Study Guide

Feminist Theory Texts

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  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

    Oh, Jane Eyre. We've read Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and we know it's so wrong, so why does it feel so good? Why do we cheer when plucky, plain Jane gives Edward Rochester a piece of her mind, and why do we sigh when they finally make out? You gotta hand it to Charlotte Brontë: imperialist or not, the girl spins a good yarn.

    There's nothing more fun than playing the "Is This Feminist?" game! Jane Eyre was published way back before the word "feminism" was even born, so why not ask yourself: what's at stake in calling this a feminist text?

    Plus: where do you come down on the question of Bertha Mason? Is she Jane's "dark double"? Is she just sad and misunderstood? Does she highlight Charlotte Brontë's love for the British Empire? Get a-questioning!

  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1967)

    We can't very well tell you to read Jane Eyre (1847) without recommending Wide Sargasso Sea too. These novels may have been published over a hundred years apart, but they go together like peanut butter and chocolate.

    Jean Rhys has a really cool way of following Charlotte Brontë's storyline while painting the Antoinette/Bertha/madwoman/misunderstood wife character in more detail than Brontë ever imagined. And, bonus: we don't just get Antoinette's side of the story; the whole middle part of the novel is narrated by her mopey husband himself.

    So ask yourself this: does Antoinette actually suffer from mental illness, or is her behavior caused by the way Edward treats her? What are the stakes of letting both of them narrate a chunk of the novel?

  • Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928)

    Virginia Woolf wrote Orlando for her lover Vita Sackville-West, and it's chock-full of all kinds of goodness. Its eponymous hero (i.e., the dude who's name is in the title) begins his life as a young man, but wakes up one morning to discover that he's suddenly a woman.

    If that isn't awesome enough for you, just think: Orlando's life spans a huge timeline. We begin in Britain's Elizabethan period, and end in the early 20th century. Gender-swapping AND time-warping? Orlando's got it all.

    So ponder this, fair reader: how do Orlando's thoughts about gender change when "he" becomes "she"? And does Judith Butler's theory of gender performance line up with the story that Virginia Woolf tells?

  • Loving in the War Years by Cherríe Moraga (1983)

    Cherríe Moraga co-edited the groundbreaking essay collection This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color with Gloria Anzaldúa, and she's a prominent Chicana poet and critic in her own right. Like Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera, Loving in the War Years is a hybrid mix of genres, combining poetry, prose, and artistic and critical thinking. Hard to beat that for a feminist text!

    What do you make of the connection Cherríe Moraga draws between her lesbian identity and her ethnic identity? What is the relationship between Cherríe Moraga's artistic and critical styles?

  • Collected Poems by Audre Lorde (2000)

    We've shown you some of Audre Lorde's critical thinking, so now it's time for you to enjoy her poetry. Since her earliest collections are hard to come by in print, dipping your toes into an edition of collected poems is the best way to go. Trust us: you'll be glad you did.

    How would you describe Audre Lorde's poetic voice? Is it flowery and ornate? Subtle and sensitive? Up-front and personal? And what kind of feminist message is embedded in the voice and the poetic devices Lorde uses?

  • Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (1984)

    If you're going to read Audre Lorde's poems, why not read more of her critical work while you're at it? Sister Outsider collects most of Lorde's best known essays, including "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House" (1980) and "The Uses of Anger" (1981). If those titles don't strike you as worth-it DIY projects, we don't know what will

    How do Audre Lorde's thoughts about "difference" translate to her own work? How does she make room for experiences that are different from hers? And why does Audre Lorde argue that anger is an important tool for feminist politics? Do you get that anger out of her poetry, too?

  • The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1979)

    This text is such a classic, you can't not read it—just keep in mind that you should take it with a healthy dose of postcolonial scholarship on the side.

    Aside from evil queens and beautiful princesses and all the fairy tale characters in between, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar are also really interested in caves. Are they just spelunking fanatics? Or what other reason could there be for that?

    Most of the women writers that get talked about here are from the 19th century, or the early 20th. Do the Madwoman's arguments still hold up for women writing today?

  • Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler (1990)

    This one's a real doozy, but it's worth taking for a spin. After all, Judith Butler's work, from Gender Trouble onwards, has inspired some pretty huge controversies in contemporary feminism, not to mention in gender studies and queer theory, too! Wouldn't you just love to weigh in?

    Before you get too far, riddle yourself this: why does Judith Butler think that a feminist critique of essentialism is long overdue?

    And don't forget to ponder this: does Judith Butler think that people can perform their genders however they please, or are our performances regulated somehow?

  • Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature by Donna Haraway (1991)

    Folks, we ain't about to get tired of saying that cyborgs are the best. You can sign us up for anything that gives us room to gush about T-2 and TNG and BSG and any other nerd acronym you want to throw our way. But Donna Haraway's Simians, Cyborgs, and Women isn't just about sci-fi creatures: it's also about capitalism, labor practices, resource mining, and so much more. Seriously, friends: this cyborg-lovin' lady knows where it's at.

    What does Donna Haraway think of the ways that women have traditionally been associated with nature? And why's she so fascinated by microchip technologies? Is she trying to tell us we live in the Matrix?

  • The Cultural Politics of Emotion by Sara Ahmed (2004)

    If you're feeling ready to branch out into the up-and-coming feminisms of today, why not get started with Sara Ahmed's The Cultural Politics of Emotion? Like other folks dipping their fingers into affect theory, Ahmed is interested in how emotions come with social and political baggage—baggage that we don't always recognize we're bringing along.

    Is Sara Ahmed critical of emotional politics—and on that note, what is emotional politics, anyway? Does it mean she wants us to be more emotional, or less?

    In Ahmed's view, what are the gender politics of emotion?

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