The term Gynocriticism was introduced by influential American feminist and literary critic Elaine Showalter in her essay “Towards a Feminist Poetics“. In a nutshell, the term refers to the kind of critique mechanism that concentrates on female-centric analysis of women’s literature. It centers on female identity, subjectivity, experience, and female language while seeking to create a female framework for the assessment of literature.
Showalter wanted “to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature, to develop new models based on the study of female experience, rather than to adapt male models and theories”.
Gynocriticism explores the canons of a mainstream/male literary structures and its gendered ignorance, the connection of women’s literature to the canonical one, the dynamic involving male and female canons, the necessity for one and in fact, several female-produced canons. Gynocriticism is associated with feminist endeavours to get women into the tradition of writing which had otherwise always been systemically dominated by men.
The pursuit for women writers and the pedagogy concerning women’s writing are some ways among many that aim to break these oppressive chains, marked by women’s silence or women’s narratives being misrepresented by men. While gynocriticism is born out of the second feminist wave’s acknowledgement of sexual differences and the uniqueness of women’s writing, it has expanded to embrace a variety of different approaches for understanding women’s literature after identifying the study of the history of women authors as a viable topic of scholarly research.
Emergence of the term and its practice
Feminist philosopher and scholar Simone De Beauvoir, in her book, ‘The Second Sex‘ establishes through the examples of various male authors that these canonical writers reinforced the role of women as the ‘Other‘ through the way they represented women in their work, thus, largely participating in the patriarchal traditions of the society which exclude women from narratives of significance.
Virginia Woolf, in her seminal work, ‘A Room of One’s Own‘ emphasised the significance of a room and some money in a female writer’s life, while discussing several notable women writers in history, many of whom are erased from memory. Through the poignant example of the story of Judith Shakespeare, Woolf also highlighted the genuine struggles of any woman wanting to write.
She accentuated the systemic exclusion of women from the same narratives where women were celebrated, illuminating how the patriarchal society is rigged against women from the start. Around the 1970s, during the second wave of feminism, several feminist critics including Elaine Showalter, took on the arduous task to reconstruct the way one looked at literary history and women authors’ location in it.
Showalter’s aim was to expose “the psychodynamics of female creativity; the trajectory of the individual or collective female career; and the evolution or laws of a female literary tradition”.
Showalter attempts to build a female literary canon by intensive study in order to resurrect the forgotten women authors of history. She does, however, acknowledge that like any other type of writing, the early stages of women’s writing emulated the works of the mainstream and dominant male writers.
Women’s writing, like all other types of writing, has developed with time, as she illustrates. She separates the evolution of women’s literature into three phases: “feminine“, “feminist“, and “female”.
The “feminine” phase, from the period of 1840s to the 1880s concerns women writers like George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, and many others who wrote in an era of male-dominant literature, where anything produced by women was not taken seriously. One can understand the need to imitate in such a patriarchal culture in order to be heard.
The “feminist” phase observes women’s writing to have evolved into a sort of separateness from male writing in order to assert their feminist identity in rebellion against the patriarchal authority. This phase is approximated to be around the 1880s to 1920s. It signifies a revolution in women’s writing for autonomy.
The third phase, also known as the “female” phase is the period when women’s writing is said to have gone through the most important turning point of feminist literature. In this phase, writers were not interested in emulating or rebellion. Rather, the focus remained on the discovery of their own inner selves.
The “female” phase celebrates the fundamental aspects of being a woman and asserting the female identity without the need to juxtapose it against any other conventional standards. Showalter calls it the “turning inward freed from some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity“.
Gynocriticism examines women’s writing as a basic component of female reality, rather than as a consequence of sexism or misogyny. Although the concept of gynocriticism has been criticised for essentialism, and its exclusion of different identities and intersectionalities among women on the basis of caste, class, race, gender expression and sexuality, it remains a remarkable contribution in the field of feminist literary criticism.
Featured Image Source: The Newyorker