ENGL 810: Feminist Literary Scholars: What We’re Looking At and Why



Steinem from GirlTalkHQ

On the one hand, feminist literary scholars look at literary texts, and on the other hand, they don’t actually limit their objects to books, not even to what most people think of when we say texts. Films, games, and other objects can be examined using feminist critical theory and are sometimes incorporated under the umbrella of feminist literary criticism. For me, poetry is my object, but in what form that object is available is of little consequence. Poetry can be found in books, online, in film, as well as in places that are as yet undiscovered. I could imagine, as a scholar, analyzing not only the canonical and new poetry produced by literary poets but also the rhymes that appear in greeting cards, between lovers, and found incidentally in the world at large (By these “incidental” poems, I’m referring to those instances of “I’m a poet and didn’t know it” and poetic language that are recognized within our everyday discourse).

CS by Tara Laskowski

From  by “Cultural Studies Examines the World with a Critical Eye” by Tara Laskowksi, George Mason University

The lines between literary scholarship and cultural studies often become blurred as feminist literary scholars expand out from the literary text. Both disciplines incorporate a variety of theoretical practices, so in essence they operate in similar ways. There are differences. Cultural studies approaches its objects of study in terms of production and distribution and “will consider the social, cultural, political and economic aspects of the distribution of power” (Ouellette) while feminist critical theory, the basis for feminist literary theory, focuses on the structures of power, entrenched patriarchal structures with respect to the Other.

Although many women and Others have found their ways into the literary canon, for me, my objects of study are too new for have found their places there. I intend to examine the poetry women are writing now, poetry that is newly published by women new to the field. I want to see how women are defining themselves and other women in their writing as compared to how women have historically defined themselves and others in poetry, perhaps even compared to how men have defined women through poetry.



From Kimberlé Crenshaw: The urgency of intersectionality
Filmed October 2016 at TEDWomen 2016

Feminist literary scholars analyze the ways the language of texts oppresses the Other. Feminist originally referred to women, specifically white middle class women, but that definition has broadened. Feminist literary scholars apply the various theoretical lenses that make up feminist literary theory to examine the power imbalances, which often result in oppression, that exist based on sex, race, class, and identity. Among the most recent concerns for feminist scholars is intersectional feminist studies in which the Other is multiply oppressed as their identity falls into more than one category of oppressed Other. According to Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality results in scholars following paths of inquiry only examining one type of oppression but missing that other types of oppression cross that path.

White Feminists

From Zaba Blay

In my scholarship, I plan to look at a cross section of women so that I have a broad view of women from different and varied backgrounds; however, I suspect I will focus primarily on women who have had college level creative writing instruction. Still, I’m interested in seeing how their experiences shape how they  create themselves in their poetry.



The major questions that scholars are addressing now are still related to the inclusion of women’s literature in the male canon, how women are portrayed through the phallocentric lens, and how they portray themselves in what is recognized as a male model of authorship (Wolosky 1), but feminist literary scholars have expanded out from middle-class white women as Other and out from literature in book as form. Without ignoring those, feminist literary scholars have expanded definitions of Other to include all people who fit into the category of Other; however, they have remained primarily centered on women and included other text forms.


From http://tingoed.weebly.com/tingos-vocab-system.html

Image Credit: Tingo’s Vocabulary System

Early feminist scholars faced considerable push back from the patriarchal bastions of literary studies. Male scholars held staunchly to their privileged literary canon; however, women within English departments made their cases for the inclusion of newly “discovered” women writers. Some male professors still argue the merits of learning the classics and the inability to make space for new works by women, but that position is becoming rarer as women’s and feminist studies have impacted how colleges and universities view their commitments to their students in terms of inclusion (Wolosky 1; Rich 349).




Works Cited:

“Kimberlé Crenshaw: The Urgency of Intersectionality.” TEDWomen 2016 from TedTalks. Oct. 2016, https://www.ted.com/talks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality#t-612389. Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.

Ouellette, Marc. “Re: CS Project.” Received by Lori Hartness, 14 Nov. 2016.

Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision.” Claims for Poetry, ed. Donald Hall. U of Michigan P, 2007, pp. 345-61.

Wolosky, Shira. “Modest Muses: Feminist Literary Criticism.” Feminist Theory Across Disciplines: Feminist Community and American Women’s Poetry. New York; Taylor & Francis; Routledge, 2013, pp 1-22. Adobe Digital Editions. Accessed 26 Sept. 2016.



One of the difficulties of simply defining one or two theories for my focus is that Feminist Literary Theory is a combination of a wide variety of theoretical lenses, including Gender Theory, Reader-Response Theory, Close Reading, and Deconstruction among others, and the feminist approach to literature is currently in a state of change. In 1985, Susan S. Lanser notes that “[f]eminist criticism ha[d] been challenged and enriched in turn by new theories and practices whose possibilities it helped to create” (4). These were common methodologies at the start of the twenty-first century, but this is changing. Keeping in mind the changing nature of the field, I would consider women’s poetry and how women poets define themselves and other women through their poetry, through close-reading, linguistics, and likely, the theoretical position of philosophers like Derrida or Barthes.

Dr. Alison Reed, Old Dominion University

Dr. Alison Reed, Old Dominion University


The field of Feminist Literary Criticism seems a field of diverse theories and methodologies that has exploded in myriad directions. Feminist Literary scholars are pulling from all criticisms and drawing on many methodologies. The original feminist theorists have genuine staying power, and their theories are being fused with new theoretical and methodological approaches This makes the prevailing theories in Feminist Literary Criticism elusive. Trying to pin down particular favored theory is like trying to catch a greased pig—I think I’ve gotten it, but as soon as I think I do, it’s taken off again. In my interview with Dr. Alison Reed from ODU’s English Department, she mentioned that her current project focused on a performative social justice study, which is not based on a traditional text and is far from the traditional research paradigms of the twentieth-century.

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida


Early Feminist Theory that relied on Freud and Lacan, Byam points out, is based on psychoanalytic approaches that are inherently misogynistic, implying that women desire to be men. Even the feminist’s initial dichotomy of gender becomes problematic (102). While discussing feminist approaches to earlier eras, Byam states that feminist criticism has never been formalist, “if formalism means being preoccupied or even more than superficially interested in technique” (108). The critical conversations about methodology and theory drop off at the end of the twentieth-century, and then, the focus becomes applying various theories to different literary works. As for method, the tried and true research, collecting and examining secondary sources and Close Reading of the material, is still widely practiced, but even that seems to be giving way to experiment as scholars explore philosophical theories like Derrida‘s Deconstruction, and his assertion, “Everything is a text” (Rawlings).


corporate feminism

The authoritative works, the works that appear significantly in present critical theory, go back to the original feminist theorists: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Kate Millet, Elaine Showalter, and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar and to gender theorist Judith Butler figure heavily in contemporary scholarly criticism.

Moving into Reader-Response, retaining Close Reading, experimenting and applying many theories alone and in combination to literature old and new, and often that which the scholar deems significant enough for inclusion in the canon.  Even Shira Wolosky considers women’s poetry through a variety of theoretical frameworks: including but not limited to feminist psychological, feminist political, and feminist poetics and aesthetic theories.


Lanser points out the narrowly defined woman of early feminism, “only a small group of women whose politics may be no less conservative than those of the men with whom they sit on corporate and collegiate boards of trustees” and quotes Audre Lorde in pointing out that the women omitted from consideration were those who worked as domestics for these feminists “while [the feminists] were attending conferences on feminist theory” (5). The same trap that lead scholars to “the Utopian expectation that all works by women would be ideological correct in all particulars,” but were then faced with the dilemmas of classist and lesbian authors (Byam 114). Feminism has shifted its focus from white middle-class women to Intersectionality (recognizing the many ways women can be and are marginalized) and now toward political ecology, recognizing the real needs of marginalized women in other, particularly third-world, countries (Sunila Abeyskera 7). Scholars need to define themselves in terms of how their “own lived experiences reflect [their] literary commitments and affinities” and consider what other feminisms “look like” (Reed). Ihab Hassan quotes Steven Best and Douglas Kellner’s The Postmodern Turn, “Yet we must all heed politics because it structures our theoretical consents, literary evasions, critical rescuancies” (125). In these ways, scholars, including me, can avoid the unfortunate “you can’t speak for me”—“what about us” dichotomy and the vulnerabilities of early feminism and gynocritics that excluded and erased large populations of marginalized women.

Works Cited

Abeysekera, Sunila. “Shifting Feminisms: From Intersectionality to Political Ecology.” Talking Points. No. 2, 2007, pp. 6-11. Accessed 1 Nov. 2016. http://www.isiswomen.org/downloads/wia/wia-2007-2/02wia07_01TPoints-Sunila.pdf.

Hassan, Ihab. “Confessions of a Reluctant Critic: or, The Resistance to Literature.” The Emperor Redressed: Critiquing Critical Theory, edited by Dwight Eddins. Adobe Digital Editions. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1995, pp. 118-31.

Lanser, Susan S. “Feminist Literary Criticism: How Feminist? How Literary? How Critical? NWSA Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter 1991, pp. 3-19. Jstor. Accessed 3 Nov 2016.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/4316102.

Rawlings, John. “Jacques Derrida.” Stanford Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts. Stanford U, 1999. Accessed 3 Nov. 2016. https://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/derrida/.

Reed, Alison. Personal Interview. 13 Oct. 2016.

Wolosky, Shira. Feminist Theory across Disciplines: Feminist Community and American Women’s Poetry. Adobe Digital Editions. NY: Routledge, 2013.