Born in 1949, Elaine Showalter is a highly influential American feminist critic. She coined the term gynocriticism, which is an extremely useful and quite a common word in feminist studies these days.
By this term, Showalter is referring to the literary framework that is going to assess the works of female authors and focuses on critiquing their work without using the terminologies used and developed by male critics and author, as using that sets the women writers at disadvantage.
Female Literary Canon
Through gynocriticism, Showalter is basically trying to form a female literary canon by studying and bringing into the light of various women writers who have been forgotten under the dominance of western canon that predominately contains male writers.
Her idea is that the female canon is already present and we only need to discover these great works by female writers, to understand their worth and the contribution they would make to literature. This is something extensively done by Showalter in her research of various female writers of the Victorian period.
Although Showalter accepts that, women writing, like any other writing from an oppressed class is, in its initial phases, more imitative in nature. It heavily draws from the ideas and values of the dominant culture or group.
Phase of Imitation
This phase of imitation, as far as female writing is concerned, is called by Showalter as the “feminine” phase, in her work, A Literature of Their Own (1977). This above-mentioned work is highly praised in the feminist circles and sets her as one of the most important feminist of our times, albeit not one of the most “radical.”
The phase of imitation or the feminist phase is loosely referring to the works of writers like Jane Austen, Bronte Sisters, George Eliot and all those Victorian writers who were struggling to have their voice heard in the area almost exclusively dominated by male writers till that time.
So all these writers in these phases, though have a lot of unique characteristics in their work couldn’t be seen in other male writers, at large failed to come of the constraints put forth by oppressive male values and concepts.
Phase of Protest
The second phase is called the phase of protest or the feminist phase. In this phase, as Showalter argues, is where we see women writing more rebellious in nature that is trying to protest the male authority and all the values and standards associated with this mentality, a sort of fight for freedom and autonomy.
This could be used to refer to after the Victorian age is over. Mainly the female writers that emerged in the modernist movement could be suitably put in this phase.
Phase of Self-realisation
The third phase is called the female phase, or the phase of self-realization and self-discovery. In her own words, this stage is, “turning inward freed from some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity.” This age or phase is also referred by Showalter as a “new stage of self-awareness.”
The feminist critics emerging in the post-modern era like Showalter herself falls under this last and the most crucial stage in this evolutionary phases of feminist criticism and feminist literature.
The female writers of this phase, were neither imitating the eminent male writers and their style, nor were just focused to oppose the male authority to gain political and individual freedom, but were trying to celebrate the very nature and essence of what constitutes the female self, their body and sexuality and in a way truly coming close to their life.
Like Woolf, Showalter also emphasises the importance of having a female literary tradition by studying the works of the female writers that have been neglected in the study of literary history.
Showalter’s idea of gynocriticism comes under heavy criticism by radical feminists like the feminists and others who argued that this entire notion of canon formation is a patriarchal concept where everything is characterized and put in sort of hierarchies and structures.
Feminists should reject this notion completely as this is what patriarchy wants- to segregate the work of female authors and characterize it as inferior as it doesn’t fit their male-oriented definition of good, instead of accepting and celebrating its difference.