Feminism has gradually become more far-ranging and subtle in its attacks on male-dominated society. Many injustices still need to be corrected, but equally necessary is a more down-to-earth, tolerant and compassionate view of fellow human beings. Introduction
Many feminists dislike theory. Sharp intellectual categories, argumentation, seeming objectivity, and the whole tradition they grow out of are just what feminists are seeking to escape. And if their reasoning seems unsystematic they can draw support from the psychoanalysis of Lacan and Julia Kristeva, fromDerrida's deconstruction, and from Rorty's view that philosophy should model itself on an edifying conversation seeking rapprochement rather than no-holds-barred gladiatorial combat. Androgynist Poetics
Critics, being generally male, had not generally concerned themselves with gender issues. Most of the world's great literature had been written by men. Sappho, Austen, the Brontes and Emily Dickinson apart, it was difficult to think women really had it in them to write at the highest level. Literature was literature, and critics saw no need to distinguish a specifically feminine way of writing or responding to a text. Virginia Woolf was herself a refutation of that thesis, though her mental breakdown was perhaps brought on by the strain of balancing male self-realization with female abnegation. But in her essay Professions for Women, Woolf complained only that women's social obligations hindered a writing career. Their lives gave them a different perspective, but women were not fundamentally different from men in their psychological needs and outlooks. Gynocriticism
The gathering feminist movement very much disagreed, and argued that women's writing expressed a distinctive female consciousness, which was more discursive and conjunctive than its male counterpart. Such consciousness was radically different, and had been adversely treated. Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex documented the ways "Legislators, priests, philosophers, writers and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of women is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth." Women had been made to feel that they were inferior by nature and, though men paid lip-service to equality, they would resist its implementation. Some men might be sympathetic to women's issues, but only women themselves knew what they felt and wanted. And perhaps they always knew. The essays collected in Susan Cornillon's 1972 anthology Images of Women in Fiction all suggested that nineteenth and twentieth century fiction was simply untrue to women's experience. Rather than search for the essentially feminine, critics now turned to the social context of women's writing, to the ways a male-orientated society had formed or deformed individual novels, plays and poems written by women. Adventure and romance, whoever written for, seemed to stress the male competitive element, and even the submissive partner of gay literature only imitated the female stereotype. Not all agreed, of course. Norman Mailer's The Prisoner of Sex: disliked the blanket criticism of Kate Millet's Sexual Politics, arguing its examples were too selective chosen. Gynesis
Nonetheless, by the early eighties, feminists had advanced to a much more confrontational attack on male hegemony, advocating a complete overthrow of the biased (male) canon of literature. French feminists argued that women should write with a greater consciousness of their bodies, which would create a more honest and appropriate style of openness, fragmentation and non-linearity. Parallel studies in the visual arts stressed a feminine sensibility of soft fluid colours, an emphasis on the personal and decorative, and on forms that evoked the female genitalia. And the problem lay deeper still, in the language itself. Words had been coined to express a male point of view, and that was indeed misogynist. Some 220 words exist in English for the...