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4.2 Feminist Theory: An Overview

Let’s whet our appetite for literature in a different, maybe more peculiar way. Let’s read a different text, this one from a local Wisconsin cookbook, the Amberg Centennial 1890–1990 Cookbook.American Legion Auxiliary #428, Amberg Centennial 1890–1990 Cookbook (n.p.: n.d.). The two recipes come from the section “Game.”

Duck with Wild Rice

2 ducks 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 onion, chopped 1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 (5 ounce) package wild rice 1 (8 ounce) can mushrooms and liquid
½ cup butter ½ cup flour
1 ½ cups half and half 1 (4 ounce) package slivered almonds, toasted
2 ribs celery, chopped salt and pepper to taste

Boil duck, onion, and celery until tender. Remove meat from bones. Set aside. Cook rice. Set aside. Melt butter and sauté onion. Stir in flour and half-and-half to make cream sauce. Add parsley and seasonings. Add cooked duck, rice, mushrooms, and almonds to cream sauce. Bake mixture in a casserole at 350° for 30–45 minutes. Serves 6–8.

—Mrs. Charles T. Dekuester (Doris Van Vleit)

Bessie’s Birds

12 birds (dove or quail) 1 cup beef consommé
1 cup uncooked rice 1 (10–3/4 ounce) can onion soup
¼ cup chopped bell pepper ½ cup flour
¼ cup chopped onion salt and pepper
butter or bacon drippings

Sauté salted and floured birds in small amount of butter or bacon drippings to brown well. Put rice in bottom of buttered oblong casserole dish. Place birds on top of rice. Sprinkle peppers and onion on top. Pour consommé and onion soup over casserole. Cover casserole with aluminum foil and bake at 350° for 45 minutes. Serves 6.

Chicken may be substituted for the birds.

—Mrs. Hugh Guy (Viola Barette)

Class Process

  1. Put students in groups of three or four.
  2. Have them read the recipes carefully.
  3. Have them interpret the recipes as they would examine a story or poem.
  4. What “themes” can they find in the recipe text?
  5. Generate class discussion, as you are guided by the discussion following the excerpt.

The recipes reflect a particular view of women and their role in the domestic space. In other words, the woman’s domain is in the house, her workspace the kitchen, where she will cook for her husband (and by extension the children). Notice that each recipe privileges the male name, with the woman’s maiden name—her original name and identity—put in parenthesis. Even the use of Mrs. denotes her married status, whereby Mr. does not tell us the married status of the male. We are in the realm of patriarchyIdeology, or belief system of a society, of male domination over women that pervades the public and private spheres., the condition that demonstrates male domination over women. The recipes are even more interesting, for the section of this cookbook is “Game,” further suggesting particular gender roles: men, the sportsmen, go hunting for this game, while the women, remaining at home, cook up that game for the family. If we interpret these recipes as we might a piece of literature, we can identify particular themes that represent feminist criticism: women are inferior to men in patriarchy; women’s space is the private place of domesticity, the man’s space is public (in this case the rugged wild); the woman’s identity is determined by her husband’s identity (she, like Eve, is dependent on her husband’s rib, so to speak).

Now let’s look at a literary use of the kitchen as a domestic space. Here is the cast of characters and opening set description for Susan Glaspell’s one-act play, Trifles (1916). The play was first performed by the Provincetown Players in Massachusetts, with Glaspell playing the role of Mrs. Hale. A year later, Glaspell turned the play into a short story, “A Jury of Her Peers,” partly to reach a larger reading audience. The inspiration for the play came from a murder reported in the Des Moines Register.Articles on case: http://www.midnightassassin.com/sgarticles.html.

  • GEORGE HENDERSON (County Attorney)
  • HENRY PETERS (Sheriff)
  • LEWIS HALE, A neighboring farmer
  • MRS PETERS
  • MRS HALE

SCENE: The kitchen is the now abandoned farmhouse of JOHN WRIGHT, a gloomy kitchen, and left without having been put in order—unwashed pans under the sink, a loaf of bread outside the bread-box, a dish-towel on the table—other signs of incompleted work. At the rear the outer door opens and the SHERIFF comes in followed by the COUNTY ATTORNEY and HALE. The SHERIFF and HALE are men in middle life, the COUNTY ATTORNEY is a young man; all are much bundled up and go at once to the stove. They are followed by the two women—the SHERIFF’s wife first; she is a slight wiry woman, a thin nervous face. MRS HALE is larger and would ordinarily be called more comfortable looking, but she is disturbed now and looks fearfully about as she enters. The women have come in slowly, and stand close together near the door.Susan Glaspell, Trifles (1916; Project Gutenberg, 2011), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10623/10623-h/10623-h.htm#TRIFLES.

The following excerpt is the opening of the short story “A Jury of Her Peers”:

WHEN Martha Hale opened the storm-door and got a cut of the north wind, she ran back for her big woolen scarf. As she hurriedly wound that round her head her eye made a scandalized sweep of her kitchen. It was no ordinary thing that called her away—it was probably farther from ordinary than anything that had ever happened in Dickson County. But what her eye took in was that her kitchen was in no shape for leaving; her bread all ready for mixing, half the flour sifted and half unsifted.

She hated to see things half done; but she had been at that when the team from town stopped to get Mr. Hale, and then the sheriff came running in to say his wife wished Mrs. Hale would come too—adding, with a grin, that he guessed she was getting scarey and wanted another woman along. So she had dropped everything right where it was.Susan Glaspell, “A Jury of Her Peers,” in The Best Short Stories of 1917, ed. Edward J. O’Brien (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1918; University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center, 1996), http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=GlaJury.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=all.

Class Process

  1. Have the students read Trifles.
  2. Ask the students to make a chart on a piece of paper: label the left side “men,” the right side “women.”
  3. Students should then fill in the chart: what symbols are associated with the men and women?

When we turn to the Trifles example, we see how a writer uses this domestic space and its implications to create a symbolic statement about gender. The men all have first and last names and are given an occupation (attorney, sheriff, or farmer); the women are only known by their husband’s names—they are not even given first names. This naming becomes important in the play, for the suspected murderer Minnie Wright is referred to as Minnie Foster by Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, suggesting that she had lost her identity by marrying her husband, who was a cold and cruel man, even preventing her from singing in the choir or having a telephone in the house (see Gretchen Panzer’s sample paper on voice in The Great Gatsby later in the chapter).

Furthermore, the setting of the play is important—all the action on stage takes place in the kitchen, a kitchen that is in disarray. The men, of course, view the messy kitchen as a fault of Minnie’s: she just isn’t a very good housewife and housekeeper, for that is her primary role according to the men. To be a housewife, in addition, means that women are only concerned with “trifles,” insignificant things. Later in the play and the short story we find out that Minnie’s canning—her preserves—have been ruined because the jars have frozen and burst. Again, the men see this as sloppy housekeeping, while the women view the preserves as Minnie’s hard work to care for her family. The idea of “preserves” or “preservation” becomes a central theme in Glaspell’s work, for Minnie must preserve her dignity as a woman, even if it means that she must murder her husband. The great irony of the play and short story is that the women discover the evidence—the strangled bird—that would be enough to convict Minnie of murder, but they withhold this evidence, thus implying that Minnie will be set free. The women create their own justice system, becoming a jury of their peers: women.

FeminismMovement that strives for societal change to make women equal to men in the public and private spheres. is a powerful literary theory that is dedicated to social and political change. “How to define feminism? Ah, that is the question,” a befuddled Hamlet might ask. A useful definition can be found in Michael Kimmel and Thomas Mosmiller’s Against the Tide: Pro-Feminist Men in the United States, 1776–1990: A Documentary History (1992). They focus on four central points:

  1. There is evidence that women are treated differently and unequally.
  2. Women are not treated equally in the private and public sphere.
  3. If these points are true, then that’s wrong and becomes a moral problem.
  4. Thus feminism is a commitment to change.Michael Kimmel and Thomas Mosmiller, Against the Tide: Pro-Feminist Men in the United States, 1776–1990 a Documentary History (Boston: Beacon, 1992).

Class Process

  1. On the blackboard or whiteboard, have the students generate examples for points 1 and 2 of the list. This should lead to a spirited discussion.

Two other definitions will be useful to you: Barbara Smith argues that “feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, Jewish women, lesbians, old women—as well as white, economically privileged, heterosexual women. Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.”from A History of U.S. Feminisms by Kory Dicker (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2008), p. 7. Noted feminist author bell hooks adds, “Feminism is a struggle to end sexist oppression. Therefore it is necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, as well as a commitment to reorganize society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.”bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, 2nd ed. (London: Pluto, 2000).

Feminist literary criticism is also about this commitment to equality, to change, and it works its way by arguing that literature is a powerful cultural force that mirrors gender attitudes. Feminist literary criticism can be categorized into three stages: patriarchal criticism, gynocriticism, and feminine writing.

Patriarchal criticismLiterary method that examines how writers—particularly male writers—depict women in literature; this criticism often highlights the sexist stereotypes that privilege men over women. examines the prejudices against women by male writers. Such criticism analyzes the way that canonical authors—mostly men—create images of women. For example, Gretchen Panzer’s sample paper in this chapter explores how F. Scott Fitzgerald silences Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, further reinforcing the notion that this great American novel depicts women in demeaning ways.F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner, 2003). This criticism is often focused on close textual study since it will examine how men and women are depicted in literary texts. Patriarchal criticism will be central to this chapter.

GynocriticismLiterary method that focuses on women writers and how they depict issues related to being a woman in a patriarchal culture. is concerned with women writers, particularly in the ways that women writers have become included within the canon. In American literature, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God are classic examples;Kate Chopin, The Awakening, 2nd ed., ed. Nancy A. Walker (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000); Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York: HarperCollins, 2000). these texts, now part of the canon of American literature, have only been seen as such for the past twenty-five years or so. Another interesting example is the evolution of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, which reflects the insertion of women into the canon. The edition for 1968,M. H. Abrams, ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, rev. ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968). which covers the Middle Ages, the seventeenth century, the Restoration and the eighteenth century, the Romantic period, the Victorian age, and the twentieth century, includes no women. That’s right—not one single woman! The latest (eighth) edition of this anthology,Stephen Greenblatt and M. H. Abrams, eds., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996). published thirty-eight years later, includes the following women writers:

  • Middle Ages: Marie De France and Margery Kempe
  • Sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: Queen Elizabeth, Mary (Sydney) Herbert, Aemilia Lanyer, Mary Wroth, Katherine Philips, and Margaret Cavendish
  • Restoration and eighteenth century: Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Frances Burney
  • Romantic period: Anna Letitia Barbauld, Charlotte Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Felicia Dorothea Hemans
  • Victorian age: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Christina Rossetti
  • Twentieth century: Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Nadine Gordimer, Alice Munro, and Anne Carson

What does it mean, consequently, when there are no representations of women? Historically, if women didn’t exist in the canon, then we did not—we could not—study them. But with the rise of the field of women’s studies in the 1960s, which introduced the idea of feminist literary criticism, we now value the study of women and their accomplishments, as well as thinking about how gender is constructed and perpetuated generally. This evolution about women and literature is mirrored in the evolving contents of the Norton anthology, which also reflects the evolving canon that is more inclusive, particularly to women writers.

Feminine writingMethod that contemplates whether women write differently than men, creating a kind of “women’s writing” that challenges the assumptions of men’s writing. explores the notion that women may write differently than men, suggesting that there may be a “women’s writing” that is an alternative to male writing. Elaine Showalter in A Literature of Their Own (1977)Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998). traces women’s writing into three stages. The first stage is Imitation or Feminine (1840–80), where women imitated men. The classic examples of this are Charlotte and Emily Brontë (of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights fame, respectively), who took on male names—Currer Bell and Acton Bell.Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. Richard J. Dunn (New York: Norton, 2001); Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, ed. Richard J. Dunn (New York: Norton, 2003). To give another famous example, George Eliot, who wrote the Victorian classic Middlemarch, was actually Mary Ann Evans.George Eliot, Middlemarch, ed. Bert G. Hornback (New York: Norton, 2000). The second stage of women’s writing is Protest or Feminist (1880–1920), which sees women becoming much more political as writers, reacting directly to male domination in society and literature. Kate Chopin is an example of this stage, as is Virginia Woolf. Finally, the third stage, Self-Discovery or Female (1920–), becomes more radical as women turn inward toward the female, toward the body, creating works that mirror a writing particular to women.

As you can see, to narrowly define feminist literary criticism is difficult, for there are a myriad of approaches to take. Feminism is often referred to in the plural—feminisms—because there is such diversity within feminism about core terms and philosophies. A useful starting point is Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, edited by Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl.Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl, eds., Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, rev. ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997). You can examine the table of contents at http://www.amazon.com/Feminisms-Anthology -Literary-Theory-Criticism/dp/0813523893#reader_0813523893.

A look at this table of contents will show you the complexity of feminist literary criticism and provide you with some ideas to focus your feminist paper on.

Your Process

  1. Choose a literary work to examine: either a male or female writer.
  2. Look through the table of contents of Feminisms and choose three chapter areas that might lead to a focus for your paper.
  3. Write down several possible working thesis ideas for your paper.
  4. Remember, you may decide to focus your paper on gender criticism or masculinity studies, which are defined in the Key Terms.