July 04, 2006

'Toward a Feminist Poetics' by Elaine Showalter

Showalter, Elaine. ‘Toward a Feminist Poetics’. The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. London: Virago, 1986. 125- 143.

Showalter begins by offering the example of a ‘London symposium’ of 1977 at which Leon Edel, biographer of Henry James, poses the situation of three scholars, Criticus, Poeticus and Plutarchus who stand on the steps of the British Museum discussing ‘why femininity requires brainwork’ (125). Showalter is concerned by stereotypes of feminism that see feminist critics as being ‘obsessed with the phallus’ and ‘obsessed with destroying male artists’ (126). Showalter wonders if such stereotypes emerge from the fact that feminism lacks a fully articulated theory.

Another problem for Showalter is the way in which feminists turn away from theory as a result of the attitudes of some male academics: theory is their property. Showalter writes: ‘From this perspective, the academic demand for theory can only be heard as a threat to the feminist need for authenticity, and the visitor looking for a formula that he or she can take away without personal encounter is not welcome’ (127). In response, Showalter wants to outline a poetics of feminist criticism.

Consequently Showalter divides feminist criticism into two sections:
The Woman as Reader or Feminist Critique : ‘the way in which a female reader changes our apprehension of a given text, awakening it to the significance of its sexual codes’; historically grounded inquiry which probes the ideological assumptions of literary phenomena’; ‘subjects include the images and stereotypes of women in literature, the omissions of and misconceptions about women in criticism, and the fissures in male-constructed literary history’; ‘concerned with the exploitation and manipulation of the female audience, especially in popular culture and film, and with the analysis of woman-as-sign in semiotic systems’ (128); ‘political and polemical’; like the Old Testament looking for the errors of the past (129).
The Woman as Writer or Gynocritics (la gynocritique) : ‘woman as producer of textual meaning, with the history themes, genres, and structures of literature by women’; ‘subjects include the psychodynamics of female creativity; linguistics and the problem of a female language; the trajectory of the individual or collective female literary career; literary history’(128); ‘self-contained and experimental’; like the New Testament – the grace of the imagination (129); ‘to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature, to develop new models based on women’s experience’; ‘focus instead on the newly visible world of female culture’; ‘hypotheses of a female sub-culture’; ‘the occupations, interactions, and consciousness of women’; ‘feminine values penetrate and undermine the masculine systems that contain them’; ‘engaged in the myth of the Amazons, and the fantasies of a separate female society’ (131).


One of the problems of the feminist critique is that it is male-orientated. If we study stereotypes of women, the sexism of male critics, and the limited roles women play in literary history, we are not learning what women have felt and experienced, but only what men thought women should be. […] The critique also has a tendency to naturalize women’s victimization by making it the inevitable and obsessive topic of discussion. (130)

The divided consciousness: ‘[T] he current theoretical impasse in feminist criticism, I believe, is more than a problem of finding “exacting definitions and a suitable terminology” […] It comes from our own divided consciousness, the split in each of us. We are both daughters of the male tradition, of our teachers, our professors, our dissertation advisors and our publishers – a tradition which asks us to be rational, marginal and grateful; and sisters in a new woman’s movement which engenders another kind of awareness and commitment, which demands that we renounce the pseudo-success of token womanhood and the ironic masks of academic debate’ (141).

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  1. NiŮo S. Manaog

    Thanks for sharing your reading of Showalter’s landmark text. I wonder what you can say about Showalter’s task of dividing the history of women’s lit into 3 phases.

    Hers is a restricted assessment of Western women writers. Such periodization of women’s works is quite a dangerous task to pursue.

    What do you think?

    09 Mar 2007, 04:34

  2. Thanks for your comment. I think that in the eighties, this essay (‘Towards a Feminist Poetics’) by Showalter was more relevant, because feminist literary criticism probably was divided into woman as reader and woman as writer. Now this is less so. Regarding the ‘3 phases’, I too am suspicious of such a rigid model that doesn’t allow for exceptions but tries to homogenise women’s writing. Not to mention that some women writers go through the 3 phases (feminine, feminist, female) in their own lifetime. However, I do admire Showalter because she was a pioneer in trying to model women’s literary history.

    09 Mar 2007, 08:29

  3. NiŮo S Manaog

    Hi, Zoe!


    I was a fair attempt to further feminist criticism through the periodization of the so called feminist literary tradition. One of which is Elaine Showalter’s “Toward a Feminist Poetics” which roughly maps out the history of women’s literature into three phases.

    Showalter’s feminist poetics project was brought about by the absence of a clearly articulated theory of writing by women; and in the light of activists’ hostility to theory [which they consider all male, or male-dominated.

    You can check out my blog below, too.


    I am a graduate student in literary theory and cultural studies
    Thank you for being a sounding board!

    Best regards,


    13 Mar 2007, 02:21

  4. Hi Nonoy,

    Glad I could be of help. Thanks for the link to your blog. I’ll check it out.

    13 Mar 2007, 09:29

  5. selina

    thanks alot as m a MA II student and the article here has help me a lot for my futher preparation.

    29 Mar 2007, 19:25

  6. I’m glad that it helped Selina. Thanks for your comment.

    30 Mar 2007, 09:25

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