What Is the Feminist Approach to Literary Criticism?

Feminist literary criticism is the critical analysis of literary works based on the feminist perspective. In particular, feminist literary critics tend to reject the patriarchal norms of literature "that privileges masculine ways of thinking/points of view and marginalizes women politically, economically and psychologically," according to Paul Ady, associate professor of English at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Instead, feminist critics approach literature in a way that empowers the female point-of-view instead, typically rejecting the patriarchal language that has dominated literature.

Historical Origins of the Movement

Modern feminist literary criticism had its roots in the post-World War II feminist movement that spilled over into the intellectual circles of America's colleges and universities. The true origins of the movement can be traced as far back as the late 18th century with Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" (1792). Other writers such as John Stuart Mill, Margaret Fuller and Simone de Beauvoir followed suit from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. From the 1960s onward, feminist literary critics proliferated. The approaches of feminist literary critics vary according to the personal interests of each writer. In fact, as Timothy H. Scherman, associate professor of English at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago has noted, "there are no 'rules'-no 'recipe'-­to doing feminist criticism."

Challenges to the Literary Canon

One major approach to feminist literary criticism revolves around the desire to challenge or redefine the literary canon that has been dominated by men. In particular, as Scherman again notes, "feminist criticism makes space for and listens to women's voices previously muted or drowned out by dominant patriarchal literary-critical practices." In this sense, feminist literary criticism takes a particular stand against what the academic community has considered to be the norm for what it considers to be "literature." This critique of traditional scholarship is an approach that rejects traditional norms on the assumption that traditional literary analysis has a political and ethical agenda biased against women. For this reason, writers like Josephine Donovan hope to recapture the radical basis for feminist literary criticism by reinvigorating it with both the political and ethical components inherent in the inception of the movement. By exploring previously ignored writers and studying the women's literary tradition, critics hope to unveil previously held assumptions that marginalize the place of women in society.

Textual Analysis

Another popular approach to feminist literary criticism is to examine closely what the text says, or as the case may be, does not say. In other words, what the text leaves out says much about the writer, literature in general, and society as a whole. By using this "hermeneutics of suspicion" literary critics hope to reveal how women are marginalized in the language of literature, according to Ady. In some ways, this approach to literary criticism assumes that there is an unconscious transference of previously held assumptions to the text through the act of writing. What is written reveals what society believes. Influenced by the rise of post-modernism, feminist literary critics believe that the act of writing is not neutral, instead it is influenced by the values of the writer who then transfers those values to the text, often unintentionally. By understanding these values, feminist literary critics hope to reveal these subconscious ideas to show how women have been marginalized in literature.