Feminist Criticism Theory in Literature

Feminist criticism is a form of literary criticism that is based on feminist theories. It is broadly explained as the politics of feminism and uses feminist principles to critique the male-dominated literature. The root cause of this type of criticism lies in the oppression of women in social, political, economic and psychological literature.

Women have been ignored or mostly considered secondary in the literature for a long time. It’s time to stop playing in the casino and hope for luck. Hoping that women’s contributions will be noticed without extra effort. The feminist criticism aims to view them in a different perspective and discover the women’s contribution to the history of literature. It also aims to reinterpret the old texts and establishing the importance of women’s writing to save them from being lost or ignored in the male-dominated world.

Feminist theory also looks for the possibilities and ways to remove the inherent sexism as a practice of writing from the mainstream literature. Apart from this, the goal of feminist criticism is to bring awareness about the sexual politics and analyse the writings of women writers from the feminist perspective. It also includes the language and style of writing to determine the relationship between the genders in terms of the power.

Types of criticism

There are two criticism types, i.e. Constructive criticism and Projected criticism.

Constructive criticism

This type of criticism becomes the reason for a new development and improved results. It brings improvement in our performance, relations and personal life. Great people always look for this type of criticism and make it a ladder for climbing new heights in their career and life. They look for the answer to the questions “where do I need to improve?” and “what can I do better?”

Projected criticism

Contrary to the constructive criticism which everybody would like to have, project criticism is a negative or emotional or a mix of both and generally given after you are done with something. This type of criticism, though not every time negative, mostly comes out as a frustration due to anger, envy, or insecurity. Generally, this type of criticism should be ignored in order to save from the further issues.

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Concerns in feminist criticism

Though there are many ideas that can be considered while discussing feminist theories. The most common of them are as described below.

Oppressed by patriarchy

Women have been oppressed for ages, in the cultures dominated by patriarchy, in terms of social, economic, political and psychological aspects. The society follows the traditional system of male domination in the family. In this system, a man is considered as the head of the family and have a considerable control over the lives of the members. This is apparent in the old works of literature of almost all cultures.

Considered as secondary

In a male-dominated society, women are marginalized. Generally, the reasons behind practising this are the differences between the male and female physical and mental capacities. In the cultures where families are based on patriarchy system, women have but very little rights in decision making and are considered as secondary. This can be seen in many books and literature of all cultures and societies.

Discrimination by cultures

Women are considered feminine and male are considered masculine in the cultures. But the negative side of this is the concept of physical strength where women are considered as unable to do some difficult tasks that man can do. This is reflected in the literature mostly written by male authors. In some religious books, a woman is considered the cause of the sin and death, and the door to hell.

Discrimination is everywhere including the literature

The discrimination against women is a general issue and can be found everywhere in the society. It can be found in almost everything produced by human including the creation of literature. This is done consciously or unconsciously because of the deep-rooted viewpoints and beliefs from the childhood of a person.

Definition of feminism

As a core part of feminist theory definition, the feminism means the recognition of equal rights for women based on the gender equality. It assumes that women should be treated in the same way as men and should be allowed the equal rights, opportunities and powers.

The activities considered for feminism include the ideological, social and political movement with a common goal. The goal is to define the equality, establish it as a norm and achieve in the political, social, personal and economic aspects.

Feminists movement aims to the equality in education, work, political involvement and the powers in government and public offices. But in the modern context, feminist believe in strengthening the personal rights and security as well as the social security of women. The movement in modern times are focused on the broader sense of issues affecting women’s lives and is called the third wave.

This is because the basic demands of recognition of women’s rights, role and contribution in the society are already achieved during the civil rights and other movements in the second wave in the early 1960s and 1970s.

Definition and overview of feminist theory

The rise of this theory is the result of a concept of equality between man and women. The supporters of feminism advocate the equality in every aspect of human life in the society. This theory is extended in the meaning of theoretical, philosophical or fictional discourse based on the concept of feminism.

Theories by feminists were introduced and developed gradually in the span of three centuries. It is called three waves of feminism by many theorists.

First wave feminism

The first wave of feminism was started in the late 1700s and lasted till the early 1900s. It was mainly focused on how male authors and novelists view and portrait women in their works. It was also called the revolution against the unfair treatment of women by men of that time. Critics considered the way novelists discriminate and marginalize the women characters.

Many authors supporting feminism have written books on feminist criticism. Some of them are Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Marry Ellman’s Thinking About Women (1968) and Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1969). Authors like Mary Ellman, Kate Millet and Germaine Greer have played an important role in raising questions on the practice of showing feminism in the literature of their time and past.

On the other hand, there were many feminism activists like Victoria Woodhull and Susan B. Anthony. They contributed largely to the movement against women suffering from the situations and position created by the society. They also played a significant role in pointing out the inequality with the women shown in the literature of that time.

This was the time when abuse with women began to be considered as a matter of shame that drew the attention of prominent writers and powerful people. The society and government started recognising the importance of equal rights. Many authors and critics have written feminist criticism and started the first wave of feminism that worked as the beginning of the revolution.

Second wave feminism

The second wave of feminism was started in the early 1960s and continued till late 1970s. It was the time when the movement of equal rights and equal working conditions for women and man was on peak. National Organization for Women (NOW) was started in 1966 as a movement to create equal working conditions for women in the United States of America.

The need for this change was originally felt during World War 2 which acted as a base stone for the movement that was supported by the feminist political activists during the second wave. We can find the works of Simon de Beauvoir in Le Deuxieme Sexe in 1949 as a facilitating the spread of feminist theories. It picked up the pace during the civil rights movement in the USA.

This wave is also called Gynocriticism and involves three major aspects.

First of them examines and recognizes the work of the female writers. This aspect observes their place and how they are considered in the literary history.

The second aspect of the third wave is based on how a woman is characterized by the works of both male and female authors. It considers the treatment given to the women in the literature.

The third is the most important aspect as it is focused on exploring the canon of literature written by female writers. It helps in understanding the contribution of female writers in the context of women empowerment and criticizing the way women have been treated in different cultures.

Elaine Showalter has proposed three phases of women writing in her book “A Literature of Their Own”, as follow.

The Feminine Phase

The feminine phase denotes the behaviour of women writers in which they try to follow the rules made by male writers. They try to avoid debating and questioning the place of women in the literature. They also try to write as a man by employing male pseudonyms in this phase.

The Feminist Phase

In this phase, female writers start criticizing the way a woman is treated in the society as well as in the literature. The main theme of gender criticism in the works by female writers in this phase is focused on the oppression of women in the society.

The Female Phase

In this phase, women writers start moving the view from just proving the women’s stand to the confidence in their work. They assume that whatever they have written is valid and need no aggressive arguments and support to prove the authenticity of their work.

Third wave feminism

Started in the early 1990s, this wave continued until the fourth wave started in 2012. The feminists consider the role of equal civil rights and other movements during the second wave, but they see the feminism from a different perspective. They emphasise on the individual rights as well as the acceptance of diversity. Many authors have covered this wave in their works during this time contributing towards making it more prevailing.

The roots of the third wave are in the feminist punk subculture movement called riot grrrl that was started in the early 1990s in Olympia, Washington. It was started with the purpose to bring the consciousness and politics together by the medium of punk style subculture.

The riot grrrl and Sarah Dyer’s Action Girl Newsletter played an important role in formulating the iconography and style for the zine movement for women. These developments collectively defined the third wave feminism and motivated other feminists to work in this context.

Reconsideration of feminist theories

The third wave provides a view on contemporary gender race theories to help us understand the experiences of the marginalized population, especially women population with social as well as personal issues. It resists the perception of an oversimplified, ideological, white, heterosexual and middle-class viewpoint of second-wave feminism. This can be seen in the publications of feminist writers like Jennifer Baumgardner and Ami Richards.

This wave is based on the new concept of feminism that asks women to raise a voice and fight for their rights. It has emerged with the response from Rebecca Walker to the appointment of Thomas who was accused of sexual harassment against a woman. It was a movement rather than just a reaction towards the injustice to a woman, and strongly emphasised the need for more work for feminism.

Changed views towards feminism in the third wave

Some aspects of both second wave and third wave contradict or conflicts. According to the feminists and authors of the third wave, the meaning of feminism has been considerably changed. It should be viewed from a different perspective. Women need to rise above just the equality in jobs, education or the treatment given to the female members of the family.

Jennifer Baumgardner and Ami Richard, in their book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism And The Future (2000), describes the feminism in a broader meaning and says that it is not limited to the old arena we have seen in the last two waves. Rather than doing the same thing we were doing for women in 1970s, we have to find new and genuine ways of seeing feminism.

What feminists were looking for till the 1970s are already achieved, and now they need to look with a broader sense towards the issues prevailing in the society and the life of women as a person. It’s more than male domination now.


Feminist criticism takes the feminism and the feminism theories as a base to criticise the literature of old and modern times. It’s focused on addressing the issues regarding the place and consideration of women in social, political, psychological and economic aspects of human life. Started in the late 1700s, the feminist criticism has been developed in three waves as discussed in this article.

The three waves respectively threw light on the discrimination towards and characterization of women by male authors and writers, voiced the rights of women and demanded the equality of men and women, and started bringing the awareness in women and empowering them to be strong enough to raise a voice for their rights and fight against the injustice.

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