Feminism in Literature | Feminist Criticism

Feminism is a broad term that investigates women’s position in society and fights for their rights and opportunities. The study of how literary texts depict or disregard women, support or challenge prejudices, has been the core activity of feminist criticism. “Feminist Criticism is a political act whose aim is not simply to interpret the world but to change it, by changing the consciousness of those who read and their relation to what they read,” writes Judith Fetterley in her book “The Resisting Reader”

One of the points feminists make is that the male pronoun “he” should not be used to refer to both male and female. However for many feminists, using the pronoun “he” to represent both sexes appears to reflects and reinforces a “habit of seeing” a way of looking at life that employs male perspective as the norm by which the perspectives of both sexes is judged. To put it simply, while the “inclusive he” pretends to serve both male and female, it is actually part of a profoundly ingrained societal mindset that dismisses women’s experiences and blinds us to their perspectives. 

Traditional gender roles:

Men are traditionally seen as intellectual, powerful, defensive and determined, while women are portrayed as sentimental, vulnerable, nurturing, and subservient. These gender stereotypes have been effectively employed to justify disparities that still exist today, such as denying women equal opportunities to executive and decision-making roles (both in the home and in corporate world), offering men to pay better wages for doing the same job, and persuading women that they are unfit for professions in math and engineering. 

By nature, patriarchy is sexist, as it encourages the assumption that women are inherently inferior to males. This idea of women’s innate inferiority is referred to as biological essentialism because it is grounded on biological distinctions between men and women that are considered part of our constant nature as men and women. 

The biological distinctions between men and women are not denied by feminists; in reality, many feminists embrace them. They disagree, however, that physical variations such as height, form and body chemistry make men innately superior to women in terms of intelligence, reasoning, courage or leadership. As a result, feminism differentiates between the term sex, which describe our physical makeup as men or women; and the term gender, which describe social conditioning as feminine and masculine. That is to say, neither women nor men are born feminine or masculine. Instead, society constructs these gender roles and that is why this perspective on gender is an instance of what has come to be accepted as social constructionism.

Patriarchal gender roles are also harmful to males. Traditional gender roles decree that males are expected to be brave and they are not expected to weep since sobbing is seen as a form of weakness, an indication that one’s emotions have taken over. Men are also regarded unmanly when they display fear or anguish or show compassion for other men. Because patriarchy considers that only the most quiet, stoic and boyish kinds of male friendship are free of gay implications, showing affection for other men is especially prohibited. Furthermore, males are not allowed to fail at anything they undertake since failure in any field equates to masculine failure.

According to Patriarchal system, a woman can only have two identities. She is a “good girl” (soft, obedient, chaste, innocent) if she embraces her conventional gender roles and respects patriarchal laws; if she does not, she is a “bad girl” (harsh, hostile, worldly). Patriarchal system rewards the “good girl” for her excellent behavior by elevating her to a pedestal. She has no personal desires because she is satisfied by helping her family. She created a peaceful shelter for her husband and children. Both “good girls” and “bad girls” are objectified by patriarchy. According to patriarchy, women exist to be utilized without regard for their own thoughts, sentiments or ideas. 

All of these imply that if patriarchy seeks to undermine a behavior, it presents it as feminine. It is also worth noting that the patriarchal idea of femininity, which is associated with weakness, modesty, and shyness, marginalizes women in the real world. It is not feminine to excel in business, be exceptionally brilliant, have strong views or express one’s rights.

Getting beyond patriarchy:

Every belief has points of contradiction that allow us to comprehend its functioning and reduce its impact, such as when Mary Wollstonecraft countered patriarchal system in 1972 with “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” when Virginia Woolf countered patriarchal system with “A Room of One’s Own”, and when Simon de Beauvoir countered patriarchal system in 1949 with “The Second Sex”.

Materialist feminism and psychoanalytic feminism are two contrasting approaches to feminism. Materialist feminism is concerned with women’s economic and social subjugation, such as patriarchal assumptions about difference between male and female and laws and conventions governing marriage and motherhood; on the other hand psychoanalytic feminism is concerned with women’s psychological encounters, such as the notion that women are tender, obedient, nurturing etc. 

Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own

Woolf poses a major question in “A Room of One’s Own” which is interesting and thought provoking: what are the conditions required for the development of great literary art? She maintains that authors require money and time, as well as solitude and independence from poverty, in order to grow. Therefore a woman writer would require her own income – an annual allowance to support accommodation, food and clothing – as well as a private room. Woolf notes, for most of that history, female voices have been missing. “It is a perennial puzzle”, Woof notes, “why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet”. Woolf speculates on what would have been if William Shakespeare had a sister named Judith who was equally gifted in poetry and had a profound insight of human nature. What could Judith accomplish with these abilities? How could Judith express her love for poetry if she had no alternatives, was viewed as property and hence uneducated and couldn’t move away to London as Shakespeare did to find work? Woolf’s answer is she couldn’t: “Any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at”.

Women authors, according to Woolf, not only have to face more difficulties than male authors but also deal with active rejection because of their sex, community condemnation for their stupidity, domestic pressures, and so forth. 

Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”

One of the oldest works of Feminist theory is Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Right’s of Woman”. Wollstonecraft claims in this long essay that women have the same capacity to think rationally as men, and, as a result, deserve the same respect. According to Wollstonecraft, many women behave like artificial “spaniels” and “toys” not because of a mental or temperamental defect, but because they have been deprived of an education. She argues for women’s education on the grounds that it will not only make them good wives and mothers, but also good tutors for their children. She even proposes a particular educational strategy, including coeducational institutions that educate both boys and girls in the same manner in order to achieve intellectual parity between husband and wife later in life. In this way, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” was a groundbreaking work of feminist theory.

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex

“The Second Sex”, a landmark work by Simone de Beauvoir established a theoretical foundation for feminists for years to come. In patriarchal societies, according to Beauvoir, men are regarded as essential subjects (independent individuals with free will) whereas women are regarded as contingent subjects (dependent individuals dominated by conditions). Men have the power to act on the world, to alter it, to provide it meaning but women only have significance in connection to men. As a result, women are characterized not by their differences from males, but by their insufficiency in comparison to men. As a result, the word “woman” carries the same connotations as the word “other”. Beauvoir’s famous words: “One is not born a woman; one develops one.” Beauvoir claims that women are not birthed with motherly instincts, and not all women desire or feel easy having children. Patriarchy convinces them that if they do not have babies, they are incomplete as women. 

Psychoanalytic theory:

French feminist psychoanalytic approach, in comparison to materialist feminist approach, is concerned with patriarchy’s impact on women’s mental and emotional experience. It focuses on personal psyche rather than social experience. Because a woman can’t be freed in real sense if she does not realize she ought to be freed in the first place. Many French psychoanalytic feminists believe that the prospects for women’s psychological freedom must be examined at the site of most, if not all, of their mental or emotional oppression: language, since it is within language harmful patriarchal conceptions of gender relations (what patriarchal society appears to believe to become the essential, or, innate ability, disparity between men and women), have been described and continue to cause their restrictive impact.

Helena Cixous:

Language, according to Helena Cixous, displays patriarchal binary ideology, which she defines as perceiving the world with regards to polar opposites, one of which is regarded superior to other.  Objective/subjective, mind/heart, and activity/passivity are only a few examples. Evidently, the woman holds the right side of each of these binary opposites, the side that patriarchy regards weak and subordinate – subjective, heart, passivity – while the man is presumed to occupy the left side of each binary oppositions, the side that patriarchy thinks superior – objective, head, active. Cixous observes, “traditionally the question of sexual difference is treated by coupling it with the opposition activity/passivity”. To put it another way, patriarchal thought holds that women are born passive and males are born active as it’s inherent for the males and females to vary in this way.

Women gaining power inside the present socio-political system would not be sufficient to transform it. Actually, the result would be that women would develop the ability to think how patriarchal males have been programmed to think, and as a result, they would become more patriarchal men. Instead, she contends that because women are the giver of life, they are also the source of power of vitality. As a result, we require a separate feminine language that challenges or removes patriarchal binary thinking, which oppresses and dismisses women. This type of language that Cixous feels best describes itself in writing is termed ecriture feminine (feminine writing). It’s well-organized and associative in nature. It opposes patriarchal forms of thinking and writing, which often demand prescribed “proper” organizational systems and rationalist principles of composition. Cixous describes ecriture feminine as a method to unite directly to the unbridled, happy vitality of the female body, which she highlights as the source of life. So we can say that Cixous sees writing as a form of freedom and emancipation. 

Julia Kristeva:

Rather than adopting ecriture feminine as a method of breaking free from patriarchal domination, Kristeva believes that women and men may break free from patriarchal language and thought by exploring what she refers to as the semiotic component of language. Language, according to Kristeva, has two dimensions: symbolic and semiotic. The symbolic dimension is the realm in which words function and the meaning is assigned to them. The semiotic dimension of language, as she calls it, is that part of language that, in contrast, includes aspects like intonation, rhythm, and the body language that happens while we communicate, which unveils our emotions and bodily drives. In other words, the semiotic comprises how we communicate, such as the emotions expressed in our voice and body language while we converse. Kristeva finds that scientific discourse tends to downplay semiotic elements and, in contrast, the semiotic tends to be more prominent in poetic language.

Indeed, the semiotic is the first “speech” available to children — the vocal sounds and body actions they make before acquiring outside information. They acquire this “speech” through their interactions with the mother’s body, which includes signals, gestures, rhythms and other visual means of communication. Thus, we remain in constant contact with our earliest relationships to our mothers through the semiotic components of language. According to Kristeva, both our innate desires and earliest links to our mothers are suppressed by our entrance into our language. Because patriarchy controls the symbolic or meaning-making part of language, it is a patriarchal dominance. The semiotic, on the other hand, is outside patriarchal programming, and patriarchy suppresses everything it can’t control explicitly. Obviously, Kristeva is not implying that we can or should go to the semiotic condition of the child, but rather that we may and should reach that portion of our psyche where the semiotic exists, for example, through artistic and literary expression.

When reading a literary work, we can ask the following questions:

What does the work tell about patriarchal oppression? 

What is the portrayal of women like?

Is the behavior of the characters always gender-specific?

Is the work supportive of patriarchal ideology or antagonistic to it?

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