Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own, which describes three stages in the history of women's literature, also proposes a similar multi-part model of the growth of feminist theory. First, according to Showalter, comes an androgynist poetics. Next, a feminist critique and female Aesthetic, accompanied by gynocritics, follows, and these are closely pursued by gynesic poststructuralist feminist criticism and gender theory.

Androgynist poetics, having relations and perhaps roots in mid-Victorian women's writing of imitation, contends that the creative mind is sexless, and the very foundation of describing a female tradition in writing was sexist. Critics of this vein found gender as imprisoning, nor believed that gender had a bearing in the content of writing, which, according to Joyce Carol Oates is actually culture-determined. Imagination is too broad to be hemmed in by gender.

However, from the 1970s on, most feminist critics reject the genderless mind, finding that the "imagination" cannot evade the conscious or unconscious structures of gender. Gender, it could be said, is part of that culture-determination which Oates says serves as inspiration. Such a position emphasizes "the impossibility of separating the imagination from a socially, sexually, and historically positioned self." This movement of thought allowed for a feminist critique as critics attacked the meaning of sexual difference in a patriarchal society/ideology. Images of male-wrought representations of women (stereotypes and exclusions) came under fire, as was the "'division, oppression, inequality, [and] interiorized inferiority for women.'"

The female experience, then, began to take on positive affirmations. The Female Aesthetic arose -- expressing a unique female consciousness and a feminine tradition in literature -- as it celebrated an intuitive female approach in the interpretation of women's texts. It "spoke of a vanished nation, a lost motherland; of female vernacular or Mother Tongue; and of a powerful but neglected women's culture." Writers like Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson, emerging out of the Victorian period and influenced by its writings were perhaps the first women to recognize this. In "Professions for Women," Woolf discusses how a woman writer seeks within herself "the pools, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber," inevitably colliding against her own sexuality to confront "something about the body, about the passions."

The French feminists of the day discussed this Mother Tongue, calling it l'écriture feminine. Accessible to men and women alike, but representing "female sexual morphology," l'écriture feminine sought a way of writing which literally embodied the female, thereby fighting the "subordinating, linear style of classification or distinction." Showalter finds that whether this

clitoral, vulval, vaginal, or uterine; whether centered on semiotic pulsions, childbearing, or jouissance, the feminist theorization of female sexuality/textuality, and its funky audacity in violating patriarchal taboos by unveiling the Medusa, is an exhilarating challenge to phallic discourse.

There are problems with the Female Aesthetic, which feminist critics recognized. Even its most fervent fans avoided defining exactly what constituted the style of l'écriture feminine, as any definition would then categorize it and safely subsume it as a genre under the linear patriarchal structure. Its very restlessness and ambiguity defied identification as part of its identity. Needless to say, some feminists and women writers could feel excluded by the surreality of the Female Aesthetic and its stress on the biological forms of female experience, which, as Showalter says, also bears close resemblance to sexist essentialism. Men may try their hand at writing woman's bodies, but according to the feminist critique and Aesthetic, only woman whose very biology gave her an edge, could read these texts successfully -- risking marginalization and ghettoization of both women's literature and theory. Lastly, the Female Aesthetic was charged with racism, as it rarely referred to racial or class differences between women and largely referred to a white woman's literary tradition.

Gynocritics, which developed shoulder-to-shoulder with the Female Aesthetic, attempted to resolve some of these problems, by agreeing that women's literature lay as the central concern for feminist criticism, but "rejected the concept of an essential female identity and style." One branch of gynocriticism sought to revise Freudian structures and take the edge off of an adversarial methodology of criticism. These critics emphasized a Pre-Oedipal phase wherein the daughter's bond to her mother inscribes the key factor in gender identity. Matriarchal values desolve intergenerational conflicts and build upon a female tradition of literature rather than the struggle of Oedipus and Lais at the crossroads.

Poststructuralism eventually influenced the course of feminist theory with the idea of a motherless as well as fatherless text. The female experience, as it relates to texts, only occurs in the feminine subjectivity of the reading process. "Gynesis" or "gynetic disruptions" occur in texts when the reader explores "the textual consequences and representations of 'the feminine.'" These considerations or interruptions in the discourse indicate a consideration or interruption of the patriarchal system.

Lastly and most recently are developments of an over-arching gender theory, which considers gender, both male and female, as a social construction upon biological differences. Gender theory proposes to explore "ideological inscription and the literary effects of the sex/gender system," and as many advantages, opening up the literary theory stage and bringing in questions of masculinity into feminist theory. Also, taking gender as a fundamental analytic category brings feminist criticism from the margin to the center, though risks depoliticizing the study of women.

Last modified 1996