ENGL 810: PAB #3: Shira Wolosky: “Modest Muses: Feminist Literary Criticism”

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.

feminism.jpg - Harriet Staff (Feminism Poetry Foundation)

from “A Must-Read Post for Women Poets—And Everyone Else” – Harriet Staff (The Poetry Foundation)

Shira Wolosky begins by enumerating the questions that are asked by feminist criticism: “what place have women had in what has been a resolutely male tradition of literature? How have women been represented, and how does this affect their own self-representation? And so forth (1). After some further remarks about feminist critical theory she asks, “What identifies gender in literary texts?” (1). She offers a number of possible answers including “[c]ertain genres” and “feminized uses of male images and feminized readings and transformations of the male literary past, which regender male forms into feminine ones” (2) and points out the reasons women’s poetry is not in the canon.

Feminist criticism is a movement with primary goals of discovering and adding or returning women’s literature and poetry to the canon, or at least, to the public’s attention and analyzing canonized works through a feminist lens (1). Wolosky points out that early women writers had no publication written by women to model their writing after (2). She actually begins by discussing Harold Bloom and his Freudian approach to male poets as seducers of the Muse for inspiration, pointing also to Freud’s Oedipus postulations in her evaluation of women writers and questioning the relationship a woman writer might have with the Muse (3-7).

Wolosky compares women to men, suggesting that women are “submissive not assertive, passive not active, circumscribed not daring” and characterizes women like the women in fairtales “without self-confidence and authority” (6). However, the women in fairy tales I have read often have agency or are rescued or protected by their own wiles or by other women, so this comparison doesn’t ring true unless Disney is the frame of reference.

Wolosky’s approach is to examine Emily Dickinson, Anne Bradstreet, Marianne Moore, and Gwendolyn Brooks in terms of “modesty,” but she inadvertently sets up a conflict on the origins of this “modesty.” She asserts that “modesty has been mentioned in literary analysis almost entirely as a repressive force denying to women freedom and self-determination” (9), but two pages later she excuses the fact that men aren’t ascribed “modesty” “reflects gender roles,” and she explains that women and men have “divergent values characteristic in women’s and men’s cultures” (11) without suggesting that this particular society is a patriarchal construct. She later mentions the religious affiliations of the poets, but even religion is a construct of the patriarchy.

Granted, by Moore and Brooks, modesty is likely to be a choice. Outside of modesty’s restrictions, Wolosky explains that it had a liberating quality to these women writers as well (9), and she gives examples of this modesty for each of the writers. But her description of Dickinson is problematic. Her assertion for Dickinson’s modesty, based on the evidence she provides, is weak. Dickinson was a known recluse, but reclusiveness does not necessarily mean modesty. Wolosky remarks on Dickinson’s “abject letters addressed to a ‘Master’” (13), who I can only assume is Thomas Higginson, and Dickinson’s approach to him could be taken as “modesty” as required or as “modesty” as a novice. Dickinson’s modesty about her poems could just as easily be the trepidation of any new poet, keeping in mind in any case, this would be within the construct of patriarchal society. Furthermore, Dickinson wrote strong poems without modesty including “Wild Nights.” Wolosky might be able to make a case for Dickinson’s modesty, but she simply doesn’t provide enough evidence to make her case. As far as outlining the questions feminism asks, Wolosky does represent the types of questions feminist criticism asks.

Harriet Staff. feminism.jpg. “A Must-Read Post for Women Poets—And Everyone Else.” The Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2012/08/a-must-read-post-for-women-poets-and-everyone-else/. 15 Aug. 2012. Accessed 29 Sept. 2016.

ENGL 810: Feminist Literary Criticism and Women’s Studies History

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf “A Room of One’s Own” from QuoteAddicts


Before the proliferation women’s studies scholarship, women wrote all manner of things. Although the literary canon is still fraught with omissions, as an undergraduate I read many early women writers: women who wrote novels, poems, narratives, essays, books on manners, diaries, letters, and more. Still, for many, the genesis of feminist writing is Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” (1928) where Woolf examines the dearth of scholarly spaces available to women. Some look closer to the present at Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) in which she claimed, “One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman,” asserting man is first and women is second, and establishing woman as “Other” (Knellwolf 196). Woman as “other” forms the basis for much, if not all, feminist critical theory.


I see the real emergence of feminist literary criticism during the second-wave feminism, even as Gill Plain and Susan Sellers point out, feminist literary criticism wasn’t birthed in whole at this moment. Plain and Sellers say feminist literary criticism was the “culmination of centuries of women’s writing,” and of men “writing about women’s minds, bodies, art, and ideas” (2). It is during the later 1960s and 1970s that feminist writers began to build a formidable repertoire of feminist work. The activism of the feminist movement during this period motivated many women to counter the male dominated landscape, and they did this en masse. In creating this work, women created spaces for themselves in academia: in the 1960s, women’s studies classes appear; in the 1970s, we see the creation of women’s studies programs, and now, universities have entire women’s studies departments.


The first women’s studies program was established at San Diego State University in 1970 (Ginsberg 10). Women’s studies programs at other universities were not far behind. “A feminist conference held at Cornell in January 1969” was the inspiration for their “Female Studies” program, later Cornell Women’s Studies (Cornell Chronicle), and now, Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Even with women’s studies programs established, the first feminist scholars came from all over and from a variety of different disciplines (Knellwolf 197). A quick survey of the mentions and sources which appear in just the few texts I’ve consulted reveal a diverse group of feminist writers who published feminist works during the 1970s, feminist writers like Elaine Showalter, Adrienne Rich, Kate Millett, Judith Fetterly, Germaine Greer, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar.


The exigency for the emergence of feminist literary criticism was that feminists found that ­women’s writing was omitted from the canon and that women who appeared in the literature were written from a male-centric point of view. According to Alice E. Ginsberg, “Women’s Studies had a very clear purpose, and that was to transform the university so that knowledge about women was no longer invisible, marginalized, or made ‘other’” (10). This omission, or erasure, of women from the history of literature, according to Annette Kolodny, quoting Clifford Gertz, “came to be ‘viewed collectively as a structural inconsistency’ within the very disciplines we studied” (1). My undergraduate experience of early British literature was comprised almost entirely of men; the exception was Jane Austen. The point of feminist literary criticism was to change things by seeking “to uncover its own origins” and “establish traditions of women’s writing and early ‘feminist’ thought” (Plain and Sellers 2). Feminist critical scholars set out to find their missing heritage, to amend the male-centric history to include women, and to show the value of the women they found. Feminist literary scholars also interrogate works to discover how a culture sees itself, and for me, I’m interested in exploring the ways that women writers define themselves and each other in the twenty-first century. I want to see how far women have moved past the male-centered definitions that have been applied to us for so long.


The relationship between feminist literary criticism and the university as a whole was mirrored in the struggles of the feminist movement: “the definition of literary value privileged male writers’ engagement with warfare or politics over the more domestically centered literary works by female authors” (Knellwolf 199) just as the male endeavors were privileged over female endeavors. The feminist literary critic’s work is multidisciplinary, encompassing “a revisionist engagement with history and literary history, a revision of aesthetic standards and a radical critique of the representation of gender and gender roles as a part of a larger critique of cultural self-definition” (197). In the early years of feminist writing, many women “worked at the margins of the conventionally defined disciplines” as feminists were making inroads in established university programs. While, larger universities excluded women’s studies, lesser institutions created “space for courses specifically designed for women’s needs” (197).


From its early beginnings, women’s studies and feminism literary criticism have opened up new areas of scholarship. Second-wave feminism, criticized for focusing on the plight of middle class white women (Knellwolf 202), has entered a new phase and now recognizes minority women are multiply oppressed and multiply omitted. Additionally, feminist literary critics are abandoning binary ideas of gender and interrogating the role of gender and gender identification as it applies to literature. Feminist literary critics still seek to fill in the history of women’s writing.

More information: The Feminist Approach in Literary Criticism


9721-virginia-woolf.jpg. “Virginia Woolf Quotes.” QuoteAddict.   http://quoteaddicts.com/topic/virginia-woolf-quotes/. Accessed 22 Sept. 2016.

Estroga, Ignatius Joseph. The Feminist Approach in Literary Criticism. 8 Jul. 2013. http://www.slideshare.net/josephestroga/the-feministapproachinliterarycriticism. Accessed 22 Sept. 2016. Slideshow.

Ginsberg, Alice E. The Evolution of American Women’s Studies Reflections on Triumphs, Controversies, and Change. New York: Palgrave-McMillan, 2008.

Ju, Anna. “Women’s Studies at Cornell Evolves over 40-year History to Include Sexual Minorities.” Cornell Chronicle, 4 Nov. 2009, http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2009/11/cornell-looks-back-40-years-womens-studies. Accessed 21 Sept. 2016.

Knellwolf, Christa. “The History of Feminist Criticism.” Twentieth-Century Historical, Philosophical and Psychological Perspectivesedited by Christa Knellwolf and Christopher Norris. The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism Vol. 9. Cambridge UP, 2007, pp. 193-205. Cambridge Histories Online. https://www-cambridge-org.proxy.lib.odu.edu/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/D5A1D2AF4184FBC9438F19EF62A01E09/9781139055376c15_p191-206_CBO.pdf/the-history-of-feminist-criticism.pdf. Accessed 11 Sept. 2016.

Kolodny, Annette. “Dancing through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of Feminist Literary Criticism.” Feminist Criticism vol. 6 no. 1, 1980, pp. 1-25. JStorhttp://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.odu.edu/stable/3177648. Accessed 9 Sept. 2016.

Plain, Gill and Susan Sellers, editors. Introduction. A History of Feminist Literary Criticism. Cambridge UP, 2007, pp. 1-3.



ENGL 810: PAB #2: Christa Knellwolf: “The History of Feminist Criticism”

Christa Knellwolf King

Christa Knellwolf King

Knellwolf, Christa. “The History of Feminist Criticism.” Twentieth-Century Historical, Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives edited by Christa Knellwolf and Christopher Norris. The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism Vol. 9. Cambridge UP, 2007, pp. 193-205. Cambridge Histories Online.

Knellwolf’s article is a good starting place to get an overall sense of the history of feminism and an early idea about feminist theory, and since my background has been creative writing, which incorporates creative writing theory, it’s a good place for me to begin.

Knellwolf’s history begins at the origin of the word feminism in the 1890s, and she characterizes it as “a significant historical moment when there was an urgent need to name the activities of the women’s movement” and makes clear at the outset there exists an “insidious power of literature to propagate views about women’s inferiority” (193). From there, she provides an historical account of the progression of feminism including first and second wave feminism, feminist theory, women’s writing, and feminist literary theory. Knellwolf discusses some of the major figures leading up to feminism and many of the major feminist figures such as Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedman, Kate Millett, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar. Much of the article is focused on the feminists’ efforts to gain equality and concerns about misogyny and the patriarchal structure of society which is so entrenched that “women’s inferiority is ingrained at the very structural levels of syntax and grammar” (201).

While Knellwolf covers the rise French feminism and points out “they alienated women who felt that this position, the French feminist embrace of the language of irrationality and the concept of difference, was a stab in the back to the longstanding struggle to have women’s rationality recognised” (200), she minimizes some of the historical struggle within and opposition to feminism, particularly those struggles toward the end of second wave feminism, like the rise of men’s rights groups and anti-feminist efforts of Phyllis Schlafly, that produced the kind of feminism we see today which is more inclusive of men, and she doesn’t quite bring us to the present 2007 moment. And notably absent is male reaction, including their reaction to changes in the literary canon, to this seemingly seismic shift in women’s demands for equality and freedom. She does point out that Audre Lorde, concerned that the focus of feminist effort was on white women, “wrote an open letter to Mary Daly, criticising her for patronising black women and reducing them to the role of powerless victims” (202), and she does mention “the attempt by mainstream feminists to ignore lesbians” (203). However, in the instances where she indicates strife within feminism the struggle is minimized. Based on the nature of Cambridge histories, this is unsurprising; however, at the conclusion of her history, she suddenly and awkwardly becomes a champion of feminism and includes a plea:

“While feminism needs to pay attention to the diversity between women world-wide, it also needs to respond to a situation in which fundamentalist governments, for instance, seek to remove women from education or to restrict them to jobs of low esteem. An immediate engagement with such issue may create a solidarity which enables women to speak out against oppression” (205).

That aside, Knellwood convers a lot of ground in such a short article, and she covers some of her topics in more depth, like Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, French feminism, and gender identification, among others.

Modern Feminism: A Women's Rights Timeline of Events from flickr

Modern Feminism: A Women’s Rights Timeline of Events

Cavallaro, Dani. French Feminist Theory. London; New York: Continuum, 2003. WordPress. https://caringlabor.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/french-feminist-theory-dani-cavallaro.pdf. Accessed Sept. 2016.

“Christa Knellwolf King.” LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/in/christa-knellwolf-king-972a19122. Accessed Sept. 2016.

“Modern Feminism: A Women’s Rights Timeline of Events” flickr. http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3226/2999672841_c96548854b_o.jpg. Accessed Sept. 2016.

“Phyllis Schlafly (1924-).” National Women’s History Museumhttps://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/phyllis-schlafly. Accessed Sept. 2016.


ENGL 810: PAB#1: On Annette Kolodny, “Dancing through the Minefield”

Kolodny, Annette. “Dancing through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of Feminist Literary Criticism.” Feminist Criticism vol. 6 no. 1, 1980, pp. 1-25. JStorhttp://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.odu.edu/stable/3177648.

Annette Kolodny

Annette Kolodny

Annette Kolodny, in deciphering the reasons why feminists are still (in 1980) struggling to be taken seriously as critics and in the effort to have women’s ‘lost’ writing readmitted to the canon, equates the field of feminist literary criticism as a “minefield,” and she posits that scholars of feminist literary criticism make “explicit…three crucial propositions” for stemming what she characterizes as “current hostilities” among critical theorists (later, these “hostilities” would lead to the infamous, public conflict between scholars Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Laura Biesecker):

“(1) Literary history (and with that, the historicity of literature) is a fiction; (2) insofar as we are taught how to read, what we engage are not texts but paradigms, and finally, (3) that since the grounds upon which we assign aesthetic value to texts are never infallible, unchangeable, or universal, we must reexamine not only our aesthetics but, as well, the inherent biases and assumptions informing the critical methods which (in part) shape our aesthetic responses.” (8)

Kolodny sketches the history of feminist critical theory and the attempts of feminist critics up to her present time, pointing out that feminist critics have been excluded from authorship and that feminist critics have disappointingly found women in literature depicted as “whores, bitches, muses, and heroines dead in childbirth where we had once hope to discover ourselves” (1). She points to the successes of women authors reentering the canon, questions why they were removed, considers why there are more British women writers in the canon than American women writers, explores women writers and their works in relation to their subordinate positions in patriarchal culture, and briefly analyzes the reading of women authors by male and female readers as a prelude to her three-step path through the “minefield.”

Kolodny’s first step, iterating “Literary history (and with that, the historicity of literature) is a fiction” (8) depends on her assertion that the canon “is rooted not so much in any definitive understanding of the past, as it is in our need to call up and utilize the past on behalf of a better understanding of the present” (9). She asserts if people are reading the women authors they have discovered thus far, then their predecessors, other women authors from the past, must be reevaluated as well. She addresses the assertion we should “read the ‘classics’ in order to reconstruct the past” or to “apprehend the meanings that they intended,” but points out that we cannot, even through reading those texts, know another time.

Kolodny’s second step, iterating “what we engage are not texts but paradigms” (8) involves knowing that we impose our own meanings onto text. In other words, we bring our “preconceptions” (11) to bear on whatever we read, and therefore, even in subsequent readings, we can find new meaning. Scholars learn to read critically, but through “an interpretation model” that predisposes a particular “reading” of the text. Men, not accustomed to women’s spaces, or the model of women’s writing, are less likely to value or recognize what is “semantically relevant” (14).

Kolodny’s third step, iterating “we must reexamine not only our aesthetics but, as well, the inherent biases and assumptions informing the critical methods which (in part) shape our aesthetic responses” (8) is a step toward reexamining the methods for evaluation, and Kolodny states, she

“calls into question that recurrent tendency in criticism to establish norms for the evaluation of literary works when we might better serve the cause of literature by developing standards for evaluating the adequacy of our critical methods.” (15)

She questions the basis for judging which works should remain in the canon, which should be added, and which removed. She insists, however, that she is not suggesting anything must go, simply that more women should be added.

Kolodny closes by pointing out the hypocrisies inherent in “that dog-eared myth of intellectual neutrality” like “[t]o write chapters decrying the sexual stereotyping of women in our literature, while closing our eyes to sexual harassment of our women students and colleagues” (21).

Although we may be moving forward in terms of feminist literary criticism, and considering the length of time that has passed since Kolodny wrote her article, it seems we still have a long way to go. Of course, many more women authors have found their ways into the literary canon, and much more feminist literary criticism written by women scholars is being published, much is yet to be settled.

I chose this article by Kolodny because it marks a specific point in the history from which I can build in writing my essay. I’m certain my doctoral work will be feminist and literary, her article will be helpful in establishing how feminist literary criticism was evolving at the time and how far it has come in a more specific way than my next article, which covers feminism in a much broader sense.


“Annette Kolodny author.” “Debunking Imperialism: A Conversation With Annette Kolodny” by Gale Courey Toensing. Indian Country Today Media Network. http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2012/07/22/debunking-imperialism-conversation-annette-kolodny-124791. Accessed Sept. 2016.

Biesecker, Barbara. “Coming to Terms with Attempts to Write Women into the History of Rhetoric.” Philosophy and Rhetoric vol. 25, no. 2., 1992, pp. 140-161. http://public.wsu.edu/~arola/597/fall08/biesecker.pdf. Accessed Sept. 2016.

Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. “Biesecker Cannot Speak for Her Either.”  Philosophy and Rhetoric vol. 26, no. 2., 1992, pp. 153-9.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/40237761?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents. Accessed Sept. 2016.

Hello world!

“For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt, of examining what our ideas really mean (feel like) on Sunday morning at 7 a.m., after brunch, during wild love, making war, giving birth: while we suffer the old longings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while tasting our new possibilities and strengths.” -Audre Lorde, “Poems are not Luxuries” 1977