How to Identify Feminism in Literature

Feminism is a belief that women deserve justice and equality. It is described by the "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy" as a “political movement” and an “intellectual commitment.” Feminism in literature might be descriptive -- noting the role and treatment of women in the community -- or prescriptive, advocating for a change.

Feminist Criticism

A book reflects the cultural, psychological, societal, political and philosophical views of the period in which it was written. A feminist reading offers insights into how women were viewed and valued during a particular time period. Any work, from either a male or female author, and from any period of time, can be examined from a feminist perspective. Silent or absent female characters in a text can inform the reader as much as a heroic, articulate female protagonist. Feminist criticism looks for the gaps, such as what is said and what is not being said.

Studying Female Characters

List the female characters and the role each has within the plot, family and society. Notice which characters are dynamic and which remain unchanged. Take note of the character's actions, dialogue and thoughts as well as her silences. Compare development of female and male characters. Consider the women's opportunities and missed opportunities. Reflect on the role of gender, class and race in the book. Decide if each character is portrayed believably, glorified or ignored.

The Impact of Feminism on Reading

Feminism has changed how and what readers read. Books by women who were undervalued have been rediscovered, giving readers new insights into the worlds that were once described only by men. Kate Chopin was a well-known writer in the latter half of the 19th century, but her work was dismissed as having little literary merit. Today, her work is often taught in high school and college classes. For example, her short story, “Story of an Hour” -- first published in 1894, and novel, "The Awakening" -- first published in 1899, challenge the view of marriage and sexuality during her time.

Feminism and Creative Re-visioning

Writers are reviewing old texts and giving voice to the characters who were once silent or nonexistent. An example of this re-visioning is the poem “Jocasta” by Ruth Eisenburg. In the original play, "Oedipus Rex" by Sophocles, Jocasta literally leaves the stage and hangs herself when she learns that she has married her son. In Eisenburg’s poem, Jocasta becomes a dynamic character -- a tormented and articulate mother. Rather than being shunted aside, as she was in original classic poem, Jocasta becomes an integral and important part of the story, able to take an important role in the plot. In this way, she is a perfect example of the feminist ideal in literature.

About the Author

Kim Holland taught English for 30 years in public high schools. Holland has received study grants from PEN, The English Speaking Union, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulbright Exchange Teacher Program, and the Japanese Fulbright Association. Holland holds a master's degree in literature from Northern Arizona University.

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