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Updated: Jul 30, 2020

Women’s liberation movement, diverse social movement, largely based in the United States, that in 1960s and 70s sought equal rights and opportunities and greater personal freedom for women is recognized as part of the ‘second-wave’ of feminism. While the first-wave feminism of the 19th and early 20th centuries focused on women’s legal rights, especially the right to vote.

In 1979 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar published The Madwoman in the Attic: The Women Writer and the Nineteenth Century Imagination. They examine that among many other things, the typical motifs and patterns in the works of 19th century women writers (Victorian literature). They draw their title from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, in which Bertha Mason is kept secretly locked in an attic apartment by her husband Rochester.

One of their argument is that these writers chose to express their own female anger and the monster, the sweet heroine and the ranging madwomen, are aspects of the author’s self-image, as well as elements of her treacherous anti- patriarchal strategies. Gilbert and Gubar urge female writers to strive for autonomous self-definition beyond this dichotomy, which they see as imposed by a reductionist patriarchal view of women’s roles. A notable example of the psychological duplicity is the grotesque (repulsively ugly or distorted) counter-figure to the heroine.

For example, Bertha Rochester, the madwoman in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847). As Gilbert and Gubar put it, such figure is usually in some sense the author’s double, an image of her own anxiety and rage.

Anglo-American critics and theorists have been primarily concerned with thematic studies of writings by and about women. French feminist critics have been concerned with the theory of the role of gender in writing.

1. They have been influenced by theories of post structuralism, semiotics and deconstruction.

2. They have been interested in a critique of language.

3. All or most western languages are male-dominated and male engendered, and that discourse is predominantly ‘phallogocentric’ as Jacques Derrida puts it.

(In critical theory and deconstruction, phallogocentrism is a neologism coined by Jacques Derrida to refer to the privileging of masculine (phallus) in the construction of meaning)

4. They are concerned with the possibility of a woman’s language and of e`criture feminine.

E`criture feminine or feminine writing, is a term coined by the French feminist and literary theorist Helen Cixous in The Laugh of the Medusa (1975). As a theory it foregrounds the importance of language for the psychic understanding of self. As Elaine Showalter defines it is ‘the inscription of the female body and female difference in language and text’.

Cixous aimed to establish a genre of literary writing that deviates from traditional masculine styles of writing, one which examines the relationship between cultural and psychological inscription of the female body and female difference in language and text. More free and flowing styles writing such as stream of consciousness have a more “feminine” structure and tone than that of more traditional modes of writing. She also attacks the patriarchal culture, especially Lacan’s symbolic ‘phallus’ and Derrida’s ‘logo centrism’ which are seen as two aspects of a pervasive and oppressive ‘phallocentrism’. This strand of feminist literary theory originated in France in the early 1970s through the works of Cixous and other theorists including Luce Irigaray, Chantal Chawaf, Catherine Clement, and Julia Kristeva.

Three elements of Kristeva’s thoughts have been particularly important for feminist theory in Anglo-American contexts:

1) Her attempt to bring the body back into discourses in the human sciences;

2) Her focus on the significance of the maternal pre-oedipalin the constitution of subjectivity; and

3) Her notion of abjection as an explanation for oppression and discrimination.

There are feminists like Juliet Mitchell and Nancy J Chodorow who discussed how Freudian theory could be used to understand the nature of masculinity and femininity and the cause of male domination over female. Psychoanalytic criticism begins with Freud who claimed that the father-dominated Oedipus complex originated the binary division –masculine and feminine.

In the work of the French psychoanalyst, Luce Irigaray, femininity is theorized as an effect of the organization of the female desire in a female libido. Irigaray argues that the patriarchal definition of female sexuality caused women to lose touch with their essential femininity, which is located in the female body and its capacity for multiple and heterogeneous pleasure. Her work This Sex which is not One (1985) offers a theory of “female” rather than “feminine”. For Irigaray, the psyche is never bisexual, but always male or female. When freed from their patriarchal definition and the repression of their sexuality, women are assumed to be fundamentally different from men and their use of language is other than logical language of the symbolic order.

Judith Butler, an American post-structuralist philosopher, who has contributed to the field of feminism, queer theory, political philosophy, and ethics, highlights in her book Gender Trouble (2006), that the coherence of the categories of sex, gender, and sexuality-the natural- seeming coherence, for example, of masculine gender and heterosexual desire in male bodies- is culturally constructed through the repetition of stylized acts in time. These stylized bodily acts, in their repetition, establish the appearance of an essential, ontological “core” gender. This is the sense in which Butler famously theorizes gender, along with sex and sexuality, as performative. The performance of gender, sex, and sexuality, however, is not a voluntary choice for Butler, who locates the construction of the gendered, sexed, desiring subject within what she calls borrowed from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, “regulative discourses”. Judith Butler’s contribution to feminist political thought is usually approached in terms of her concept of performativity, according to which gender exists in so far as it is ritualistically and repetitively performed, creating permanent possibilities for performing gender in new and transgressive ways.

The feminist movement has effected change in Western society, including women’s suffrage; greater access to education; more equitable pay with men; the right of women to make individual decisions regarding pregnancy; and the right to own property. An important achievement of the whole movement of feminism, feminist theory and criticism has been the rediscovery of a hidden tradition of women’s writing and the rediscovery and republication of numerous novels and other works by women which had long since sunk more or less without trace.

“A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men”

- Gloria Steinem




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