Contemporary feminist literary theory is a literary movement that has changed and evolved over the past several decades. First coming to prominence along with the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s (and also building upon the works of feminist theory progenitors such as Virginia Woolf), feminist literature has looked outward, inward, and then further inward at what it means to engage with language at all. In the 60s and 70s, writers such as Adrienne Rich wrote about what it meant to exist under the rule of a patriarchal society, exploring the history of oppression and critiquing the patriarchal system that dictated what women could say and do. The writers of this period also realized that “the canon” was a largely male reporting of the human experience. As by Rivkin and Ryan, “[t]o be a woman graduate student in the 1960s was to hear recognizably male points of view, some of which were noticeably misogynist.” This truth was acknowledged by feminist writers and theorists Elaine Showalter (with A Literature of Their Own) and Judith Fetterly (with The Resisting Reader). What marked this period in feminist theory was a critique of the male literary standard and the recovery of women’s writing and history that was suppressed by a patriarchal society.
As feminist theory developed further, that focus shifted. Building on the feminist examination of the male literary establishment that occured in the 60s and 70s, the 80s brought further introspection. The writers of this period examined gender as a societal construction that was possibly “written into the psyche by language” (Rivkin and Ryan 768). Two schools of thought, constructionist and essentialist, sprang from this analysis. Both examined what “women” meant within society, but fundamentally disagreed on why.
Essentialists believed that women “are innately capable of offering a different ethics from men” (767). To essentialists, gender is a distinct biological and psychological reality that explains the differences in thinking between men and women. For instance, women are more attuned to the earth due to their connection with their mother than men, who sever that connection in order to become a member of the patriarchy. Essentialists also “argued that men think in terms of rights when confronted with ethical issues, while women think in terms of responsibilities to others” (767). To them, the differences between men and women are not just societal construction, but real psychological and biological differences. Essentialists view writing and language as a way to reflect an identity, and not to construct one.
This is much different than Constructivist view, which posits that gender is nothing more than a construct built by a patriarchal society. To Constructivists, the differences between men and women are the result of conditioning under patriarchal rule. While the Essentialists view traditionally female traits (such as being caring and maternal) as innate physiological attributes, Constructivists look at these as qualities as traits ingrained within women by a patriarchal society to make them better and more subordinate keepers of house. Constructivists worried that Essentialists where interpreting “interpreting the subordination of women as women’s nature” (Rivkin and Ryan, 768) and not attempting to change the right things. Constructivists wanted to upend the very ideas upon which gender was construed, and examine how society imposes identity onto women. To them, language does not reflect identity but creates it.
Constructivism and Essentialism, although they are diametrically opposed, both inform contemporary feminist literary theory. Both schools of thought are built upon the work of their predecessors in the 60s and 70s and acknowledging both viewpoints is essential to understanding how writing and language is viewed within feminist theory.
Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory an Anthology. Wiley-Blackwell, 2017.