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Gender and Feminism

Any guide to gender simply has to contain at least a gesture towards both feminism and queer theory. Most introductory guides devote at least a chapter to each; as such, I have divided this into two parts: Gender and Feminism and Gender and Queer Theory. They should, however, be considered partner pieces. Many of the theorists referred to in these sections straddle both camps; many that do not will nevertheless work within the framework of the other.

Gender and FeminisimFeminism is a political movement, but you do not have to be a feminist, or subscribe to feminist ideas, in order to read any text in a feminist way. It is necessary, however, to prioritize constructions of sex and gender: a reading that merely describes a female protagonist’s movements, actions or characterization is unlikely to satisfy the criteria for a feminist reading. In order to achieve a feminist reading, literary representations of sex and gender have to be analysed via a particular set of criteria. These will vary depending on the feminist text that you are reading, so this piece will give you some broad examples.

In the broadest terms, feminist analysis can be summed up as either overturning or confirming essentialist ideas of sex and gender. Sex, in this context, means biology and/or the body – the physical form that can be touched, felt and seen, as well as those parts that cannot, such as chromosomes and neurological functions. Gender, on the other hand, is a social construction, a complex web of behaviours and actions. The link between sex and gender, says feminist discourse, is arbitrary: but essentialist representations of men and women reinforce that link and promotes it as natural, innate, and universal. Essentialist conceptions of sexual difference – that male and female bodies are essentially different from one another, and therefore men and women are also essentially different from one another – will always be noted in a feminist analysis.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex (1949) that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ (de Beauvoir, 182), and the major idea of feminism (the separation of sex and gender, described so well by de Beauvoir) was born. The Second Sex is a passionate attempt to survey the multiple workings of patriarchy. It was important indeed: as Fiona Tolan notes, it is the first moment in which women’s reduction to ‘a second and lesser sex’ was formally articulated to be systematic and social (Tolan, 320). Toril Moi provides one of the clearest summaries of patriarchy’s deployment of essentialist representations of sex and gender:

Patriarchal oppression consists of imposing certain social standards of femininity on all biological women, in order precisely to make us believe that the chosen standards for ‘femininity’ are natural. Thus a woman who refuses to conform can be labelled both unfeminine and unnatural. […] Patriarchy, in other words, wants us to believe that there is such a thing as an essence of femaleness, called femininity. Feminists, […] insist that although women are undoubtedly female, this in no way guarantees that they will be feminine. (Moi, 122-3)

It is patriarchy, observes Moi, which stands to benefit the most from promoting as essential and inevitable the link between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, rather than constructed and subjective (an example is easily thought of: ‘femininity’ in eighteenth-century France looks very different to ‘femininity’ in the UK in the year 2012).

With the first feminist text commonly held to be Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792), feminist ideas about the rights, identities and representations of women have been mulled over, debated and circulated since the time of the French Revolution. Anyone thinking that representations of sex and gender are somehow ‘irrelevant’ to, say, Victorian texts, or that critics are ‘retrofitting’ their modern conceptions of equality onto texts published prior to 1950, should think again! It is looking back at Wollstonecraft, however, that gives the first indication of ‘gender’ as a social construction: conceptions of male/female, man/woman, masculine/feminine are clearly very different in the Early Modern period.

Vindication slightly precedes the ‘first wave’ of feminism, in which women’s political agitation for social, political, and economic equality continued throughout the nineteenth century to the outbreak of the First World War. Texts such as Coventry Patmore’s ‘The Angel in the House’ (1854-62) presented idealized representations of ‘woman’ as wife and mother, demonstrating precisely the patriarchal conflation of feminine with female described by Toril Moi. The married Angel found her ‘Other’ in the figure of the prostitute – Victorian concerns about ‘the Great Social Evil’ established certain behaviours, such as overt sexual activity and a refusal to participate in social constructions like marriage, as something that would brand women as un-womanly.

What follows next can be divided chronologically or geographically. The second wave starts to swell from around 1960 – in the US, Andrea Dworkin, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem established patriarchy as a violently oppressive system in which male supremacy is upheld by a system of sexual violence and women’s objectification. Gender roles, encouraging women to achieve suitably feminine submission, were sharply criticized: Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) refused to believe that women would find contentment in motherhood and housewifery. Women were encouraged to reclaim their bodies as well as their writing: Elaine Showalter’s gynocriticism encouraged critics to rediscover a tradition of women’s writing, while Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argued that literature’s inherently patriarchal structure repressed women, asking ‘if the pen is a metaphorical penis, with what organ can females generate texts?’ (Gilbert and Gubar, 7). Francophone feminists (a more accurate term than ‘French’ feminism, for example, as many of them are not French) tend to espouse feminist ideas via the prism of psychoanalysis and poststructuralism.

No student of feminism should take this as a complete introduction: both lesbian feminists and womanists, for example, have noted the problems – heterocentrism, white privilege, class obliviousness – in mainstream feminism’s cultural focus. Waves, as their name suggests, tend to move in and out: some ideas may last, some not. But with these foundations – that political, social, linguistic, psychoanalytic, economic, and cultural systems resolutely and consistently prioritize the male/masculine while silencing and oppressing the female/feminine – in mind, the aspiring feminist analyst is much better equipped to negotiate her or his way through all major waves and interactions of feminist discourse.


Image ‘WeCanDoItPoster[1]’ by kentkb (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via Flickr