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Feminist literary criticism

What is it?
• A concern with:
• Women's’ role in
society as portrayed
through texts
• Woman as a construct
through literature
Mary Wollstonecraft
• A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)
• formed the basis of modern thoughts of equality
• Called for the right for women to

– Have an equal education

“How can a rational being be ennobled by anything that is not obtained
by its own exertions?”

– To be treated as equal partners not as ornamental wives

“Women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions
which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, men are
insultingly supporting their own superiority”
Virginia Woolf
• A Room of One’s Own (1929)
– Women’s need for economic and social freedom

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is

to write fiction”
“It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for
any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in
the age of Shakespeare”

– Forego the traditional role as a mirror for man’s ability

"Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses

possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the
figure of a man at twice its natural size."
Simone de Beauvoir
– The Second Sex (1949)

– Woman as a social

– No “natural” distinction
between the sexes

“one is not born, one

becomes a woman”
Woman as a construct

“If the definition provided for this concept [of the eternal
feminine] is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-
blood women, it is the latter who are wrong: we are told
not that Femininity is a false entity, but that the women
concerned are not feminine.”
• What does this
advert mean?

• What is the
Men's contributions?
• Freidrich Engels
– The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

• Focus lay in the images of women in literature

• A need to combat the authority of these
• Focus developed to
explore the
“mechanisms of
• Language, science
and social structures
that reproduced
• Eclectic
development –
drawing on other
disciplines eg
– Marxism
– psychoanalysis
• Exploration of
female experience
• Rewriting of the
female writers)
What feminist critics do
• Rediscover texts written by women
• Revalue women’s experience
• Examine representations of women in literature
• Challenge the view of woman as “Other”
• Examine and challenge patriarchal roles
• Examine language as a tool of gender construction
• Discuss social versus biological difference
• Question the “death of the author”
• Question the neutrality of mainstream interpretation
Feminist terminology
• Patriarchy – in a society the male is the centre
of authority
– This is what is meant by a patriarchal society
Feminist terminology
• Hegemony – leadership; predominance.
– A hegemony is a dominant group or a system that
creates the rules we live by

• Gender – term used when distinguishing male

and female in a variety of disciplines
Identity and agency
• Words commonly employed when discussing
women and their rights:

• Agency: the capacity for a person to act in the

world, make decisions
– If you do not have the power to speak up for
yourself then you have no agency, or the capacity
to act for your own benefit
The “Other”
• The opposite of “the same”
• Used to exclude a group
• To subordinate those who do not fit in
• Gives justification for the dominance and
exploitation of “inferior” groups
• a doctrine or belief centred on the phallus,
especially a belief in the superiority of the
male sex.
– In other words we can say that a patriarchal
society is phallocentric
– In literature it is common to search for phallic
symbols – symbols of male dominance
– This overlaps with psychoanalytic Freudian theory