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It's impossible to imagine what feminist theory would look like if Simone de Beauvoir hadn't published The Second Sex. In it, she writes that "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." The book is a cornucopia of stories, historical evidence, and hard-core critique, and it's inspired feminist theorists ever since.
Over a few hundred super-packed pages, Beauvoir samples writings from disciplines like anthropology, philosophy, history, theology, psychoanalysis, and literature, and puts them all together to show how the concept of "woman-ness" has been molded by patriarchal power over centuries and millennia. In her terms, becoming a "woman" means learning to live out the roles that patriarchy expects female persons to play.
Not the most uplifting, but it set the scene for later feminists who were out to destroy the status quo once and for all.
Luce Irigaray lost her teaching position after she published Speculum of the Other Woman, mostly because she spends a whole lot of time taking Sigmund Freud to pieces in it. The book looks at psychoanalysis from a feminist perspective and describes a bunch of the steps that Western intellectuals have historically taken to solve the "riddle" of femininity.
On top of all that, Speculum is also an in-your-face celebration of women's sexuality: Irigaray writes about female masturbation and the multiple pleasure zones that women have. Hold onto your hats, male oppressors! Over and over again, she challenges psychoanalytic representations of women, and even goes so far as to say that Freud was a psychological "seducer" of the women he treated in his clinic. If that isn't totally gutsy, we don't know what is!
Julia Kristeva's Revolution in Poetic Language is a mind-boggling exploration of "maternal" forces in language. Drawing on Jacques Lacan's theories about the way language shapes our personal identities, Kristeva argues that before language becomes part of our lives, a pre-verbal realm of experience forms our sense of the world. That realm is created by the connections that link infants' bodies to their mothers', and Kristeva calls it the "semiotic."
In her view, the semiotic doesn't play by the same rules as language does, because it isn't regulated by patriarchal power. Because "semiotic" experience is maternal instead of paternal (in other words, about women's bodies instead of men's), it is potentially revolutionary.
See, we told you it would get more cheery!
Like her French feminist contemporaries Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous was schooled in an environment where psychoanalysis and deconstruction reigned supreme. Although the influence of those schools of thought is obvious throughout "The Laugh of the Medusa," Cixous explodes them by embracing the darker side of the "myth of woman."
Just how does she explode 'em? She argues that instead of believing the patriarchal yarn that women's bodies are monstrous and strange, women should revel in everything that makes them essentially different from men. She says that they should write the truths that their bodies and experiences tell them, and give birth to their own breed of "women's writing"—their écriture féminine. Now that's explosive.
The Madwoman in the Attic begins with a rhetorical question: "Is the pen a metaphorical penis?" Throughout this monumental tome of teamwork, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar reveal how most of the "great" works of the English lit tradition have been associated with figuratively "masculine" modes of writing.
Where does that leave women writers? In the loony bin, natch. As they survey the works of writers like Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, and Mary Shelley, Gilbert and Gubar argue that for women writers in the 19th century, the very act of writing was made to seem so unnatural, so unseemly, and so unwomanly that admitting to being a woman writer was pretty much the same as admitting to being insane.
Turns out the 19th century wasn't just a constant stream of tea and crumpets: these ladies bring some serious baggage to their books!
In this manifesto, the members of the Combahee River Collective lay out how they shaped their unique black feminist movement, explaining how racism and elitism in mainstream feminism made that movement necessary. They link their activism and thinking to earlier political struggles like the American Civil Rights Movement, and they argue that, when it comes to feminism, black women are put in a doubly difficult position.
These feminists know that they can't take part in antiracist struggles without coming up against sexism, but they also know that they can't take part in mainstream feminism without coming up against racism. That's why the Collective rejects the separatist feminist notion that women need to stick together at all costs.
Instead they argue that, when it comes right down to it, they can't afford not to work with men. As black women (some straight, and some lesbian), they feel they need to stand with black men in the fight against racism, while at the same time struggling with black men against sexism.
Audre Lorde delivered this paper at an academic conference at New York University in 1979, and she published it the year after that in Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa's groundbreaking collection This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1980). It's one of her most famous essays, and in it, she points out how counterproductive it is for mainstream feminists to ignore the voices of women of color, lesbians, and poor women.
Basically, by insisting that sexism, racism, homophobia, and poverty are intersecting forms of oppression, Lorde argues that if popular feminism doesn't do a better job of recognizing women's many differences, it'll be as oppressive as the patriarchy it's trying to take down. Now that's a paradox.
In "Dancing Through the Minefield," Annette Kolodny questions how social norms have shaped the English literary canon. She's mainly interested in thinking about how certain kinds of reading get taught again and again until, after a few decades or so, they're just assumed to be natural.
What kinds of reading practices? Well, the kinds that make it seem so obvious that guys like William Shakespeare and John Milton are the great geniuses of English lit, while writers like Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman are totally ignored, and even luminaries like Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson are kinda brushed aside.
Kolodny argues that readers aren't just taught to read texts, they're taught to read "paradigms." Huh? Well, she's saying that learning to read is a political activity: we aren't just taught to understand Shakespeare's puns or Milton's conceits, we're also taught to think of those dudes' mad skills as being totally self-evident and therefore superior to most other writers, especially the lady kind of writer.
But really, Kolodny says, they aren't self-evident at all: our appreciation is shaped by years and years of learning to like what we see. Learning to see the biases we've picked up while learning? Sounds like a minefield to us.
In "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," Adrienne Rich makes an important request to her fellow feminists: stop assuming that heterosexuality is the norm, for crying out loud!
Rich asks her mainstream contemporaries to think more critically about heterosexual relationships and to get rid of assumptions that, you guessed it, undermine the cause of feminism. Why? Because of ugly assumptions about "the way things are" (get ready for the quote parade!).
So, although Western cultures have tended to represent heterosexuality as "natural" and homosexuality as "sinful" or "deviant," Rich argues that heterosexuality isn't natural at all. Instead, she says, it's "imposed, managed, organized, propagandized, and maintained by force." The force of socialized learning as much as violent force, but they're both pretty bad when you stop to think about it.
Like other separatist feminists, Rich encourages "woman identification," which means that she wants women to look for meaningful relationships with other women, rather than with men. The "lesbianism" she promotes doesn't just refer to sexual relationships; it includes all forms of woman-identified pairings, like close friendships and sisterly love. So fighting the system can start as simply as a group trip to the ladies' room.
Gayle Rubin wrote "Thinking Sex" at the height of the infamous "Sex Wars," and in it she defends women's rights to enjoy their sexualities however they see fit. Challenging the anti-pornography feminists of her day, Rubin argues that they're shooting themselves in the collective, conservative foot by siding with right-wing politicians who want to police morality.
She does this by contradicting the popular position that the sex industry—and pornography in particular—encourages violence against women, and she also argues that "violent" sexual activity—like sadomasochistic role-playing—isn't necessarily oppressive.
The bigger problem, she says, is that the patriarchy itself, not women, will be the thing that benefits if feminists let their moralizing get out of hand. Without meaning to, feminists will sacrifice their sexual freedom to the state. Once again, the debate's within feminism, making sure it stays true to the fight against the outside.
Like a lot of other postcolonial feminists, Chandra Talpade Mohanty pays strict attention to the assumptions that mainstream feminisms tend to take for granted. In "Under Western Eyes," she argues that international feminist partnerships won't succeed until Western women recognize their own privilege: especially the ways they benefit from the exploited labor and resources of women in other parts of the world.
Mohanty is especially concerned with how Western feminists have used Third World women as symbols of women's "universal" oppression. By speaking for (and speaking over) Third World women, she says, Western feminists are silencing them just as violently as patriarchy does.
Donna Haraway is into blurring boundaries, and especially the boundaries that separate "selves" from "others." That's why she likes cyborgs so much: they're not fully human, not fully animal, and not fully machine—they represent a state of affairs where we can't tell the difference between "nature" and "culture" anymore.
Why's that so cool? Well, for starters, it's less hierarchical. It makes it a lot less easy for humans to imagine themselves at the top of the food chain, and it makes it a whole lot less easy for men to assume that they're naturally superior to women—or, for that matter, to other "races" of men. After all, robots don't care what color metal they're made of, as long as they speak the right (non-discriminatory, inclusive) form of code.
The Mexican-American scholar Gloria Anzaldúa likes hybridity just as much as Donna Haraway, and her writing style shows it. Throughout Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa moves back and forth between English and Spanish phrases, making her mixed use of language hammer home her argument that cultural and biological "cross-pollination" has given birth to something she calls "mestiza."
What's that? First, it's a hybrid way of seeing the world that reflects lots of competing cultural influences. Second, it's a tool for speaking back against racist and sexist paradigms that marginalize individuals, whatever side of the border they come from.
Christian argues that because it's gaining so much cred in the academic world, "theory" risks being just as oppressive as the powers it's trying to critique. Most radically, she implies that it's no coincidence that deconstruction's methods of "decentering" power got really popular at the exact same time that marginalized peoples (like women, persons of color, and LGBTQ folks) were making space for themselves in the "centers" of mainstream literary and academic thought.
Ultimately, she argues, theory is so elitist and full of jargon, it's just going to maintain the status quo. It may pretend to celebrate difference and the decentering of power, but all it really does is give tenured white men fun new words to throw around.
If bell hooks's "Postmodern Blackness" isn't a direct response to Barbara Christian's "The Race for Theory (1988), it sure is part of a bigger conversation that both hooks and Christian were part of in the late 1980s and early '90s.
Whereas Christian argues that lit theory ultimately benefits the academic elite more than women and scholars of color, hooks argues that some good can come from theory's popularity. As she sees it, deconstructive and poststructuralist methods do one thing particularly well: they critique essentialism. Since essentialism is often at the heart of racism, hooks is interested in the antiracist tools that the postmodern utility belt can offer.
Ultimately, she's willing to risk theory's elitism if it means opening up new conversations about blackness in the USA. At least that's a tad more hopeful.
Gender Trouble is one of the most famous and controversial works of contemporary feminist theory, and basically changed the trajectory for future scholarship. In it, Judith Butler argues that there's no such thing as "true" sex or gender: she says that scientific understandings of the human body, along with cultural understandings of human gender, have been built up over time through repeated acts.
That's it: no divine plan, no complicated biological necessities, just stylized repetition. For Butler, sex and gender are effects of social norms: we perform our identities daily, as we try (or try not) to fall in line with the cultural scripts we're given.
Why was this theory so groundbreaking for feminist thought? For one thing, it made it really hard for feminists to make any hard and fast rules about what it meant to "truly" be a woman. And when questions are raised about what "truth" really is, well doggone it, you've got an intellectual revolution.