Describe The Salient Features Of Feminism

Feminism means “the belief and aim that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men” and “the struggle to achieve this aim.” Feminism as a movement became popular in 1960s. It aimed at liberating women from various manifestations of gender based discrimination and exploitation. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) in his famous book The Subjection of Women (1869) and Mary Wilstone Craft (1750- 1797) in A Vindication of Rights to Women (1972) were the pioneers of the Feminist Movement or Feminism. They frankly exposed the inhuman injustice done to women and the hypocrisy underlying the obnoxious patriarchal social order. Mill asserted that the liberty of women was essential for the evolution of a just and orderly social order. Marry Wollstone Craft vehementily protested against institutions that crushed women. She was an ardent champion of women’s rights and liberties. The next important work is Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own which exposes the deprivation and exploitation women suffered in English society. Gender inequality was a condemnable evil. A woman’s entry to the university library was prohibited if she was not properly escorted. Woman’s dependence on man for almost everything in society expressed the horrors of the system.

With the passage of time Feminism became an important ideological- political force. The feminist writers of the 1960s exposed the excursion and marginalisation of women under male hegemony. A large number of women writers-Helen Cixous, Elaine Showalter, Lisa Tuttle, Alison Juggar, Toril Moi, Susan Gubar, Kate Millett, Julia Kristeva, Alice Jardine and many others stood firmly for women’s emancipation and empowerment. They challenged the unjust and exploitative gender based social constructions and radically changed the general perception of women’s place in society.

Post 1970 period, which marks the beginning of post-modernist thinking, brought about a significant change in literary theory. The women writers, who were sensitive to feminine issues, gave a new language and new idiom to articulate feminine sensibility. This gave rise to Feminist Criticism or Literary Feminism.

Literary Feminism or Feminist Criticism:

Feminist Criticism is one of the latest literary trends in modern literary criticism. The Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s is the main motivating force behind it. It attempted to describe and interpret or reinterpret women’s experience as depicted in various kinds of literature. David Lodge points out: “The initial effort of feminist critics was to revise orthodox male literary history, exposing sexual stereotyping in canonical texts and reinterpreting or reviving the works of women writers.”

The feminist viewpoint was ignored in literary criticism due to male supremacy. Virginia Woolf was the forerunner of the freedom of thought and expression for women. Virginia Woolf, Mary Daly, Andriewne Rich and Marguerite Duras “satirized narcissism of male scholarship and celebrated women’s fortunate exclusion from its partriarchial methodolatory.” Feminine criticism was based on “the authority of experience” of women writers and thinkers. Thus, it is original and innovative. It is a powerful organ for the expression of feminine sensibility and aspirations in innovative linguistic and stylistic patterns.

Feminist criticism is concerned with the interpretation and reinterpretation of texts of women writers. According to Elaine Showalter. feminist criticism must be “women experience-centred, independent and intellectually coherent.” According to her its methodology should be clearly charted out and developed. “It must find its own subject, its own system, its own theory and its own voice.” It is “a sustained investigation of literature by women.” It is the study of “women as writers, and its subjects are the history, styles, themes, genres and structures of writing by women, the psychodynamic of female creativity, the trajectory of the individual or the collective female career and the evolution of laws of female literary tradition.” Showalter sums up “this specialized critical discourse” in one word “gynocritics.”

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The feminist theorists are concerned with women’s writings. There have been certain studies which centre round the critical appraisal of women writers. They are Ellen More’s Literary Women (1976), Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own (1977), and Towards Feminist Poetus (1979), Mina Baym’s Women’s Fiction (1978), Margaret Homan’s Women Writers and Poetic Identity (1980), Juliet Mitchell’s essay Women: The Longest Revolution (1966) and Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974), Patrocinio P. Schweickart’s Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts and Context (1986), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), Gayatri C. Spivak’s French Feminism in International Frame etc.

Feminist criticism widely differs from male centric criticism in the sense, that it is concerned with varied aspects of feminism. Feminist criticism in each country has a different center which is related with one or the other aspect of womanhood. Showalter sums up: “English feminist criticism, essentially Marxist, stresses oppression, French feminist criticism, essentially psychoanalyst, stresses repression, American feminist criticism, essentially textual, stresses expression. All, however, have become gynocentric.”

Feminist criticism is also concerned with women’s language. Women writers have to cultivate linguistic and stylistic devices which spontaneously express feminine sensibility and individuality. Women must express themselves both “body and soul” in feminist language. It is also related with women’s psyche and culture. Helen Cixous observes that there exists writing which is characteristically feminine in style and language, tone and feeling and entirely different from male language.

Feminist criticism has shown remarkable maturity and diversifications. We have Marxist brand of feminism, a structuralist feminism, a psycho-analytical feminism, a post-structuralist feminism and linguistic feminism.

The concepts of outstanding feminist critics are given below:


Elaine Showalter (b. 1941) Professor of English at Princeton University, contributed significantly to the formulation of feminine criticism. Her book A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing (1970) is her debut work in feminist criticism. By the late 1970s she reached the conclusion that feminist criticism suffered “a theoretical impasse due to male supremacy in literature.” She vehemently voiced her views in this connection in a lecture entitled Towards a Feminist Poetics (1978) which was published in Women’s Writing and Writing about Women (ed. Mary Jacobus. 1979) and reprinted in The New Feminist (ed. Showalter, 1985). Her famous paper Feminist Criticism in the Wildeness, first published in Critical Inquiry in 1981, is her first major work which lucidly presents the evolution of feminist criticism. According to her, it is not more unified, but it is “more adventurous in assimilating and engaging with theory.” She deserves: “It now appears that what looked like a theoretical impasse was actually an evolutionary phase.” Showalter is, indeed, the champion of feminist criticism.



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