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Updated: Dec 8, 2020

Feminism has its origin in the struggle for women’s rights which began late in the 18th Century, more particularly with Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). The suffragette movement at the beginning of the 20th century carried on the campaign. A suffragette was a member of an activist women’s organization in the early 20th century who, under the banner “Votes for Women”, fought for the rights to vote in public election, which was popularly known as women’s suffrage. In 1906, a reporter writing in the Daily Mail coined the term suffragette for the WSPC (Women’s Social and Political Union), from suffragist. Later came John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women 1869 and the American Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845).In the 1920s there were clear signs of new and different approaches in relation to women writers and literature. This was noticeable in the critical works of Rebecca West and in Virginia Woolf’s essays.

In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Woolf addressed herself to the issue of why there were few writers and why it is frequently difficult or impossible for a woman to write. The title of the essay comes from Woolf’s conception that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. She raises sensitive questions related to drinking habits, poverty, creativity, and so on. When the reason for the intellectual subjugation are explored, Woolf identified the primal one to be the struggle for money. Even to buy basic articles like pen and paper for expressing their ideas, they need to depend on men or work under men again. She ironically states that if Shakespeare had a genius sister, extremely intellectual and well-versed in writing plays like Shakespeare, she would have been stamped as witch by the Elizabethan audience. This essay is noted in its argument for both a literal and figurative space for women’s writers within a literary tradition dominated by men and has become a classic document of the feminist critical movement.

All women-centered writing do not become feminist. In other word, women’s writing cannot be a synonym for feminist writing. As Rosalind Coward and Michele Barrett point out feminism is “an alignment of political interests”. An important landmark in the evolution of feminist criticism in post-war period was Simone De Beauvoir’s Le Deuxieme Sexe (1949), a seminal work which questioned the whole position and role of women in society. It also critically acclaimed the women’s cultural identification. Her writing was political in tone and she was one of the first writers to examine the way in which men depict women in fiction. The Second Sex (Le Deuxieme Sexe) is often regarded as a major work of feminist philosophy and the starting point of second-wave feminism.

In the late 1960s the works of Mary Ellman, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Elaine Showalter etc… was often political and enraged. A sense of injustice that women had been oppressed and exploited by men were expressed through their writings. A substantial amount of feminist criticism goes beyond literature to explore the socio-economic status of women. Where literature is concerned to look at women’s economic position as authors and the problem they have with allegedly prejudiced male publishers and critics.

In America, the spate began with Mary Ellman’s Thinking about Women (1968), a witty and at times scathing the ways of women are represented in literature by men and prejudice against them. In 1970, Kate Millet published Sexual Politics, in which she examines how power relations work and how men manipulate and perpetuate male dominance over women. She addressed herself to such writers as Norman Mailer, Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence. She used the word “patriarchy” which has become part of standard vocabulary of feminist writing. Millet made use of the term “patriarchy”, which was literally translated from Greek meaning “the rule of the father”.

There is an enduring connection of Feminism and Marxism.How can a Marxist analysis, conceived on the basis of ‘a primary contradiction between labor and capital’, be reconciled with a feminist approach, which must begin with the relation of gender? Michele Barrett’s Women’s Oppression Today (1980), outlines some of the central problems facing any attempt to forge a coalition of Marxist and feminism perspective. Barrett focuses on three concepts that have been the central to the Marxist feminist dialogue:

· Patriarchy

· Reproduction and

· Ideology.

According to Barrett, the most significant elements of the oppression of women under capitalism are

1) The economic organization of households and its accompanying familiar ideology,

2) The division of labor and relations of production

3) The educational system and the operations of the state and

4) The processes of creation and re-creation of gendered subjects.

Other works in this vein include Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt’s Feminist Criticism and Social Change (1985), which also argues for feminist analysis which takes account of social and economic contexts.

In the illuminating book A Literature of their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing (1978), Elaine Showalter traces the literary history, literary tradition, literary imagination, and the aesthetics that were exclusively women produced and women centered. She identifies three distinct phases in the development of literary tradition which she calls as Feminine phase (1840-1880), Feminists phase (1880 -1920) and Female phase (1920 -1960). The period thereafter she refers to as a period of self-awareness. To her goes the credit of coining the term gynocritics which means that women offer their critique of women’s imagination and on feminization of literary discourse from a female point of view. Gynocritics is related to feminist research in history, anthropology, psychology and sociology, all which have developed hypotheses of a female subculture (gynocriticism is the criticism concerned with writings by women including letters and journals and all aspects of their production and interpretation).

Other notable works include The Female Imagination (1975) by Patricia Meyer Spacks and Literary Women (1976) by Ellen Moers. Ellen Moers observes “Women studied with a special closeness the works written by their own sex”. Toril Moi’s Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (1985) is a long, in-depth description, critique and analysis of Anglo-American and French feminist theory and criticism

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