Monday, November 21, 2011

Literary Analysis, Part 2: Feminism

"Feminism" is a highly charged word.  Immediately upon hearing it, we experience a number of different feelings and impressions.  For a long time, I must admit that I had a negative association with the term.  I (falsely) assumed that to be a feminist, one had to be anti-man.  In my mind, feminists were women who felt that they were unfairly judged in society and thus they must overcompensate for this by elevating all women and pushing down men in the process.  I am happy to say that I am no longer of this opinion and that furthermore, I can proudly label myself a feminist.  So what does this mean?  Once again, I intend to address this solely from a literary perspective.  I have not studied feminism in nearly enough detail to be able to offer a comprehensive definition of the term and its status over time.  However, I want to open the discussion to share what I think and to learn more from all of you.

The history of feminism is usually divided in three waves.  To start with a disclaimer, I want to say that I am aware there were some prominent female figures who appeared on the scene for hundreds of years before the first wave.  However, the first recognized movement for women's rights took place in the late 19th and early 20th century.  The key issues they focused on at this time were suffrage, education, and public voice.  The leaders of the movement wanted women to attain all the rights of men and gain the respect of being seen as autonomous and intelligent human beings. 

The second wave reached its height in the 1960s following the Civil Rights Movement.  Rather than focusing on the legal constrictions against women, they revealed the detrimental assumptions and expectations that pervaded society.  In an effort to broaden the perception of "feminine" actions, many of these women boldly challenged traditional roles by their loud and determined protests.  Another significant component of this movement was redefining a woman's sexuality in society, which was minimally addressed in the previous wave. 

The third wave started in the 1990s and took on a new perspective.  Most of the privileges the leaders of the first and second movements sought were achieved at this point, and the new focus was on the underlying gentrification.  They resist the dichotomy of mutually exclusive categories of "men" and "women."  Instead, they argue that sexual identity should not be constrained by any categories or definitions.  The transgender identity, a previously unheard voice, was a significant part of this movement.  They also highlighted that one's identity as a woman was inextricably linked to her race, social status, and culture, and it would thus necessarily differ and conflict among the population. 

Why would I want to know this?  How will this affect my reading?

If nothing else, making an effort to read work by female authors will provide you with a different literary perspective.  Although I will readily acknowledge much of the value of a feminist perspective, I have to admit that the majority of the authors I read are men.  However, women do have a different kind of voice, and it's particularly beneficial to read those who are intentionally revealing these feminist issues.

The feminist authors of the first wave illustrated the oppression women faced without the ability to represent themselves, even within their own homes.  The feminist writers of the second wave explored their unique perspective outside of the traditional roles of "wife" and "mother."  Finally, the material in feminist literature in the third wave plays with gender assumptions and challenges the notion of a dichotomy.  Please let me know if you can think of other pieces of fiction that should be included in my list!

Feminism in fiction literature:

Before any "Waves"
The Rover by Aphra Behn

First Wave
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Second Wave
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Third Wave
The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

Feminist theory:

Overview: This PDF is a wonderful summary and easily accessible.

A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollenstone Craft
- This is a beautifully written piece and was a huge landmark in its era.  It's fairly short, and you can read the full text here.  I highly encourage you to check it out.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
- I have only read samples of this, but it was very influential in the era it was published.  In the text, Beauvoir revealed the nature of women as "other" for the first time.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
- I have not read this, but it is universally acknowledged as one of the foundational texts of the second wave of feminism.

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
- This is one of the most fascinating feminist texts.  Butler analyzes feminism from a fairly objective perspective of gender roles and offers remarkable insight.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

An early novel that truly shocked me for its genuinely feminist content was George Meredith's The Egoist (1879). A comedy of manners turns into a serious examination of gender and power.

Elizabeth Gaskell's novels and stories, everything I have read, at least, always reward feminist readings. Women helping women - that's almost her core relationship.

The title of the single most famous book of feminist literary criticism is taken from Jane Eyre (spoiler alert! ha ha ha!) so that should probably be on the list. I mean Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic.

Oh, A Room of One's Own by Woolf, of course.

I guess I could just keep going. I'll stop.

Amy said...

Thank you for all the suggestions, Tom!

I only listed books I can recommend from my own personal reading. But I am eager to check out The Egoist and will definitely add that to my "To Read" pile. I've only read one piece by Gaskell and wasn't too impressed, so maybe I should try her again. Is there anything in particular you recommend?

Jane Eyre is a similar story. I read it a long time ago and didn't care for it too much, but I know I should try it now that I am older. I just haven't quite brought myself to do that yet...

I would also love to put A Room of One's Own in place of To the Lighthouse, but I haven't actually read it yet. So much reading to do! Thanks again :)

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Particularly feminist Gaskell (that I have read): the short stories "Lizzie Leigh" and "The Three Eras of Libbie Marsh," and the unassuming Cranford.

You can see, just from the title of the Gilbert and Gubar book, how the interpretation of Jane Eyre is changed by a feminist reading - the spotlight swings up to shine on the attic.

Anonymous said...

Possibly most interesting to me is the economic implications of the second wave as well as the fallout from the effects of these. Just something to consider. Are some women now forced to work because the average household now has two incomes? Just a thought, not trying to make any kind of point other than to get some heat on the melon.

Amy said...

Thanks for chiming in and heating up this melon. :)

I agree with you that there has been some negative fallout from the good intentions of each wave. In fact, that is why I used to think I was opposed to feminism. I felt that by continuing to push some of these issues, we had created new ones for both men and women. However, I was unaware of the third wave, which I think has highlighted concerns we need to evaluate still today.

So what do we do now? Good question. Literature's role is often to point out the problems rather than to propose solutions. So who is supposed to pick up the buck from there? Perhaps it is us, the readers.

Jillian said...

I was going to suggest A Room of One's Own too! Woolf critiques Austen's writing against Charlotte Bronte's -- so interesting!

I recently realized I'm a feminist too, having dodged the label for all the reasons you outline. Thanks so much for posting this.

Jillian said...

Oh, also read the prelude to Middlemarch. ;-)

Jennifer said...

I had the same initial misconceptions about feminism before I took any women's studies classes. And then I started studying feminism in political science classes and in lit classes and I fell in love with the messages that strong women throughout history were sending.

I think that almost any text can be examined through a feminist lens because there are almost always some sort of gender roles at play.

I would add to your list of third wave feminist texts works by authors like Margaret Atwood and Ursula LeGuinn. I read both extensively when I studied feminism in college.

Amy said...

I've really enjoyed this discussion, and there are so many great reading suggestions. I do have Margaret Atwood on my To Read list, but I think I should bump her up a few spots.

I also want to highlight Jennifer's comment that specifically noted women authors aren't the only ones who incorporate feminism in their writing. I whole-heartedly agree, though I did not represent that very well. Men may also write with a feminist perspective, and feminism can be found in sub-texts of many works as well.

Jillian, I just read the Prelude you recommended. Thanks for the suggestion! Point of interest - my brother and his fiance want to name their future daughter "Avila" after this very heroine. I'll have to direct them to Eliot's words!

Julia Hones said...

I would add The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing