See also:Marxist criticism, Gender criticism, and Psychoanalytic criticism.
Although even feminists themselves have disagreed on how to define the nature of feminist criticism, in a very general sense feminist criticism is a mode of literary interpretation that attempts to study literature from a female perspective, either directly through women writers, or through the historical attitudes that have restrained pure feminine creativity. However, specific forms of this type of criticism vary widely in goal and method. In her article on the subject, Ross Murfin indicates that, until recent years, western feminist criticism has traditionally been classified by nation of origin. French, American, and British perspectives tended to follow differing patterns significant enough to examine.
The French perspective was characterized by abstraction and language. Murfin outlines a set of decidedly ‘masculine’ terms common to language contrasted with their ‘feminine’ counterparts: “active/passive, masculine/feminine, sun/moon” (256) etc. Others believed that a feminine language was also possible. Julia Kristeva, a feminist of this camp, associated this language with the female body, and inevitably, female sexuality. Whereas masculine language was unified, orderly and dominant, female language would be diffusive, erratic, and “multiple.” Some objected that this was an abstraction that objectified women, and made practical social change impossible.
The American feminist perspective was also preoccupied with language, but preferred to study it by way of direct textual analysis. This included rereading dominant male authors for evidence of oppression, female authors who “triumphed against all odds,” and female authors whose works were forgotten or ignored.
On the other hand, British feminists distinguished themselves by studying literature within its historical and social contexts. They argued that the American method overemphasized the text at the expense of cultural distinctions. They also argued that the American practice of exalting triumphant women writers threatened to create counter-stereotypes of ’the perfect woman’ who was somehow individually immune from the effects of masculine conditioning. According to Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt, this elevation also tended to guise masculine oppression as an essential property of the system that somehow “created for women a special world of opportunities” (260).
By now, however, most of these perspectives have been assimilated into each other, and are no longer divisible by national boundaries. Instead they are more easily categorized by whether the focus is on just the woman, or incorporates other differences as well such as lesbian-feminists, Asian feminists, Third World feminists, etc. Because of the obvious differences among such groups, it is inevitable that their particular concerns vary widely. But Murfin also argues that “the evolution of feminism into feminisms has fostered a more inclusive, global perspective” by incorporating views and experiences from a range of scenarios (261). This multiplicity has led to the offshoot of several related studies such as gender and sexual criticism, but Murfin makes it clear that they “never could have developed … without the precedents set by feminist theories.”
The broad unifying purpose of these precedents is to investigate the ways in which feminine identity has been suppressed through male dominance as well as to describe the true nature of that identity.
Murfin, Ross C. "What is Feminist Criticism?" Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism:
The Wife of Bath. Ed. Peter Beidler.New York: Bedford Books, 1996