Feminist Criticism: Traditional Gender Roles, Feminist Premises and Major Theorists in Lois Tyson's Critical Theory Today



Feminism is a movement that arose when women demanded to get equal rights as men. The term was 1st used in political debate in France in late 19th century.

It is defined as collection of movements and ideologies that share a common goal to define,establish and achieve equal political,social,economic,cultural,personal rights for women.

Feminist Literary Criticism is the rebellion of the female consciousness against the male images of female identity and experience. The critical project of Feminist critics is concerned with” uncovering the contingencies of gender” as a cultural, social and political construct and instrument of domination.feminist criticism examines the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforces or undermines the economic, political, social,and psychological oppression of women.

In feminist criticism in 1970s the majoreffort went into exposing mechanisms of patriarchy,that is,the cultural mind set in men n women which perpetuated sexual inequality.critical attention was given to books by male writers in which influential or typical images of women were constructed.then in 1980,in f as in other critical approaches,the mood changed.

Firstly, feminist criticism became much more eclectic,meaning that it began to draw upon the findings n approaches of other kinds of criticism-marxism,structuralism,lingo n so on.

Secondly,it switched its focus from attacking male versions of the world to exploring the nature of female world n outlook,n reconstructing the lost or suppressed records of female experience.

Thirdly, attention was switched to the need to construct a new canon of women’s writing by rewriting the history of the novel and poetry in such a way that neglected women writers were given new prominence.

Traditional Gender Roles:

Traditional gender roles cast men as rational, strong,protective, and decisive; they cast women as emotional (irrational), weak, nurturing,and submissive.

Patriarchy is thus, by definition, sexist, which means it promotes the belief that women are innately inferior to men. This belief in the inborn inferiority of women is a form of what is called biological essentialism because it is based on biological differences between the sexes that are considered part of our unchanging essence as men and women.the belief that human nature,an individual’s personality or some specific quality such as intelligence,creativity etc is an innate n natural essence rather than a product of circumstances,upbringing and culture.

A striking illustration is the word hysteria, which derives from the Greek word for womb (hystera) and refers to psychological disorders deemed peculiar to women and characterized by overemotional, extremely irrational behavior. Feminists don’t deny the biological differences between men and women; But they don’t agree that such differences as physical size, shape, and body chemistry make men naturally superior to women: for example, more intelligent, more logical, more courageous, or better leaders. Feminism therefore distinguishes between the word sex, which refers to our biological constitution as female or male, and the word gender, which refers to our cultural programming as feminine or masculine.In other words, women are not born feminine, and men are not born masculine. Rather, these gender categories are constructed by society, which is why this view of gender is an example of what has come to be called social constructionism.

Phallogocentrism is a term coined by Jacques derrida which means a structure or style of writing,thought or speech that expresses male attitudes n reinforce male dominance.

A Summary of Feminist Premises:

  1. Feminists share several important assumptions, which might be summarized as follows. 
  2. Women are oppressed by patriarchy economically, politically, socially, and psychologically; patriarchal ideology is the primary means by which they are kept so. 
  3. In every domain where patriarchy reigns, woman is other: she is objectified and marginalized, defined only by her difference from male norms and values,defined by what she (allegedly) lacks and that men (allegedly) have. 
  4. All of Western (Anglo-European) civilization is deeply rooted in patriarchalideology, as we see, for example, in the numerous patriarchal women and female monsters of Greek and Roman literature and mythology; the patriarchal interpretation of the biblical Eve as the origin of sin and death in the world; the representation of woman as a non-rational creature by traditional Western philosophy; and the reliance on phallogocentricthinking (thinking that is male oriented in its vocabulary, rules of logic, and criteria for what is considered objective knowledge) by educational, political, legal, and business institutions. As we saw earlier, even the development of the Western canon of great literature, including traditional fairy tales, was a product of patriarchal ideology. 
  5. While biology determines our sex (male or female), culture determinesour gender (masculine or feminine). That is, for most English-speakingfeminists, the word gender refers not to our anatomy but to our behavioras socially programmed men and women. I behave “like a woman” (forexample, submissively) not because it is natural for me to do so but becauseI was taught to do so. In fact, all the traits we associate with masculine andfeminine behavior are learned, not inborn. 
  6. All feminist activity, including feminist theory and literary criticism, hasas its ultimate goal to change the world by promoting women’s equality. 

Thus, all feminist activity can be seen as a form of activism, although the word is usually applied to feminist activity that directly promotes social change through political activity such as public demonstrations, boycotts,voter education and registration, the provision of hotlines for rape victims and shelters for abused women, and the like. Although frequently falsely portrayed in opposition to “family values,” feminists continue to lead the struggle for better family policies such as nutrition and health care for mothers and children; parental leave; and high-quality, affordable daycare. 
  • Gender issues play a part in every aspect of human production and experience,including the production and experience of literature, whether we are consciously aware of these issues or not. 
What Feminist Critics Do:
  1. Re-think the canon, in aiming at the rediscovery of texts written by women. 
  2. Re-value women’s experience. 
  3. Challenge representations of women as other, as lack, as part of nature. 
  4. Examine representations of women in literature by men and women. 
  5. Examine power relations which obtain in texts and in life, with a view to breaking them down, seeing reading as a political act, and showing the extent of patriarchy. 
  6. Recognize the role of language in making what is social and constructed seem transparent and natural. 
  7. Raise the question of whether men and women are essentially different because of biology, or are socially constructed as different. 
  8. Explore the question of whether there is a female language, an ecriture feminine, and whether this is also available to men. 
  9. Re-read psychoanalysis to further explore the issue of male and female identity. 
  10. Question the popular notion of the death of the author, asking whether there are only “subject position… constructed in discourse”, or whether on the contrary, the experience e.g. of a black or lesbian writer a central. 
  11. Make clear the ideological base of supposedly neutral or mainstream literary interpretation. 
Major Theorists: 


Simone de Beauvoir inher groundbreaking work The Second Sex (1949) created a theoreticalbasis for materialist feminists for decades to come. In a patriarchal society, Beauvoirobserves, men are considered essential subjects (independent selves withfree will), while women are considered contingent beings (dependent beings controlled by circumstances). Men can act upon the world, change it, give itmeaning, while women have meaning only in relation to men. The word woman, therefore, has the sameimplications as the word other. She isman’s Other: she is less than a man.In her oft quoted line.

“One is not born a woman; one becomes one”, Beauvoirargues that, despite patriarchy’s assumptions to the contrary, women are not even born with a maternal instinct. Yet patriarchy tells them that they are unfulfilled as women if they don’t have children.

Beauvoir strongly believed that marriagetrapped and stunted women’s intellectual growth and freedom. Beauvoir suggests,

“If woman seems to be the inessential [being]which never becomes the essential,it is because she herselffails to bring about this change”

Beauvoir insists that women must see themselves as autonomous beings. Women, she maintains, must reject the social construct that men are the subject or the absolute and women are the other. Embedded in this erroneous statement is the assumption that male have the power to control the dominant discourse and the power to define cultural terms and roles. Accordingly, women must define themselves, articulate their own social constructs of what it means to be a woman, and reject being labelled as the other. 


With Millets publication of sexual politics in 1970, a new wave of feminism begins. M is one of the first to challenge the ideological characteristics of both male and female. She asserts that female is born but a woman is created. In other words, one’s sex is determined at birth but one’s gender is a social construct created by cultural norms. Consciously or unconsciously women and men conform to societal constructs established by a society i.e. boys should be aggressive, self assertive and domineering where as girls should be passive, meek and humble. Conforming to these prescribed sex roles dictated by society is what m calls sexual politics. 


Delphy, who coined thephrase materialist feminism in the early 1970s, focuses her analysis on the familyas economic unit. Just as the lower classes are oppressed by the upper classes insociety as a whole, she explains, women are the subordinates within families. ForDelphy, marriage is a labor contract that ties women to unpaid domestic labor,commonly trivialized as “housework,” not considered important enough to be seriously analyzed as a topic, or a problem. Delphy points out that

[a]ll contemporary “developed” societies . . . depend on the unpaid labourof women for domestic services and child-rearing. These services are furnishedwithin the framework of a particular relationship to an individual(the husband). They are excluded from the realm of exchange [i.e., theseservices are not treated like the jobs people do for money outside theirown home] and consequently have no value. They are unpaid.Thehusband’s onlyobligation, which is obviously in his own interest, is to provide for his wife’s basic needs, in other words he maintains her labour power.

In addition, Delphy contends that women’s domestic work in their own homesis unpaid not because their work is unimportant or involves less time or laborthan the paid work performed by men outside the home, but because patriarchydefines women in their domestic roles as nonworkers. Andnonworkers, ofcourse, should not expect to be paid. Delphyargues, that all relationshipsbetween men and women are based on power: patriarchal men want tokeep all of it; nonpatriarchal women want power to be equally distributed. 


Guillaumin observes that men are defined primarily and referred to primarily in terms of what they do, according to their valuein society as participants in the workforce, as decision makers, and so forth.Women are defined primarily and referred to primarily in terms of their sex.As Guillaumin notes, from phrases she collected within a single forty-eighthourperiod, a “group meeting to give their opinion on some matter” was saidto consist of a “company director, a lathe-operator, a croupier [a person whoruns a gambling table at a casino] and a woman”. Similarly, Guillauminreports, a world leader, discussing a repressive regime to which he was opposed,said, “They killed tens of thousands of workers, students, and women”. Inother words, Guillaumin observes, in terms of their function in society, “femalehuman beings . . . [are] . . . primarily and fundamentally women”. Andfor Guillaumin, this means they are primarily and fundamentally property, forexample, property to be “exchanged” or “given away” (depending on the cultureto which they belong) in marriage.

Women are also oppressed by what Guillaumincalls “direct physical appropriation,” by which she means “the reductionof women to the state of material objects” and which she compares to slaveryand serfdom. women are, as Guillaumin puts it, “the socialtool assigned to those tasksthat men don’t want to do.” 


Kristeva maintains that women and men can get beyond patriarchal language and patriarchal thinking by seeking access to what she calls the semiotic dimension of language. For Kristeva, language consists of two dimensions: the symbolic and the semiotic.

The symbolic dimension is the domain in which words operate and meanings are attributed to them. What she calls the semiotic dimension of language is that part of language that, in contrast, consists of such elements as intonation (sound, tone of voice, volume, and for lack of a better word, musicality); rhythm; and the body language that occurs as we speak, which reveals our feelings and bodily drives .the semiotic consists of the waywe speak, for instance the emotions that come across in our voice and body language as we talk.

Indeed, the semiotic is the first “speech” infants have available to them—the vocal sounds and bodily movements they produce—before they acquire language. And they learn this “speech” through their contact with the gestures, rhythms, and other nonverbal forms of communication associated with the mother’s body. Kristeva observes, that both our instinctual drives and our earliest connections to our mothers are repressed by our entrance into language. For language is the dominion of patriarchy, which controls its symbolic, or meaning- making, dimension. The semiotic, however, remains beyond patriarchal programming, and whatever patriarchy can’t control outright, it represses.

Kristeva is suggesting that we can and should access that part of our unconscious where the semiotic resides, for example, through such creative means as art and literature. For these are the vehicles that allow us a new way to relate to language and to thereby overcome the stranglehold patriarchy has on the way women and men think.


T.Mexplains the terms feminist,female and feminine as the first is a “political position”,second” a matter of bio”,and third “a set of culturally defined characteristics”. 
Elaine Showalter: 

She defines the shift in 1970s as a shift of attention from andro-texts(books by men) to gynotexts(books by women).she coined the term gynocritics,meaning the study of gynotexts.The subjects of gynocriticism are,she says,the history,styles,themes, genres and structures of writing by women:the psychodynamics of female creativity,the trajectory of the individual or collective female career:and the evolution or laws of a female literary tradition. Her A Literature of Their Own is a typical example.

In her analysis of the historical development of women’s writing, Showalter presents three important phases of women's writing. First, FEMININE PHASE(1840-80)in which women writers imitated dominant male artistic norms and aesthetic standards: second, FEMINIST PHASE(1880-1920) in which there is the protest against the standards of this dominant tradition concerning social values and rights and in which radical n often separatist positions are maintained: and third,FEMALE PHASE(1920 ONWARDS)which looked particularly at female writing n female experience and their self-discovery which aims at a search for identity. 

▉ Virginia Woolf: 

Virginia Woolf is seen to be „the founder of modern feminist literary criticism‟.Woolf‟s groundbreaking essay A Room of One’s Own constitutes a „modern primer‟ for feminist criticism.she suggests that lango use is gendered,so that when a woman turns to novel writing she finds that there is “no common sentence ready for her use.”the great male novelists have written “a natural prose,swift but not slovenly,expressive but not precious,taking their own tint without ceasing to be common property”. 


Spender in the early 1980s in her book “man made language (1981)” argues that lango is not a neutral medium but one which contains many features which reflect its role as the instrument through which patriarchy finds expression.

  1. Tyson, L. (2014). Critical theory today: A user-friendly guide. Routledge. 
  2. Smith, B. (1979). Toward a Black feminist criticism. Women's Studies International Quarterly, 2(2), 183-194. 
  3. Barry, P. (2002). Feminist Criticism. Beginning Theory, 116-33.

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