The woman's movement of the 1970s led to an awareness of a new feminist criticism. General histories of the social or intellectual life of women, such as Clio's Consciousness Raised, Perish the Thought and The Feminization of American Culture, include references to literary life as one of the few avenues open to women. The avenues open to women, however, were as writers, not ordinarily as critics of works written by men. Nonetheless, seeds planted in these works gave rise to a growing number of articles and full-length books of feminist criticism.
Although there is still some doubt, even from a few feminist critics, that there is anything resembling a fully-formed feminist critical theory, there appears to be as much commonality in approach among feminists as there is within some other theoretical groups. Like reader-response criticism, feminist criticism began during the social unrest of the 1960s and grew prominent in the 1970s. Some major early works were in direct response to questions of female graduate students who resisted the New Criticism's exclusion of women writers and female consciousness in the accepted literary canon. The identification with women writers and the work of those writers, along with a sense of repression, trivialization, and misinterpretation of female texts, led to new studies of the images of women in literary works and, consequently, a feminist revision of the literary canon itself.
These early feminist critics set out to demonstrate that the male experience as reader, writer, and critic is different from, and sometimes alien to, the female experience. They pointed out that the experiences female critics bring to a work are different from those of male critics and that critical language itself, although assumed to be objective, was, in fact, masculine. They also believed that female works were not just lost, but were deliberately suppressed by male critics who had previously convinced women that their interest in these texts was a sign of immature tastes. Armed with the work of female psychologists such as Carol Gillian, feminists practiced criticism as political action, that is, they set out to reinterpret the literary world and change that world by changing the consciousness of those who read. Much of feminist criticism has focused on either biographical criticism of rediscovering female authors or on the establishment of an alternative historical criticism that ties literary events to feminist social concerns as well as to male ones. In these new versions of literary history, the suffrage movement may be as important to literary consciousness as was industrialization or a world war.
Feminist literary criticism should be of particular concern to those who work with youth literature because this is a form of literature through which predominately female authors, editors, teachers, librarians, and parents share cultural values with young readers. Thus, youth literature is often excluded from the canon as a literature created by one marginalized group for another. In spite of female dominance in the field, most texts deemed worthy of study have been written by men. In 1982, the Children's Literature Association Quarterly, looked at children's literature from the perspective of feminist criticism, but there is much work yet to be done. One might, for instance, investigate whether female authors of children's books present different views of sex roles and family life than those of their male counterparts, although many aspects of gender theory have now been rejected by feminist critics. New authors and characters in fantasy and science fiction stimulate an interest in and need for new studies of the female hero in these genre. Since politicalization is an integral part of feminist criticism, perhaps a feminist approach offers a means to examine the socio-political aspects of the writings of both historical and contemporary authors.
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