Feminist Theory and Literary Practice

Feminist Theory and Literary Practice

by Deborah L. Madsen


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ISBN-13: 9780745316024
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 08/20/2000
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 1.11(w) x 1.11(h) x 1.11(d)

About the Author

Deborah L. Madsen is Professor of American Literature at the University of Geneva, and the author of numerous books on aspects of literature, genre, gender and allegory.

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Gender and Rhetoric: Liberal Feminism and Mary Rowlandson

This chapter begins with a survey of liberal feminist theorists, focusing upon the work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Women and Economics (1898) and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963). The primary theoretical concepts explored here include: the origins of liberalism; the limits of liberal theory, particularly in terms of the liberal desire to reform patriarchy rather than to achieve structural social change; the relevance of liberal theory, in terms of liberalism's focus upon (gendered) exclusions from power and economic rights, liberalism's critique of strategies of disempowerment, and liberalism's structural contrast between the individual and socio-economic classes. In the section that follows this theoretical survey, I turn to the liberal feminist analysis of Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1682).

Survey of Liberal Feminist Theory

Summary of Liberal Feminist Principles

The liberal emphasis on the individual (in contrast with movements such as Marxist feminism that emphasise collectivity) stresses the importance of the individual and individual autonomy which are protected by guaranteed rights, economic justice and equality of opportunity. Liberalism arose in the seventeenth century with the call for reform of oppressive socio-economic practices and structures; such as the feudal privileging of nobles over peasants and the system of absolute monarchy. Liberalism motivated the American Revolution and shaped the key documents of the new Republic – the Bill of Rights and the Constitution – both of which assumed that the American citizen was a rational self-determining individual who was to be served by the social, economic and political institutions described by these documents. Liberal individualism and the primacy of personal freedom only applied to men, and white men specifically, at that time.

Liberal feminist theory is limited in various ways and has been extensively critiqued by feminist scholars. First, the concept of domestic tyranny is kept separate from liberal theorising about public, political tyranny. One might ask, is this separation of the private and the public a necessary part of liberalism? The liberal emphasis upon nature, natural rights and self-evident truths, suggests a biological essentialism that leads inevitably to a basic distinction between the sexes which is founded in a distinction between the public masculine world and the private feminine world. Second, an unwillingness to direct efforts towards transforming the capitalist basis of Western society means an unwillingness to confront the patriarchal bias of capitalism itself, where structural inequities and a pool of available labour are integral parts of the economy. Together, this toleration of the capitalist economic structure of patriarchy and the separation of the domestic from the public has drawn criticism from feminists, who identify deep structural causes of women's oppression: causes that are not addressed by liberal feminist theory. When combined with the liberal commitment to freedom of speech as a basic individual right, this has led liberal feminists into conflict with socialist feminists and others over the issue of pornography and censorship – liberal feminists argue in favour of complete freedom of expression and such strategies as women-centred pornography to overcome the demeaning effects of pornographic images of women, rather than legislation to ban or restrict pornography.

The efforts of liberal feminism are directed towards the reform of patriarchy rather than the structural change of a male-dominated society. Liberal feminists support the Equal Rights Amendment and other legislative acts to abolish sexual discrimination and to erode oppressive gender roles. But beyond legal and educational barriers to equality there do exist these deeper structural obstacles to gender equality: obstacles such as the lack of adequate child care provision, woman's 'double day', the lack of comparability between the sexes within the economy (exemplified by the concept of 'women's work'). The deeper separation between male and female economies is not accounted for in liberal assumptions about the single economy. Reform, generally, benefits only middle-class women who have the money to circumvent some of these obstacles (by the use of paid domestic help, for example). Critics like Seyla Benhabib have addressed the difference between the category of 'woman' postulated by liberal feminist theory and the reality of women's experiences. What Benhabib calls the 'generalized other' in her critique is equated with some theoretical middle-class white woman (a rational being with predictable rights and duties), but she is prioritised in liberal feminist thinking at the expense of what Benhabib calls the 'concrete other': individual women with specific histories, identities, affective-emotional constitutions and desires, needs and motivations that must be understood rather than assumed (see Benhabib, 1987). The basic issue revolves around the fact that equality or 'equal with' has, in the past, meant implicitly that women should be equal with white men, or that women should have the opportunity to live as men do; but do all women (and men) want to become white, middle-class men in order to benefit from equal rights? This kind of 'equality' carries with it racial and class prejudices that are inimical to the egalitarian commitment of feminism.

Liberal feminist perspectives focus upon how women's writing attempts to create a feminist consciousness of the oppression and injustice suffered by women. A liberal feminist approach to critical interpretation allows us to see how women writers seek to make us recognise women's exclusion from economic rights because of their membership of a sexual class. The liberal feminist interpretation of texts promotes a respect for rights – of all individuals, regardless of class – and arouses condemnation of the practices and social structures that deny those rights. Three prominent liberal feminist thinkers are Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Betty Friedan; in what follows I look more closely at their work.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

The work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton is in important respects inseparable from that of Susan B. Anthony, Stanton's friend and collaborator. They wrote together, travelled together, Anthony even lived periodically in the Stanton household to help with housework and the raising of the seven Stanton children, and so release time for her friend to write and to continue the cause. Stanton once wrote: 'In thought and sympathy we were one, and in the division of labor we exactly complemented each other. I am the better writer, she the better critic. She supplied the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric, and, together, we have made arguments that no one has answered. Our speeches may be considered the united product of our two brains' (quoted in Gilbert & Gubar, 1996, p. 465). Stanton's feminism, and Anthony's as well, arose initially from her commitment to the abolitionist movement. At the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 she objected to the exclusion of the women delegates and from that experience determined to organise the women's rights meeting which became the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. The liberal idea of emancipation informs both Stanton's feminism and her abolitionism; in both cases (slavery and women's oppression) the state has withheld fundamental rights held by the individual. The basic liberal tenets of individual freedom and social equality were denied by the denial of citizenship to women and slaves; these then are the principles Stanton demands in her call for women's suffrage and the enfranchisement of slaves. On the basis of race and gender, these classes of people were denied the equality of opportunity that is enshrined in the founding documents of the Republic. However, the sexism of the abolitionist movement, with which Stanton was confronted in London, gave rise to a critical distancing between feminism and abolitionism in Stanton's thought. This was exacerbated by Stanton's growing suspicion that black men would be enfranchised before women, to the detriment of the women's movement, and that the position of black women would not be improved at all. She wrote to the prominent abolitionist Wendell Phillipps in 1865 to point out that 'if the two millions of Southern black women are not to be secured in their rights of person, property, wages, and children, then their emancipation is but another form of slavery' (Stanton & Blatch, 1969, vol. 2, p. 110). Enfranchised black men would join with their white brothers to continue the patriarchal oppression of women, Stanton suspected; the enfranchisement of black men alone would not ensure the equality of opportunity that Stanton wanted for all – men and women, black and white, as sovereign and independent individuals.

Her writings on marriage, maternity and divorce recognise the oppressed status of women as belonging to a subordinate sexual class. The separation of women as a class into a female sphere of experience which is identified with the private and the domestic, while the public sphere is reserved exclusively for the sexual class of men, informs Stanton's writings on family and marriage and motivates her commitment to individualism and women's independence from men. The rights of the individual are natural rights which the individual brings into the world at birth; these rights cannot be taken away because they are constitutive of the individual. Stanton and her collaborators open the 'Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions', drawn up at the Seneca Falls Convention, with a deliberate echo of the Declaration of Independence: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal ...' (my emphasis; Schneir, 1972, p. 77). Stanton's political struggle was directed towards realising the promises made in documents like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence; she demanded citizenship rights for all citizens of the Republic and the reform of laws that denied women their full human rights. And it was the oppressive legal machinery of the state that she held responsible for women's subordination: 'It has taken the whole power of the civil and canon law to hold woman in the subordinate position which it is said she willingly accepts' (Anthony & Harper, 1970, vol. 4, p. 41).

This legal or state oppression is mirrored in private relations within marriage which Stanton represents as relations of power, of domination and control. In marriage, husband and wife become legally a single defined unit, which is male; women surrender themselves entirely in the marriage relation. In her 1860 address to the New York State Legislature, Stanton makes precisely this point: 'Blackstone declares that the husband and wife are one, and learned commentators have decided that that one is the husband. In all civil codes, you will find them classified as one' (Gilbert & Gubar, 1996, p. 467).

The unwillingness of men to share an equal partnership with their wives is Stanton's primary explanation for the unwillingness of men to grant political equality to women. Yet marriage is only one of a range of choices men may make about how to live their lives; and although Stanton counsels against marriage, an institution within which women have no individual sovereignty, she recognises that women are educated and socialised to expect only marriage as the structuring principle of their lives. 'Personal freedom is the first right to be proclaimed, and that does not and cannot now belong to the relation of wife, to the mistress of the isolated home, to the financial dependent' (Stanton & Blatch, 1969, vol. 2, p. 70). The married woman surrenders all her rights, including the right to control her own body, though her husband gives up nothing; she becomes an unpaid domestic drudge, robbed of her labour; and when women are paid to work outside the home they are paid not according to the value of their labour but according to the value of their gender. The lack of legal status as a citizen is identified by Stanton as the root cause of women's dependence within marriage; and reform of the laws governing the rights of married women and access to divorce is, in large part, the remedy. By changing the laws that regulate social relations, transformation of those relations – economic and sexual – that oppress women, can follow.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics (1898)

Gilman preferred to call herself a 'sociologist' rather than a feminist. Gilman's achievement is distinct from that of many of her female contemporaries in that she was not exclusively concerned with the vote but considered suffrage important only as part of an entire revolution in gender relations. The very public struggle for women's suffrage marginalised her work and this was the case even more after the vote was won in America in 1920, when the issue of women's rights was reduced to insignificance in the popular mind. Only when the full equality of women in industrial society was seen once more as an urgent social issue was interest in Gilman's work revived. Gilman focused her writing upon the demonstration that men and women share a common humanity; the notion that women actually want to be dependent on men, that their ambitions and aspirations are less than men's, that women do not want education or professional attainment or a life outside the home. These fallacies are exposed as the products of social conditions that work to transform individual people into sexual stereotypes. Female economic and psychological dependence is revealed as a cultural or ideological construction in Gilman's writing – both her fiction and her prose.

In Gilman's view, capitalism and patriarchy work together in the economic and sexual exploitation of women. What Gilman called the 'sexuo-economic relation' is extensively analysed in Women and Economics (1898). Under capitalist patriarchy, 'the economic relation is combined with the sex-relation' (Gilman, 1898, p. 3) and the consequence is women's dependence and subordination. Gilman uses the concept of evolution to point out that under these conditions a particular type of woman is bred – men choose women for marriage and reproduction who suit the prevailing patriarchal view of femininity. 'We have trained and bred one kind of qualities into one-half the species, and another kind into the other half. ... For instance, we have done all we could, in addition to natural forces, to make men brave. We have done all we could, in addition to natural forces, to make women cowards' (p. 163). In marriage, a man becomes the woman's 'food supply' (p.11); Gilman comments, that '[w]e are the only animal species in which the female depends upon the male for food, the only animal species in which the sex-relation is also the economic relation' (p. 3). Because of this close relationship between marriage and economic survival, the 'marriage market' becomes a woman's whole world and not just one aspect of the social environment. The economy is perverted away from important priorities by woman's insatiable demand for domestic consumption; that is, her role as 'the limitless demander of things to use up'. Gilman continues, 'To consume food, to consume clothes, to consume houses and furniture and decorations and ornaments and amusements, to take and take and take forever, – from one man if they are virtuous, from many if they are vicious, but always to take and never to think of giving anything in return except their womanhood, – this is the enforced condition of the mothers of the race' (p.59). It is to this role of consumer rather than creative producer of economic wealth that women are confined. Gilman exposes the economic basis of women's oppression by bringing the language of economics to bear upon the description of private experience.

Our general notion is that we have lifted and ennobled our eating and drinking by combining them with love. On the contrary, we have lowered and degraded our love by combining it with eating and drinking; and, what is more, we have lowered these habits also. ... She must consider what he likes, not only because she loves to please him or because she profits by pleasing him, but because he pays for the dinner, and she is a private servant (pp. 116–117).


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Copyright © 2000 Deborah L. Madsen.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Feminism in America

1 Gender and Rhetoric: Liberal Feminism and Mary Rowlandson

2 Gender and Work: Marxist Feminism and Charlotte Perkins Gilman

3 Gender and Consciousness: Psychoanalytic Feminism and Kate Chopin

4 Gender and Nature: Ecofeminism and Willa Cather

5 Gender and Sexuality: Radical Feminism and Adrienne Rich

6 Gender and Class: Socialist Feminism and Ann Beattie

7 Gender and Race: Feminism of Colour and Alice Walker, Denise Chßvez, Leslie Marmon Silko, Maxine Hong K

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