Some Feminist Theories

Feminism is best defined by its concerns: to correct inequities that women have been subject to, and to address ideas about what constitutes woman, her nature, her history, her future. There are many different theoretical approaches through which one can achieve these aims, and there is a considerable range of disagreement about what theories and even what facts should prevail.

There are various things of interest on the Web; one is an article in Time Magazine, The Real Truth About the Female Body (March 8, 1999)

Here are some theories:

Situated and Gendered Knowledge

Standpoint Theory

Muted Group Theory

Gender difference theories such as Genderlect Theory, Gilligan's Ethics of Care

Showalter's Literary Theories

Critique of Showalter

The Concept of Immasculation

Situated and Gendered Knowledge:

Principle: people may understand the same object in different ways as they stand in different relationship to it; one lives from one's experience and vantage point.

Some concepts:

People experience the world through their bodies, which have different constitutions and are differently located in space and time. By virtue of their different physical locations, and the different social and psychological orientations that emerge as they live in and through the world, people experience differently from one another, and know differently from one another.

People have first-personal access to their own bodily and mental states, yielding direct (some think), or at least immediately available, knowledge of phenomenological facts about what it is like for them to be in these states.

People have different knowledge of others, by virtue of their different personal and social relationships to them. What one 'knows of' another depends on how they act toward one, which depends on their relationship to one.

People have different dispositions towards events, ideas and actions, depending on their beliefs and experiences.

Consequently people experience their worlds differently. Ethnographer Robert Desjarlais suggests that we in fact experience our experience differently:

"...experience is not a primordial existential given but rather a historically and culturally constituted process predicated on certain ways of being in the world. Experience is the result of specific cultural articulations of selfhood (namely, a sense of self as possessing depth, interiority, unity, stability, and the capacity for transcendence)"   (Robert Desjarlais, Shelter Blues)

In sum people in different social locations, differently placed groups, have different perceptions, different social definitions, interpretations and behaviours, speak different languages (known as sociolects or ideolects — see my page on Bakhtin — in different manners.

These locations are constructed in part through the relations of the person to (or, the construction of their identity through) the processes, practices and institutions of the possession and distribution of knowledge, goods and power, and hence are implicated in and formed through the web of power relations that constitute the order of their society. If follows that any study of different subject, or class, or group positions will have an element of critical, political, socio-economic analysis and will interrogate constructions and distributions of power (whatever forms that power might take).

Gendered Knowledge in particular:

men and women have access to different phenomenlogical knowledge, that is, knowledge, know-how, and personal knowledge of others, by virtue of their gender.

They also tend to represent the world in different terms, by virtue of their gendered interests, attitudes, emotions and values, and perhaps also (although this is a matter of controversy among feminist theorists) by virtue of different cognitive styles.

These differences create different background webs of belief against which information to which men and women have in principle equal access may be processed.

The differences are also informed by the constructions, institutions and exercises of power in society.

Caveat: It is possible to mystify the study of gendered knowedge by treating gender as the only category of discrimination and difference — by ignoring the way class, race and other socially-produced categories impact on access to knowledge, goods and power, on self-perception, on the formation and possibilities of the self as internally realized and as socially empowered or disempowered.

Standpoint Theory

The basis:

People 'see' things differently from different social locations: different groups have different social, economic, and symbolic viewpoints

Those in control of social meanings shape the world that the others see, define reality for the culture: to create official reality, which is the reality as that group knows it — their ideological perspective. What ideology does, is to naturalize the belief system, to make it appear to be in the order of things, "in the true". Ideology also obscures anything which might counter it.

Women are a marginalized group, although they are not homogeneous — there are many standpoints, economic, racial, ethnic and so forth, many different forms of marginalization. Nevertheless gender is a major division, with women generally being deprivileged.

There are no objective or value-free standpoints: everyone is situated, and will see things from that context and with that perspective

However some standpoints, particularly those of marginalized and oppressed groups — and this is the crux of standpoint theory — have more of a chance of being objective, of seeing the reality of the situation, for two main reasons:

a) The major reason relies on Hegel's description of the master-slave relations: the slave is dependent on the master, it is in his or her interests to understand the master.

b) Oppressed groups have less interest than dominant groups in protecting the status quo.

Standpoint theory is a powerful theory which can be used to discuss the position of any marginalized group, and which lays the basis for epistemology — a study of both what and how people know, for an improved understanding and communication among groups, and for social action.

Muted Group Theory

Muted Group Theory grows out of ethnology, the study of cultures, and the observation that marginalized groups a) do not to have a voice in the culture — not only do they not have a say explicitly, but in fact are silenced, do not have the right to speak and b) these groups tend to develop alternate ways of communicating, what is sometimes called 'back-channel' communication, as the slaves in North American developed an elaborate communication code through which they were able to communicate right in front of the Masters' eyes without their being aware of what meanings were being made.

The general claim of muted group theory is amply supported by studies in socio-linguistics. In the mid-70's Robin Lakoff theorized that there was such a thing as 'women's speech' in that women tended to interrupt less, to speak with less certainly using hedges ("I myself think that") and tags ("don't you think?"), and otherwise to speak less and with less authority. Subsequent research has shown that this speech exists, and many women speak it, but so do men who are speaking from marginalized situations — the poor, the powerless.

In the realm of gender, as well, the territory of human life has been divided into 'the external world' and 'the domestic world', with women having speech rights in one but not in the other. Women tend to speak or have spoken with reference to one realm of this divided experience, men another.

So Muted Group Theory predicts that the marginalized will not have the rights of public assertion or definition and will be silenced in the public realm, but that they will develop back-channel, in-group speech which will be decipherable by them but not by the dominant group — unless they listen very carefully, knowing what they are listening for.

Gender difference theories:

these include Carol Gilligan's research on ethics and the idea of a 'female' "ethics of care", Nancy Nancy Chodorow's developmental psychology, Deborah Tannen's genderlect theory.

There is a large set of the issues around the discussion of gender and of what constitutes 'woman': in particular,

is 'woman' an essential category — of the very nature of 'woman'? And if so, is that essentiality genetically coded? And if it is genetically coded, is that coding evolutionary in origin? This leads to the many questions about biological differences.

Biological difference: We are talking here of 1) differences of fundamental experience of living, based on reproductive difference and how that locates one in relation to one's body and to time and the physical world; 2) differences due to the presence of two X chromosomes rather than and X and Y and/or to differing levels of various hormones, particularly estrogen and testosterone; 3) some differences in the structure of the body; and 4) some differences, apparently, in patterns of brain function.

or is the category of 'woman' socially constructed, and if so, how indebted to or reliant on economic conditions is that construction (can we just 'change' gender construction, or do we need to change the underlying conditions which drive the construction?), how reliant on the enforcement of privilege by men (a non-necessary {in terms of societal economic demand} and perhaps even non-practical exercise of power). [to say that a practice is 'socially constructed' is just to begin to speak of it]

What are the nature, and what is the extent, of the social differences?

There is the idea that there is a woman's culture, created in part by male dominance and the exclusion of women from certain realms, but also the idea that women are inherently different in the way in which they form their identities (e.g. Nancy Chodorow) and the way in which they relate to one another. These differences are enforced as well by ideological practices which associate women with the primitive societies (or, associate primitive societies with the feminine), with promiscuity, with dark forces, with the working classes, with irrationality, etc.

What are the nature, and what is the extent, of the psychological differences?

Based on biological and on social or cultural difference in the main; women are seen as more open, less aggressive, more intuitive, more nuanced in their perceptions and responses. See Tannen and Gilligan.


Carol Gilligan on the differences between men's and women's ethical sense:

responsibilityindividual rights
self-in-relationshipindividual autonomy
avoid hurtconflict of rights
lateral networkshierarchy
contextuallogical and abstract
fear lack of connectiondanger in connection


Deborah Tannen's Genderlect Theory

Tannen's research suggests that the two sexes have very diffeerent modes of communication, and she suggests that in fact communication between them ought to be viewed as intercultural communication. I give below some principles, then a set of differentiations which I borrowed from a page by Ron Wright and Mary Flores at the University of Arizona.

Basic issue:

Men live in a world of hierarchy, women live in a world of connection.


Men require independence, women require intimacy


Men live in a world of action, women live in a world of feeling

Summary of some of Tannen's findings which support her theory

Striving for status in a hierarchical social order where they are either one-up or one-down

  Striving for intimacy

Trying to protect themselves from others influence and from getting pushed down

  Trying to protect themselves from being pushed away

Goal to get and keep the upper hand

  Goal is to establish connection by having intimate knowledge

Asymmetry is an element of status   Symmetry creates equality and community

We are separate and different  We are close and the same

Report talk preserves independence

  Rapport talk gets at the connection and the relationship

Public speaking

  Private speaking

Mistake laments for requests for advice

  Laments are part of rapport talk

Conversations are a competition

  Conversations are negotiations for closeness

Conflict is accepted, sought out, enjoyed

  Conflict is a threat to connection and is to be settled without direct confrontation

Struggle to be strong

  Struggle to keep the community strong

Jockey for position and compete for floor time

  Accommodate their conversation style and yield the floor

See interruptions as a struggle for control

  See interruptions as part of rapport talk because it shows participation and support

Comfortable giving information and speaking authoritatively

  Comfortable supporting others and cautious about stating information

Home is a sanctuary where you don’t have to talk

  Home is a sanctuary where you can say what you want

Practiced his whole life dismissing his thoughts and keeping them to himself

  Practiced her whole life verbalizing her thoughts in private conversations with people she is close to

Want to be the protector because it is the dominant role

  Become the protected which is the subordinate role

Masculine talk is associated with leadership and authority

  Talking with leadership and authority is being a bitch

Powerful speech is confident

  Powerless speech hedges, hesitates, and apologizes

Notes by Professor John Lye

Showalter's Literary Theories

Elaine Showalter's "Towards A Feminist Aesthetics" is a central text which historicized the feminist critical movement in America and gave it a shape and direction. I would like to summarize two sets of categories from the article.

Feminist Critique and Gynocritics

Feminist critique is oriented toward critiquing the past and male writing. When G.M. Hopkins, echoing many others, says that women cannot write creatively because they lack the male generative power, and likens the pen to the phallus, women beg to demur, but they also want the connection that has been made to be clearly shown, so that both men and women can see the construction of reality and creativity that the idea represents. When Pope thinks that Clarissa's genteel response to the outrage against Belinda is more acceptable than Belinda's quite understandable outrage, both at the act of violence against her and at her powerlessness, women want to point out that the model of woman that Pope is constructed is one that is ideally suited to serve male ends

Gynocritics focuses not on male texts, textuality, creativity and traditions but on women's texts, textuality, creativity and traditions

Showalter gives a brief example of feminist critique, re The Mayor of Casterbridge, and gives a couple of problems with this type of criticism: it is male-oriented, devoted to exposing what men thought women were and should be; in order to do this type of criticism one may need years of apprenticeship in a male-created critical tradition; it tends to naturalize women's oppression by focusing on it; and it gives victimization an allure. It is the case, however, that a great deal of very interesting work has been done in this tradition. Certainly hermeneutics, ideological criticism, psychoanalytic criticism and New Historicism all provide good tools for this study -- in fact one has to wonder which came first, the feminist critique or the procedural and analytic tools for the critique.

She is obviously much more confident of gynocritics, the development of new models based on women's experience. Gynocritics has a certain sociological and ethnographic aspect to it, and this is where it gains both strength and weakness. Showalter writes,

Gynocritics begins at the point where we free ourselves from the linear absolutes of male literary history, stop trying to fit women between the lines of the male tradition, and focus instead on the newly visible world of female culture…. Gynocritics is related to feminist research in history, anthropology, psychology, and sociology, all of which have developed hypotheses of a female subculture including not only ascribed status and the internalized constructs of femininity, but also the occupations, interactions, and consciousness of women. Anthropologists study the female subculture in the relationships between women, as mothers, daughters, sisters and friends; in sexuality, reproduction, and ideas about the body; and in rites of initiation and passage, purification ceremonies, myths and taboos. Michelle Rosaldo writes in Women, Culture and Society,

The very symbolic and social conceptions that appear to set women apart and to circumscribe their activities may be used by women as a basis for female solidarity and worth. When men live apart from women, they in fact cannot control them, and unwittingly they may provide them with the symbols and social resources on which to build a society of their own.

Thus in some women's literature, feminine values penetrate and undermine the masculine systems that contain them; and women have imaginatively engaged the myths of the Amazons, and fantasies of a separate female society, in genres from Victorian poetry to contemporary science fiction.

She goes on to argue that attention to women writers of the past means attention to the sociological sub-structures that they inhabited, the economic, moral and psychological pressures they faces, and the strategies for survival and for self-expression which they adopted: only then can women's literature of the past be read clearly.

Feminine, feminist, female.

Showalter Then embarks on another typology, the construction of the female tradition. She sees three phases.

First, the feminine, when women wrote out of their subcultures and attempted to adopt the standards and equal the achievements of male culture -- or, as it has already appeared, to create sub-genres which were the domain of female representation and consumption. These women included women's perspective and concerns obliquely and subvertly (and, consciously and unconsciously, as the practice of criticism in this area shows). This phase she dates till 1880 or so, but it is important to remark that women have been, and still are, writing as if they ar in this phase.

Then came the phase of conscious rebellion, the feminist phase, 1880 - 1920: this was the time of the agitation for the vote for women, a time of great feminist action, and writers supported and in some cases led these political and sociological movements. This prompted, by the way, a backlash in the male and female community, as many women take the men's side as a means of protecting themselves or because they simply have not seen the problems. Take, for instance, Queenie Leavis' sharp attack on Virginia Woolf for Woolf's bitter, angry and very astute polemic, The Three Guineas, written in the early 30's.

The third phase is the female: the establishment of woman's role and nature as genuine, viable, creative, independent, and different.

Critique of Showalter

Gayle Green and Coppélia Kahn write from a 'critical' or Marxist position in their introductory essay in Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism

Showalter's argument is compelling, and gynocriticism may be a necessary stage in redressing the imbalances of a male dominated tradition. But in referring to the "feminist critique" as "ideological," "essentially political and polemical" for its "affiliations to Marxist sociology and aesthetics," Showalter implies that gynocriticism is somehow less ideological, more value-free. Feminist criticism should avoid representing its own ideals as politically neutral, for if a feminist approach has taught us anything, it is that all critical stances are ideological...moreover, the assumption that women's experience is "directly available in the texts written by women" and that "the more 'authentic' the experience is felt to be by the critic, the better and more valuable the text will be," leaves unquestioned the view of "the text as the transmitter of authentic 'human' experience" (Moi 1985). Implicit in Showalter's argument—as in much Anglo-American criticism—is the assumption that the text, and the language itself, are transparent media which reflect a pre-existent objective reality, rather than signifying systems which inscribe ideology and are actually constitutive of reality. But this is precisely the view of literature on which the canon has been predicated; and it is a view that conceals assumptions—concerning epistemology, language, "objectivity" and subjectivity-which feminists would do well to question.

Sydney Janet Kaplan, from "Varieties of Feminist Criticism" in Making a Difference suggests a problem with Showalter's model of feminine/feminist/female writing:

Showalter's paradigm, while useful for organizational purposes, may actually distort the individual achievements of particular authors. Since she tends to measure her authors against an ideal of self-development and sexual awareness that belongs to the late twentieth century, nearly all women who wrote earlier than the 1960s fail to achieve success in her terms. She appears to assume that history moves towards greater and greater improvements and more intense consciousness. But are the "female" novelists of our time really more successful in attaining their own goals as women than were the less evolved "feminine" and "feminist" novelists?

The concept of Immasculation

The concept of immasculation was articulated by Judith Fetterly in The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (1978).

The theory is that women as they are socialized into the education system and the reading and thinking about literature, are positioned as readers as men—taught to think and write from the male perspective, through the system of values and understandings, including the idea of and value women, that is held by men—to the detriment of women.

Fetterley writes that rather than empowering women, it doubly disempowers and oppresses them, as the female reader

suffers not simpl;y the powerlessness which derives from not seeing one's experience articulated, clarified, and legitimized in art, but more significantly, the powerlessness which results from the endless division of self against self.

The immasculated reader is taught that masculine experience is universal, normal, natural—hence, woman's experience is lesser, non-normal, and the masculine assumption that women are inferior is correct.