Defining the “F” in Feminist Criticism #1

If all the harm that women have done

Were put in a bundle and rolled into one,

Earth would not hold it

The sky could not enfold it,

It could not be lighted nor warmed by the sun.

Such masses of evil

Would puzzle the devil

And keep him in fuel while Time’s wheels run.

But if all the harm that’s been done by men

Were doubled and doubled and doubled again,

And melted and fused into vapor and then

Were squared and raised to the power of ten,

There wouldn’t be nearly enough, not near

To keep a small girl for the tenth of a year. (Stephen, 1891)

It is well known that women throughout the ages have been treated as Other in a patriarchal society, which for the most part is persnickety and disparaging. Many philosophers, political and religious figures, and theorists have helped in perpetuating the stereotype. Nietzsche’s ideas may be a good place to set some examples in motion. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche claims,

Woman wants to become self-reliant–and for that reason she is beginning to enlighten men about “woman as such”: this is one of the worst developments of the general uglification of Europe. . . . Woe when “the eternally boring in woman”–she is rich in that!–is permitted to venture forth! . . . But she does not want truth: what is truth to woman? From the beginning, nothing has been more alien, repugnant, and hostile to woman than truth–her great art is the lie, her highest concern is mere appearance and beauty. . . . And is it not true that on the whole “woman” has so far been despised most by woman herself–and by no means by us?  (Nietzsche, 1966)

Later authors attest to the perpetuation of the same stereotype. Arnold Isenberg, for example, while commenting on some of Virginia Woolf’s ideas on the empowerment of women by means of writing, viciously attacks and dismisses her suggestions. He quotes Woolf, who in A Room of One’s Own, asserts: “Never mind whether you write like Keats. That’s not the idea. The main thing is that you put down what you see and feel” (Isenberg, 1973). With this, Isenberg supposes that Woolf grants license to women to produce bad writing. He goes on to say:

So reasons one of the best minds of our times, competent alike at writing and at judging. Is this dreadful, chaotic thinking really redeemed by the prose garnishes . . . Consider how extreme these phrases are: “Mean nothing.” “Most futile of occupations.” “Submit to the decrees.” “Most servile of attitudes.” “All that matters.” “Sacrifice a hair of the head.” “Abject treachery.” No, this hysterical prose cannot make up for any fault: it is itself in need of some virtue to balance it. I think I am aware of some of the good impulses behind bad writing. Virginia Woolf, when she started this passage, had just been prophesying. She had foretold a time when women, if given the chance, would become good writers. By a natural association of ideas she then found herself meditating the question, “Yes, but will they ever be as good as men?” (Isenberg, 1973)

In other words, regardless of women writers’ proven skill, and in spite of their acceptance by a good majority of the male writing establishment as successful writers, Isenberg still disputes their ability and creativity. Moreover, by comparing in an utterly sexist way women’s writing to that of men, he questions whether we can elevate female writing enough to compete with male writing. That is to say, he insists (and he is not the only one) that we must hold everything to a male microscope, saturated in male standards and beliefs. According to this view, all that is right, good, and accepted, excellent, brilliant, and accomplished is male produced.

If Nietzsche and Isenberg’s ideas do not make the case, perhaps one should take a look at Freud’s lectures on the subject of women and the castration complex:

The castration complex arises after they [girls] have learnt from the sight of the female genitals that the organs which they value so highly need not necessarily accompany the body. The castration complex of girls is also started by the sight of the genitals of the other sex. They at once notice the difference and, it must be admitted, its significance too. They feel seriously wronged, often declare that they want to “have something like it too,” and fall a victim to “envy of the penis.” (Freud, 1966)

Why does Freud assume that any girl, who either grows up around boys or not, would assign higher value to male genitalia? In whose mind a penis is significant, if not in the minds of males themselves? Clearly, penis envy is a male construct, and the castration complex has been assigned to the female identity because of the fear it has generated in the male psyche.

Works Cited

Cixous, Helene. “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways–Out/Forays,” In The Feminist

Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. Catherine

Belsey and Jane Moore, eds. Blackwell, 1989, pp. 101-116.

——. Laugh of the Medusa, “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. Keith Cohen

and Paula Cohen. Signs 1, 1976, pp. 875-93.

Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. Trans. J. Strachey. W.W. Norton, 1966.

Frith, Gill. “Transforming Features: Double Vision and the Female Reader.” 

New Formations 15, 1991, pp. 68-76.

Gossett, Hattie. Presenting…Sister Noblues. Firebrand Books, 1988.

Greer, Germaine. “The Stereotype.” In Philosophy of Woman. Mary Mahowald, ed.

Hackett, 1983, pp. 11-19.

Isenberg, Arnold. Aesthetics and the Theory of Criticism: Selected Essays of

Arnold Isenberg. University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Moi, Toril. “Feminist, Female, Feminine.” In The Feminist Reader: Essays in

Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. Catherine Belsey and Jane

Moore, eds. Blackwell, 1989, pp. 117-132.

Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Walter Kaufmann.

Vintage Books, 1966.

Noddings, Nel. Women and Evil. University of California Press, 1989.

O’Grady,  Kathleen. “Guardian of Language: An Interview with Helene Cixous.” Women’s Education des Femmes 12, 1996, pp. 6-10.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “We Write for Our Own Time,” In A Casebook on Existentialism.

William Spanos, ed. Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1970, pp. 133-139.

Stephen, J. K. “A Thought,” Cambridge University Literary Magazine, 1891, pp. 15-17.

Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women. ”Collected Essays, vol.2. Hogarth

Press, 1966.


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