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.



Dykes to Watch Out For: The Rule - Alison Bechdel, 1985

Dykes to Watch Out For: The Rule – Alison Bechdel, 1985

The Major Questions

According to Shira Wolosky, the major questions within feminist literary criticism are:

“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? What have been the (male) models of authorships, and how do these serve—or not—as models for the authorship of women? Are there gendered aspects of literary genres, of imagery, of language itself? What do we even mean by a ‘women’s’ literature? What would distinguish it from ‘men’s’ literature, other than the fact that women have written it?” (1)

Although the question of women’s absence in the canon does not appear in her list, Wolosky cites it as a “core concern” (1), which is a primary concern for me as are the final two questions.


The Origins of the Questions

Women had been excluded; therefore, women have struggled to have their writing canonized in a canon that “derive[d] from typically male experiences” (Code qtd. in Lang 313). British women like the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, and George Eliot, among others, had found their ways into the male canon (Grace 12) earlier than American women. By the time I was studying English in 2000, women figured prominently in literature.


Sexy Lamp Test

Sexy Lamp Test

The Ongoing Research

In researching feminist literary criticism as a subject, most of the writing occurred in the late seventies and throughout the eighties, trickling into the nineties, and when the conversation turns in favor of feminist criticisms of specific literary works. While researching, I found “newer” texts were frequently reprints of older work.

My own bookcase features a wealth of feminist writing and criticism from the eighties and nineties and includes authors such as Antonia Fraser, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Elaine Showalter, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, as well as gender studies author, Judith Butler. These women illustrate an energetic conversation about how women have been viewed, ignored, exploited, benefitted, and eventually, recognized as people and authors. Through examining recent scholarship, the focus is shifting from the inclusion of women’s writing to criticism focused on individual works.

Presently, new paradigms to assess how women are portrayed in film, and in literature include approaches like Shira Wolosky’s, examining literature in terms of gender and cultural theories through a decidedly feminist lens, and Wolosky, and Cheryl Glenn’s, examining women’s silences and modesties as deliberate and political.  And, Daphne M. Grace explores the female body in literature, “locating and discussing the relationship of the gendered body and consciousness” in writing by men and women (15).

Furiosa Test

Furiosa Test

Scott Selisker presents “The Bechdel Test,”[i] based on one of Alison Bechdel’s comic strip episodes in Dykes to Watch Out For, which was dubbed “vernacular criticism” by Brian Droitcour (Selisker 505), examines how women are portrayed in films, in which a film must pass three criteria (514). Based on Selisker’s paraphrasing of Heather Love on network studies: “this empirical style of reading can and should be applied to the networks within literary texts, too” (508), and we should consider women in literature likewise. Selisker also suggests Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s approach, examining texts in terms of “surface reading,” or “describing the ‘patterns that exist writing and across texts’” (508), showing how women act as network lines for the benefit of men within texts.


Where Does This Lead?

My focus, as I envision it, interrogates women’s poetry to see how women present themselves and other women within the poetry they write, which may incorporate any of these new approaches. Of course, “the way we view our bodies is synonymous with how we view ourselves” (Bleier qtd. in Grace 12), so with Judith Butler’s lead, considering gender as a construct and a performance and how women construct themselves female, the differences between women’s early writing and their mature writing should reveal whether their construction or (re)construction of gender over time reinforces or dismantles their earlier perceptions of their respective gender identities.

[i] Other “vernacular criticisms” include “The Mako Mori Test,” “The Sexy Lamp Test,” and “The Furiosa Test


Works Cited

Grace, Daphne. “Cognition, Consciousness, and Literary Texts.” Beyond Bodies: Gender, Literature, and the Enigma of Consciousness. New York; Rodopi, 2014, pp 9-32. Adobe Digital Editions. Accessed 26 Sept. 2016.

Lang, James C. “Feminist Epistemologies of Situated Knowledges: Implications for Rhetorical Argumentation.” Informal Logic, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2010, pp. 309-334. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwiV4eeWnsbPAhXGNz4KHcCVBvwQFggkMAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwindsor.scholarsportal.info%2Fojs%2Fleddy%2Findex.php%2Finformal_logic%2Farticle%2Fdownload%2F3036%2F2424&usg=AFQjCNECZegOhT707ziw1dvgImlFwgbBFA&sig2=5i0UOsz3eTZtivlHFEVS7Q

Selisker, Scott. “The Bechdel Test and the Social Form of Character Networks.” New Literary History, Vol. 46, No. 3, Summer 2015, pp. 505-523. Project Muse. DOI: 10.1353/nlh.2015.0024.

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.


ENGL 810: PAB #4: Daphne Grace: “Cognition, Consciousness, and Literary Contexts”


Grace, Daphne. “Cognition, Consciousness, and Literary Texts.” Beyond Bodies: Gender, Literature, and the Enigma of Consciousness. New York; Rodopi, 2014, pp 9-32. Adobe Digital Editions. Accessed 26 Sept. 2016.

Sebastian Berggren 1999 for Wild Side Story

Sebastian Berggren 1999 for Wild Side Story -From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

Within feminist theory, and by extension feminist literary theory, the question of gender and gender identity is a conundrum that theorists attempt to reconcile, and Grace approaches feminist critical theory from the inside out. Rather than use the theory to prove the text, she uses the text to prove the theory. Within a heady discussion of consciousness and awareness, gender performance as normative and subversive, she points to women writers, particularly Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, who have subverted normative gender roles by writing strong women in Austen’s case and male/female role reversal in Brontë’s Jane Eyre (12). Grace even dips back as far as Geoffrey Chaucer to examine the subverted gender roles in Troilus and Criseyde and characterizing Criseyde as “[f]eisty and independent” (15). She asserts that authors seek to question or to challenge social, cultural and political hegemonies that restrict a women’s freedom of speech or behavior, and to establish empowerment of women as individuals, as agents of action, and as writers” (11).

In my creative writing program, I wrote and watched others write as a way to tease out their own sense of themselves, grappling out our struggles on pages of story and poem. So, I can see why looking at literature is a valid way to explore the nature of human sexuality and understand how Grace would see that as a valid exploration as well.

In answering the question of gender, feminist scholars have looked to Michel Foucault and Judith Butler to suss out “[w]hether gender and sex are biologically or culturally constructed” (12-13). Grace asserts that “[a]n approach to knowledge from within the arts or humanities begins from the inner most core of creative inspiration” will lead to “manifest expression,” which all ties into identity (19). Grace outlines how literary theory, using trauma theory, has shown real promise in determining the nature of trauma and extrapolates in the hope that gender theory applied in literature theory will add new insight to gender identity (20-21).

Furthermore, these English women writers are a testament to how different the culture was for American women writers. Yes, they did write anonymously, and their work was often regarded as inferior to the high art of male writers, but their writing was not timid or modest, particularly considering the work of Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft.  Anne Bradstreet was writing at a much earlier time, but the rest of these women were writing in the 1800s and 1900s.

This may seem far afield of my focus; however, identity is the key to my current vision for my dissertation, to see how women define themselves and other women in their own writing, so exploring feminist theories of identity, particularly that which related to literature and poetry moves me significantly closer to understanding how my project fits in the ongoing conversation.

For more on gender: