Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies

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2Feminism and Women Literature

Feminist concepts indicate several theories which involve political, cultural, and social background. The basic tendencies of female movements contain in the core of its principles the end of the discrimination against women. Women strive to fight for the equality and their approaches differ; the methods – how to obtain the equality in society and how to create a better place in the community – vary according to the potentials of female fighters.

As Lee claims, feminism and women’s movement originated in its organized form in Seneca Falls, the USA, in 1848, where female representatives realized that they were powerless as individuals and, therefore, had to establish organizations to be able to transform society (Lee). Their main focus brought a whole range of issues; voting rights, property rights, divorce, access to higher education, professional equality and equal pay, etc. Women also perceived that the fight for equality and better conditions could last for years. For example, “the vote took 70 years to gain. It was not until 1928 that all women in Britain – not just those over 30 and of the right property qualifications – could legally vote” (Lee) which also indicated the first crucial achievement in women’s movement in connection with the Suffragettes. Furthermore, both world wars changed the structure of society, in particular the labor market which was open then for more women because of the lack of men due to the wars. In the 1960s and 1970s feminist movement seemed stronger in the USA, where American women strived to change the traditional role of the mother in the family and aim to gain social, cultural, and political opportunities. Membership in women’s movements grew spectacularly through the first half of the 1970s and women pervaded into every area of American life, for instance “feminism moved into sports, in 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs played before thirty thousand spectators in the Houston Astrodome, plus a television audience of millions” (Hogeland 1). Women also entered the political sphere, represented by Shirley Chisholm, the first Democratic Party’s African-American woman nominee for the Presidency in 1972. Such an enumerating list is only partially representative, but it shows the growing significance of the female world in various areas.

In her essay Toril Moi defines three relevant words connected with feminism; feminist, female, and feminine. She distinguishes the terms on the political, biological, and cultural bases. The first item ‘feminist’ labels the political background of the word which suggests the aims of the new women’s movement that emerged in the 1960s. Moi states that the feminist approach “is a specific kind of political discourse: a critical and theoretical practice committed to the struggle against patriarchy and sexism, not simply concern for gender in literature, at least not if the latter is presented as no more than another interesting critical approach on a par with a concern for sea-imagery” (Moi 104). Her statement basically means that any feminist critic may use whichever theory he or she chooses. Moi only limits the boundaries within the social, institutional, and personal area between the sexes. Nevertheless, feminist criticism has become a new branch of literary studies. She also stresses the origin of the theories, which most of the time comes from male-dominated ideas, such as Mary Wollstonecraft’ inspiration of the men-oriented French Revolution. What matters are the effects that the theory produces and not the definite theory, formulated by a woman or a man. Feminist critics present intellectual neutrality and objectivity by placing women and men next to each other and focusing on the concept itself rather than discussing the woman’s and man’s individual roles within society.

Female conceptions bring another understanding of the meaning, which emphasizes that “being female does not necessarily guarantee a feminist approach” (Moi 106), i.e. not all texts written by women represent anti-patriarchal tendencies. The author explains the difference between feminist and female in terms of contradictory theory. Describing experience can serve as a notable example since it is generally assumed that women are typically inspired by their experience, which evokes the feminist approach. On one hand, it is true because “patriarchy has always tried to silence and repress women’s experience” (Moi 107), which has changed in recent decades and women can freely express their desires, demands, wishes, and wants. On the other hand, “women’s experience can be made visible in alienating, deluded or degrading ways” (Moi 107). Women in general might bear children, become mothers, housewives, nurses, lawyers, etc., however, it does not make them more feminist if they talk about it. Moi claims that choosing to write about female authors is only a political choice which suggests that women can also write about men, which raises another question as well; whether men can be feminists? The simple answer originates in the fact that “if feminists do not have to work exclusively on female authors” (Moi 108), it means that they do not have to be women either and, therefore, as Moi claims, men can be feminists. Men can then become feminists, however, they cannot be females.

The third expression considers the cultural background of the meaning, in terms of social distinctions. Feminine and masculine should represent a social construction, i.e. forms of sexuality and behavior imposed by cultural and social laws; however, female and male should be used only in the biological sense. One of the definitions produces the notion of nurture: “Feminity is a cultural construct: one isn’t born a woman, one becomes one” (Moi 108). Feminity is natural for a woman. If she refuses to label herself as feminine, it is unnatural. Patriarchy also develops a whole series of feminine characteristics, which is often used in many literary texts describing either women, or men; such as sweetness, modesty, subservience, humility, orderliness etc. Recapitulating Moi’s words, feminism is defined as a political position, femaleness as a matter of biology, and finally a bit controversial term feminity is seen as a cultural construct.

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