The issue of Feminism in English Literature is not new but due to patriarchal society, it has been suppressed and overlooked. The existence of inequalities between men and women are not natural but social taboo. One may ask
Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the authors who wrote about feminism, advocates in her A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) that women must be treated equally because they have to play a crucial and vital role in society especially bringing up children.
She attacks male thinker and scholar like Rousseau who argued that women did not need education but she supported education as a means of women’s improvement.
Like her American activist, Margaret Fuller one of the famous female writers of the 19th century, in her Women in the Nineteenth Century (1845) believed that education is the means of emancipation for women and her keys planks are education, employment and political.
While in the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf, a modernist and female Victorian author, explored gender relations in her A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). She vehemently argued that patriarchal education systems and reading practices prevent women readers from reading as women.
It is also remarkable when she remarks ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she to write fiction’. She advocates for the liberation of women, financially independence and right to reveal feelings and experiences through words.
Whereas Simone De Beauvoir favours that there is ‘no essence’ of the woman and a woman is constructed by men. As she states it in her feminism manifesto The Second Sex (1949): ‘One is not born a woman but become one’.
The exploitation, discrimination and the crisis of women’s identification faced by women in the society have questioned by female writers, activists, and critics.
In relation to literature, the feminism movement has focused on the role played by literature to bring out gender discrimination, domestic violence, and inequality on the forefront.
Development of Feminism
The concept of Feminism Movement got proper prominence and importance in the 1960s. Earlier, feminism was limited to some female writers only but the increased number of female writers and the representation of women characters in fiction world drew large attention in the literature. The evolution of the feminist movement in the literature as follows:
- First Wave Feminism mainly concerned with the treatment of women in the male-dominated society. The major works which raised the issues of feminism during this phase are Mary Ellman’s Thinking about Women (1968), Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1969) and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970). Many important works of the male writers have been studied in order to analyze the attitude of male towards women and society.
- Second Wave Feminism is concerned with women writings include Ellen More’s Literary Women (1976), Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own (1970), Nina Baym’s Women’s Fiction (1978) , Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Mad Woman in the Attic (1979), and Margaret Homan’s Women Writers and Poetic Identity (1980).
Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own published in 1970. This phase chiefly explores the relationship between female and literature and texts were analyzed to understand the treatment of female characters by the male in the society.
Showalter proposed three stages in the history of women’s writing:
- Feminine phase (1840-80), in which women writers imitated dominant male artistic norms and aesthetic standards;
- Feminist phase (1880-1920), in which radical approach has been maintained; and at last
- Female phase (1920-onwards) which primarily focused on female writing and female experiences.
Feminism questions the long-standing, dominant, male interpretations, phallocentric ideology and patriarchal attitude. It concerned with varied aspects of feminism.
As Showalter sums up, “English feminist criticism, essentially Marxist, stressed oppression, French feminist criticism, especially psychoanalyst, stresses oppression. However, all have become ‘gynocentric’”.
Feminism criticism also concerned with women’s language and they need to cultivate linguistic and stylistic devices that can spontaneously express feminine sensibility and individuality.
Texts like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) and Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple (1982) are women-centric and unfolded the new women’s perspectives to analyze in the patriarchal society and distort all kinds of inequality and dependency on male counterparts.
Today women writers write enormously and expressed their sensibilities through their writings to enrich the substance of English literature. Feminism has empowered the confidence of women and provided the individuality identification in the patriarchal society.