Masculinism and the Emergence of Feminism

        At this moment in American history, students studying Feminist theory and literary criticism have to unlearn some common myths about what Feminism is as a theory and critical method.  Feminism does not, nor has it ever (except for one weekend prank at the "Miss America Pageant" many decades ago), advocated "bra-burning" as a politically significant act.  Masculinists taught you to think of feminist thinkers as "bra burners" as a way of trivializing the theory.  Feminist theory can liberate males as well as females from limiting notions of what is "normal" for gender roles, exposing "norms" as just that--statistical averages of an existing culture, not a warrant for behaving likewise.  (As your parents asked long ago, "if everyone was jumping off a cliff, would you jump, too, because it was 'normal'?")  As usual, though, the dominant culture rewrites history to make its critics seem irrelevant, small minded, and (of all things) biased, in order to protect its own right to declare what is relevant, its own narrow point of view, and its own traditional biases.  Look around you, remembering that women are the statistical majority of the nation's population, and note who runs the government, most of the arts, most businesses, most universities and colleges, etc. etc.  Feminism is just as relevant today as it was in the 1960s when the first new-wave feminist thinkers published.  In all past decades, the vast majority of literary interpretation also has typically been run by men, as a look at most of the critics' names in the previous weeks' readings will make clear: Freud, Marx, Wimsatt, Beardesley, Hirsch, Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Derrida, all the Reader-Response critics but Rosenblatt, etc.  Tyson?  She's a re-packager of others' theories, not a theoretician, herself.

        As Mailloux' last footnote acknowledged, Reader-Response criticism sometimes ought to take into account readers' gender when predicting what rules they will follow when performing a text.  For Feminist critics, the reader's gender is the most important issue in determining what a work of literature will mean and why it means that.  This is not to say that Feminist critics dismiss aesthetic (NC), Marxist, Psychoanalytic, Structuralist, Deconstructionist, or Reader-Response methods.  Rather, Feminist critics represent a largely ignored and badly understood aspect of our encounters with literature when they draw attention to effects upon interpretation resulting from two major sources: male critics' role in shaping the canon of literature to include works appealing to traditionally male interests and to exclude works appealing to traditionally female interests (Baym); and interpretive rules learned and aesthetic/political/psychological expectations formed according to the authors' and readers' socialization in their genders (Fetterley). 

        The first, nearly invisible "masculinist" effect on the literary canon accounts for the commonplace notion that "the great authors are male" because, even after women's literacy rates began to approach men's literacy rates (c. 1650-1850), women writers were discriminated against in print by male reviewers and male poets who thought they trespassed on a "natural" male prerogative, publishing one's words.  Even after women writers began routinely publishing under their own names, when they looked back in history for the rules of literary creation in the works of previous poets, the authors whose works were kept in print and taught in schools were almost entirely male until the end of the nineteenth century.  That led to the secondary myth, popularized by Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own," that women did not write or publish their work before Aphra Behn (1640-1689).  The drive to disprove that myth began in the 1980s with the Brown University Women Writers Project, and other scholarly endeavors, which created digital editions of women's manuscript and early printed works that were no longer in print due to male editors' presumption that there was no market for them.

        The second, equally invisible "masculinist" effect on readers, the psychological assumption that "authors" and "readers" normally are male, was perpetuated even down to the use of the masculine pronoun, "he," for all non-specific human beings and "man" as a synonym for the human species.  The modern non-sexist usage policies of publication date only to the mid-to-late 1970s, and are the direct result of the commonsense recognition that the previous usage norm did incalculable damage to women readers even as it taught men usually to ignore their existence when they wrote.  Though it is now popular to disparage "he or she" and "human" as "Politically Correct" usages, they only have replaced a previous, ugly, and demeaning "Political Correctness" that demanded that all women read as if they were men.  Until you have tried to read like a gender, race, or class to which you do not belong, you cannot possibly imagine the myriad ways in which this warps the readers' ability to perform and interpret literature.