Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


International Women’s Day: spotlight on feminist literary criticism

Gill Plain, Susan Sellers

Feminist literary criticism… when did it all begin?

It’s probably been out there since books began, or at least since women became involved in reading them – which is why our history starts with the medieval period. This might sound anachronistic, but what we call ‘feminist’ enquiry obviously changes across time and understanding its historical roots is enormously important. Even from the earliest days of print culture, before anything resembling a feminist political consciousness had taken shape, there were ways of reading and seeing the world that challenged the conventions of patriarchal society and asked questions about gender, subjectivity and citizenship.

But when that political consciousness did develop – with the rise of ‘second wave’ feminism in the 1960s and 70s – well, everything changed.  Feminist literary criticism made a real, tangible difference to what we read and how we read it. It changed the canon in schools and universities, it changed publishing and it changed minds. It also changed itself. Feminism engaged with post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, Marxism and postcolonialism, it negotiated the differences as well as the commonalities between women, and it underpinned such later critical developments as queer theory and masculinity studies. For us, editing this book was a fascinating experience, because the experts we gathered to write the chapters revealed unexpected connections and lines of continuity, and they reminded us that contemporary understandings of identity as fluid, historically contingent, and shaped by the presiding culture had been noticed by women readers and writers across history. To take just one example, from Virginia Woolf’s 1929 feminist manifesto A Room of One’s Own: ‘Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.’



Feminist literary criticism made a real, tangible difference to what we read and how we read it.



So are we now in a post-feminist era? Sadly, events in America remind us all too sharply that ‘progress’ is relative and insecure. Fundamental rights are once again under threat. Globally, women’s literacy rates remain well below those of men, while unequal legal rights continue to make women victims of violence in many countries. Feminist literary criticism offers a set of tools for reading and analysing the culture and practices that make it possible for these injustices to continue. It is an empowering experience to read, in Susan Manly’s chapter on Mary Wollstonecraft, of her argument in her 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Women that all women should be educated alongside men in order to debunk the mythology surrounding the two sexes; or to be reminded, in the discussion by Claire Colebrook, of Judith Butler’s 1990 analysis of how all gender roles are culturally manufactured through repeated performance of the prescribed acts.




So are we now in a post-feminist era?




Of course, there has been change in women’s position even within our own lifetimes. We both have memories of the belittling assumptions and ingrained sexism that permeated the academy in the 1980s: being told that women’s war poetry wasn’t good enough to be worth studying, or that we shouldn’t worry about women in the seventeenth century because no women were writing then. But we also benefitted from the impact of scholars in the 1970s who fought the battles that made feminist enquiry an essential component of literary studies, battles that made it possible for us to write about women, get jobs and create courses on gender and feminist theory. We both work at the university of St Andrews, and when we arrived back in the late 1990s women were pretty thin on the ground. Now, 20 years later, the School of English is nearly 50% women, many of them promoted, and it has its second female Head of School. We were lucky to arrive in a collegial academic department where we were welcomed and encouraged to challenge the canon – this hasn’t been the case in every institution or in every academic subject. And we shouldn’t become complacent. For a class last week, Gill re-read an essay by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called ‘Queer and Now’. First published in 1991 it detailed the backlash against ‘tenured radicals’ by a conservative American administration and the threat to vulnerable young people made to feel their lives are of no account by exclusionary policies and the rhetoric of hatred. Sedgwick writes about ‘the brutality of a society’s big and tiny decisions, explicit and encoded ones, about which lives have or have not value’. Her impassioned prose didn’t feel 25 years old. It felt as if it had been written yesterday.






Cambridge University Press is delighted to support International Women’s Day 2017 (8th March 2017). From the 6th-10th March we will be sharing brand new blog content from our authors which explore the themes of ‘IWD 2017’ and continue the discussion on feminism and women today and through the ages.

Cambridge will also be celebrating women in academia and their work by making a variety of book chapters free to read online – including some of the most vital contributions to feminist theory and women’s history. These will be accessible from: www.cambridge.org/IWD2017

Gill Plain and Susan Sellers are editors of A History of Feminist Literary Criticism, you can read a FREE extract from the book here



About The Authors

Gill Plain

Gill Plain is Professor of English at the University of St Andrews. Her publications include Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction (2001), John Mills and British Cinema: Masculinity, Ide...

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Susan Sellers

Susan Sellers is Professor of English and Related Literature at the University of St Andrews. Her publications include books, chapters and articles on a wide range of feminist thin...

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