|The Agony of Feminism: Why Feminist Theory Is
Necessary After All*
New Historicists believe that everything is complicit with everything else; history is
what had to happen. Old historicists like me believe that history is what didn't have to
happen--but it did. Even an old historicist, however, should not have imagined that
feminist criticism might escape the sweeping attack launched on traditional academic
literary criticism by theory. Yet, some of us doing feminist criticism in the 1970s did
just that. We thought that since feminist criticism was already critical of traditional
literary criticism, it would be exempted from theory's general dismissal of criticism as
parochial, naive, and primitive. We also supposed that a specifically feminist theory
would support rather than dismiss our work.
Alas. High theory in general paid little attention to feminist criticism, leaving the job
to feminist theory, which did not address the false universalism, misogyny and gender
asymmetry of mainstream literary criticism so much as it anatomized the shortcomings of a
specifically feminist criticism. Feminist theory applied theory's general contempt for
criticism to feminist criticism in particular: it was naive, parochial, primitive. Jane
Gallop, belatedly reading the 1972 critical anthology Images of Women in Fiction,
registers surprise at finding it "much more diverse, sophisticated, complex, and
interesting than I had imagined." She continues, "Usually cited as the first
phase of feminist literary study, considerations of Images of Women in literature are
generally treated as juvenilia, of archival value at best," representations of what
though perhaps a heroic time, was also a "simpler time, when we were bold but
To be sure, feminist theory might have been interpreted sympathetically as a well-meant
albeit patronizing attempt to refashion feminist criticism for the increasingly high-toned
ambiance of English, French, and Comparative Literature departments. But empirical
feminist literary critics like myself were more distressed by the put-down than grateful
for the help. Feminist theory's main point--that no coherent definition of that crucial
feminist term woman underlay our diverse undertakings--was undoubtedly correct. But
feminist theory's obsessive complaints over, alternately, the dearth or surplus of
concepts of woman in our work seemed to reanimate the disabling essentialism that our
practical feminism had hoped to escape.
Feminist critics coming to voice in the 1970s were also alarmed by feminist theory's
peculiar affinity for the misogynist psychoanalytic determinisms that we were implicitly
or explicitly trying to discredit. (Freudianism and Lacanianism are both misogynistically
determinist. Whether anatomical or linguistic, psychoanalysis excludes women from
civilization and its discontents, indeed makes civilization dependent on that exclusion.)
Many of us had been severely damaged or at least painfully threatened by psychoanalytic
pseudo-explanations that pathologized our intellectual aspirations as penis envy or
masculinity complexes. Many of us had experienced the terrifying reality of father-figures
whose need to seduce us far exceeded our desire to seduce them. And (to return to Gallop's
dichotomy) without granting that boldness is necessarily crudeness, many of us thought
that boldness was still very necessary. Anne Snitow has written that "when basic
rights are under attack, liberalism feels necessary again" (27). Again! Some of us
have never known a time when basic rights for women have not been under attack.
A collective (although not collectively produced) expression of our feminist dismay
appeared in a special issue of Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature (1984), reissued in
book form as Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship (Benstock, 1987). This book
immediately became, and has remained, a target of feminist theorists, some of whom have
attacked it as antifeminist, focusing on my essay subtitled "Why I don't do Feminist
Literary Theory" (see Finke, "Rhetoric"; Meese). The agony of feminism in
my title, then, refers to the agonizing reality of this feminist discord.
Since discord exists, feminists have neither the luxury nor the option of overlooking it.
Not only do we come into conflict with many women in the population at large whose true
interests we presume to speak for, we differ profoundly and intractably among ourselves.
So who is this "we," who are "ourselves?" Discord characterizes and
has characterized feminism within the academy--and outside of it--from the first (see
Echols). Discord undercuts any idea of all women as partaking of one essence, unless
quarrelsomeness is part of the essence, as indeed many misogynists do gleefully maintain.
I think of quarrelsomeness, rather, as an intrinsically human quality.
Discord also erodes the ideal of a somnolent but rousable sisterhood underlying the worlds
of diverse women, the ideal to which so many feminists passionately subscribe. Nor is
their agony to be evaded by renaming discord 'dialogic,' as implied in the title of an
important recent reader, Feminisms (Warhol and Herndl). The name of a another collection,
the 1990 Conflicts in Feminism (Hirsch and Keller), better expresses the current
atmosphere in academic feminism. Reviewing this book, Sara Lennox refers to the
"chilly politeness or persistent antagonism" in many women's studies programs,
and hopes that "vigorous debate conducted with sympathy, solidarity, and respect will
become a vehicle to move feminists past the positions in which we are presently
Her language forlornly invokes the ideal of sisterhood whose absence in practice is, I
think, what feminist theory is all about. For, as Lennox observes, the subject of
Conflicts in Feminism is not feminism in general but feminist theory--more precisely,
feminist theory as elaborated mainly in the English departments of American colleges and
universities. I suppose therefore that feminist theory has defined itself as the study of
feminist discord, and that its practice, while attempting to mediate that discord, must of
necessity refer to and possibly also exacerbate it. While furiously debating each other,
feminist theorists agonize over their belief that feminism ought to be particularly
characterized by cooperative, supportive behavior among its adherents: that, in a phrase,
feminism ought to represent the "different voice" of women (Gilligan). Put more
theoretically, feminist theory constantly analyzes and destabilizes every feminist attempt
to ground practice in one definition of woman, while nevertheless clinging to a notion of
women as a single group on behalf of whom it is doing its work. Ultimately the greatest
agony of feminist theory in particular, as opposed to feminism in general, may be that it
has been unable to develop theoretical practice in a different voice, but only does theory
That any aggregation of individual examples of feminist literary criticism
will comprise an incoherent and unstable body of work is not contested here. The empirical
literary historian Martha Banta has cleverly written of the impression left by a
collection of feminist criticism, as being:
For essentialism, and against it. For women gaining power through art's politics by
means of usurping masculine modes, and against women who succeed at the cost of picking up
the vile habits involved in the making of patriarchal art. For women inspired by the
domestic arts of "the mothers," and against a woman's art that regresses to the
trivia of painted china and embroidery needles. For women who gain access to art's
inspiration through joining the community of sisters, and against the notion that women
who struggle alone reinscribe Romantic images of male genius. (399)
Feminist theorists like Gallop might see in this incoherence a lamentable lack of
sophistication, i.e., an innocence of theory.
But one might argue otherwise: feminist literary criticism is indeed theory-based. It
depends, however, on the one school of theory that all other varieties of feminist theory
(in common with most forms of current academic critical theory) oppose. That is, liberal
theory. I want therefore to stress that the feminism we know today originates in western
Enlightenment liberalism, that is, in a new conception of human nature as universal, and
in a conjoined movement for human rights in particular cases based on that universal.
Enlightenment liberalism holds that all human beings possess the capacity of reason; so
does liberal feminism. And in spite of announced hostility to reason as a tool of western
male imperialism, antiliberal feminist theorists operate with hair-splitting logical
exactness, pillorying the opposition above all for lack of analytical rigor; it is
impossible to conceive of more rationalist criteria than these.
Enlightenment liberalism believes that all human beings have a kind of selfhood that
implies their right to possess their bodies and the results of that body's labor; all
feminist political and social initiatives today depend on these tenets. I cite Anne Snitow
again: "It's not that we haven't gone beyond classical liberalism in theory; but that
in practice we cannot live beyond it" (27). I share this perspective, and question
any theory that disregards the imperatives of practice.
Against this historical background, feminism may be interpreted as a bid to extend
membership in universal human nature, and hence eligibility for human rights, to that
category of beings named women. This is the point conveyed by Mary Wollstonecraft's title:
"A vindication of the rights of woman." Like many other Enlightenment radicals,
Wollstonecraft asks thinkers to accept the imperatives of their own reasoning. In defining
women as human beings, therefore, liberal feminism has not failed to define 'woman' in a
consistent or rigorous manner; it has positively refused to do so. It categorically
insists on assimilating women to the class 'human.' It maintains that any definition of
woman-as-such can only be arrived at by differentiating us from the human, and therefore
provide a basis for arguments denying us our human rights, whatever these rights might, at
any particular historical time and place, consist of. Note that liberal feminism makes no
a priori commitments to any particular definition of the human, always excepting the
category of rationality. Its claim is that, whatever it is to be human, women are that
too, and therefore eligible for the rights of human beings.
Our society, of course, does not guarantee to women all the rights--not to mention
privileges--that it considers appropriate to the status of being human. Liberal feminists
hold indeed that universally, whatever any culture values, women get less of it than men.
If, conversely, you want to know what a culture--any culture, not merely western late
capitalism--does not value, you should look at what it gives or ascribes or leaves to its
women. Arguments to the contrary are just mystification. The hand that rocks the cradle,
rocks the cradle. In societies where it is prestigious to wear skirts, the men are
skirted. This is not to say that women are never and nowhere allowed any power, pleasure,
property, or prestige at all: this would be a recipe for mass suicide. Nor is it to say
that deprivations fall on all women equally either within or across cultures. Disparities
among and between women have been so agonizingly conducive to feminist splits and
conflicts that we clearly may not maintain that all women are equally culturally
delegitimated. Neither, however, can we maintain illiberally that only the most
delegitimated women are really women.
In demanding for women the same rights as those available to subjects already understood
as human, the liberal position does not perceive women as the same as men, although this
frivolous complaint has often been raised against it. Nor, for that matter, does it hold
that women are the same as each other, another facile allegation. That is, liberal
feminism does not deny differences, but assumes that whatever they may be, they do not
justify denying women their rights as human beings, or circumscribing their rights as
social and legal subjects, whatever these rights may be. You need not be the same as
somebody else to qualify for the enjoyments of the protections and rights that such a
somebody else enjoys. From the point of view of liberal theory, everybody is always
already somebody's somebody else. The purpose of a liberal feminism is to encompass
difference in a non-violent way. And although this is the point of most expressions of
liberalism, I think that feminists are particularly sensitive to violence. Women are much
more frequently recipients than perpetrators of violence. Women certainly do violence, but
they usually aren't very good at it.
So while liberal feminism's unwillingness to say what it means by the term 'woman'
certainly involves a lack of a certain kind of theoretical rigor, this lack may involve
the presence of liberal theory as much as the absence of feminist theory. And, since
feminist theory, like most critical theory, is anti-liberal, its actual target may be
feminist criticism's liberalism rather than its theoretical ignorance or naivete. Indeed,
whether poststructuralist (e.g., Butler); quasi-Marxist (e.g., Mackinnon);
Marxist-poststructuralist (e.g., Benhabib and Cornell, Pateman); deconstructionist (e.g.,
Moi); or communitarianist (e.g., Fox-Genovese), liberalism is the one shared object of
feminist theories' attack.
The presence of this theoretical binarism has not been much noted, partly because there
are as yet very few liberal feminist theorists. The liberals in the literary field have
been, for the most part, practical critics. And as such a critic, I will not attempt to
rise to the sphere of theory by exposing specific shortcomings in particular strands of
feminist theory or haranguing harangue against the practice of theory. I will instead
offer a modest survey of the achievements of practical, liberal, feminist literary
criticism, thereby suggesting why we continue to need this kind of criticism, and why we
continue to do it, flawed as it is. This survey is not presented nostalgically. If
anything, it is accompanied by a sense of urgency. For while the political right lumps
liberalism with the hard left, the political left absurdly lumps liberalism with the
right. I believe this situation is dangerous for all academics, not just liberals.
Among the valuables long denied to women as a class in our culture have been access to
knowledge and the means of producing knowledge. Feminists also rightly assume that much
less knowledge has been produced about women than about men, and that what knowledge
exists justifies keeping women away from it: as, for example, the many arguments about
women's intellectual inferiority to men. Feminist access to the academy, therefore, has
inevitably led to programs to produce new knowledge about women. Literature and literary
study were, perhaps, "natural" subjects in which to find and produce such
knowledge. On the one hand, representations of women abound in literature; on the other,
for the last two centuries in the west literature has been a field open to women. These
known facts, along with the proportionately large number of women studying and teaching
literature, made the dearth of literary knowledge about women more immediately obvious
than might have been the case in some other fields. Claims that everything was known were
manifestly false. Claims that everything was known that needed to be known were manifestly
Feminist critics proposed to make literary knowledge in two ways. First, they examined
representations (or images, as they were then called) of women in standard literary works,
and, second, they retrieved and analyzed neglected works by women writers. Neither
strategy required a specialized, technical vocabulary. Both were "literary" in a
dictionary sense: they worked with literary texts and produced literary commentary. Both
were accessible in the classroom, enthusiastically received by women students, and
effective enough in logical argumentation and analytic results to force a reconsideration
of deeply held beliefs about literature among many academic literary men.
Operating well within the old terms of New Criticism, images-of-women study searches for,
describes, and analyzes literary "images"--that is, representations of women in
literature, not women directly. There is no need to anchor these representations in any
particular belief about what is real. Much of the feminist impact of image study rose
precisely from demonstrating that they were not anchored in the real, as traditionary
criticism so often held, as though images of women in literature represented women as they
really were, while images of flowers, or the moon, or the albatross, were strictly
literary devices. Feminists held that representations of women were also strictly literary
devices, and studied them for what they revealed about the writer who deployed them and
the culture in which that writer worked. Images-of-women study turned out to imply a
powerful attack on the received canon, an attack all the more powerful for using the very
instruments by which the received canon had been validated. Audre Lourde has memorably
written that the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house, but in this
much-quoted sentence she used the master's tools quite effectively to make its point. One
might ask: what other tools could dismantle the house?
Images-of-women study remains the single most effective academic tool for bringing about
feminist awareness in readers. Many so-called great literary works image women only as
items in male fantasy, or in ways that confirm or inculcate their social subordination.
Because of findings with respect to the obvious fantasy content, or the misogyny, or both,
of much male literary representation of women, critics dedicated to the high canon as it
existed in, say, the late 1950s, were pushed into increasingly defensive and
ever-less-defensible postures. Even radical feminists may feel defensive, as in the case
of a radical feminist teacher who loves Shakespeare and was faced with the problem of
women students who reached "strikingly negative conclusions" about Shakespeare's
plays. One concluded that "Shakespeare was a misogynist"; another said she was
"left with a sour impression from Shakespeare as he depicts gender relations only in
the framework of . . . maintaining the dominance of males while publicly denouncing the
empowerment of women" (Finke, Feminist 148-49).
Now, if this is what Shakespeare--or any other writer--in fact did, why does recognizing
it out lead to discomfort? The reason is that the author's hitherto unquestioned greatness
is put into question. The criteria for greatness which his work has been held to satisfy
are apparently unmet; perhaps the criteria themselves need reexamination. The dilemma is
most commonly addressed by teaching Shakespeare, or any other writer similarly
compromised, as an example of his time. But this avoids rather than resolves the dilemma.
To teach Shakespeare in this way undercuts any particular reason for teaching Shakespeare
as opposed to any other person of the age who happens to be handy. One is teaching
Shakespeare because he's there, not because he's good. It will not do to say that
Shakespeare was, after all, a man of his time, because the traditional reason for studying
great artists has been precisely that they transcended their time. (New Historicism, to be
sure, maintains that all writers are always, everywhere, and only of their time, that in
effect there are no great artists; but New Historicism is about culture not literature,
and its adherents would be teaching Shakespeare from the first as culturally exemplary.)
It will not do to say that Shakespeare transcended his time in some, but not all ways, and
that (regrettably) on the subject of women he was a man of his time, because this implies
that a writer's representations of women should not be really important to the way he is
judged; i.e., that representations of women don't matter; i.e., that women don't matter.
It will not do to insist that not women but humankind is the writer's subject, because
this only repeats the unacceptable argument in a different form, excluding women from
humankind, and affirming that the perspective in the work is, indeed, male, that there is,
indeed, such a thing as a male perspective in literature.
It will not do to reintroduce the esthetic distance that feminist image study is often
criticized for banishing by saying that Shakespeare should be read or studied for his
esthetic achievement not his moral vision. Formalist argument will not work, because
literary study as such, with or without feminist criticism, has never been really
formalist, if formalism means being preoccupied or even more than superficially interested
in technique, in craft, in a writer's strategies for achieving literary aims per se.
This point requires more development. So-called formalist criticism, including New
Criticism, was always moral and ethical, always looking for an author's vision of
"the human condition," always invoking writers as repositories of wisdom,
teachers of humankind, individuals gifted with an ability beyond the possession of
technical skill. Even when practiced by experts, the language of esthetic value is
amateurishly fuzzy and impressionistic. A sophisticated critic pleading for a return to
appreciation of the art in literary language can do no better than: "this lovely
moment in Hemingway's work is especially vulnerable, in its delicate poise," or
"an impassioned--and vividly metaphorical utterance," or even just
"extraordinary language" (Pritchard, 728, 727). Even this critic, fatigued by
the relentless didacticism of thematic criticism, quickly modulates from observations on
George Eliot's language to observations on how she may be "deliberately mocking the
conception of women as pure and sacrosanct" (732). This is a commentary about
meaning, not about language.
The New Critics may have confined themselves to the limits of a text, or imagined that
they did. But they certainly did not ignore themes. They did talk about how great writers
projected themes through specifically literary language and purely literary techniques,
thereby claiming for literature the status of a mode of knowledge: i.e., as something more
than merely esthetic or merely enjoyable. It was the knowledge, however, that they were
after. They were formalist in their effort to differentiate literature-as-such from other
modes of linguistic discourse, and to celebrate writing as a special kind of human
activity. But their ultimate judgment of literary worth depended on thematic significance
Moreover, insofar as literature is shaped as a school subject, it necessarily serves the
purposes of schooling, which seldom include making esthetes. The main purposes of
schooling, as one historian of education after another has demonstrated, have always been
civic and hence political in some sense; "literature" entered various curricula
at various times and places in support of various public agendas. The new historicist, New
Left, or multiculturalist agendas in this respect are totally conventional; supposedly
innovative attacks on the principle of "literariness" as elitist actually
restate and reinstate the aims of late 19th century advocates of literature in school: it
will make good citizens of the nation's children. The specific ideals of citizenship may
have changed, but the ideal of making citizens remains. (See the bibliography in Baym,
"Early Histories," Guillory.)
Because, then, moral significance has always been the main criterion for literary value,
when feminist image study disclosed that revered repositories of transcendent moral value
were denigrators of women, these great writers' breadth was rightly compromised, their
transcendence rightly undermined. Men as well as women readers and scholars have been
influenced by this unimpeachable demonstration of the moral limits of the literary greats.
There has been a measurable shift in the literary academy, paralleling shifts in other
parts of United States social and political life. The point here, then, is not that the
writing of this or that dead white male is politically incorrect in some extremely local
sense, but that it fails on precisely the grounds of moral spaciousness by which it has
traditionally been justified to clients as worth their close attention and respect.
Finally, it will not do to argue that studying literature in this feminist way imposes on
works a politics they do not have. Reading for images showed that works
"themselves" often did inculcate or approve situations of power asymmetry as a
part of their thematic apparatus, or advanced hatred and fear of women as manly virtues.
In a world so structured by gender, how could it have been otherwise?
A still more radical interpretive conclusion might be drawn if it were truly the case that
feminist approaches to literature could successfully make a political work out of one that
was not "itself" political. The very notion of a work's having a meaning, in the
sense of something dependably there for all readers, would be jeopardized. Not merely
feminist interpretation, but all interpretation might be seen as rhetorical and political.
This seems to be what is at stake, for example, in a much-publicized dispute between John
Searle and Gerald Graff in the New York Review. In his letter to the editor marking the
end of the debate, Searle comments that
In the study of most great works of literature, the political dimension is minor. You will
miss the point of, say, Proust or Shakespeare, if you think that their main interest is
the bearing of their work on the sort of political preoccupations that we happen to have
today. It is, in short, a vulgarization of the study of literature to suppose that the
primary categories for addressing literary works are those to be derived from the
"leftist" (or "rightist" or "centrist," etc.) persuasion of
the sort espoused by Professor Graff. (63, emphasis mine)
The important words in this paragraph are all rhetorical. Searle is not describing what
literature is, but arguing for the way in which literature should be studied. And it could
be argued that in saying that most great works have only minor political interest, Searle
is simply offering a negative definition of literary greatness. For nobody can dictate the
"main interest" of a literary work, let alone most of them. since no
"interest" is conceivable without interested parties, whose interests are likely
to vary markedly, and may likely as not include politics, why should this interest be
excluded? Describing political interests as a 'vulgarization' of literary study, Searle
seems to be trying shame critics out of politics, invoking the late Victorian ideal of
literature as a genteel avocation rather than a life's work.
Perhaps the interest Searle is invoking is the author's, meaning by "interest"
authorial intention. Yet, the possibility of the author's having a political interest
cannot be dismissed in advance and a priori. Maybe Proust was apolitical (though not
uninterested in class and sexuality, two other preoccupations we happen to have today).
But Shakespeare? Surely one can argue convincingly for the centrality of a political
interest in plays like Julius Caesar or Coriolanus, or even King Lear and Macbeth, not to
mention all Shakespeare's pro-Tudor history plays. Henry V, for instance, with its
extended and complex conversations on kingship, citizenship, militarism, patriotism,
nationalism, and political eloquence, can hardly be approached except as a political play.
Although its politics are Elizabethan, they are also sufficiently kin to those that we
happen to have today to make the play interesting to a contemporary audience without
falsifying it, to align Shakespeare's interest with ours.
To sum up, it was the effect of feminist image study to put into question the entire range
of unexamined premises by which literary value had been assumed or asserted, and hence
thoroughly to disrupt the practices of normal literary criticism and normal literary
pedagogy. The important insights of feminist image study, however, are not without their
limitations. Invariably, the limitations manifest themselves when a pragmatic approach is
abandoned for a-prioritism--when, for example, such study assumes that male-authored texts
cannot help but represent women invidiously, that "women" in men's texts are
therefore always textual victims; or when it assumes that readers will read only from the
perspective of a gender whose characteristics are taken to be fixed and known in advance.
Image study too often takes for granted a unified female identity that is manifestly
inadequate to the variety of women in literature and the material world. In stabilizing
gender across time and place, image study may merely substitute two universal readers or
transcendent points of view for the one we had before.
Image study has also tended to assume that woman-authored texts would present alternative
images to those in works by men. The second strand of feminist criticism, the study of
women writers (gynocritics) grew directly from the search for undistorted, realer, more
"positive" images of women than those in men's texts. Like image study,
gynocritics has been conventionally literary. It has focused on works like novels and
poems written for publication; it analyzed its selected works in new critical terms as
thematic repositories couched in a particularized literary language; it has worked within
accepted paradigms of literary scholarship like biography and literary history. This kind
of study often scrutinized unpublished journals, diaries, or letters; but this was not a
radical move. Gynocriticism affirmed, even strengthened, the centrality of the
author-concept, and it did this at just the time when emergent poststructuralist theories
were proclaiming the author's death. Many feminist and postcolonialist critics have noted
the disappearance of the subject from high theory at just the moment when formerly silent
groups were expressing their subjectivities. Some of us, seeing theory as at least partly
an attempt by elite professional males to escape the feminization (or proletarianization)
of their domain, think this is no coincidence at all.
Yet, despite its literary orientation, and like image study, the study of women writers
was attacked by traditionalists; and indeed its innovations, like those of image study,
threatened the status quo. It introduced numerous new authors and works, insisting that
they were perhaps objects of equal value, and certainly objects of equal interest, with
the canonized greats. It questioned critical claims that the current canon had always
existed in the shape it then took, or even that it represented sensitive selection from
available works. How could it represent an informed selection from the totality when most
defenders of the high canon knew nothing about the many women writers whose works were
being retrieved? Some of those women writers, it turned out, had once enjoyed considerable
prestige. And so had some men one no longer heard of. In 1860, for example, the American
textbook publisher A.S. Barnes advertised "Bond's English Poets. The English Poets,
With Critical Notes." These poets were: John Milton, Edward Young ("Night
thoughts"), James Thomson ("The Seasons"), William Cowper ("The
Task" and "Table Talk") and Robert Pollok ("The Course of Time").
My colleagues of course know, though none of them teach or study, Young, Thomson, and
Cowper. But none had ever heard of Pollok.
The language in which Barnes recommended this set of presently obscure writers to the
general public strikes so much the note of today's defenses of the (supposedly eternal)
high canon that I cannot resist quoting it:
In this age, when the press is covering our land with a frivolous and pernicious
literature, there is great danger that the rising generation will too much neglect, if not
entirely lose sight of those noble and solid productions of the British Muse which have
been familiar to their predecessors. These are worthy, not of a hasty perusal only, but of
frequent and profound study--especially by the young--for the varied information which
they contain; for the learning and taste, and high order of genius which they display; and
for the eminent service which they are adapted to afford in the proper culture of the mind
and of the heart.
This spectacle of canonical flux invites one to suppose that the dearth of women
writers in the canon eventuated from judgments not purely esthetic. When they focus on
women writers, such approaches as reception study, history and analysis of
canon-formation, and biographical and literary investigation often reveal not merely how
their subjects were thwarted and deformed by sexual prejudice but how the works they
managed to produce have been marginalized and minoritized by gender-biased criticism.
Tcese findings pointed to the importance of historical contingencies, changes in taste,
and a range of non-esthetic institutional factors in determining the canon at any
particular moment. Janet Maslin, reviewing the film of The Last of the Mohicans in the New
York Times, refers to the novel as "that most stultifying of American classics";
yet any scholar of antebellum American literature knows that the novel was received by its
first audience as probably the most exciting work of fiction ever produced. At one and the
same time, then, feminist critics were breaking up the canon and demonstrating that the
canon had never really existed as such. It could never be anything but a snapshot of the
preoccupations we happen to have today, never a monument of our interests throughout time,
and never composed of works of self-evident esthetic value judged by unchanging standards.
Gynocritics was not only interested in recovering neglected works by women, it also
assumed that there must be connections between the attributes of the recovered work and
the writer's gender. Such an assumption, combining with the destabilization of the
universal subject implied in image study, could lead to the conclusion that insofar as
they were records of experience, women's writings were equally valuable with men's, if
women were equally valuable as persons. More obviously, women tended to write about women,
so that their works were a reasonable place to look for depictions of female life,
thought, and experience. Beside the fact that this interest again put under erasure the
so-called universal subject and the allied universal standards of literary value,
gynocritics raised the awful specter of a feminized field, where male English professors
would not only have to teach mostly women students--this they had been doing for some
time--but also teach significant numbers of women authors. And if this seemed a horrible
prospect, one wonders why it did not seem equivalently horrible when women professors were
expected to teach mostly books by and about men. Of course the answer lies in the sexual
asymmetry of our society, which means that women teaching about men are stepping up, men
teaching about women are stepping down.
One way for traditional critics to escape this dilemma was to return to the formal by
insisting that, through no fault of their own, women writers just haven't been able to
write as well as men. Regrettably, they had up to now lacked opportunities equal to men
for representing their experience. One could even go so far as to claim that language
itself, having been in men's possession for so long, was inherently male in character, so
that women's writing in any historical sense was almost a contradiction in terms. And
this, indeed, is a point advanced by some varieties of feminist theory as well, although
the search for a purely female literary language has proved problematical in the extreme.
The best that critics have been able to do is come up with a version of modernist or
postmodernist experimentation as a specifically "female" endeavor, which it
manifestly is not (see Jardine). But regardless of whether women had or had not hitherto
represented themselves in writing, it was impossible to argue any longer that men had done
the job for them.
Gynocritics, then, while continuing the disruptive work of image criticism, also led to
the inclusion of women's writings in the canon and the literary curriculum. But in this
domain, too, a-prioritism marked the limits of its vision. Whenever gynocritic scholars
took the step of assuming any fixed correlations between gender and text, they fell like
image critics into the essentialist trap, and became fair game for feminist theory. Any
fixed correlation involved a temporary universalizing or totalizing of "Woman"
in an unusably narrow way, excluding whole classes of women and congeries of individual
women from the overclass of woman. On the other hand, whenever this next step was not
taken, gynocritic scholars were vulnerable to the charge of theoretical naivete.
Some opponents of gynocritics have argued that women's experience in the typical
gynocritical text, as well as the typical gynocritic herself, were at first white,
heterosexual, and middle-class. I think this is true, and the defect is being remedied by
more gynocritics and more careful, historically specific and culturally nuanced
generalization. On occasion, however, opponents of gynocritics have downgraded or
invalidated the experience, work, writing, attainments, the very existence of white,
middle-class, heterosexual women, and ignored the many differences among women in this
large class. The search for women who are more woman than others does not escape
essentialism or a-prioritism, but moves it to a different site. To choose the type that is
the most woman because the most oppressed not only defines many women as not-women, but
patronizingly conceptualizes minority women as nothing but oppressed, as pure, ahistorical
victims. This strategy ironically replicates just that long-suffering Victorian angel
whose representation played so large a role in repressive Victorian gender ideology.
Gynocritics were also vulnerable to the Utopian expectation that all works by women would
be ideologically correct in all particulars--would be completely free of class, race,
ethnic, or sexual prejudice. What do to when a (probable) lesbian like Willa Cather turned
out to be a committed Anglo-Saxonist? Or when Edith Wharton, attacking the upper class,
demonstrated no sympathy for the plight of maidservants or even much awareness of their
existence? Or when the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson called the Indians devils
incarnate? The hidden gynocritic belief that women were like each other and unlike men by
virtue of moral capaciousness, and that a canon of women writers would be a moral canon,
could not survive the facts of gynocritic scholarship. The spectacle of policewoman
teachers in the classroom is no more inviting and no more liberal than the spectacle of
Both image study and gynocritics, then, initially launched under the auspices of a liberal
agenda, run into theoretical trouble at the point where, attempting to totalize the
category woman, they abandon their enabling liberalism. I think both that the number of
qualifiers that must hyphenate the material "woman" as she exists in time and
space and culture is uncountable, that the task of enumerating them has barely begun.
(Just as I think that the task of seriously rethinking literary quality has barely begun.)
Hyphenated women are allegories. Ultimately, I believe that the process of specification
within the total formulation "woman" can come to rest in literary study only by
grounding literature in individual subjectivity, where, to a large extent, traditional
literary criticism had placed it. Because this idea is traditional, many feminists find it
hard to accept; and because it is liberal, feminist theorists want to repudiateit
I want to argue that to accept subjectivity and individuality as the basis of feminist
practice does not require one to accept the philosophy of Ayn Rand, or accede to an
old-style humanistic definition of the individual subject as autonomous, self-made,
individually self-consistent, and self-powering. The humanism I adhere to is called
"critical humanism" by Tzvetan Todorov. The totally autonomous subject was never
anything more than the rhetorical expression of a will to power. Obviously the individual
is a complex, ongoing social and genetic product. Obviously subjectivity is more or less
determined, in proportions unknown and perhaps unknowable--certainly unknowable if they
are denied--by history, society and biology. Obviously subjectivity is not stable;
self-awareness is always uncertain, developing, inconsistent. Selves differ from
themselves minute by minute, year by year, decade by decade.
The point is that in its particular economy of social and genetic impressions, its
particular dynamics of inconsistencies and self-differences, each subjectivity--even as
constituted by an accumulating repertory of transient subjectivities--differs from all
others. Fingerprints or neural connections are unique to each human being, yet the human
thumbprint is recognizable as what it is. Any human being who has been socially classified
as female from birth by the appearance of her infant body in the world, who lives in a
society that takes this appearance into account--this means all women--must register this
classification in her subjectivity. But each will do so in changing ways, ways different
from every other woman, although in ways unpredictably more like some women than like some
others, and in ways that will align her more with some men than with some women, in some
circumstances. Feminist literary critics may try to look at what women share; but woman,
though much written about, has never written anything.
My own dilemma, my agony in this context, is that the individualism that attracts me as
a feminist is currently rejected in most feminist theories. The recognition of
subjectivity that grounds my feminist practice obviously does not ground it for others. We
do not think alike. But then I must ask myself what, as a liberal, I could possibly have
expected. Liberal theory holds that we do not, cannot, and perhaps ethically must not
think alike. Ironically, if the hallmark of classical liberal discourse is acrimonious
competitive debate, feminist theory instantiates it perfectly; my own liberalism looks
much more like a weak form of communitarianism. Antiliberal feminist theory has shown me
that liberal feminism could not avoid difference by pious appeals to pluralism but would
rather have to live its pluralism or abandon it. But antiliberal feminist theory also
demonstrates, enacts, its own inability to resolve the conflicts it debates so vigorously.
These conflicts cannot be resolved by theory; they cannot be resolved. They cannot be
resolved because women are individual after all. And that agonizing reality makes feminist
theory necessary after all.
*Originally published in The Emperor ReDressed:
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