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Feminism in Literature

Feminism in Literature



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Feminism in Literature
Feminism in Literature

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Published by: Chandra Sekhar Patro on Jun 21, 2008
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is a practical political movement addressing a broad range of urgent social and political problems, from pollution, health, and species extinction to economic development, militarism, racism,and sexual violence. Like all environmentalists, feminist ecologists are concerned with humanrelationships to the natural world and intent on discovering relationships--among human beings as wellas between humans and non-human nature--that contribute to a healing, or healthy, planet. Ecofeministsdiffer from other environmentalists in their emphasis on the ways that "nature" has been envisioned asfemale (or feminine), the parallel and mutually reinforcing oppression of women and nature, and theways that environmental problems and issues specifically affect women. Ecofeminists have various--andoften conflicting--commitments to liberal, cultural, socialist, indigenous, and postmodern feministtheories.
Ecofeminism and Nineteenth-Century Literature
Ecologically centered discipline that critiques the dominant male practices and discourses relating tonature.
Ecological feminism, or ecofeminism, is an interdisciplinary movement that calls for a new way of thinking about nature, politics, and spirituality. Ecofeminist theory questions or rejects previously held patriarchal paradigms and holds that the domination of women by men is intimately linked to thedestruction of the environment. Ecofeminists argue that traditional male-centered approaches involvingexploitation of and supremacy over women are echoed in patriarchal practices and discourse withrespect to the environment. Ecofeminism came into being in the early 1970s in the United States, when anumber of women became disillusioned with the mainstream environmental movement and sought tocreate more awareness among feminists about environmental concerns. Feminists before this had seen itas important to deemphasize the differences between men and women, but ecofeminists embarked on astudy of particularly female ways of being and thinking about nature throughout history. Thinkers invarious fields, from science to anthropology, sociology, history, and politics began to critique traditionalattitudes toward the environment from a feminist perspective. In the 1990s, a field of study calledecocriticism—an earth-centered approach to literary studies—began to emerge in literature departmentsin the United States. Ecocriticism studies the relationship between literature and the physicalenvironment, asking how nature is represented in literary works. While ecofeminist literary criticism issimilarly concerned with the depiction of nature, it emphasizes how traditional representations often seethe land as innocent, female, and ripe for exploitation.While ecofeminist literary critics examine literature from all cultures and throughout history to explorefemale perspectives on nature, nineteenth-century English and American literature is seen as a particularly rich area of study. As ecofeminist literary critics have shown, nature writing by women in both England and the United States flourished in the nineteenth century. The study of flora and fauna,which could be done relatively close to home, was seen as a respectable occupation for middle- andupper-class women; thus, a number of them took an interest in writing about their natural environment.Few of these female nature writers are well-known outside scholarly circles, but they are seen asimportant because they offer radically different perspectives on the study of plants and animals than dotheir male contemporaries. Also significant is that many of these women regarded nature as a liberatingforce, especially in contrast to their confining domestic existences.For many nineteenth-century women, the sense of place was an important aspect of their writing andmany wrote about the local landscape that was often an integral part of their daily life. One of the best-1
known writers who made place a central element in her fiction was the American novelist Sarah OrneJewett.
The Country of the Pointed Firs
(1896), for example, is set in the fictional town of DunnettLanding on the coast of Maine, and the action of the novel revolves around the town and surroundingislands. The story is of a young woman writer who spends a summer in the small town, where she fallsin with a group of women who weave a web of stories about the place and its people. Jewett also portrays this circle of women as a manifestation of nature that seems to arise from the rugged landscape.Another important, but neglected, work about place is
 Rural Hours
(1850) by Susan Fenimore Cooper,the daughter of the novelist James Fenimore Cooper.
 Rural Hours
is one of the earliest examples of American nature writing and the first by a woman. In this work, Cooper describes an ideal rural society based on her experiences during her excursions in the local countryside. She also shows how that societyis changing as the wilderness recedes and industrialization looms. Cooper suggests that knowledge of  place encourages people to respect the land, and she discusses the moral obligation of human beings tocreate a society that is aware of the natural history of the environment and lives in harmony with thenatural world.Other female writers wrote about place not because it was familiar but because it was new and differentfrom what they left behind as they sought a better life in new and distant regions. Many Americanfrontierswomen left accounts of their travel experiences in diaries and letters which have been collectedand studied by feminist scholars. These documents show how different their perspectives were fromtheir male contemporaries. For many women, life on the frontier meant further drudgery and hard work doing domestic chores, and consequently they had a different sense of the possibilities of the landscapethan did their husbands and sons. Other women travelers noted in their writings that despite the promiseof untouched landscapes, women's domestic captivity prevented them from enjoying what the land hadto offer. This is, for example, one of the themes of Margaret Fuller's
Summer on the Lakes, in 1843
(1844), which chronicles the travels of Fuller and her companions as they visit Niagara Falls, the GreatLakes, Chicago, and the Wisconsin Territory. Nineteenth-century nature writing by women took various forms, but one theme that is seen in most of these works is the importance of the link between human beings and their natural surroundings. For most female writers, concern with the environment is not tied to a romantic longing for the openness of the rugged landscape or the withdrawal from society, which are common themes in men's nature writing.Rather, the earth is seen as the sustainer of human life and relationships, and the fragile boundary between nature and humanity is emphasized. Critics who study these women's writings have been particularly interested to show how the “gendered” female landscape that is central to nineteenth-centurymale writing about the environment is given more complex expression in works by women. They alsoshow how female writing about the environment weaves together concerns about ordinary life andexplores questions of community, gender, domination, and exploitation.
Women and Women's Writings from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages | Introduction
Contemporary feminist theory has allowed social and literary critics to observe and reconstruct the pastthrough the lens of the woman, and more specifically, through that of the woman writer. Looking to the premodern eras of antiquity and the Middle Ages, feminist scholars have studied women's roles asartists, leaders, and agents of history. Likewise, they have examined the status of ordinary individuals asthe subjects of social and historical change across the millennia. Importantly, most classicists andmedievalists who employ the tools of feminist theory in their work have been careful to note thatfeminism is a decidedly contemporary development, cautioning those who would describe women of thedistant past as feminists to be aware of the consequent anachronism. Nevertheless, in their explorations2
of early literature and past civilizations, these scholars have recognized an emerging consciousnessregarding women's issues. While women writers of ancient Greece, Alexandrian Egypt, or feudal Japancan scarcely be labeled feminists by contemporary standards, their unique awareness of themselves andtheir status in their societies has inspired the endeavor to read and write the history of women in art andliterature.Scholars have unearthed, in the early records of antique civilizations from Bronze Age Greece and OldKingdom Egypt to ancient China and imperial Rome, suggestions of similar elements within thediversity of women's literature and social roles. Bringing together numerous common themes, such asthe conflict between women of influence and the strong patriarchal tendency to marginalize the feminineand codify it symbolically, feminist criticism has offered a new way of looking at the ancient past thatseeks to question some of the underlying assumptions of traditional humanist criticism. By examiningtextual and archeological evidence, critics have endeavored to reassess the society, daily lives, andliterary production of women in various cultures of the ancient world. Because women writers of antiquity tended to be individuals with unique talent, their status is generally viewed as highlyexceptional. Writers such as the Greek poet Sappho, the Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, and the Chinese scholar Pan Chao (Ban Zhao), in some fashion and for some limited periodenjoyed favorable social or familial circumstances that assisted them in their vocations. For feministcritics, their rarity and the treatment they received in society—Hypatia, for instance, was murdered inthe streets of Alexandria—suggest a prevalent lack of opportunity and respect for creative andintellectual women in antiquity. Such conclusions have led scholars to probe the origins of misogyny inthe patriarchal societies these writers represent and to analyze the system of masculine and femininesemiotics upon which the notion of misogyny rests. Beginning with ancient Greece, commentators haveevaluated the gendered distinction between private and public spheres, usually described as a symbolictension between the feminine
(household) and masculine
(city-state or society). Thus,women of the Athenian classical period in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. were expected to attend totheir domestic duties without mingling in political affairs. Women's ritual lives were also generally keptseparate from those of men, giving rise to the feminine mysteries of ancient Greek religion. AncientSparta, in contrast, promoted a more egalitarian view of the sexes, but a woman's primary role remainedthe bearing of strong future warriors to defend the militaristic city-state. In later times, Roman law placed rather severe restrictions on women, making their legal and social status completely subject to theauthority of their fathers and husbands. In a few cases, however, the position of aristocratic women inthe ancient world may have been somewhat more favorable. In Ptolemaic Egypt, for example, Queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra appear to have been treated with much the same regard as their malecounterparts. Notwithstanding these rare instances, the lives of most antique women were generallycircumscribed by limits on education, mobility, and vocation precluding virtually all possibilities thatmight conflict with either domestic or reproductive responsibilities.Women's relatively limited social roles are also reflected in the arts and literature of the antique period,from Athenian vase painting to Homeric verse, which suggest that the most common position of ancientwoman was in the home, occupied with household duties—cooking, weaving, child rearing,—leavingmen to handle political issues, which often meant war. Feminist critics have noted that suchrepresentations of women in the ancient period derive from the patriarchal assumptions of premodernsocieties, which were reflected in the symbolic order of the mythic past. Greco-Roman mythology— embodied for the purposes of literary scholarship here in the Homeric epics the
and inOvid's Latin
 —encapsulates classical perceptions of the feminine, depicting women as powerful goddesses, vengeful queens, cunning witches, and as the objects or victims of male aggression.Such mythic stereotypes inform an array of world literature and are precisely the sorts of ingraineddepictions of women that contemporary feminists wish to discover and understand. Likewise, classicaldrama, perhaps best typified in the works of Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Sophocles,3

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