Feminist Literary Criticism: From Anti-Patriarchy to Decadence

Article excerpt

The "tiny, embattled band" that launched feminist criticism thirty years ago has produced, in the words of one of its historians, "a widespread and well-known field of study." In fact, according to one Modern Language Association survey, feminist criticism in recent times has had "more impact on the teaching of literature" than any other school. (1) It is claimed to be "already an indispensable part of the study of literature" in universities in Britain, Canada, and the United States. (2)

In this essay I shall examine a handful of current works that illustrate the nature and goals of feminist criticism as an ideology. First, I will analyze what feminist critics are saying about patriarchy; second, what they propose as their criteria for selecting works to replace the great canon of Western literature; and third, how they now celebrate a decadence reminiscent of the Roman empire at the full measure of its decline.

Patriarchy

To begin, what do feminist critics mean by the term patriarchy? According to Judith Bennett, in her recent work History Matters, patriarchy is the "central problem" of women's history, and even "one of the greatest general problems of all history." (3) She herself admits that nowadays the average woman dismisses the term as an outdated "bugbear." She recounts how Jane Fonda once remarked that "patriarchy is very much alive and well, and we have to do something about it," and her interviewer Emma Brockes replied that patriarchy is an "anachronism" and that "lots of women would bridle at the suggestion they are victims of a patriarchal system." Bennett is distressed at Brockes's reply and insists that patriarchy is "essential to the future of feminism." As evidence she points to Ida Blom and other feminists who set out in the 1990s to write a global history of women and discovered that they could agree on "only one common theoretical framework: patriarchy." According to Sylvia Walby, no other term is as useful to describe the "system" by which "men dominate, oppress and exploit women." (4)

Bennett warns us, however, not to focus on the origins of patriarchy, for that could lead to the naive notion that there are real biological differences between men and women. Feminists "know," she says, that patriarchy is something "contingent, constructed, and subject to change." And thanks to transsexuals, they also realize that women cannot be "clearly identified" by their bodies: "There is, in other words, no stable subject, no coherent thing called 'women'--at the heart of either feminism or feminist history." (5) For Bennett the words patriarchy and women are useful constructs in a power-struggle, but they have no referents in nature, biology, or objective reality.

Her view goes back to Simone de Beauvoir, who in The Second Sex presented women's nature as something constructed by patriarchy, but so cunningly done that the construction looked like nature and was thought to be unchangeable. Such a denial of nature is now current in feminist ideology. Ruth Robbins, in her recent work Literary Feminisms, lists among the oppressions women have endured by being "formed under patriarchy,"

  physiological oppressions which attack women by virtue of their bodies
  (childbearing and rearing defined as "women's work," or the fact that
  women are physically less powerful than men, and can be subjected to
  violence and rape). (6)

Note well that Robbins accuses patriarchy of having defined "childbearing" as "women's work" and thus having deceived unsuspecting females for millennia. Without this construction, who knows if women would ever have stumbled on motherhood? Similarly, in the recently published Cambridge Companion to Feminist Literary Theory, Nancy Armstrong declares that the "power" women had over "child-rearing" in the nineteenth century was "in no way natural" to them. (7) Not natural because for feminist critics, every phase of motherhood (except abortion) is a patriarchal conspiracy to oppress women. …