A Comprehensive Guide to Feminist Theory: 20 Essential Reads

  1. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One (1977)

“Woman has sex organs more or less everywhere. She finds pleasure almost anywhere. Even if we refrain from invoking the hystericization of her entire body, the geography of her pleasure is far more diversified, more multiple in its differences, more complex, more subtle, than is commonly imagined—in an imaginary rather too narrowly focused on sameness.”

For Irigaray, female sexuality, at this point, has only been viewed in terms of “masculine clitoral activity” versus “feminine vaginal passivity.” In this way, the woman’s pleasure only amounts to clitoris sex, a “hole-envelope that serves to sheathe massage the [‘self-embracing’] penis in intercourse.” Irigaray deduces that the woman’s sexuality has only been recognized in a state of “lack” and “penis-envy.” The masculine view of sexuality makes the woman a “prop” or “object” of his pleasure, creating a resultant dependency on the man and a lack of knowing what she, the woman, wants. Countering the societal view of sex, Irigaray evidences that the woman has a diverse range of pleasure beyond the libidinal economy that dictates the orgasmic woman as merely serving the masculine, as never measuring up to its sheer superiority. The woman is a plurality of pleasure, always capable of orgasm, unlike the man, who becomes exhausted. Despite woman’s plurality, Irigaray infers that society has an economy where “women are ‘products’ used and exchanged by men. Their status is that of merchandise, ‘commodities’” where she “enters into” male exchange as an object. Masculine sexual exchange systems, thus, is a problem for the woman that can only be overcome through “renouncing the [traditional] specificity of her sex,” perhaps through embracing her plurality.

  1. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979)

“What does it mean to be a woman writer in a culture whose fundamental definitions of literary authority are, as we have seen, both overtly and covertly patriarchal? If the vexed and vexing polarities of angel and monster, sweet dumb Snow White and fierce mad Queen, are major images literary tradition offers women, how does such imagery influence the ways in which women attempt the pen?”

Using Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, the notion that a write must “kill” his literary father in order to be original, Gilbert and Gubar suggest that women undergo a different process: the anxiety of authorship. This anxiety arises from the “radical fear” that a woman cannot create because of her lack, her inability to embody the phallic pen. It is the notion that because she cannot be a precursor or “beget” the female muse, “the act of writing will isolate or destroy her.” Gilbert and Gubar evidence this problem through arguing that there are two depictions of women in literature: the angel or the monster. By restricting the woman to that of angel or monster, the woman writer is plagued by an “infection of the sentence,” a language that fails to accurately represent her sex. It creates despair and encourages disease and illness among women.Through an analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s, Jane Eyre, and other 19th century texts, Gilbert and Gubar expose the need for a woman’s literary canon, one that embodies the woman as she is, not as a reduction to a constraining angel/monster binary.

  1. Elaine Showalter, Toward a Feminist Poetics (1979)

“In contrast to this angry or loving fixation on male literature, the program of gynocritics is to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature, to develop new models based on the study of female experience, rather than to adapt male models and theories. Gynocritics begins at the point when we free ourselves from the linear absolutes of male literary history, stop trying to fit women between the lines of the male tradition, and focus instead on the newly visible world of female culture.”

Showalter is the first person to coin the word, gynocriticism, the critique of writing from a feminist perspective. Gynocriticism aims to understand women’s writing as an aspect of the female experience, rather than a mere product of gender difference or sexism. It is an attempt to escape the linear, patriarchal history that often surrounds literary criticism. Showalter has been criticized  by some for being “essentialist,” the argument being that the literary canon would be oppressive regardless of its gender. Regardless, she is still the first try to classify women’s literature as a subjectivity, separate from the Beavorian Man (Subject) / Woman (Other) oppositional relationship.

  1. Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980)

“The failure to examine heterosexuality as an institution is like failing to admit that the economic system called capitalism or the caste system of racism is maintained by a variety of forces, including both physical violence and false consciousness.”

Taking a provocative stance on gender relations, Rich argues that heterosexuality is violent. It allows for the male to gain complete access to women physically, economically and emotionally. In an attempt to break the man (Subject) / woman (Object) relation, Rich offers a way to escape the binary entirely: for a woman to direct her desires towards other women. In this way, lesbianism can be a form of feminism, in its ability to allow women simultaneously be Subject and Object in a relationship. As an exploratory piece, Rich examines the possible relationship between gender and sexual orientation, further complicating the essentialism versus constructivism debate.

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