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Feminist Literary Theory  
 
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Feminist literary theory is a complex, dynamic area of study that draws from a wide range of critical theories, including psychoanalysis, Marxism, cultural materialism, anthropology, and structuralism.

Although feminist literary theory is often described simply as the use of feminist principles and techniques to analyze the textual constructions of gendered meaning, feminists' definitions of gender and of feminism have undergone a number of significant alterations since the early 1970s. By adopting already existing feminist insights and applying them in new ways, literary theorists transform them, thus creating an increasingly diversified field of study.

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The Assumptions of Feminist Literary Theorists

Despite this diversity, most feminist literary theorists share several assumptions. To begin with, they generally agree that hierarchically ordered male-female gender relations impact all aspects of human social existence, including apparently ungendered categories of thought, by establishing a series of binarisms--such as active/passive, presence/absence, and universal/particular--in which the "femininized" term occupies the devalued place.

Because literary representations have concrete, material effects on people's lives, these nonsymmetrical male-female binaries both illustrate and reinforce the oppression of real-life women. Like feminism, which critically analyzes and attempts to transform contemporary social systems, feminist literary theory entails a twofold movement encompassing both the critique of already existing sociolinguistic structures and the invention of alternative models of reading and writing.

In its earliest phases, this double movement focused almost exclusively on female-gendered issues; however, the increased participation of feminists of color, coupled with the rise in gender studies during the early 1980s, has expanded feminism's field of study considerably.

The Four Stages of Feminist Literary Theory

Generally, feminist literary theory is divided into four stages or trends focusing in various ways on gender-based textual issues: (1) an analysis of representations of women in male-authored texts; (2) "gynocriticism," a term coined by Elaine Showalter that refers to the development of a uniquely female aesthetic and an alternative, women's literary tradition; (3) "gender studies," or an analysis of the ways all texts, including those written by men, are marked by gender; and (4) explorations of how racial, sexual, and class differences among women expand previous models of gendered reading and writing.

It is, however, important to recognize that these stages are interconnected and overlapping; they represent tendencies often occurring simultaneously rather than discrete chronological stages. Thus, the rise in gender studies during the early 1980s developed concurrently with the recognition and analysis of the many ethnic, sexual, and class differences among women.

Both trends represent expansions of already existing feminist insights: The analysis of the differences among women grew out of challenges by lesbian-feminists of all colors and heterosexual women of color, and gender studies developed out of the feminist insight that because gender is a relational term encompassing both women and men, theories of reading and writing are inscribed by both masculinity and femininity.

The Interrelationships with Lesbian, Gay, and Queer Theory

Although it is recognized that feminist theory has made significant contributions to the developing fields of lesbian, gay, and queer theory, the interrelationships among them are exceedingly complex.

Whereas some theorists attempt to separate feminism from lesbian, gay, and queer studies, others do not.

Gayle Rubin, for example, distinguishes between gender and sexuality and argues that because feminism is the "theory of gender oppression," it cannot account for the oppression of homosexuals and other sexual minorities. Thus in her influential 1984 essay, "Thinking Sex," she calls for the development of a new theoretical field capable of analyzing human sexualities.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick makes a similar point in Epistemology of the Closet (1990), where she enacts a shift from feminist to "antihomophobic" theory. Citing Rubin's distinction between gender and sexuality, Sedgwick maintains that feminism's exclusive focus on gender-based issues obscures the distinctions between gender and sexuality as well as the complex dynamics inherent in the construction of gay male sexualities.

For other theorists, however, an antihomophobic critical perspective is an essential aspect of feminism itself.

For instance, in her groundbreaking 1977 essay, "Towards a Black Feminist Criticism," Barbara Smith emphasizes the importance of applying feminist-inspired analyses to lesbian texts by black women writers. She maintains that because issues concerning lesbianism and lesbian oppression emerged during the late 1960s and early 1970s from within the developing women's movement, writers' views of lesbianism are directly related to feminist issues.

Similarly, in "What Has Never Been: An Overview of Lesbian Feminist Literary Criticism," Bonnie Zimmerman challenges heterosexually identified feminists' reluctance to discuss lesbian-authored texts and maintains that feminist theory must play a pivotal role in constructing a lesbian literary tradition.

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