22 An Introduction to Feminist Theory

Brittany John; Caitlin Andreasen; Ryan French; and Katherine Whitcomb

Feminist criticism dates back to well before our time.  Although women’s movements in the 1960s and 1970s sparked a contemporary feminist criticism, texts that were written much earlier call for a certain feminist critique.  The feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s were calling attention to the unfortunate female experiences under male power.  There was a shift in feminist critique and theory by the 1980s that Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar helped move into action.  Before the 1980s, feminist theory was more about the stereotypes that men had against females, and after the 1980s, feminist theory was more about the rearranging of forms that were seen as “feminine”, like a diary.  There were two kinds of feminists: liberal and radical.  The liberal feminists believed that, ultimately, gender was something that was constructed, and feminism should go outside of that construct that was built around them.  The radical feminists believed that there was a certain female essence, and that essence should be embraced by women.  These two types of feminists would lead into the two of the key ideas of feminist theory today: essentialist and constructivist.

Essentialist feminism is concerned with the inherent differences between men and women.  Taking root in psychoanalytic theory, the essentialist feminists believed that gender reflects a natural difference between men and women.  They believed this difference is as much psychological and linguistic as it is biological.

Essentialist feminists thought that women’s physical differences made them more attached to the physical world.  They believed this attachment made them more concerned with protecting nature than men.  Men, on the other hand, once separated from the mother, begin thinking in abstractions which allow them to assign identities and social roles to themselves and others.  While men think of rights while confronted with ethical issues, women think of responsibilities to others.

Constructivist feminism, on the other hand, has roots in Marxism. The constructivist feminists believe that gender is formed by culture in history.  They believe that patriarchal culture constructed gender identities with the intention to make men seem superior to women.  While essentialist feminists see female identity and psychology as inherently different from men, constructivist feminists see these differences as products of conditioning.

Another major duality in the feminist theory is the dynamic between the “angel” and the “monster” in female characters. The “angel” is described as a female character who is the perfect Victorian wife.  She is devoted to her husband/lover and she is selfless.  The “angel” is seen as virginal and pure, passive and ordinary, submissive and powerless, with no real story of her own and no story to set herself apart.

The “monster” in feminist theory is described as being able to express her desires and have an opinion of her own.  She has a sexual energy, and she shows a certain autonomy, authority, and aggressiveness.  The “monster” threatens to take the angels place, as she is the angel’s “mirror image” or “sister”.  Rivkin and Ryan argue that the monster can sometimes lie within the angel, and that no woman is inherently angelic.  This dynamic has been used in literature for years, and now, more contemporarily, used in film and television.

The four main points of the feminism theory are the differences between constructivist feminism and essentialist feminism, and the dynamic between the female “angel” and “monster” characters in a literary context.  One of the takeaways is that a constructivist feminist would say that gender is a construct formed by culture in history, and an essentialist feminist would say that gender reflects a natural difference between men and women.  The other takeaway is the importance of remembering that the “monster” sometimes lies within the “angel”, and that no woman is purely an “angel”.


Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory, an Anthology, by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Blackwell, 1998.


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The Student Theorist: An Open Handbook of Collective College Theory Copyright © 2018 by Brittany John; Caitlin Andreasen; Ryan French; and Katherine Whitcomb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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