 'the characters in the British books' she read represented white children and their experiences, rather than children of colour. Because all Adichie had read as a child were books 'in which characters were foreign' she 'had become convinced [that books] had to have foreigners in them'.

    Fourth wave

    The fourth wave of feminism began utilising literature, the news, and social media, to promote feminist causes and highlight issues such as sexual harassment and gender-based violence. This wave of feminism continued to influence feminist literary criticism's examination of the treatment of women in literature and influenced the contents of texts in the feminist literary discourse.

    Louise O'Neill's fiction novel Only Every Yours (2014) presents a dystopian future in which women are controlled by a patriarchal society that values them as objects rather than individuals. Within this novel, O'Neill explores how beauty standards are used to sexualise and control women, limiting their independence and freedom.

    O'Neill went on to write Asking For It (2015). In her 2021 paper 'Introducing Rape to High School and College Students: An Analysis of Asking for It', Giulia Mastrontoni argued that this text could be utilised to encourage students to 'better understand the insidious implications of rape representations, and […] to question their standpoint on rape in a safe, educational environment.'

    Strengths and weaknesses of feminist literary criticism

    There is no set list of strengths and weaknesses for any form of literary criticism. However, it is important to acknowledge that no literary criticism or theory will cover every element of a text.

    Feminist literary criticism is just one lens to view a text through. It is most effective when you are considering issues of gender and gendered oppression. You may consider these issues in regard to the gender of the author, the presentation of characters based on their gender, or both.

    It is important to acknowledge that a feminist lens doesn't directly consider issues such as race, class, or sexuality. Therefore, an intersectional approach may develop your critical analysis.

    Feminist criticism technique in writing

    When applying a feminist lens to texts in a literary context, you consider how gendered social constructs have influenced the way in which the text is written.

    Here are five key questions which can act as a base when analysing literature through a feminist lens:

    1. Is the author, and/or narrator, male or female?
    2. What are the roles of the female characters in the text? Are they minor, secondary, or main characters?
    3. How are women characterised in the text? Do you notice any stereotypes?
    4. Does the author use feminine or masculine imagery in the text? If they do, why have they used this imagery?
    5. What is the social and cultural context that the text was written in? How has this influenced the author's attitude toward women?

    Feminist literary criticism examples

    Now that we have an understanding of what feminist literary criticism is and its history, let's take a look at three key ideas in feminist literary criticism:

    • Simone de Beauvoir's argument that men perceive women as 'the Other'.
    • Elaine Showalter's three phases in women's writing.
    • Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's Madwoman Thesis.

    De Beavouirs 'the Other'

    In her 1949 work The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir highlighted how women are characterised as 'the Other' by men. As 'the Other', women are perceived in opposition to men, rather than as individuals with the ability to control their own lives.

    Simone de Beauvoir was a 20th-century French philosopher who lived from 1908 to 1986.

    Although The Second Sex was not written as a work of literary criticism, the idea of women as 'the Other' is present in feminist literary criticism, highlighting the impact de Beauvoir had on this school of thought.

    'The self' and 'the Other' is a philosophical theory that argues that through the existence of 'the Other', something which is not yourself, you are able to recognise and acknowledge your own individual existence.

    The concept of 'the Other' was introduced by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in his 1807 work The Phenomenology of Spirit. In this text, Hegel argued that the self-consciousness only becomes aware of itself when it recognises a separate self-consciousness (an 'Other). Typically, 'The Other' is dissimilar, or the opposite, of the self.

    Showalter's three phases

    In her 1977 work A Literature of Their Own, Showalter set out three phases present in the female literary canon:

    1. The 'Feminine' Phase: In this first phase female writers typically wrote in a similar way to men, and wrote under male pseudonyms. Female writers chose to do this in order to have their works published and critically respected. Due to this decision, works written during the 'Feminine Phase' didn't present the role of women in society in an overtly critical way. Instead, these works portrayed traditional patriarchal expectations of women.

    2. The 'Feminist' Phase: This phase occurred after the writers of the 'Feminine Phase' had paved the way for women in literature. Writers from the 'Feminist Phase' began to critique the traditional roles of women in society. Works from this phase typically addressed how women were oppressed by patriarchal social structures, and the effect this oppression had.

    3. The 'Female' Phase: Writers from the 'Female Phase' are less impacted by their sex. This phase began once there was no longer a need to prove the right of women writers to put forward their gendered perspective. Although some women writers still focus on gendered issues in their work, this is no longer a dominant theme in the female literary canon.

    Gilbert and Gubar's Madwoman Thesis

    In their 1979 work, The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar highlighted that female characters in works written by men are either defined as an angel or a monster. Essentially, female characters could fit with social expectations, and act in a pure, submissive manner, or they could rebel.

    This limited portrayal of female characters by male writers was reflective of the limited opportunities for women in society. Patriarchal standards enforced a lack of individuality in women, they were expected to become wives and mothers, and if they did not fit within these roles they were not deemed 'useful' or worthy.

    Gilbert and Gubart argued that the limited opportunities available to women led to 19th-century female writers expressing their frustration through the trope of 'the madwoman'.

    In Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847) the character of Cathy Earnshaw steadily loses her sanity after marrying Edgar Linton and falling pregnant. At the novel's opening, Cathy is a wild and free character, who subverts traditional expectations of femininity. Once she abides by the gendered expectations placed on her by society, Cathy loses her individuality and her mind.

    To an extent, the madwoman represented the patriarchal perception of the woman as a monster, as she was uncontrollable and rebellious. However, the madwoman also embodied the rage of these 19th-century female writers, representing their need to break free of patriarchal oppression. This work demonstrated the presence of a distinct female literary canon, with unique traits and themes.

    A feminist literary critique of Mrs Dalloway (1925)

    Let's apply a feminist lens to Virginia Woolf's 1925 novella Mrs Dalloway. We'll consider each of our five questions to create the foundations for a feminist literary critique. Try to expand beyond these and form an argument of your own!

    Mrs Dalloway follows the character of Clarissa Dalloway over the course of a single day as she prepares for her party in the evening. Over the course of the novella, Virginia Woolf utilises the narrative voice of multiple characters, providing insights into their own lives and perspectives.

    Question one: Is the author, and/or narrator female?

    The author of Mrs Dalloway is Virginia Woolf, a woman who lived from 1882 to 1941. Woolf's work arguably fits into Showalter's 'Feminist' Phase, as Woolf presents the role of women in a critical light.

    There are multiple narrators in Mrs Dalloway, as the novella uses a stream-of-consciousness narrative structure. The novella's protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, is one of these narrators, giving her a level of autonomy over the way in which she is portrayed to the reader.

    Stream-of-consciousness is a narrative mode that represents the continuous flow of an individual's mental processes.

    Question two: What are the roles of the female characters in the text? Are they minor, secondary, or main characters?

    Clarissa Dalloway is the text's protagonist or main character. She has a dominant role in the novella's narrative, with the story centring on the events of a single day, leading up to her party in the evening. The other female characters in the text are secondary characters; Sally Seton, Elizabeth Dalloway, Doris Kilman, and Lucrezia Warren. Elizabeth Dalloway and Lucrezia Warren's narrative voices feature within the novella.

    Question three: How are women characterised in the text? Do you notice any stereotypes?

    Each of the female characters in the text is influenced by social constructs and expectations of femininity. There is a strong sense that Clarissa's life has been shaped by social expectations of womanhood and femininity. For instance, Clarissa's decision to marry converges with early 20th-century social constructs of womanhood which placed women within the home, in the role of housewife and mother. Once she decided to marry, Clarissa became 'Mrs Richard Dalloway'.

    By referring to Clarissa as an extension of her husband, Woolf highlights the lack of individual identity many women held in marriage.

    Question four: Does the author use feminine or masculine imagery in the text? If they do, why have they used this imagery?

    Woolf utilises both feminine and masculine imagery in the text, a key example being Peter's 'pocket-knife'.

    The pocket-knife acts as a phallic symbol, Woolf employs it to allow the audience to infer Peter’s attraction and need for dominance. The pocket knife becomes a symbol of masculinity during Peter and Clarissa's first exchange. Despite knives holding connotations with danger and Peter’s own pocket knife being large, Clarissa dismisses it. This indicates that she is not intimidated by Peter’s masculinity and presence.

    As he tilts his pen-knife towards her green dress, Clarissa simply responds by opening her scissors, a yonic symbol, the similar connotations with danger held by scissors allowing Clarissa to match Peter’s encroaching masculinity with her femininity.

    Phallic and yonic symbols refer to the male and female anatomy. A phallic symbol will resemble or represent a penis while a yonic symbol will resemble or represent a vagina.

    Question five: What is the social and cultural context that the text was written in? How has this influenced the author's attitude toward women?

    Mrs Dalloway was written and published during the mid-1920s. At this time, women in the United Kingdom over the age of thirty had only just obtained the right to vote through the 1918 Representation of the People Act. It wasn't until 1928 that women in the United Kingdom could vote at the same age as men.

    Although gendered expectations were steadily changing, as represented by the women's suffrage movement and its success, traditional expectations still held a strong social influence. The majority of women were expected to become housewives and mothers, supporting their husbands rather than acting as independent entities. While Virginia Woolf subverted these expectations, as a successful author who earned her own living, she would have still been impacted by these traditional ideas.

    The women's suffrage movement in the UK was a movement to fight for women's right to vote. This movement began in the late 19th century and succeeded in its mission with the 1918 and 1928 Voting Rights Acts.

    Feminist Literary Criticism - Key takeaways

    • Feminist literary criticism draws on the ideas of feminist theory to critique literature.
    • This form of literary criticism explores how literature portrays and is influenced by patriarchal narratives.
    • Elements of a text of feminist literary criticism may consider include; 'gendered' symbols and language, the portrayal of female characters, how the gender of the reader influences their reading of a text.
    • Feminist literary criticism first emerged during the second wave of feminism, however, ideas relevant to feminist literary criticism are present during feminism's first wave.
    • Important ideas in feminist literary criticism include: Simone de Beauvoir's argument that men perceive women as 'the Other'. Elaine Showalter's three phases in women's writing, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Guabar's Madwoman Thesis.


    1. Paul Fry, The Classical Feminist Tradition, 2012.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Feminist Literary Criticism

    What is the meaning of feminist criticism?

    Feminist literary criticism is a form of criticism that draws on the ideas of feminist theory to critique literature, considering how literature portrays and is influenced by patriarchal narratives. 

    What are the characteristics of feminist literature?

    Feminist literature will typically present the social role of women in a critical light, examining how women are influenced by patriarchal standards and expectations. 

    What is the first example of feminist criticism?

    Feminist criticism as an independent school of thought was defined by Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own (1977). This work pioneered the school of thought known as gynocriticism which provided a new, female-led, framework for literary analysis.

    However, earlier works, such as Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949), also contributed to feminist criticism.

    How do you write a feminist literary criticism?

    When viewing literature through a feminist lens you should consider either the gender of the author, the presentation of characters based on their gender, or both. 

    Some key questions you should answer are; 

    • How are women characterised in the text? Do you notice any stereotypes?
    • Does the author use feminine or masculine imagery in the text? If they do, why have they used this imagery? 
    • What are the roles of the female characters in the text? Are they minor, secondary, or main characters?

    Who are some key thinkers in feminist literary criticism?

    Key thinkers in feminist literary criticism include; Simone de Beauvoir, Elaine Showalter, and Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of these is not an important work of feminist literary criticism?

    Which of these elements of text does feminist literary criticism not consider?

    Which of these fields did Butler not have a significant impact on?


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