Elaine Showalter as a Feminist Critic

Elaine Showalter is an influential American critic famous for her conceptualization of gynocriticism, which is a woman-centric approach to literary analysis, Her A Literature of their Own discusses the -female literary tradition which she analyses as an evolution through three phases. She observes that literary “subcultures” (black, Jewish, Anglo-Indian) tend to pass through these stages: 1) Imitation of the modes of the dominant tradition and internalization of the artistic and social values. 2) Protest against these standards and values and a call for autonomy, 3) Self discovery — turning inward free from’ some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity.

Viewing the women’s literary tradition in terms of these phases, Showalter calls the first phase as “feminine” spanning from 1840 – 1880 (a phase of imitation, when women writers like George Eliot wrote with male pseudonyms); the second phase as the feminist phase (1880-1920, the phase of protest) when women won voting rights; the third phase as the female phase (1920- till around 1960) when women’s  writing entered a new phase of self-awareness.

Showalter points out that although women writers since the beginning have shared a “covert solidarity” with other women writers and their female audience; there was no expressive communality or self-awareness before the 1840s. Even during the feminine phase, women writers did not see their writing as an expression of their female experiences.Yet the repressive circumstances gave rise to innovative and covert ways to express their inner life, and thus we have the mad woman locked in the attic, the crippled artist and the murderous wife. Despite the restrictions,  the novel from Jane Austen to George Eliot talked about the daily lives and values of women within a family and community.

In the feminist phase which denotes political involvement, women writers questioned the stereotypes and challenged the restrictions of women’s  language, denounced the ethic of self-sacrifice and used their fictional dramatization of oppression to bring about social and political changes. They embodied a “declaration of independence” in the female tradition and stood up to the male establishment in an outspoken manner. Challenging the monopoly of the male press, many feminist journals came into being, and some like Virginia Woolf, controlled their own press.

The female phase was marked by courageous self-exploration and a return to more realistic modes of expression. Post 1960 writers like Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch and Margaret Drabble undertook an authentic anger and sexuality as sources of creative power, while reasserting their  continuity with women writers of the past.

Showalter also posited that feminist criticism falls into two categories: woman as reader (Feminist Critique) and woman as writer (Gynocriticism). In the first category, women are consumers of a male-produced literature and this aspect of feminist criticism is concerned with the stereotypical representations of women, fissures in male-oriented literary theory and how patriarchy manipulated the female audiences. Gynocriticism attempts to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature and focus on female subjectivity, female language and female literary career.


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