Study Guide

Feminist Theory Basics

  • Beginnings

    Have you ever heard tell of feminism's "waves"? If not, why not settle into your nice comfy chair and let us fill you in.

    First up: first wave. When people nowadays refer to "first-wave" feminism, they generally mean the period of public activism and writing that runs from the late-19th century until the mid-20th. It was during that time that international women's suffrage movements agitated for women's right to vote, and to be recognized as full persons under the law. When Davie B goes off about Suffragette City, you can bet your red boots he's referring to this era. Somehow or other.

    "Second wave" feminism is generally associated with the period from 1960s through the late '80s or early '90s. But here's where things get tricky. The whole notion of feminism's "waves" was actually invented by the second wavers themselves, who wanted to give their activism a bit of oomph by tying it into a much longer history.

    And although the split between feminism's first and second waves has been pretty well settled, no one seems to be able to tell when the second wave ends. Maybe it's still going! Maybe we're into the third wave now! Or the fourth! Or maybe feminism is over and done with. Which means now we're into the post-feminism stage!

    Long story short: it's hard for feminists to agree on feminism's chronology, and the same goes for feminist theory. Does it begin with the writings of first wavers like Virginia Woolf? What about writers who straddle the fence between the first and second waves, like Simone de Beauvoir?

    Honestly, we can't point to a single moment as the birth of feminist theory: women have been thinking and writing about this stuff for centuries. So, to be kind to our gentle readers, we Shmoopers and Shmoopettes are going to break this down a little more simply. Since "feminist theory" is just one small part of the enormous majestic creature called capital-F Feminism, we're going to pick it up in the middle of the 20th century.

    This was when "theory" was becoming a hot topic in universities throughout North America and Europe, and it's these hotties who got the waves slapping the beach in a way that makes sandcastles get built a bit differently all the way up to today.

  • Big Players

    Let's start with the Continental players. Yes, the European Continent.

    Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and Julia Kristeva make up the Holy Trinity of French feminism, and in the 1970s and '80s, these ladies turned psychoanalytic thinking on its head. In their own ways, each of them revealed how inadequately dudes like Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan had thought about women as women: for the most part, psychoanalysts were in the habit of talking about women like they were nothing more than men without penises. Um, okay.

    Both Irigaray and Cixous pointed out that imagining women in this way made them seem scary and strange; plus, it's kind of childish to imagine the world as if it were only about the twig and berries. Another example: according to Freud and Lacan, young boys learn to obey their fathers because they're terrified of being "castrated," just like mommy who's got nothing but "lack" between her legs. And obviously young women want babies of their own to make up for not having anything else going on down there. Frankly, friends, early psychoanalysis isn't fun times for the womens.

    Within the American academy, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar were doing important literary work, teaching and interpreting texts by women writers who hadn't been given much attention by male critics and profs. They also explored new ways of evaluating women writers' creativity on its own terms, rather than comparing it to men's. Also in the lit world, Annette Kolodny did her thang to challenge readers of all stripes to re-examine the ways they'd been taught to recognize "great" works of fiction.

    Meanwhile, black feminist scholars like Audre Lorde, Barbara Christian, and bell hooks were working to make sure that the voices of African-American writers and thinkers were getting the attention they deserved.

    Along similar lines, feminist scholars from a huge diversity of backgrounds were laying the foundations for new forms of antiracist, decolonizing, and postcolonial lit crit: Gloria Anzaldúa, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak were all working among these ranks, along with our cyborg sweetie Donna Haraway.

    On top of ALL THAT, feminist scholars outside of lit departments like Adrienne Rich and Gayle Rubin were duking it out over issues like pornography, kink, and sadomasochism, and soon, Judith Butler would step into the fray by making a bold case for sex and gender "deviance." If all of this sounds like a lot to you, buckle up—we're still at the tip of the gender non-conforming iceberg!

  • Key Debates

    We've already mentioned that feminist theory involves a lot of internal debates, and they aren't always friendly. But isn't the real enemy patriarchy, you ask? Good for you, quick study! Still, there're tons of arguments to bite into, so let's take a look at some of the toothiest issues.

    Against Essentialism

    Remember way back when we defined essentialism and said that essentialist views of women can be dangerous because they assume that they all experience things like life, love, oppression, and high heels in pretty much the same ways?

    Yup, essentialism is an issue that has haunted feminist theory for decades, and although it has some practical uses like getting everyone together for the parade on the right day, it can also come with some pretty nasty territory.

    One of the nastiest bits of territory that comes with essentialist thinking is its habit of sweeping important differences under the rug. If your feminist movement is all about celebrating sisterhood and solidarity and fighting the good fight against menfolk, what happens to the feminists who aren't willing to give up their ties to male peers? Do they still count as feminists, or does it all depend on who's doing the counting?

    This issue got explosive in the 1970s and '80s, when it came to be pretty clear that mainstream feminist movements were assuming that the experiences of white, middle-class, and upper-middle-class women were the definitive issues for women. Which they weren't.

    That's why black feminists like the members of The Combahee River Collective argued that white women's calls for sisterhood and separatism weren't going to work for them. Since the Combahee women's unique experiences of oppression were based on racism as well as sexism, they knew they needed to work with men against racism, dealing with the problem of sexism while they were at it.

    Similarly, postcolonial feminists like Chandra Talpade Mohanty pointed out that Western feminists had gotten into the really bad habit of talking about "Third World" women as if they had no voices or political agency of their own. However well-intentioned they might have been, educated women in the West were acting like the guardians and interpreters of women's experiences and lives everywhere.

    And that was an approach that was just as privileged, and just as oppressive, as the exploitative patriarchy they were trying to fight.

    When it comes down to it, the problem with essentialism isn't just that it assumes that everyone's experience is more or less the same: at the heart of it is the fact that only the most powerful get to decide whose experience speaks for all. This is why you'll sometimes see liberal, or "mainstream," feminism being referred to as "hegemonic feminism"—something that doesn't really help with the fight against racism and other forms of oppression. The word "hegemony" refers to deeply engrained structural power: patriarchy is hegemonic, and so is white supremacy.

    When feminism doesn't recognize the contributions of women of color, and when it assumes that Western women ought to speak for all the disenfranchised women worldwide, we've got some problems on our hands.

    The Sex Wars

    Ah, the Sex Wars. These were actually a lot less fun than they sound. And they sure didn't take place in a galaxy far, far away.

    Remember when we defined Adrienne Rich's term compulsory heterosexuality? Rich came up with the phrase at a time when feminist politics in North America and the UK were being rocked by majorly divisive issues like sexual preference, pornography, kink, butch/femme relationships, fetishes, sexual entertainment, sex work, and so on. Whew!

    Although it's a bit simplistic to reduce these debates to two clear-cut sides, it's useful to think of the major players as dividing into roughly two teams: the "anti-pornography" feminists, and the "pro-sex" feminists.

    Basically, the fights broke down like this. Many feminists looked around and saw connections in the kinds of oppression women face in patriarchal cultures. Products like pornography, sexual entertainment, and sex work—products that are for sale—were seen as being essentially exploitative. And, by the same token, intimate relationships between women and men were seen as being exploitative in the same ways.

    As the anti-pornographers saw it, the sex industry wasn't just teaching men to be turned on by degrading women, it was also teaching women to get turned on by being degraded. Adrienne Rich is a pretty good example of this category, and her article called "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" (1980) makes a pretty slamming argument about how the way sex is portrayed and understood in society doesn't just make things tough for lesbians—it creates a culture where women are used to being treated in a bad way and liking it. Hence the queasiness around sex.

    For their part, pro-sexers like Gayle Rubin—who wrote her own doozy of an essay titled "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality" (1984)—argued that it was dangerous for feminists to say sex was something inherently bad. Doing that was basically equivalent to getting into bed (so to speak) with right-wing politicians who'd like nothing better than the freedom to police citizens' sexualities.

    This brand of feminist argued that not every form of pornography, sexual entertainment, or sex work could be painted with the same brush, and that just because a woman liked getting tied up in the bedroom, that didn't make her oppressed.

    So where does sex belong today? Well, most feminists might say, probably in the bedroom. Or the kitchen, if you're into that. Some would say you can take it to the street or use a handcuff. The issue of whether heterosexual sex is inherently oppressive, though, is a bit passé—more important to today's debates are issues like consent, comfort between partners, and how sex is represented in a way that doesn't make anyone look like they're naturally the inferior participant.

    Against Postmodernism and Poststructuralism

    While feminist scholars were making huge headway into university curricula, other theoretical trends were sweeping the nation, too, even if they didn't use a Miss America pageant to do it. Movements like deconstruction and poststructuralism were often thought of as being part and parcel of "postmodern" theory, and together they raised a lot of questions about the nature of personal identity and agency.

    Early in her career, gender theorist extraordinaire Judith Butler became famous for putting deconstructive and poststructuralist methods to feminist use—for example, by questioning the binary concepts that made up the idea of "man vs. woman" in the first place. But not everyone agreed that feminism and postmodernism should mix.

    In 1990, a symposium in Philadelphia brought Butler together with a fellow feminist scholar, Seyla Benhabib, who argued that the relationship between feminism and postmodern theory couldn't be anything more than an "uneasy alliance."

    Benhabib was particularly concerned about postmodern celebrations of the "death" of man: in other words, the view that our personal identities are so deeply shaped by language and society that they're barely "ours" at all. Whereas Butler argued that postmodern theory is necessary for anti-essentialist thinking, Benhabib said that postmodern theorists risk doing away with "accountability," self-reflection, and individual agency. In other words, they risk making activist politics impossible.

    Similar critiques of postmodern theory were made by the Caribbean-American scholar Barbara Christian, who argued that movements like deconstruction, poststructuralism, and French feminism were so full of jargon that only readers with highly specialized training would be able to understand them at all. In her 1988 essay "The Race for Theory, Christian argued that the labyrinthine, heady language of postmodernism would only benefit the same academic élite that had been in power for decades.

    Although bell hooks later contradicted Christian's point by arguing that postmodern theory could be useful for African-American politics, Christian's warnings, like Benhabib's, are well worth keeping in mind.

    Sure, their names aren't as trendy in the feminist canon as Butler or hooks, but hey, if we've learned anything from feminist theory, it's that things like "trendy" and "the canon" ought to be treated like they're a ticking bomb.

  • State of the Theory

    Despite all of their differences, feminist theorists can agree on at least one thing: there's still lots of work to be done. All of the schools of feminism that we've shown you so far are still going strong, with new thinkers reinventing them as they move along.

    On top of that, other feminist thinkers are now front-and-center in new fields altogether. One of the real biggies nowadays is affect theory: the critical study of emotions and their social and political power. That field is giving up-and-coming feminist superstars like Sara Ahmed plenty of new ground to cover.

    Whatever your critical fancy, you can be sure there are feminist theorists out there who have something to say about it. Just like Madonna, they're not going anywhere. Especially while there's still Madonna's personal brand of pop feminism to argue about.

  • Talking the Talk

    What is Literature?

    Literature is writing that's been done by real people living real lives. Some of those lives are full of wealth and down-time and lots of tramping around the world getting to know the place because you have the money and the know-how to get things done; others are limited to domestic spaces or looking after the world-trampers when they're home putting their feet up.

    That variety doesn't make one kind of story better than another: a novel about war, peace, and manly men doing manly things isn't any more complex than a novel about courtship, petty gossip, and social etiquette. Or about slavery, abuse, oppression, or attempts to resist the powers-that-be. All of that can fall under the "lit" umbrella; what matters is who gets to have the voice that the audience listens to, and what that voice can tell us about the hierarchical system in place.

    What is an Author?

    Feminist theorists aren't too keen on making up definitions of what it means to be an author: they're more interested in thinking about how some authors get to be famous while others don't. Feminist theorists want to know about authors' social circumstances and how that affects the way they paint the world.

    For example, where and when did they live? What kinds of social resources made it possible for them to write? Who did the dishes and took care of the laundry and the kids while the great Western classics were being penned? Or if we're out of the West, whose language is getting used? An author is the person the audience listens to, whether they believe everything that author's got to say or instead read between the lines to find the hidden power structures.

    What is a Reader?

    Feminist theorists won't lay claim to any definition of readers in general, but they do like to talk about what a feminist reader looks like. At its base, a feminist reader is someone who pays attention to a text's gender politics: someone who asks why there are so few interesting women in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, or why Jane Austen is so nasty to her loudmouthed female characters.

    A feminist reader is also someone who searches out writing by women, and learns to evaluate it on its own terms—instead of comparing it to conventionally "great" works by men. A feminist reader looks for the dynamics underlying the voice that's telling the story—and understands that sometimes that form of reading can tell an even more interesting story than the original one.