Feminism in literary theory

Feminist Theory -- An Overview (1996)

Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own, which describes three stages in the history of women's literature, also proposes a similar multi-part model of the growth of feminist theory. First, according to Showalter, comes an androgynist poetics. Next, a feminist critique and female Aesthetic, accompanied by gynocritics, follows, and these are closely pursued by gynesic poststructuralist feminist criticism and gender theory.

Androgynist poetics, having relations and perhaps roots in mid-Victorian women's writing of imitation, contends that the creative mind is sexless, and the very foundation of describing a female tradition in writing was sexist. Critics of this vein found gender as imprisoning, nor believed that gender had a bearing in the content of writing, which, according to Joyce Carol Oates is actually culture-determined. Imagination is too broad to be hemmed in by gender.

However, from the 1970s on, most feminist critics reject the genderless mind, finding that the "imagination" cannot evade the conscious or unconscious structures of gender. Gender, it could be said, is part of that culture-determination which Oates says serves as inspiration. Such a position emphasizes "the impossibility of separating the imagination from a socially, sexually, and historically positioned self." This movement of thought allowed for a feminist critique as critics attacked the meaning of sexual difference in a patriarchal society/ideology. Images of male-wrought representations of women (stereotypes and exclusions) came under fire, as was the "'division, oppression, inequality, [and] interiorized inferiority for women.'"

The female experience, then, began to take on positive affirmations. The Female Aesthetic arose - expressing a unique female consciousness and a feminine tradition in literature - as it celebrated an intuitive female approach in the interpretation of women's texts. It "spoke of a vanished nation, a lost motherland; of female vernacular or Mother Tongue; and of a powerful but neglected women's culture." Writers like Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson, emerging out of the Victorian period and influenced by its writings were perhaps the first women to recognize this. In "Professions for Women, " Woolf discusses how a woman writer seeks within herself "the pools, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber, " inevitably colliding against her own sexuality to confront "something about the body, about the passions."

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