Toward a Feminist Poetics
Leon Edel, the distinguished biographer of Henry James, contributed to a
There was Criticus, a
I suppose we
should be grateful that at least one woman - let us call her Critica - makes an
appearance in this gathering, even if she is not invited to join the
- and it is pleasing to think that while the men stand gossiping in the sun, she is inside hard at work. But these
At first glance, Nina Auerbach’s essay . . .
might seem to be a case of special pleading, another piece of women’s’ lib
. . . it could have seen dark phallic significance in curving railroad tracks and upright church pews-but it does not. 
to Partlow’s caricature (feminist criticism will naturally be obsessed with the
Though I do not think anyone has made a credible case for feminist criticism as a viable alternative to any other made, no one can seriously object ‘to feminists continuing to try. We ought to demand that such efforts be minimally distinguished by intellectual candor and some degree of precision. This I have failed to discover in most feminist criticism. 
article makes its “case” so recklessly that Joan Mellen brought
using a discourse more acceptable to the academy, characterized by the “
obstacle to the articulation of a feminist critical practice is the activist’s
suspicion of theory, especially when the demand for clarification
is in fact a subordinate deity, serving higher
From this perspective, the academic demand for theory can only be heard as a threat to the feminist need for authenticity, and the visitor looking for a formula he or she can take away without personal encounter is not welcome.
United States, where women’s-studies programs offer degree options in nearly
three hundred colleges and universities, there
criticism can be divided into two distinct varieties. The first type is
concerned with woman as reader - with
woman as the consumer of male produced literature, and with the way in which
the hypothesis of a female reader changes our apprehension of a given text,
awakening us to the significance of its sexual codes. I shall call this kind of
analysis the feminist critique, and like other kinds of critique it is a
historically grounded inquiry which probes the ideological assumptions of
literary phenomena. Its subjects include the images and stereotypes of women in
literature, the omissions of and misconceptions about women in criticism, and
the fissures in male-constructed literary history. It is also concerned with
the exploitation and manipulation of the female audience, especially in
ics” (although the significance of the male pseudonym in the history of women’s writing also suggested the term “georgics”).
The feminist critique is essentially political and polemical, with theoretical affiliations to Marxist sociology and aesthetics; gynocritics is more self-contained and experimental, with connections to other modes of new feminist
In a dialogue between these two positions, Carolyn Heilbrun, the writer, and
The Feminist Critique: Hardy
Let us take briefly as an example of the way a feminist critique might proceed, Thomas Hardy’ s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which begins with the famous scene of the drunken Michael Henchard selling his wife and infant daughter for five guineas at a country fair. In his study of Hardy, Irving Howe has praised the brilliance and power of this opening scene:
To shake loose from one’s wife; to discard that
drooping rag of a woman, with her mute complaints and maddening passivity; to
obvious that a woman, unless she has been indoctrinated into being very deeply
identified indeed with male culture, will have a different experience of this
scene. I quote Howe first to indicate how the fantasies of the male critic
distort the text; for Hardy tells us very little about the relationship of
Michael and Susan Henchard, and what we see in the ear1y scenes does not
suggest that she is drooping, complaining, or passive. Her role, however, is a
passive one; severely constrained by her womanhood, and further burdened by her
child, there is no way that she can wrest a second
like other male critics of Hardy, conveniently overlooks about the
emotional center of The Mayor of
Casterbridge is neither Henchard’s relationship to his wife nor his
As we see
in this analysis, one of the problems of the feminist critique is that it is
male-oriented. If we study stereotypes of women, the sexism of male critics,
and the limited
critic makes between women merely betrayed by men, like Hetty in Adam
Bede, and the heroines who make careers out of betrayal, like Hester Prynne
Scarlet Letter. This
opportunities of victimization, the seduction of betrayal. 
Gynocritics and Female Culture
to this angry or loving fixation on male literature, the program of gynocritics
is to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature, to
develop new models based on the study of female experience, rather than to
adapt male models and theories. Gynocritics begins at the point when we free
ourselves from the
The very symbolic and
Thus in some women’s literature, feminine values penetrate and undermine the masculine systems that contain them; and women have imaginatively engaged the myths of the Amazons, and the fantasies of a separate female society, in genres from Victorian poetry to contemporary science fiction.
years, pioneering work by four young American feminist scholars has given us
some new ways to interpret the culture of nineteenth-century American women and
the literature that was its primary expressive form Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s
essay “The Female World of Love and
several archives of letters between women, and outlines the homosocial
emotional world of the nineteenth century. Nancy Cott’s The Bonds of Womanhood: Woman’s Sphere in New England, 1780-1835
explores the paradox of a cultural bondage, a legacy of pain and submission,
which nonetheless generates a sisterly solidarity, a bond of shared experience,
loyalty, and compassion. Ann Douglas’s ambitious book, The Feminization of American Culture, boldly locates the genesis
Gynocritics: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Muriel Spark
Gynocritics must also take into account the different velocities and curves of
- Eliot and
Lewes, the Woolf’s - where the husband accepted a managerial rather than a
competitive role. We can see in Barrett Browning’ s letters of the 1850s the
I am behind hand with my poem… Robert swears he
shall have his book ready in spite of everything for print when we shall be in
And she adds wryly, “If mine were ready I might not say so perhaps.” 
understanding of the framework of the female subculture, we can miss or
misinterpret the themes and structures of women’s literature, fail to make
necessary connections within a tradition. In
Give us back our suffering, we cry to Heaven in our hearts -suffering rather than indifferentism-for out of suffering may come the cure. Better to have pain than paralysis: A hundred struggle and drown in the breakers. One discovers a new world. 
It is fascinating to see how Nightingale’s metaphors anticipate not only her Own medical career but also the fate of the heroines of women’s novels in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To waken from the drugged, pleasant sleep of Victorian womanhood was agonizing; in fiction it is much more likely to end in drowning than in discovery. It is usually associated with what George Eliot in Middlemarch calls “the chill hours of a morning twilight,” and the sudden appalled confrontation with the contingencies of adulthood. Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver, Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart, Olive Schreiner’s Lyndall, Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier wake to worlds which offer no places for the women they wish to become; and rather than struggling they die. Fe-
male suffering thus becomes a kind of literary commodity which both men
and women consume. Even in these important women’s novels - The Mill
on the Floss, The Story
of an African Farm, The House of
Mirth - the fulfillment of the plot is a visit to the heroine’s
to Dame Rebecca West, unhappiness is still the keynote of contemporary fiction
by English women. 
Certainly the literary landscape is strewn with dead female bodies. In Fay
Weldon’s Down Among the Women and Female
Friends, suicide has come to be a kind of domestic accomplishment, carried
out after the shopping and the washing-up. When Weldon’s heroine turns on the
gas, “she feels that she has been half-dead for so long that the difference in
state will not be very great.” In Muriel Spark’s stunning short novel of 1970, The Driver’s Seat, another half-dead and
desperate heroine gathers all her force to hunt down a woman-hating psychopath
and persuade him to murder her. Garishly dressed in a purposely bought outfit
of clashing purple, green, and white - the colors of the suffragettes (and the
colors of the school uniform in The Prime
of Miss Jean Brodie) - Lise goes in search of her killer, lures him to a
park, gives him the knife. But in Lise’s careful selection of her death-dress,
her patient pursuit of her assassin, Spark has given us the devastated
postulates of feminine wisdom: that a woman creates her identity by choosing
her clothes, that she creates her history by choosing her man. That, in the
1970s, Mr. Right turns out to be Mr. Goodbar is not the sudden product of urban
violence but a latent truth fiction exposes. Spark asks whether men or women
the possibility that the worlds they inhabit may in fact be real, or true, and for them the only worlds available, and further, to deny the possibility that their apparently “odd” or unusual responses may in fact be justifiable or even necessary. 
literature must go beyond these scenarios of compromise, madness, and death.
Although the reclamation of suffering is the beginning, its purpose is to
discover the new world. Happily, some recent women’s literature, especially in
it must be the loneliness
of waking first, of breathing .
dawn’s first cold breath on the city
of being the one awake
in a house wrapped in sleep 
Rich is one
of the spokeswomen for a new women’s writing which explores the will to change.
In her recent book, Of Woman Born:
Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Rich challenges the alienation
from and rejection of the mother that daughters have learned under patriarchy.
Much women’s literature in the past has dealt with “matrophobia” or the fear of
becoming one’s mother.
In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, for
example, the heroine’s mother is the target for the novel’s most punishing
contempt When Esther announces to her therapist that she hates her mother, she
is on the road to recovery. Hating one’s mother was the feminist enlightenment
of the fifties and sixties; but it is only a metaphor for hating oneself.
Female literature of the 1970s goes beyond matrophobia to a courageously
sustained quest for the mother, in such books at Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, and
Women and the
consistent assumption of feminist reading has been the belief that women’s
special experience would assume and determine distinctive forms in art In the
nineteenth century, such a contribution was ambivalently valued. When Victorian
reviewers like G. H. Lewes, Richard Hutton, and Richard Simpson began to ask
what the literature of women might mean and what it might become, they focused
on the educational, experiential, and biological handicaps of the woman
novelist, and this was also how most women conceptualized their situation. Some
reviewers, granting women’s sympathy, sentiment, and powers of observation,
thought that the
therapy, as a release from the stifling silence of the drawing room, and as a
rebellion against the indifference and insensitivity of the men closest to them:
Look around, and see innumerable women, to
whose barren and loveless lives this would be improvement and solace, and I say
to them; write! write! It will be a safe
… It is not safe for the women of 1867 to shut down so much that cries out for sympathy and expression, because life is such a maelstrom of business or folly or both that those to whom they have bound themselves, body and soul, recognize only the needs of the former. . . . One of these days, when that diary is found, when the hand that penned it shall be dust, with what amazement and remorse will many a husband or father exclaim, I never knew my wife or my child until this moment. 
Fern’s scribbling woman spoke with fierce indirectness to the male audience, to the imagined husband or father her purpose was to shock rather than to please, but the need to provoke masculine response was the controlling factor in her writing. At the turn of the century, members of the Women Writers Suffrage League, an important organization of English novelists and journalists, began to explore the psychological bondage of women’s literature and its relationships to a male-dominated publishing industry. Elizabeth Robins, the first president of the league, a novelist and actress who had starred in early English productions of Ibsen, argued in 1908 that no woman writer had ever been free to explore female consciousness:
The realization that she had access to a rich and as yet unrifled storehouse may have crossed her mind, but there were cogent reasons for concealing her knowledge. With that wariness of ages which has come to be instinct, she
contented herself with echoing the old fables, presenting to a man-governed world puppets as nearly as possible like those that had from the beginning found such favour in men’s sight.
Contrary to the
have the best
It was to combat this inhibiting commercial monopoly that nineteenth-century women began to organize their own publishing houses, beginning with Emily Faithfull’s Victoria Press in the 1870s, and reaching a peak with the flourishing suffrage presses at the beginning of this century. One of the most fervent beliefs of the Women Writers Suffrage League was that the terra incognita of the female psyche would find unique literary expression once women had overthrown male domination. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf argued that economic independence was the essential precondition of an autonomous women’s art. Like George Eliot before her, Woolf also believed that women’ s literature held the promise of a “precious speciality:” a distinctly female vision.
Feminine, Feminist, Female
All of these themes have been important to feminist literary criticism in the
1970s, but we have approached them with more historical awareness. Before we
can even begin to ask how the literature of women would be different and
special, we need to reconstruct its past, to rediscover the scores of women
novelists, poets, and dramatists whose work has been obscured by time, and to establish
the continuity of the female tradition from decade to decade, rather than from
Great Woman to Great Woman. As we re-create the chain of writers in this
tradition, the patterns of influence and response from one generation to the
next, we can also begin to challenge the periodicity of orthodox literary
history and its enshrined canons of achievement. It is because we have studied
women writers in isolation that we have never grasped the connections between
them. When we go beyond Austen, the Brontës, and Eliot, say, to
nyms as a
way of coping with a double literary
Feminist phase, from about 1880 to 1920, or the winning of the vote, women
the bee’ s fiction would be rich and broad,
full of the complex tasks of comb-building and filling, the care and feeding of
the young… It would treat of the vast fecundity of motherhood, the educative
and selective processes of the group-mothers, and the passion of loyalty, of
Feminist Socialist Realism with a vengeance, but women novelists of the period
- even Gilman, in her
In the Female phase, ongoing since 1920, women reject both imitation
protest-two forms of dependency-and turn instead to female experience as the
source of an autonomous art, extending the feminist analysis of culture to the
forms and techniques of literature. Representatives of the formal Female
Aesthetic, such as Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf, begin to think in
terms of male and female sentences, and divide their work into “masculine”
journalism and “feminine” fictions, redefining and sexualizing external and
internal experience. Their experiments were both enriching and imprisoning
retreats into the celebration of consciousness; even in Woolf’s famous
definition of life: “a luminous
Feminist Criticism, Marxism, and Structuralism
to account for these complex permutations of the female tradition, feminist
criticism has tried a variety of theoretical
Marxism and structuralism see themselves as privileged critical discourse, and
preempt the claim to
the morale of the Anglo-American male academic humanist was at its
the dismal sexist symbology surrounding the
humanities which he meets everywhere, even in the university itself, from
Frye’s own Anatomy of Criticism, published in 1957, presented the first Postulates of a systematic critical theory, and the “possibility of literary study’s attaining the progressive, cumulative qualities of science.” 
sciences of the text based on linguistics, computers, genetic structuralism,
deconstructionism, neoformalism and deformalism, affective stylistics, and
psychoaesthetics, have offered literary critics the opportunity to demonstrate
that the work they do is as manly and aggressive as nuclear physics - not
intuitive, expressive, and feminine, but strenuous, rigorous, impersonal, and
virile. In a shrinking job market, these new levels of professionalization also
function as discriminators between the marketable and the marginal lecturer.
Literary science, in its manic generation of difficult terminology, its
It is not only because the exchange between feminism, Marxism, and structuralism has hitherto been so one-sided, however, that I think attempts
at syntheses have so far been unsuccessful. While scientific criticism struggles to purge itself of the subjective, feminist criticism is willing to assert (in the title of a recent anthology) The Authority of Experience.  [nota 28] The experience of women can easily disappear, become mute, invalid, and invisible, lost in the diagrams of the structuralist or the class conflict of the Marxists. Experience is not emotion; we must protest now as in the nineteenth century against the equation of the feminine with the irrational. But we must also recognize that the questions we most need to ask go beyond those that science can answer. We must seek the repressed messages of women in history, in anthropology, in psychology, and in ourselves, before we can locate the feminine not-said, in the manner of Pierre Macherey, by probing the fissures of the female text.
I am sure that
this divided consciousness is sometimes experienced by men, but I think it
unlikely that many male academics would have had the division in themselves as
succinctly and publicly labeled as they were for me in 1976 when my official
title at the
experience, our reason and our suffering, our skepticism and our vision. This enterprise should not be confined to women. I invite Criticus, Poeticus, and Plutarchus to share it with us. One thing is certain: feminist criticism is not visiting. It is here to stay, and we must make it a permanent home.
wish to thank Nina Auerbach, Kate Ellis, Mary Jacobus, Wendy Martin, Adrienne
Rich, Helen Taylor, Martha Vicinus, Margaret Walters, and Ruth Yeazell for
 Leon Edel, “The Poetics of
Biography,” in Contemporary Approaches to English Studies, ed. Hilda Schiff
(New York: Barnes & Noble, 1977), p. 38. The other contributors to the
 Robert Partlow, Introduction to Dickens Studies Annual, vol. 5 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976), pp. xiv-xv. Nina Auerbach’s essay is called “Dickens and Dombey: A Daughter After All.”
 Robert Boyers, “A Case Against Feminist Criticism,” Partisan Review 44 (Winter 1977): 602, 610.
 Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), p. 62.
 Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Towards a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), pp. 12-13.
 Geoffrey H. Hartman, The Fate of
 Carolyn G. Heilbrun and Catharine R. Stimpson, “Theories of Feminist Criticism,” in Feminist Literary Criticism: Explorations in Theory, ed. Josephine Donovan (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976), pp. 64, 68, 72.
 Irving Howe, Thomas Hardy (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968), p. 84. For a more detailed discussion of this problem, see my essay “The Unmanning of the Mayor of Casterbridge,” in Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Hardy, ed. Dale Kramer (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979), pp. 99-115.
 Shirley Ardener, ed., Perceiving Women (New York: Halsted Press, 1975).
 Michelle Z. Rosaldo, “Women, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview,” in Women, Culture, and Society, ed. Michelle Z. Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1974), p. 39.
 Carroll Smith-
 Virginia Woolf, “Women and Fiction,” Collected Essays, vol. 2 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1967), p. 141.
 Peter N. Heydon and Philip Kelley, eds., Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Letters to Mrs. David Ogilvy (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1973), p. 115.
 Rebecca West, “And They All Lived
Unhappily Ever After,”
 Annette Kolodny, “Some Notes on Defining a ‘Feminist Literary Criticism,’” Critical Inquiry 2 (Fall 1975): 84. For an illuminating discussion of The Driver’s Seat see Auerbach, Communities of Women, p. 181.
 Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973), p. 20.
 The term “matrophobia” was coined by Lynn Sukenick; see Rich, Of Woman Born, pp. 235 ff.
 Quoted in Ann Douglas Wood, “The ‘Scribbling Women’ and Fanny Fern: Why Women Wrote,” American Quarterly 23 (Spring 1971): 3-24.
 Elizabeth Robins, Woman’s Secret, WSPU pamphlet in the
collection of the
 Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977).
 Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-made World: or, Our Androcentric
Culture (1911; reprint ed.,
 Virginia Woolf, “Modern Fiction,” Collected Essays, vol. 2, p. 106.
 John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women (
 Northrop Frye, “Expanding Eyes,” Critical Inquiry 2 (1975): 201-2.
 Robert Scholes, Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction
(New Haven, Conn.:
 Lee R. Edwards and Arlyn Diamond, eds., The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977).