Feminism and Feminist Literary Theory

It was not an easy task to convince the patriarchal society to give women the same rights and opportunities as men. Women struggled for ages and have been fighting for almost a century for their rights. The term “Feminism” highlights their oppression, and this term has been used in every campaign that calls to abolish women’s suffrage during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Feminism is one of the most influential movements and dynamic philosophies in history, for it made an impact on literary works, politics, and all aspects of society. It started before the 1960s with major literary works, such as Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Olive Shreiner’s Women and Labour, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.


Waves of Feminism

Feminism can be described in a series of waves. What was here discussed is the nature of the difference between the two genders, the relation between cultural symbols and material processes, and the unconscious reproduction of patriarchy. The first wave of feminism started with Simone de Beauvoir’s "The Second Sex." Beauvoir’s major work criticized male dominance and exposed sexism. Although it wasn’t originally meant to be written as a feminist text, it reflects a profound understanding of women’s desires and needs. It rejected the notions of an “eternal feminine” nature as the determinant of women’s fates. In this sense, women's subordination referred to the inferior position of women, their lack of access to resources, and decision making. This was a situation in most societies. The work remains one of the most influential works for contemporary feminists.

First wave feminism and women's suffrage: Suffragettes hanging posters claiming their rights to vote

Second-wave feminism emerged in the 1960s, coinciding with the sexual revolution of the era. The contraceptive pill was just introduced, which gave women control over their bodies and power over their choices on whether they wanted to have children. Second-wave feminists were more outspoken than the ones preceding them, and they started confronting workplace and education inequalities, domestic violence, as well as laws concerning divorce and child custody.

Second wave feminism: Photograph from an abortion protest march in New York City, 1977. Peter Keegan 

Third-wave feminists adopted law professor and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality. For example, a black woman’s experiences of sexism may differ from those of white or Latina women. Third-wave feminists also argued that gender could be socially constructed. Now, transgender issues have become feminist causes. Transgender women and men have increasingly gained acceptance and are advocates for the feminist cause. Like second-wave feminists before them, many third-wave feminists continued with efforts to secure equal employment and education opportunities.

Famous poster from third wave feminism: Riveter poster highlighting women from different races.

Fourth-wave feminism aims to liberate all people from the diminishing forces of socially constructed masculinity and femininity. Fourth-wave feminism emerged in the early twenty-first century and continues many of the traditions and tactics of earlier waves. Fourth-wave feminism is best distinguished from its predecessors for its engagement with technology and is closely identified with online activism. It deals with concepts such as body positivity, women’s representation in the media, and sexist advertisements.

Fourth wave feminism: picture taken at a women’s rights march in Barcelona, Spain, circa 2019

What is Feminist Criticism?


Literature was the main source that indicated what was an acceptable representation of femininity. During the 1970s, feminist criticism explored the mechanisms of patriarchy and the cultural mindset that resulted in sexual inequality. It delves into works of literature and tries to analyze them through a feminist lens, to uncover truths hidden in the work and questions such as misogyny or patriarchal dominance. It was a consequence of the women’s movement of the 1960s, and it helped critics realize the significance of the images of women promoted by literature.

Feminist critics: Elaine Showalter, Virginia Woolf, Helene Cixous

One of the most prominent feminist critics is Elaine Showalter. She discusses the history, styles, genres, and structures of women writing, as well as the psychodynamics of female creativity. Showalter divides literary works into two categories: Gynotexts (books by women) and Andro-texts (books by men). Critics like Showalter study literary texts through a realist lens and treat literature as a series of realities.

They researched written diaries, memoirs, and social and medical history. Another important feminist critic is Virginia Woolf. Her main theory is based on a statement that language is gendered. She argues that the characteristics of a women’s sentence are that the clauses are linked in looser sequences, rather than carefully balanced and patterned as in male prose. When taking a closer look at a wide range of literary texts, we can notice that her theory is accurate.


Finally, Helene Cixous was also interested in the feminist analysis of literary texts and she ranks as one of the most important feminist critics of her era. She introduces two main concepts concerning feminist criticism: “Ecriture feminine” and “The Laugh of the Medusa.” “Ecriture feminine,” or feminine writing, is a theory expressing that writing is the product of female physiology that women should celebrate in their writing. Women must write through their bodies and invent a language that will wreck classes, rules, regulations, and codes, laughing at the very idea of “silence.” It is transgressive and rules transcending. In her text “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Cixous compares Medusa to powerful female characters in literary works. In her theory, these powerful women are aware of their power and are not afraid to use it against patriarchal dominance. However, in most literary texts, these women end up being exiled or persecuted because they are feared. Men prefer women when they are nothing but their weak subordinates and despise anything that defies their authority.

            In conclusion, feminist criticism helps us reinterpret old texts and view them from a modernized lens. It adheres to portraying women from a new perspective and establishes the importance of female representation in literature. It contributes to breaking gender stereotypes and archaic ideas of the feminine while shedding the light on the history of female subjugation under patriarchal norms. In addition, it helps us take a closer look at women’s realities whether social, economic, or political. Feminists have undergone numerous obstacles throughout their journey to claim their freedom and rights. Feminism is connected with feminist criticism since they both grew simultaneously and depended on one another. Feminist criticism is a constant reminder for us that women are men are still unequal in society. It raises awareness and aids us to fight discrimination one step at a time.   References Showalter, E. (1981). Feminist criticism in the wilderness. Critical Inquiry, 8(2), 179-205.

Aneja, A. (1992). The Medusa's slip: Hélène Cixous and the underpinnings of écriture féminine. Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, 4(1), 17-27. Cixous, H. (1975). The laugh of the Medusa. Feminisms Redux: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, 416-431. Simons, M. A. (Ed.). (2010). Feminist interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir. Penn State Press. Black, N. (2018). Virginia Woolf as a feminist. Cornell University Press. De Beauvoir, S. (2010). The second sex. Knopf. Bellafante, G. (1998). Feminism. Time, 151(25), 54-60. Freedman, E. (2007). No turning back: The history of feminism and the future of women. Ballantine Books. Wollstonecraft, M. (2007). Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: And, The Wrongs of Woman, Or, Maria. Longman Publishing Group.

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Gaelle Abou Nasr

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