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feminist criticism

A Room of One's Own, Three Guineas, Sexual Politics, Literary Women

women woolf male feminists

There were, of course, feminists and feminist criticism long before the terms were used with any frequency, but a convenient modern landmark is Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929), perhaps best read in conjunction with her less conciliatory Three Guineas (1938). Woolf addressed the question of women both as writers and as characters in works written by men, concluding that there was a huge discrepancy between the power of fictional or legendary women, like Cleopatra and Clytemnestra, and the powerlessness and virtual invisibility of most of their historical counterparts. Woolf thereby set the agenda for much feminist criticism to follow, whether by exploring and recovering the work of neglected women writers or by examining the (often wildly biased or deeply buried) assumptions behind the portrayal of women in literature. Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1971) took the second path with its acrid and funny exhibition of male mythologies in D. H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer and others, while Ellen Moers's Literary Women (1976) and Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own (1977) revealed and pursued a female tradition of writing, along the lines of Woolf's suggestion that a woman writer can learn from her male predecessors, but cannot get help from them. Meanwhile Simone de Beauvoir, in her enormously influential The Second Sex (1949), had argued that the very idea of woman, as we experience it, is a male creation: an argument giving rise to the polemical claim of later feminists that language itself is masculine. Should women then seek to subvert this language or find a place within it; or should they (can they) form a language of their own? The idea of a specific écriture féminine, associated with the work of Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, is still much debated: celebrated, questioned, parodied. Feminism has become a great force in the later twentieth century, but it is not a single movement: there are many feminisms. It has become customary, though, at least in the West, to think of two main strands of feminist criticism: the Anglo-American, which is practical and sceptical, inclined to view literary theory as a placebo, or institutional delaying tactic; and the French, strongly influenced by Structuralism and psychoanalysis, inclined to believe that unless our theories are drastically revised, we can only shuffle the cards of the old order. There is little likelihood of an accommodation between the parties, but there are signs that younger feminists are able to take what they need from both sides. It is telling that the utopian project of deconstructing the very opposition between male and female, proposed in different ways by both Cixous and Julia Kristeva, should strongly resemble, at least in a certain reading, Woolf's argument for an ideal androgyny of the writing mind.

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