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Article contents

Feminist theory.

  • Pelagia Goulimari Pelagia Goulimari Department of English, University of Oxford
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.976
  • Published online: 19 November 2020

Feminist theory in the 21st century is an enormously diverse field. Mapping its genealogy of multiple intersecting traditions offers a toolkit for 21st-century feminist literary criticism, indeed for literary criticism tout court. Feminist phenomenologists (Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Marion Young, Toril Moi, Miranda Fricker, Pamela Sue Anderson, Sara Ahmed, Alia Al-Saji) have contributed concepts and analyses of situation, lived experience, embodiment, and orientation. African American feminists (Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Hortense J. Spillers, Saidiya V. Hartman) have theorized race, intersectionality, and heterogeneity, particularly differences among women and among black women. Postcolonial feminists (Assia Djebar, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Florence Stratton, Saba Mahmood, Jasbir K. Puar) have focused on the subaltern, specificity, and agency. Queer and transgender feminists (Judith Butler, Jack Halberstam, Susan Stryker) have theorized performativity, resignification, continuous transition, and self-identification. Questions of representation have been central to all traditions of feminist theory.

  • continuous transition
  • heterogeneity
  • intersectionality
  • lived experience
  • performativity
  • resignification
  • self-identification
  • the subaltern

Mapping 21st-Century Feminist Theory

Feminist theory is a vast, enormously diverse, interdisciplinary field that cuts across the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. As a result, this article cannot offer a historical overview or even an exhaustive account of 21st-century feminist theory. But it offers a genealogy and a toolkit for 21st-century feminist criticism. 1 The aim of this article is to outline the questions and issues 21st-century feminist theorists have been addressing; the concepts, figures, and narratives they have been honing; and the practices they have been experimenting with—some inherited, others new. This account of feminist theory will include African American, postcolonial, and Islamic feminists as well as queer and transgender theorists and writers who identify as feminists. While these fields are distinct and while they need to reckon with their respective Eurocentrism, racism, misogyny, queerphobia, or transphobia, this article will focus on their mutual allyship, in spite of continuing tensions. Particularly troubling are feminists who define themselves against queer and transgender theory and activism; by way of response, this article will be highlighting feminist queer theory and transfeminism.

On the one hand, literary criticism is not high on the agenda of many 21st-century feminist theorists. This means that literary critics need to imaginatively transpose feminist concepts to literature. On the other hand, a lot of feminist theorists practice literature; they write in an experimental way that combines academic work, creative writing, and life-writing; they combine narrative and figurative language with concepts and arguments. Contemporary feminist theory offers a powerful mix of experimental writing, big issues, quirky personal accounts, and utopian thinking of a new kind.

Feminists have been combining theory, criticism, and literature; Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Hélène Cixous, and Alice Walker have written across these genres. In African Sexualities: A Reader ( 2011 ), Sylvia Tamale’s decision to place academic scholarship side by side with poems, fiction, life-writing, political declarations, and reports is supported by feminist traditions. 2 Furthermore, the border between feminist theory, literature, and life-writing has been increasingly permeable in the 21st century , hence the centrality of texts in hybrid genres: theory with literary and life-writing elements, literature with meta-literary elements, and so on. Early 21st-century terms such as autofiction and autotheory register the prevalence of the tendency. This is at least partly a question of addressing different audiences—aiming for public engagement and connection with activism outside universities and bypassing the technical jargon of academic feminist theory. Another reason is that feminist theorists, especially those from marginalized groups, have found some of the conventions of academic scholarship objectionable or false—for example, the assumption of a universal, disembodied, or unsituated perspective.

Nevertheless, recent feminist experiments with genre—for example, by Anne Carson, Paul B. Preciado, Maggie Nelson, or Alison Bechdel—nod toward an integral part of women’s writing and feminist writing. 3 Historic experiments in mixed genre, going back to Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s poem-novel Aurora Leigh , include: Virginia Woolf’s critical-theoretical-fictional A Room of One’s Own ; Julia Kristeva’s poetico-theoretical “Stabat Mater”; Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time , oscillating between speculative science fiction and naturalist novel; Audre Lorde’s “biomythography,” Zami ; the mix of theory, fiction, and life-writing in Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues and Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick ; or Qurratulain Hyder’s Fireflies in the Mist , hovering between historical fiction and romance. 4

Twenty-first-century feminist theory also tends to be thematically expansive and more than feminist theory narrowly understood, in that it is not only about “women” (those assigned female at birth or socially counted as women or self-identifying as women). It is a mature field that addresses structural injustice, social justice, and the future of the planet. As a result, cross-fertilization with other academic fields abounds. Relatively new academic fields such as feminist theory, postcolonial theory, and critical race theory—emerging since the 1960s, established in the 1980s, and having initially to cement their distinctiveness and place within the academy—have been increasingly coming together and cross-fertilizing in the 21st century . Distinct feminist perspectives (phenomenological, poststructuralist, African American intersectional, postcolonial, Islamic, queer, transgender) have also been coming together and variously informing 21st-century feminist theory. While this article will introduce these perspectives, it will aim to show that feminist theorists are increasingly difficult to put in a box, and this is a good thing.

Feminist Phenomenology (Beauvoir, Young, Moi, Fricker, Anderson, Ahmed, Al-Saji): Situation, Lived Experience, Embodiment, Orientation

Simone de Beauvoir initiates feminist phenomenology, her existentialism emerging within the broader tradition of phenomenology. While the present account of feminist theory begins with Beauvoir, it is important to acknowledge the continuing influence of older feminists and proto-feminists, as “feminism” only acquired its current ( 20th- and 21st-century ) meaning in the late 19th century , according to the Oxford English Dictionary. See, for example, Christine de Pizan, “Jane Anger,” Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, Mary Astell, Anne Finch, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Jacobs, Emily Davies, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, and Virginia Woolf.

All contemporary feminist theory has been influenced by Beauvoir, in some respect or other. Her famous claim that “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman,” opening volume 2 of The Second Sex ( 1949 ), points to the asymmetrical socialization of men and women. 5 In her philosophical terms, man is the One, the universal, subject, freedom, transcendence, mind, spirit, culture; woman is the Other, the particular, object, situation, immanence, body, flesh, nature. Patriarchy for Beauvoir is a system of binary oppositions, whose terms are mutually exclusive: the One/the Other, the universal/the particular, subject/object, freedom/situation, transcendence/immanence, mind/body, spirit/flesh, culture/nature. Men have been socialized to aim for—indeed to become—the valued terms in each binary opposition (the One, the universal, subject, freedom, transcendence, mind, spirit, culture); while the undesirable terms (the Other, the particular, object, situation, immanence, body, flesh, nature) are projected onto women, who are socialized to become those terms—to become object, for example. Emerging from this system is the illusion of a transhistorical feminine essence or a norm of femininity that misconstrues, disciplines, and oppresses actual, historical women. Women for Beauvoir are an oppressed group, and her aim is their liberation. 6

Beauvoir critiques the social aims and myths of patriarchy, pointing to the pervasiveness of patriarchal myths in philosophy, literature, and culture. But she also critiques the very forms of patriarchy—binary opposition, dualistic thinking, essentialism, universalism, abstraction—while not completely able to free her own analysis from them. Instead of them, Beauvoir advocates attention to concrete situation and close phenomenological description; indeed The Second Sex abounds in vivid and richly detailed descriptions of early 20th-century French women’s lives. Such close attention and description allow her to demonstrate that all humans are, potentially, both subject and object, free and situated, transcendent and immanent, spirit and flesh, hence the ambiguity of the human condition. 7

The philosophy of existentialism and the broader philosophical movement of phenomenology, within which Beauvoir situates her work, claim to offer radical aims and methods. Phenomenology (Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon) is committed to the phenomenological description of the particular in order to avoid the abstractions of scientism. It aims to avoid traditional philosophical dualisms such as mind/body. It re-describes human beings not as disembodied minds but as intentional beings engaged with the world, being-in-the-world (Heidegger’s term), situated in a particular time and place; as lived bodies that are centers of perception, action, and lived experience rather than mere objects; and as being-with and being-for others in inter-subjective relationships rather than just subject/object relationships. Human beings immerse themselves in their projects, using the world and their own bodies—with all their acquired skills, competencies, and sedimented habits—as instruments. While these instruments are indispensable to their projects, they are usually unperceived and remain in the background. They are the background against which objects of perception and action objectives come into view. And yet what is backgrounded can always come to the foreground, suddenly and rudely—when the world resists one, when a blunt knife does not cut the bread, when one’s body is in pain or sick and intrudes, interrupting one’s vision and plans. 8

Without minimizing the novelty of Beauvoir’s theorization of patriarchy, the present quick sketch of phenomenology ought to have highlighted its suitability for feminist appropriations. Nevertheless, Sartre, Beauvoir’s closest collaborator, for example, continues to think that one is distinctively human only to the extent that they transcend their situation. This arguably universalizes Sartre’s particular situation as a member of a privileged group determined to be free, while effectively blaming the situation of oppressed groups on their members, blaming the victims for lacking humanity. 9 By contrast, Beauvoir sheds light on women’s social situation and lived experience: men have “far more concrete opportunities” to be effective; women experience the world not as tools for their projects but as resistance to them; their “energy” is “thrown into the world” but “fails to grasp any object”; a woman’s body is not the “pure instrument of her grasp on the world” but painfully objectified and foregrounded. 10 Beauvoir goes on to distinguish between a variety of unequal social situations with different degrees of freedom inherent in them. Yes, on the whole, French men are freer, less constrained than French women. But Beauvoir discusses the “concrete situation” of other groups “kept in a situation of inferiority”—workers, the colonized, African American slaves, her contemporary African Americans, Jews—while explicitly acknowledging that women themselves are socially divided by class and race. 11

Beauvoir outlines impediments to women’s collective and individual liberation and sketches out paths to collective action and to the “independent woman” of the future, placing literature center stage. She claims that women lack the “concrete means” to organize themselves “in opposition” to patriarchy, in that they lack a shared collective space, such as the factory and the racially segregated community for working-class and black struggles, instead living dispersed private lives. 12 While white middle-class women “are in solidarity” with men of their class and race, rather than with working-class and black women, Beauvoir calls for solidarity among women across class and race boundaries. 13 She addresses white middle-class women like herself, who benefit materially from their connection to white middle-class men, asking them to abandon these benefits for the precarious pursuit of women’s solidarity and freedom. To the extent that women lack freedom by virtue of their social situation qua women, they need to claim their freedom in collective “revolt.” 14 Beauvoir’s 1949 call to organized political action was “the movement before the movement,” according to Michèle Le Doeuff. 15

However, Beauvoir also advocates writing literature as a means of liberation for women and considers all her writing—philosophical, literary, life-writing—a form of activism. Beauvoir devotes considerable space to literary criticism throughout The Second Sex . She shows how writers have reproduced patriarchal myths, often unwittingly. 16 But her future-oriented, crucial chapter “The Independent Woman” centers on a discussion of women writers and even addresses women writers. Having sketched out a history of women’s writing, she turns to young writers to offer advice, based on her analysis of women’s “situation.” 17 To overcome women’s socially imposed apprenticeship in “reasonable modesty,” they need to undertake a counter-practice of “abandonment and transcendence,” “pride” and boldness; they need to become “women insurgents” who feel “responsible for the universe.” 18 Her call, “The free woman is just being born” energizes new women writers to live and write freely—and has been answered by many. 19 But this is not triumphalist empty rhetoric; women writers also need to understand the “ambiguity” of the human condition and of truth itself. 20

Iris Marion Young returns to Beauvoir’s description of women’s social situation and lived experience in “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility, and Spatiality” ( 1980 ). Young takes Beauvoir’s description as the starting point for her own phenomenology of women’s project-oriented bodily movement in “contemporary advanced industrial, urban, and commercial society,” arguing that their movement is inhibited, ambiguous, discontinuous, and ineffective. 21 Women exhibit a form of socially induced dyspraxia. Young contends that women’s movement “exhibits an ambiguous transcendence, an inhibited intentionality, and a discontinuous unity with its surroundings.” 22 Young turns to women’s bodies in their “orientation toward and action upon and within” their surroundings, particularly the “confrontation of the body’s capacities and possibilities with the resistance and malleability of things” when the body “aims to accomplish a definite purpose or task.” 23 It will be remembered that the phenomenological tradition theorizes the human body as a lived body that is the locus of subjectivity, perception, and action, a capable body extending itself into the world rather than a thing; this is especially the case with Merleau-Ponty. Young’s description of the deviation of women’s bodily experience from this norm is a powerful indictment of women’s social situation.

Firstly, Young identifies that women experience their bodies as ambiguously transcendent: both as a “capacity” and as a “ thing ”; both striving to act upon the world and a “burden.” 24 Secondly, they experience an inhibited intentionality: while acting, they hesitate, their “hesitancy” resulting in “wasted motion . . . from the effort of testing and reorientation.” 25 Thirdly, they experience their bodies as discontinuous with the world: rather than extending themselves and acting upon their surroundings, which is the norm, they live their bodies as objects “ positioned in space.” 26 Or rather, the “space that belongs to her and is available to her grasp and manipulation” is experienced as “constricted,” while “the space beyond is not available to her.” 27 In other words, she experiences her surroundings not as at-hand and within-reach for her projects but as out-of-reach. This discontinuity between “aim and capacity to realize” it is the secret of women’s “tentativeness and uncertainty.” 28 Even more ominously, they live the “ever-present possibility” of becoming the “object of another subject’s . . . manipulations.” 29 In the very exercise of bodily freedom—for example, in opening up the “body in free, active, open extension and bold outward-directedness”—women risk “objectification,” Young argues. 30

Young describes the situation of women as one in which they have to learn “actively to hamper” their “movements.” 31 If this has been the norm of genderization in modern Western urban societies, is it still at work and is it lived differently depending on one’s class, race, sexuality, and so on? 32 Similarly with Beauvoir’s theorization of the situation of women: does it continue to be relevant and useful?

The emergence of “sexual difference” feminism or écriture féminine in France in the mid-1970s, with landmark publications by Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, brought with it a critique of Beauvoir. 33 In view of the present discussion of Beauvoir, one might argue that Beauvoir’s aim is the abolition of gender. Her horizon is the abolition of gender binarism and an end to the oppression of women. However, in “Equal or Different?” ( 1986 ) Irigaray reads this as a pursuit of equality through women’s adoption of male norms, at a great cost, that of “suppress[ing] sexual difference.” 34 In Irigaray’s eyes, Beauvoir’s work is assimilationist, while her own work is radical—it aims to redefine femininity in positive terms. Irigaray insists on the political autonomy of women’s struggles from other liberation movements and, controversially, the priority of feminism over other movements because of the priority of gender over class, race, and so on. Gender is “the primary and irreducible division.” 35

In 1994 feminist literary critic Toril Moi compares Beauvoir to Irigaray and Frantz Fanon, one of the founders of postcolonial theory. Like Fanon who redefined blackness positively and viewed anticolonial struggles as autonomous, Irigaray aims to redefine femininity and mobilize it autonomously, while Beauvoir failed to “grasp the progressive potential of ‘femininity’ as a political discourse” and also “vastly underestimated the potential political impact of an independent woman’s movement.” 36 However, Moi sides with Beauvoir against Irigaray and other “sexual difference” feminists, when comparing their aims. Beauvoir’s ultimate aim is the disappearance of gender, while difference feminists “focus on women’s difference, often without regard for other social movements,” claiming that “women’s interests are best served by the establishment of an enduring regime of sexual difference.” 37

Aiming toward the disappearance of gender does not mean blinding oneself to the situation and lived experience of women. In a 2009 piece on women writers, literature, and feminist theory, Moi turns to Beauvoir to analyze the social situation of women writers. Importantly, Beauvoir focuses on what happens “ once somebody has been taken to be a woman ”—the woman in question might or might not be assigned female at birth and might or might not identify as a woman. 38 While the body of someone taken to be a man is viewed as a “direct and normal connection with the world” that he “apprehends objectively,” the body of someone taken to be a woman is viewed as “weighed down by everything specific to it: an obstacle, a prison.” 39 Concomitantly, male writers and their perspectives and concerns are associated with universality—women writers associated with biased particularity. But if women writers adopt male perspectives and concerns to lay claim to universality, they are alienated from their own lived experience. This is how a “sexist (or racist) society” forces “women and blacks, and other raced minorities, to ‘eliminate’ their gendered (or raced) subjectivity” and “masquerade as some kind of generic universal human being, in ways that devalue their actual experiences as embodied human beings in the world.” 40 All too often women writers have declared “I am not a woman writer,” but this has to be understood as a “ defensive speech act”: a “ response ” to those who have tried to use her gender “against her.” 41

In 2001 feminist philosopher and Beauvoir scholar Michèle Le Doeuff announces a renaissance in Beauvoir studies, in her keynote for the Ninth International Simone de Beauvoir Conference: “It is no longer possible to claim, in the light of a certain New French Feminism, that Beauvoir is obsolete.” 42 She prioritizes the need for scholarship on the conflicts between Sartre and Beauvoir, with a view to making the case for Beauvoir’s originality as a philosopher, in spite of Beauvoir’s self-identification as a writer and reluctance to clash with Sartre philosophically.

Feminist philosopher Miranda Fricker returns more than once to the question of whether Beauvoir is a philosopher or a writer. In 2003 Fricker locates Beauvoir’s originality in her understanding of ambiguity and argues that life-writing has been the medium most suited to her thought, focusing on Beauvoir’s The Prime of Life ( La Force de l’age , 1960 ). 43 Beauvoir found in the institution of philosophy, as she experienced it, a pathological, obsessional attitude—a demand for abstract theorizing that divorces thinkers from their situation to lend their thought universal applicability. This imperious, sovereign role was seriously at odds with Beauvoir’s sense of reality, history, and the self. For Beauvoir, reality is “full of ambiguities, baffling, and impenetrable” and history a violent shock to the self: “History burst over me, and I dissolved into fragments . . . scattered over the four quarters of the globe, linked by every nerve in me to each and every other individual.” 44 Beauvoir uses narrative, particularly life-writing, to connect with her past selves but also to appeal to the reader: “self-knowledge is impossible, and the best one can hope for is self-revelation” to the reader. 45 Fricker claims that Beauvoir primarily addresses female readers; and Beauvoir’s alliance-building with her readers—her “feminist commitment to female solidarity”—promises to bring out, through the reader, “the ‘unity’ to that ‘scattered, broken’ object that is her life.” 46

An example of the role of the reader is Fricker’s 2007 reading of Beauvoir’s under-written account of an early epistemic clash with Sartre. 47 Beauvoir’s first-person narrative voice doesn’t quite say that Sartre undermined her as a knower, but Fricker interprets this incident as an epistemic attack by Sartre that Beauvoir had the resilience to survive, and which contributed to her self-identification as a writer rather than a philosopher. Here the violence of history and the institution of philosophy take very concrete, embodied, intimate form. But the incident also serves as a springboard for Fricker’s concept of epistemic injustice and its two forms: testimonial injustice, and hermeneutical injustice and lacunas. For Fricker, Sartre in this instance does Beauvoir a “testimonial injustice” in that he erodes her confidence and her credibility as a knower. 48 This process might also be “ongoing” and involve “persistent petty intellectual underminings.” 49 Hermeneutical (or interpretive) injustice, on the other hand, has to do with a gap in collective interpretative resources, where a name should be to describe a social experience. 50 For example, the relatively recent term “sexual harassment” has described a social experience where previously there was a hermeneutic lacuna, according to Fricker. Such lacunas are often due to the systemic epistemic marginalization of some groups, and any progress (for example, in adopting a proposed new term) is contingent upon a “virtuous hearer” who will try to listen without prejudice but also requires systemic change. 51 In George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss Maggie Tulliver suffers both testimonial and hermeneutical injustice. 52

This article will now turn to feminist phenomenology within queer theory and critical race theory. Sara Ahmed, in Queer Phenomenology ( 2006 ), offers not a phenomenology of queerness but rather a phenomenological account of heteronormativity as well as a feminist queer critique of phenomenology. In an important reversal of perspective, Ahmed denaturalizes being straight—denaturalizes heteronormativity—by asking: how does one become straight? This is not simply a matter of sexual orientation and choice of love-object. Rather heteronormativity is itself “something that we are oriented around, even if it disappears from view”; “bodies become straight by ‘lining up’” with normative “lines that are already given.” 53 Being straight is “an effect of being ‘in line.’” 54 Unlike earlier phenomenologists such as Heidegger, what is usually being backgrounded and thus invisible is a naturalized system that Ahmed hopes to foreground and bring “into view”: heteronormativity. 55 Ahmed thus extends Beauvoir’s and Young’s analyses of the systematic oppression and incapacitation of women, respectively. 56 Ahmed puts Young’s language to use in order to talk about lesbian lives: heteronormativity “puts some things in reach and others out of reach,” in a manner that incapacitates lesbian lives. Ahmed searches for a different form of sociality, “a space in which the lesbian body can extend itself , as a body that gets near other bodies.” 57 Her critique of even the most promising phenomenologists is that in their work “the straight world is already in place” as an invisible background. 58

Ahmed extends her analysis of the production of heteronormativity to the production of whiteness in “A Phenomenology of Whiteness” ( 2007 ), asking: how does one become white? Ahmed thus furthers her critique of phenomenology from within. Phenomenologists such as Husserl and Merleau-Ponty define the body as “successful,” as “‘able’ to extend itself (through objects) in order to act on and in the world,” as a body that “‘can do’ by flowing into space.” 59 However, far from this being a universal experience, it is the experience of a “bodily form of privilege” from which many groups are excluded. 60 Ahmed does not here acknowledge Young’s analysis of women’s socially induced dyspraxia but turns instead to Fanon’s “phenomenology of ‘being stopped.’” 61 Ahmed calls “discomfort” the social experience of being impeded and goes on to outline its critical potential in “bringing what is in the background, what gets over-looked” back into view. 62 More than a negative feeling, discomfort has the exhilarating potential of opening up a whole world that was previously obscured. 63 Ahmed’s subsequent work has focused on institutional critique, especially of universities in their continuing failure to become inclusive, hospitable spaces for certain groups, in spite of their managerial language of diversity. 64

Where Ahmed calls for critical and transformative “discomfort,” Alia Al-Saji calls for a critical and transformative “hesitation” in “A Phenomenology of Hesitation” ( 2014 ). Al-Saji’s concept of hesitation revises the work of Beauvoir and Young and enlarges their focus on gender to include race. Beauvoir’s analysis of patriarchy as a system that projects and naturalizes fixed, oppositional, hierarchical identities is redeployed toward a “race-critical and feminist” project, though Al-Saji does not acknowledge Beauvoir explicitly but credits Fanon’s work. 65 The systematic and “socially pathological othering” of fluid, relational, contextual, contingent differences into rigid, frozen, naturalized hierarchies remains “hidden from view.” 66 Experience, affect, and vision, in their pathological form, are closed and rigid; in their healthy form, they have a “creative and critical potential . . . to hesitate”—they are ambiguous, open, fluid, responsive, receptive, dynamic, changing, improvisational, self-critical. 67 Al-Saji argues that the “paralyzing hesitation” analyzed by Young can be “mined” to extract a critical hesitation, as Young’s own work exemplifies. 68 By contrast, the “normative ‘I can’ – posited as human but in fact correlated to white, male bodies”—rigidly “excludes other ways of seeing and acting”; it is “objectifying – racializing and sexist[,] . . . reifying and othering .” 69 The alternative to both thoughtless action and paralyzing inaction is: “ acting hesitantly ” and responsively. 70

Feminist philosopher Pamela Sue Anderson’s last writings on “vulnerability” build on Michèle Le Doeuff’s critique of unexamined myths and narratives underlying the Western “imaginary.” One values and strives for invulnerability and equates vulnerability with exposure to violence and suffering. One projects vulnerability onto “the vulnerable” to disavow their own vulnerability: “a dark social imaginary continues to stigmatize those needing to be cared for as a drain on an economy, carefully separating ‘the cared for’ from those who are thought to be ‘in control’ of their lives and of the world.” 71 Furthermore, members of privileged groups often exhibit a “wilful ignorance” of systemic forms of social vulnerability and social injustice. 72 But Anderson also outlines “ethical” vulnerability as a capability for a transformative and life-enhancing openness to others and mutual affection—occasioned by ontological vulnerability. Ethical vulnerability is envisaged as a project where reason, critical self-reflexivity, emotion, intuition and imagination, concepts, arguments, myths and narrative all have a role to play, while also needing to be reimagined and rethought.

African American Feminisms (Morrison, Lorde, Walker, Spillers, Hartman): Race, Intersectionality, Differences among Women and among Black Women

African American and postcolonial feminists have struggled to create space for themselves, caught between a predominantly white women’s movement on the one hand, and male-led civil-rights and anticolonial struggles and postcolonial elites on the other hand. They have fought against assumptions that “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men” and that white women are “saving brown women from brown men.” 73 African American and postcolonial writers and thinkers (from Toni Morrison to Chandra Talpade Mohanty) have hesitated to self-identify with a primarily white movement that, they argued powerfully, effectively excluded them in unthinkingly prioritizing the concerns of white, middle-class women. Some have avoided self-identifying as a feminist, self-identifying as a “black woman writer” instead. Alice Walker invented the term “womanism” to signal black feminism. “Intersectionality” was coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, and other African American feminists to highlight the intersections of gender and race, feminist and antiracist struggles, creating a space between the white women’s movement and the male-led civil-rights movement. 74 Postcolonial feminists (Assia Djebar, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Chandra Talpade Mohanty) similarly created a space between Western feminists and male-led anticolonial struggles and postcolonial elites.

African American feminists have been critical of Beauvoir and of the women’s movements of the 1960s. They have been reconstructing oral, written, and activist traditions of black women such as abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Harriet Jacobs, and modernists Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen—all previously neglected and marginalized. 75 These traditions prioritize: collectivism; the need to critique and resist internalized but unlivable white middle-class norms; waywardness or willfulness rather than individualism; differences among women; difference among black women; and friendship and solidarity among black women across their differences. (By contrast, contemporary white American feminist critics such as Elaine Showalter emphasized self-realization and self-actualization. 76 ) African American women writers—rather than literary critics—have led the way, inspired by orators, musicians, and collective oral forms, as critics have acknowledged. 77

Toni Morrison, as a self-identified black woman writer, announces these strategic priorities in her first novel, The Bluest Eye ( 1970 ). 78 In The Bluest Eye she revises Beauvoir’s analysis of patriarchy as a binary opposition—man/woman—that projects onto “woman” what men disown in themselves. She examines a related binary opposition: white, light-skinned, middle-class, beautiful, proper lady vs. dark-skinned, poor, ugly girl (the racialized opposition between angelic and demonic woman). The first novel to focus on black girls, The Bluest Eye shows the systemic propagation and internalization of white norms of beauty and femininity, leading to hierarchical oppositions between black and white girls as well as between black girls (light-skinned middle-class Maureen, solidly working-class Claudia and Frieda, and precariously poor Pecola). The projection, by everyone, of all ugliness onto poor, dark-skinned Pecola, combined with white norms that are impossible for her, lead to Pecola’s madness. Her attempts at existential affirmation are crushed by the judgment of the world. Pecola’s Bildungsroman turns out naturalist tragedy. However, Claudia, the narrator, develops anagnorisis and shares her increasingly complex critique with the readers.

In “What the Black Woman Thinks about Women’s Lib” ( 1971 ) Morrison uses Beauvoir’s language to bring attention both to the situation of African American women and to their traditions of resistance. Reminding readers of two segregation-era signs—“White Ladies” and “Black Women”—she asserts that many black women rejected ladylike behavior and “frequently kicked back . . . [O]ut of the profound desolation of her reality” the black woman “may very well have invented herself.” 79 Black women have been working and heading single-parent households in a hostile world. If ladies are all “softness, helplessness and modesty,” black women have been “tough, capable, independent and immodest.” 80

Audre Lorde explores similar themes. Her poem, “Who Said It Was Simple” ( 1973 ) illustrates the hierarchy between white “ladies,” in their feminist struggle for self-realization, and black “girls” on whose work they rely. Sister Outsider , Lorde’s essays and speeches from 1976 to 1984 , theorizes intersections of race, sexuality, class, and age that are particularly binding and threatening for black lesbian women. 81 White feminists are ignorant of racism and wrongly assume their concerns to be universally shared by all women, thus replicating the patriarchal elevation of men to the universal analyzed by Beauvoir; they need to drop the “pretense to a homogeneity of experience,” educate themselves about black women, read their work, and listen. 82 In “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” delivered during a Beauvoir conference, Lorde argues that Beauvoir’s call to know “the genuine conditions of our lives” must include racism and homophobia. 83 Black men misdirect their anger for the racism they encounter toward black women, who, paid less and more socially devalued, are easy targets. Falsely equating anti-sexist with anti-Black, black men are hostile to black feminists and especially lesbians; so black men’s sexism is different from the sexism of privileged white men analyzed by Beauvoir. 84 Black women have also been hostile toward each other, due to internalized racism and sexism, projected toward the most marginalized among them; identifying with their oppressors, black women suffer a “misnaming” and “distortion” in their understanding of their situation. 85

But Lorde also exalts traditions of black women’s solidarity across their differences. Once differences among women and among black women are properly understood and named, they can be creative and generative. To achieve this, she extols recording, examining, and naming one’s experience, perceptions, and feelings, as a path to clarity, precision, and illumination, leading to concepts and theories but also to empowerment. Anger, unlike hatred, is potentially both full of information and generative. 86 Affect, more broadly, can be a path to understanding, as affect and rationality are not mutually exclusive: “I don’t see feel/think as a dichotomy.” 87 Particularly innovative is Lorde’s theorization of the “erotic.” In contrast to the pornographic, the erotic is a power intrinsically connected to (and cutting across) love, friendship, self-connection, joy, the spiritual, creativity, work, collaboration, and the political—especially among black women. 88 But relations of interdependence and mutuality among women are only possible in a context of non-hierarchical differences among equals and peers, Lorde stresses repeatedly. 89

Alice Walker attends to many of these themes in Color Purple ( 1982 ). 90 In her collection of essays, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose ( 1983 ), she pays tribute to black women’s traditions of resistance, due to which “womanish” connotes “outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior.” 91 Her term “womanism” honors these collectivist traditions and their commitment to the “survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.” 92 But she also calls for the reconstruction of a written tradition of forgotten black women writers, resurrecting Zora Neale Hurston from oblivion in “Looking for Zora,” initially published in Ms . magazine in 1975 . 93

In 1979 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination established the enforced privatization and entrapped idleness of 19th-century white middle-class women. 94 In 1987 Hortense J. Spillers powerfully added that this was made possible by the enforced hard labor of black women, as house or field slaves and later as domestic servants who often headed single-parent households. 95 Furthermore, the gender polarization within the white middle-class family was accompanied by the ungendering of African American slaves, who were not allowed to marry and raise their children, and the structural rape of black women. In the late 1980s Crenshaw and Collins formally introduced the concept of intersectionality, though intersectionality-like ideas—that the black woman is the “mule uh de world”—have been a part of black women’s thought for a long time. 96

“Slavery and gender” has been a core topic since the 1980s, with publications such as Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death ( 1982 ), Toni Morrison’s Beloved ( 1987 ) and Playing in the Dark ( 1992 ), and Saidiya V. Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection ( 1997 ). 97 Hartman’s abiding topic has been a lost history of black girls and women that can only partially be retrieved and that requires new methodologies. Archives and official records are full of gaps, systematically “dissimulate the extreme violence” of slavery, and “disavow the pain” and “deny the sorrow” of slaves. 98 Even while reading them “against the grain,” Hartman underlines the “ impossibility of fully recovering the experience of the enslaved.” 99 In Lose Your Mother ( 2006 ) Hartman’s concept of the “afterlife of slavery” describes the persistence of “devalued” and “imperiled” black lives, racialized violence, “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. I, too, am the afterlife of slavery.” 100 In “Venus in Two Acts” ( 2008 ), Hartman defines her method as “critical fabulation”: mixing critical use of archival research, theorization, and multiple speculative narratives, in an experimental writing that acknowledges its own failure and refuses “to fill in the gaps” to “provide closure.” 101 This writing is:

straining against the limits of the archive . . . and . . . enacting the impossibility of representing the lives of the captives precisely through the process of narration . . . [in order] to displace the . . . authorized account, . . . to imagine what might have happened[,] . . . to listen for the mutters and oaths and cries of the commodity[,] . . . to illuminate the contested character of history, narrative, event, and fact, to topple the hierarchy of discourse, and to engulf authorized speech in the clash of voices. 102

In “The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner” ( 2018 ) Hartman returns to “critical fabulation” and offers a “speculative history” of Esther Brown, her friends, and their life in Harlem around 1917 . 103 Their experiments in “free love and free motherhood” were criminalized as “Loitering. Riotous and Disorderly. Solicitation. Violation of the Tenement House Law. . . . Vagrancy.” 104 Questions such as “ Is this man your husband? Where is the father of your child ?”—meant to detect the “likelihood” of their “future criminality” and moral depravity—might render them “three years confined at Bedford and . . . entangled with the criminal justice system and under state surveillance for a decade.” 105 In official records, these measures were narrated as rescuing, reforming, and rehabilitating, therapeutic interventions for the benefit of young black women.

Reading such records against the grain, Hartman tells the story of a “ revolution in a minor key ”: of “ too fast girls and surplus women and whores ” as “social visionaries, radical thinkers, and innovators.” 106 Their “wild and wayward” collective experiments, at the beginning of the 20th century , were building on centuries of black women’s “mutual aid societies” conducted “in stealth.” 107 Their aspiration has been “singularity and freedom”—not the “individuality and sovereignty” coveted by white liberal feminists. 108

Hartman’s work emerges out of African American feminist traditions but also out of postcolonial feminists, whose work pays particular attention to impossibility, failure, aporia, and the limits of representing the subaltern, as well as the heterogeneity and specificity of women’s agency.

Postcolonial Feminisms (Djebar, Spivak, Mohanty, Stratton, Mahmood, Puar): The Subaltern, Specificity, Agency

Colonized women had to contend not only with the “imbalances of their relations with their own men but also the baroque and violent array of hierarchical rules and restrictions that structured their new relations with imperial men and women.” 109 Furthermore, they were central to powerful orientalist fantasies that rendered their actual lives invisible. The relation of colonized land to colonizer was figured as that of a nubile, sexually available woman waiting for her lover, as in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines where the map of the land centers around “Sheba’s Breasts” and “Mouth of treasure cave.” 110 Algerian writer Assia Djebar exposes this colonial fantasy in Fantasia ( 1985 ). 111 The city of Algiers is seen by the arriving colonizers as a virginal bride waiting for her groom to possess her. She is an “Impregnable City” that “sheds her veils,” as if this was “mutual love at first sight” and “the invaders were coming as lovers!” 112 The Victorian patriarchal, hierarchical nuclear family, ruled by a benign and loving husband and father, was key to the colonial “civilizing mission” because it was the perfect metaphor for the relation between colonizer and colonized in colonial ideology. 113 However, in Women of Algiers in Their Apartment ( 1980 ; mirroring the title of Eugène Delacroix’s orientalist paintings) Djebar reminds her readers that women took part in large numbers in the Algerian anticolonial struggle and suffered torture, rape, and loss of life, but that their contribution was marginalized in post-independence narratives, while they were expected to return to a patriarchal mold ostensibly for the good of the new nation. 114 By contrast, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment foregrounds Algerian women’s heterogeneity but also the intergenerational transmission of their socially repressed, traumatic history, which cannot be fully recovered—hence the self-conscious aporia of Djebar’s project.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” ( 1983 , 1988 , 1999 ) is a subtle theorization of what remains outside colonial, anticolonial, postcolonial, neocolonial, and even “liberal multiculturalist” elites and discourses. 115 Spivak’s starting point is the unpresentability of the “subaltern” (those most marginalized and excluded). The subaltern exceeds any representation treating it as a full identity with a fixed meaning. The subaltern is an inaccessible social unconscious that can only be ethically presented in its unpresentability—fleetingly visible in fragments.

Rather than documenting “subaltern” resistance in its “taxonomic” difference from the elite and rather than assuming that political forces are self-conscious and already constituted identities, Spivak assumes that political identities are being constituted through political action. 116 Many subaltern groups are highly articulate about their aims and their relations to elites and other subaltern groups, but Spivak understands the “subaltern” as singular acts of resistance that are “irretrievably heterogeneous” in relation to constituted identities. 117 Rather than asking for the recognition of “subjugated” and previously “disqualified” forms of knowledge, Spivak is intent on acknowledging her privileged positionality and insists that what she calls the “subaltern” is irretrievably silenced; the “subaltern” is what escapes—or is excluded from—any discourse. 118

Spivak’s heterogeneous subaltern is a (Derridean) singularity that cannot be translated fully or repeated exactly but can only be repeated differently. 119 The singularity in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is Talu’s suicide, as retold by Spivak. Spivak interprets it as a complex political intervention, by a young middle-class woman activist, that remained illegible as such. Entrusted with a political assassination in the context of the struggle for Indian independence, Spivak claims that Talu’s suicide was a complex refusal to do her mission without betraying the cause. Talu questioned anticolonial nationalism, sati suicide, and female “imprisonment” in heteronormativity, but her “Speech Act was refused” by everyone because it resisted translation into established discourses. 120 Spivak iterates Talu’s singularity differently: as a postcolonial feminist heroine. She does not present her version of Talu’s story as restoring speech to the subaltern. Speech acts are addressed to others and completed by others; they involve “distanced decipherment by another, which is, at best, an interception.” 121 To claim that Talu has finally spoken through Spivak would be a neocolonial “missionary” claim of saving the subaltern. 122 To avoid this, Spivak self-dramatizes her privileged institutional “positionality” and calls for “unlearning” one’s privilege. 123

Postcolonial feminists have been telling the story of the marginalization of women of color within anticolonial movements, postcolonial states, and within Western feminist movements. In “Three Women’sTexts and a Critique of Imperialism” ( 1985 ), Spivak argues that Gilbert and Gubar, in their reading of Jane Eyre in Madwoman in the Attic , unwittingly reproduce the “axioms of imperialism.” 124 For Spivak, in Jane Eyre Bertha, a dark colonial woman, sets the house on fire and kills herself so that Jane Eyre “can become the feminist individualist heroine of British fiction”; she is “sacrificed as an insane animal” for her British “sister’s consolidation” in a manner that is exemplary of the “epistemic violence” of imperialism. 125 Gilbert and Gubar fail to see this and only read Jane and Bertha in individual, “psychological terms.” 126 By contrast, Jean Rhys’s rewriting of Jane Eyre in Wide Sargasso Sea ( 1966 ) makes this visible and enables Spivak’s critique. 127 Rhys allows Bertha to tell her story and keeps Bertha’s “humanity, indeed her sanity as critic of imperialism, intact.” 128 In “Does the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak articulates the value of postcolonial feminism but refuses to defend it as a redemptive breakthrough. Instead she issues a call for self-reflexivity.

Chandra Talpade Mohanty, in “Under Western Eyes” ( 1984 ), calls for studies of local collective struggles and for localized theorizing by investigators. 129 The category of “Third World Woman” is an essentialist fabrication reducing the irreducible “heterogeneity” of women in the Third World. 130 Mohanty’s call for specificity is a rejection of white middle-class feminists’ generalizations on “women” and “Third World women” as neocolonial:

Women are constituted as women through the complex interaction between class, culture, religion and other ideological institutions and frameworks. . . . [R]eductive cross-cultural comparisons result in the colonization of the conflicts and contradictions which characterize women of different social classes and cultures. 131

Mohanty is here remarkably close to African American feminists. What is at stake for Mohanty is for groups of marginalized women to represent themselves and to retrieve forms of agency within their own traditions. As she stresses in Feminism without Borders ( 2003 ): the “application of the notion of women as a homogeneous category to women in the Third World colonizes and appropriates the pluralities” of their complex location and “robs them of their historical and political agency .” 132

Saba Mahmood, in “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival” ( 2001 ), argues that rather than reading a specific cultural phenomenon through an established conception of agency, agency should be theorized through the specific phenomenon studied. 133 Her target is the Western feminist equation of feminist agency with secularism, resistance, and transgression, which she finds unhelpful when studying the “urban women’s mosque movement that is part of the larger Islamic revival in Cairo.” 134 While in some contexts feminist agency might take the form of “dramatic transgression and defiance,” for these Egyptian women it took the form of active participation and engagement with a religious movement. 135 It would be a neocolonial gesture to understand their involvement as due to “false consciousness” or internalized patriarchy. 136 Mahmood’s “situated analysis” thus endorses plural, local theories and concepts. 137

Florence Stratton focuses on gender in African postcolonial literature and criticism. She analyses the multiplicity of “ways in which women writers have been written out of the African literary tradition.” 138 They have been ignored by critics, marginalized by definitions of the African canon that universalize the tropes and themes of male writers, and silenced by “gender definitions which . . . maintain the status quo of women’s exclusion from public life.” 139 Particularly pernicious has been the “iteration in African men’s writing of the conventional colonial trope of Africa as female.” 140 Stratton discerns a ubiquitous pattern in African postcolonial men’s writing. Women are cast as symbols of the nation, in sexualized or bodily roles: as nubile virgin to be impregnated or as mother (Stratton calls this the “pot of culture” trope); or, alternatively, as degraded prostitute (the “sweep of history” trope). 141 So women are figured either as embodiments of an ostensibly static traditional culture (trope 1) or as passive victims of historical change (trope 2). This is coupled with a male quest narrative, where the male hero and his vision actively transform prostitute into mother Africa. Underlying this is a patriarchal division of active/passive and subject/object, which denies women as artists and citizens and neglects women’s issues (so actual sex work is totally obscured by its metaphorical role). Stratton goes on to show how African women writers have been “initiators” of “dialogue” with African male writers in order to self-authorize their work and make space for it in the African literary canon. 142 Stratton is also critical of white feminists who read African women writers through their own formal and thematic priorities, oblivious to African feminist traditions. 143

Jasbir K. Puar analyses how the “war on terror” and rising Islamophobia in the West, particularly the United States, have coopted feminist and queer struggles. While colonial orientalist fantasies projected sexual license onto the Middle East, 21st-century orientalist fantasies are “Islamophobic constructions” othering Muslims as “homophobic and perverse,” while constructing the West as “‘tolerant’ but sexually, racially, and gendered normal.” 144 On the one hand, Muslims are presented as “fundamentalist, patriarchal, and, often even homophobic.” 145 On the other hand, a “rhetoric of sexual modernization” turns American queer bodies into “normative patriot bodies.” 146 This involves the loss of an intersectional perspective and the “fissuring of race from sexuality.” 147 Muslims are seen as only marked by race and “presumptively sexually repressed, perverse, or both,” while Western queers are seen as only marked by sexuality and “presumptively white,” male, and “gender normative.” 148

Queer and Transgender Feminisms (Butler, Halberstam, Stryker): Performativity, Resignification, Continuous Transition, Self-Identification

Queer theory emerged in the period from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, in the midst of the outbreak of HIV/AIDS. 149 Queer theory, as an academic field, can be located at the intersection of poststructuralism (especially the work of Michel Foucault, but also Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze), Francophone feminism from Beauvoir to Irigaray, and African American feminism. Queer theorists have negotiated this genealogy variously; some are predominantly influenced by Foucault, less by feminist thought. The present account will focus on feminist queer theory, especially the work of Judith Butler, and its relation to earlier and subsequent feminist, queer, and transgender thought. As queer theory evolved, postcolonial feminists also became increasingly influential.

In brief, feminist queer theory, while indebted to “sexual difference” feminists such as Irigaray, critiques them through African American feminism. A core theoretical insight of African American feminism is that gender must not be considered on its own or as primary in relation to other social categories and hierarchies. Queer theorists adopt this insight. For queer theorists, sexual orientation is at least as important as gender. Indeed, they contend that what underpins the gender binary (the polarization of two genders) is the institution of “compulsory heterosexuality” or heteronormativity.

Transgender theory emerged in the mid to late 1990s, within the orbit of queer theory but also through its critique. The crux of this critique is that, despite queer theorists’ best intentions, the queer subject is primarily or implicitly white, Western, gender-normative, and cisgender. In attending to sexual orientation, queer theory neglected the spectrum of gender identities and translated issues of gender identification into issues of sexual orientation. Strands of queer activism—for example, figures such as Sylvia Rivera or Stormé DeLarverie in the United States—were marginalized by a politics of respectability led by affluent, white, cisgender queers. 150 This is particularly ironic, given the aspirations invested in the term “queer.”

In queer theory, the term “queer” was intended as an appropriation and resignification of a term of abuse but also as a floating signifier without a fixed meaning or definition and thus open to multiple and changing uses, in keeping with poststructuralist theory. “Queer” has been defined as beyond definition, transgressive, excessive, beyond polar opposites, and exceeding false polarization. So “queer” is both a particular social identity but also exemplary of a potential for openness, fluidity, and transformation in all identities (what poststructuralist theory calls the infinite deferral of the signified). It is important to point out that Spivak defined the “subaltern” and Irigaray the “feminine” in similar terms, also within a poststructuralist frame. A problem with such terms is that, though they are intended to be inclusive, they are exclusive in some of their effects. The chosen term is privileged as the only term that stands for marginality, potential for change, or openness to the past or future. In the process, the privileged term also loses specificity and becomes a metaphor. This is perhaps replicated in some uses of the term “trans” or “trans*,” where once again the term becomes a metaphor for the element of fluidity and openness in all identities.

Retracing one’s steps back to the beginnings of queer theory, while Beauvoir called for equality and the disappearance of gender, “sexual difference” feminists, such as Irigaray and Cixous, called for autonomous women’s struggles and a radical, utopian revisioning of the “feminine” to be performed by their écriture féminine . Judith Butler in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity ( 1990 ), one of queer theory’s inaugural texts, questions Irigaray’s utopianism and takes as her starting point Beauvoir’s “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” 151 Forty years after The Second Sex , Butler contends that societies continue to systematically produce two “discreet and polar genders,” as a prerequisite of heteronormativity; two “[d]iscreet genders are part of what ‘humanizes’ individuals within contemporary society; indeed, we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right.” 152 One is produced as a recognizably human individual in their very repetition of genderizing practices, performance of gender norms, and iteration of speech acts that bring about gender and its effect of timeless naturalness. But the performativity and iterability of gender show up the “ imitative structure of gender ” and its historical “ contingency .” 153 In spite of the pervasiveness of genderizing practices and the unavailability of a position outside gender, the very performativity and iterability of gender open up the possibility of repeating it slightly differently. Butler hopes for destabilized and constantly resignified genders: “a fluidity of identities,” “an openness to resignification,” and “proliferating gender configurations.” 154 While gender is a normalizing, disciplinary force, it is possible to engage consciously with gender norms and open them to resignification. However, the success or failure of an attempt at resignification also depends on its audience or addressees and the authority they are prepared to attribute to it.

In the context of feminist theory, Butler’s call for continuous resignification takes the form of resignifying “woman” and “feminism” itself. As part of her “radical democratic” feminist politics, she aims to “release” the term “woman” into a “future of multiple significations.” 155 In resignifying feminism, she writes against those feminists who assume that there is an “ontological specificity to women. . . . In the 1980s, the feminist ‘we’ rightly came under attack by women of color who claimed that the ‘we’ was invariably white.” 156 Not only heterogeneity but contentions among feminists ought to be valued: “the rifts among women over the content” of the term “woman” ought to be “safeguarded and prized.” 157 Furthermore, Butler distrusts the utopianism of those feminists who believe they are “beyond the play of power,” asking instead for self-reflexive recognition of feminists’ inevitable embeddedness in power relations. 158

One of the targets of Butler’s critique is Irigaray. Her nuanced reading of Irigaray in Bodies That Matter defends her from accusations of essentialism but rejects the primacy of sexual difference over other forms of difference—race, class, sexual orientation, and so on—in Irigaray’s work. For example, Butler finds that Irigaray’s alternative mythology of two labial lips touching and being touched by each other is a self-conscious textual “rhetorical strategy” intended to counter established understandings of women’s genitals as a lack, a wound, and so on. 159 Rather than describing an essential sexual difference, Irigaray’s reparative, positive figuration of the two lips is a deliberately improper and catachrestic form of mimicry akin to Butler’s resignification; it is “not itself a natural relation, but a symbolic articulation.” 160 Irigaray distinguishes between the false feminine within gender binaries and a true feminine “excluded in and by such a binary opposition” and appearing “only in catachresis .” 161 The true feminine is an “ excessive feminine” in that it “exceeds its figuration”; its essence is to have no essence, to undermine binary oppositions and their essences, and to exceed conceptuality. 162 Irigaray’s textual practice is intended as the “very operation of the feminine in language.” 163 Butler seems to endorse Irigaray’s purely strategic essentialism. However, it is troubling that Irigaray’s true feminine is a name for all that escapes binary oppositions and social hierarchies.

Butler’s critique of Irigaray is that her exclusive focus on the feminine is an implicitly white, middle-class, heterosexual position attending to the marginalization of women qua women but neglecting other forms of social marginalization. Since Irigaray’s true feminine is “exactly what is excluded” from binary oppositions, it “monopolizes the sphere of exclusion,” resulting in Irigaray’s “constitutive exclusions” of other forms of difference. 164 For Irigaray “the outside is ‘always’ the feminine,” breaking its link to race, class, sexual orientation, and so on. 165 By contrast, Butler embraces intersectionality. Whereas for Irigaray sexual difference is “autonomous” and “more fundamental” than other differences, which are viewed as “ derived from” it, for Butler gender is “articulated through or as other vectors of power.” 166

Butler acknowledges her debt to African American literature and feminist thought, in a rare foray into literary criticism, her close reading of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing . She also pays tribute to feminists of color, such as Chicana feminist Norma Alarcón, who similarly theorized women of color as multiply rather than singly positioned and marginalized. In Passing and in related African American literary criticism by Barbara Christian, Hazel Carby, Deborah McDowell, and others, Butler finds valuable theoretical insights that “ racializing norms ” and gender norms are “articulated through one another.” 167 But these texts also identify the value of solidarity among black women and the many obstacles to this solidarity. Versions of “racial uplift” adhering to the white middle-class nuclear family have been obstructive; they have been “masculine uplift” whose disproportionate “cost . . . for black women” has been the “impossibility of sexual freedom” for them. 168 Larsen’s critique of “racial uplift”—and its promotion of white middle-class gender norms, marriage, nuclear family, and heteronormativity—grasps the interimplication of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. By contrast, Larsen’s Passing and Toni Morrison’s Sula uphold the precarious “promise of connection” among black women. 169

If “racial uplift” has been obstructive, Irigaray’s exclusive focus on the feminine is equally obstructive, according to Butler. Irigaray seems to assume that sexual difference is “unmarked by race” and that “whiteness is not a form of racial difference.” 170 By contrast, Larsen highlights historical articulations “of racialized gender, of gendered race, of the sexualization of racial ideals, or the racialization of gender norms.” 171 In Passing Clare passes as white, and Butler’s reading particularly traces the convergence of race and sexuality. Clare’s “risk-taking” takes the dual form of “racial crossing and sexual infidelity” that undermines middle-class norms, questioning both the “sanctity of marriage” and the “clarity of racial demarcations.” 172 Sexual and racial closeting are also interlinked: “the muteness of homosexuality converges in the story with the illegibility of Clare’s blackness.” 173 The word “queering” in Passing is “a term for betraying what ought to remain concealed,” in relation to both race and sexuality. 174

If some early commentators interpreted Butler’s theory of the performativity of gender and her call for gender resignification as a voluntarist, individualist, consumerist lifestyle choice for privileged Westerners, this article has tried to show just how constrained gender resignification is, and how inextricable from other social struggles. In Butler’s more recent work, issues of gender and sexual orientation are situated in interlocking frames of social exclusion and social precarity. Neither gender nor sexual orientation on their own can determine what counts as a human, livable, and grievable life. 175

Susan Stryker, one of the founders of transgender theory, addresses her first publication, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix” ( 1994 ), to feminist and queer communities and exposes their exclusion and abjection of the “transgendered subject” as a monster. 176 Through a close reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein , she expresses her affinity with Frankenstein’s monster. 177 She criticizes the medical discourse that “produced sex reassignment techniques” for its “deeply conservative attempt to stabilize gendered identity in service of the naturalized heterosexual order” and insists on the disjunction between the “naturalistic effect biomedical technology can achieve” and the “subjective experience” of this transformation. 178 She rejects the continuing pathologization of the transgendered subject by psychiatrists, with the effect that “the sounds that come out of my mouth can be summarily dismissed.” 179 Notable here is an emphasis on self-identification and lived experience, which inherits the insights of phenomenological feminists that the body is not an object but a center of perception. To honor this emphasis, Stryker enlists a mixed form that combines criticism, diary entry, poetry, and theory.

Jack Halberstam’s 1998 Female Masculinity is a complex negotiation between feminist theory, queer theory, and the emerging field of transgender theory. While in medical discourse the approved narrative for the authorization of hormones and gender confirmation surgery is that of being in the wrong body and transitioning toward the right body, Halberstam warns that the “metaphor of crossing over and indeed migrating to the right body from the wrong body merely leaves the politics of stable gender identities, and therefore stable gender hierarchies, completely intact.” 180 Indeed he endorses the very “refusal of the dialectic of home and border” in Chicana/o studies and postcolonial studies. 181 Taking a broadly intersectional position, he argues that “alternative masculinities, ultimately, will fail to change existing gender hierarchies to the extent to which they fail to be feminist, antiracist, and queer.” 182

In his 2018 “Preface to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition” of Female Masculinity Halberstam defines “female masculinity” and “the butch” in a manner that bears a family resemblance to Irigaray’s “feminine,” Spivak’s “subaltern,” and queer theory’s “queer.” “Female masculinity” includes “multiple modes of identification and gender assignation” without “stabilizing” their “meanings.” 183 “The butch” is a “placeholder for the unassimilable, for that which remains indefinable or unspeakable within the many identifications that we make and that we claim”; “let the butch stand as all that cannot be absorbed into systems of signification, legitimation, legibility, recognition, and legality.” 184 The butch is “neither cis-gender nor simply transgender” but a “bodily catachresis . . . the rhetorical practice of misnaming something for which there would otherwise be no words.” 185 In Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability ( 2018 ) Halberstam defines trans* in similar terms. In keeping with his commitment to gender identity as “continuous transition,” the term trans* “embraces the nonspecificity of the term ‘trans’ and uses it to open the term up to a shifting set of conditions and possibilities rather than to attach it only to the life narratives of a specific group of people”; the asterisk “keeps at bay any sense of knowing in advance what the meaning of this or that gender variant form may be.” 186 His 2018 “Theory in the Wild,” co-written with Tavia Nyong’o, folds a “range of concerns” in addition to gender and sexuality—“race, coloniality, ecology, anarchy”—in a language that stretches from academic to creative writing. 187

In “Transgender Studies: Queer Theory’s Evil Twin” ( 2004 ), Susan Stryker launches transgender studies as an academic field “born of the union of sexuality studies and feminism” but distinct from them. The rationale for this autonomization is that “all too often queer remains a code word for ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian,’” while “transgender phenomena are misapprehended through a lens that privileges sexual orientation.” 188 Transgender studies is intended to disrupt the “privileged . . . narratives that favor sexual identity labels” at the expense of “gender categories.” 189 But Stryker is keen to acknowledge her own Western privilege: transgender studies is “marked by its First World point of origin” and the new field risks reproducing the “power structures of colonialism by subsuming non-Western configurations of personhood into Western constructs of sexuality and gender.” 190

In “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges: An Introduction to Transgender Studies” ( 2006 ), Stryker continues to argue that, within queer theory, “the entire discussion of ‘gender diversity’” was “subsumed within a discussion of sexual desire—as if the only reason to express gender was to signal the mode of one’s attractions.” 191 While the term transgender “began as a buzzword of the early 1990s,” in the 21st century it is established as the name for a “wide range of phenomena that call attention to the fact that ‘gender,’ as it is lived, embodied, experienced, performed, and encountered, is more complex and varied” than previously thought. 192 As this definition suggests, transgender studies draws on the insights of all the strands of feminist theory discussed in this article—phenomenological, poststructuralist, intersectional, and postcolonial. Stryker reminds readers that, since at least Sojourner Truth, “fighting for representation within the term ‘woman’ has been . . . a part of the feminist tradition,” and “the fight over transgender inclusion within feminism is not significantly different.” 193 As with African American and postcolonial feminisms, transgender theory calls for feminists’ examination of their “exclusionary assumptions.” 194 In turn, transgender theorists need to reckon with the “whiteness” of their academic field and the “First World origin” of the term transgender, as it is being exported globally across “racial, ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic communities.” 195 Arundati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness explores the clash, in India, between the terms of transgender theory—emanating from the United States and disseminated by NGOs, magazines, and other publications—and the terminology, self-understanding, and practices of hijras . 196

Stryker is particularly critical of the modern Western correlation of biological or bodily sex (particularly genital status) and gender identity, where gender is taken to be merely the “representation of an objectively knowable material sex.” 197 Stryker is adamant that “Sex . . . is not the foundation of gender.” 198 Nor is sex as self-evident as it appears to be, in that the different components of sex—chromosomal, anatomical, reproductive, and morphological—do not necessarily line up. (For example, one’s chromosomal status might not line up with their anatomical sex.) This supposedly “objective” correlation is based on the “assumed correlation of a particular” component of “biological sex with a particular,” normative “social gender,” with the result that transgender people (among others) are forever viewed as making “false representations of an underlying material truth.” 199 Many feminist strands have shed light on the correlation of biological sex and “gender normativity,” and Stryker promises that transgender theory will continue to analyze the “operations of systems and institutions that simultaneously produce various possibilities of viable personhood, and eliminate others.” 200 In recognizing diversity beyond “Eurocentric norms,” Stryker notes that “relationships between bodily sex, subjective gender identity, social gender roles, sexual behaviors, and kinship status” have varied greatly. 201 Of central importance to transgender theory is subjective gender identity, which Stryker understands within the tradition of feminist phenomenology.

It is important to distinguish between gender as a social category within social classifications and hierarchies and gender as one’s self-identification and sense of self. Stryker focuses on the latter and connects it to the body, as the “contingent ground of all our knowledge.” 202 The antidote to fake objectivity is the recognition of “embodiment,” “embodied experience,” and “experiential knowledge”; one’s “gendered sense of self” and “lived complexity” of gender are “inalienable.” 203 All voices are embodied and no voice should be allowed to “mask” its “particularities and specificities” under the cloak of “false universality.” 204 It is therefore imperative to either speak from “direct experience” or to represent others “in an ethical fashion.” 205 It is equally vital to include forms of knowledge previously “disqualified as nonconceptual[,] . . . naïve” and “hierarchically inferior.” 206 Once again, Stryker here joins several strands of feminist theory that have practiced formal innovation—for example, in mixing theory, literature, and life-writing—not for its own sake but in the pursuit of truth and justice.


I am very grateful to Julie Rak and Jean Wyatt for their suggestions for revision, John Frow for his comments, and Ian Richards-Karamarkovich for his in-house editorial support.

Further Reading

  • Ahmed, Sara . Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.
  • Al-Saji, Alia . “A Phenomenology of Hesitation: Interrupting Racialized Habits of Seeing.” In Living Alterities: Phenomenology, Embodiment . Edited by Emily S. Lee , 133–172. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014.
  • Anderson, Pamela Sue . “Silencing and Speaker Vulnerability: Undoing an Oppressive Form of (Wilful) Ignorance.” In “Love and Vulnerability: Thinking with Pamela Sue Anderson.” Edited by Pelagia Goulimari . Special issue, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 25, no. 1–2 (February–April 2020): 36–45.
  • Beauvoir, Simone de . The Second Sex . Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier . London: Vintage, 2011.
  • Butler, Judith . Gender Trouble . London: Routledge, 1990.
  • Cixous, Hélène . “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen . Signs 1, no. 4 (Summer 1976): 875–893.
  • Collins, Patricia Hill . Black Feminist Thought . Rev. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2000.
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams . “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (July 1991): 1241–1299.
  • Djebar, Assia . Women of Algiers in Their Apartment . Translated by Marjolijn De Jager . Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992.
  • Fricker, Miranda . Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Gilbert, Sandra , and Susan Gubar . The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination . 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.
  • Halberstam, Jack . Female Masculinity . 20th anniversary ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.
  • Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Irigaray, Luce . This Sex Which Is Not One . Translated by Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke . Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.
  • Lorde, Audre . Your Silence Will Not Protect You . Preface by Reni Eddo-Lodge , introduction by Sara Ahmed . London: Silver Press, 2017.
  • Mahmood, Saba . “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival.” Cultural Anthropology 16, no. 2 (May 2001): 202–236.
  • Mohanty, Chandra Talpade . “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” boundary 2 12–13 (Spring–Autumn 1984): 333–358.
  • Moi, Toril . “‘ I Am Not a Woman Writer’: About Women, Literature and Feminist Theory Today .” Eurozine , June 2009.
  • Morrison, Toni . The Bluest Eye . London: Picador, 1990.
  • Puar, Jasbir K. “Queer Times, Queer Assemblages.” Social Text 23, no. 3–4 (2005): 121–139.
  • Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s May Be: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 64–81.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty . “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present , by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak , 198–311. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Stratton, Florence . “Periodic Embodiments: A Ubiquitous Trope in African Men’s Writing.” Research in African Literatures 21, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 111–126.
  • Stryker, Susan . “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix.” GLQ 1, no. 3 (1994): 237–254.
  • Walker, Alice . In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose . Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.
  • Young, Iris Marion . “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility, and Spatiality.” In On Female Body Experience: “Throwing Like a Girl” and Other Essays , by Iris Marion Young , 27–45. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

1. See also the companion, complementary piece by Pelagia Goulimari, “Genders,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature (March 2020).

2. Sylvia Tamale, ed., African Sexualities: A Reader (Oxford: Pambazuka, 2011).

3. Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006); Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012); Anne Carson, Antigonick , ill. Bianca Stone (Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2012); Maggie Nelson, Jane: A Murder (London: Zed Books, 2019); Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (London: Melville House, 2016); and Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era , trans. Bruce Benderson (New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2013).

4. Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, Aurora Leigh , new ed., ed. Kerry McSweeney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Penguin, 2004); Julia Kristeva, “Stabat Mater,” trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Poetics Today 6.1–2 (January 1985): 133–152; Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (London: Women’s Press, 2000); Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name; A Biomythography (London: Penguin, 2018); Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues: A Novel (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1993); Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2016); and Qurratulain Hyder, Fireflies in the Mist (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2008).

5. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex , trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (London: Vintage, 2011), 293 .

6. For example, the situation of women is a form of “slavery of half of humanity” and Beauvoir calls for its abolition; Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 782.

7. For example, “every existent [human being] is at once immanence and transcendence,” Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 276; if woman is flesh for man, “man is also flesh for woman; and woman is other than a carnal object” (277); “The same drama of flesh and spirit, and of finitude and transcendence, plays itself out in both sexes,” and both sexes should assume the “ambiguity” of their situation (779–780). See also Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity , trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Philosophical Library, 2015).

8. See further Pelagia Goulimari, Literary Criticism and Theory: From Plato to Postcolonialism (London: Routledge, 2015), ch. 10.

9. See Michèle Le Doeuff, Hipparchia’s Choice: An Essay Concerning Women, Philosophy, etc ., trans. Trista Selous (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 60.

10. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 672, 654, 663, 672. This description by Beauvoir is the starting point for Iris Marion Young’s work. Beauvoir adds that, lacking the means to grasp the world, a woman might offer herself as a “gift” (679). Hélène Cixous will return to this offering and reappraise it more positively in “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1, no. 4 (Summer 1976): 875–893.

11. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 4, 12, 15, 654.

12. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 8.

13. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 9.

14. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 680.

15. Le Doeuff, Hipparchia’s Choice , 57.

16. See, for example, the section on D. H. Lawrence in Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 236–244.

17. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 767.

18. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 762, 765, 762, 766.

19. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 767. For example, Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément echo Beauvoir in their book, The Newly Born Woman , trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

20. “[T]ruth itself is ambiguity,” Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 763.

21. Iris Marion Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” in On Female Body Experience: “Throwing Like a Girl” and Other Essays , by Iris Marion Young (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 27–45, 30.

22. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 35.

23. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 29, 35, 30.

24. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 35–36 (emphasis added).

25. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 37. Alia Al-Saji will adopt Young’s discussion of hesitation to build her own phenomenology of hesitation.

26. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 39 (emphasis added).

27. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 40.

28. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 40–41.

29. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 44.

30. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 45.

31. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl,” 43.

32. For example, Dianne Chisholm claims that Young’s phenomenological description is out of date and no longer relevant. Dianne Chisholm, “Climbing Like a Girl: An Exemplary Adventure in Feminist Phenomenology,” Hypatia 23, no. 1 (January–March 2008): 9–40.

33. Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman , trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985); Luce Irigaray, “This Sex Which Is Not One,” in This Sex Which Is Not One , trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke, by Luce Irigaray (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 23–33; Luce Irigaray, “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine,” in This Sex Which Is Not One , trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke, by Luce Irigaray (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 68–85; and Cixous, “Laugh of the Medusa.”

34. Luce Irigaray, “Equal or Different?,” trans. David Macey, in The Irigaray Reader , ed. Margaret Whitford (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 30–33, 32.

35. Irigaray, “Equal or Different?,” 32–33.

36. Toril Moi, “‘Independent Women’ and Narratives of Liberation,” in Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical Reader , ed. Elizabeth Fallaize (London: Routledge, 1998), 72–92, 86.

37. Moi, “Independent Women,” 87–88.

38. Toril Moi, “‘ I Am Not a Woman Writer’: About Women, Literature and Feminist Theory Today ,” Eurozine (June 2009), 8 (emphasis added).

39. Moi, “I Am Not a Woman Writer,” 6, quoting Beauvoir, translation amended by Moi.

40. Moi, “I Am Not a Woman Writer,” 7.

41. Moi, “I Am Not a Woman Writer,” 7 (emphasis added).

42. Michèle Le Doeuff, “Engaging with Simone de Beauvoir,” in The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir , ed. Margaret A. Simons (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 11–19, 12.

43. Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life , trans. Peter Green (London: Penguin, 2001).

44. Beauvoir quoted in Miranda Fricker, “Life-Story in Beauvoir’s Memoirs,” in The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir , ed. Claudia Card (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 208–227, 219, 225.

45. Beauvoir quoted in Fricker, “Life-Story,” 223.

46. Fricker, “Life-Story,” 226.

47. Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 50–51.

48. Fricker, Epistemic Injustice , 50.

49. Fricker, Epistemic Injustice , 51.

50. Fricker, Epistemic Injustice , 150–152; see also 158–159.

51. Fricker, Epistemic Injustice , 169–175.

52. George Eliot, Mill on the Floss , ed. Gordon Sherman Haight (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). See Dorota Filipczak, “The Disavowal of the Female ‘Knower’: Reading Literature in the Light of Pamela Sue Anderson’s Project on Vulnerability,” in “Love and Vulnerability: Thinking with Pamela Sue Anderson,” ed. Pelagia Goulimari, special issue, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 25, no. 1–2 (February–April 2020): 156–164.

53. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 90–91, 23.

54. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology , 66.

55. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology , 87.

56. Ahmed’s work is also informed by Michel Foucault on disciplinary practices producing capable but docile bodies and Pierre Bourdieu on the “habitus” (naturalized socio-cultural habits).

57. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology , 101–102, 105 (emphasis added).

58. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology , 106.

59. Sara Ahmed, “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (August 2007): 149–168, 161.

60. Ahmed, “Phenomenology of Whiteness,” 161.

61. Ahmed, “Phenomenology of Whiteness,” 161.

62. Ahmed, “Phenomenology of Whiteness,” 163.

63. Ahmed, “Phenomenology of Whiteness,” 163.

64. See Sara Ahmed, What’s the Use? (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019).

65. Alia Al-Saji, “A Phenomenology of Hesitation: Interrupting Racialized Habits of Seeing,” in Living Alterities: Phenomenology, Embodiment , ed. Emily S. Lee (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014), 133–172, 138 .

66. Al-Saji, “Phenomenology of Hesitation,” 136.

67. Al-Saji, “Phenomenology of Hesitation,” 142.

68. Al-Saji, “Phenomenology of Hesitation,” 155.

69. Al-Saji, “Phenomenology of Hesitation,” 153 (emphasis added).

70. Al-Saji, “Phenomenology of Hesitation,” 154 (emphasis added).

71. Pamela Sue Anderson, “Creating a New Imaginary for Love in Religion,” in “Love and Vulnerability: Thinking with Pamela Sue Anderson,” ed. Pelagia Goulimari, special issue, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 25, no. 1–2 (February–April 2020): 46–53, 49 .

72. Pamela Sue Anderson, “Silencing and Speaker Vulnerability: Undoing an Oppressive Form of (Wilful) Ignorance,” in “Love and Vulnerability: Thinking with Pamela Sue Anderson,” ed. Pelagia Goulimari, special issue, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 25, no. 1–2 (February–April 2020): 36–45 .

73. See Akasha Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds., All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies , 2nd ed. (New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2015). See also Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present , by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 284 .

74. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (July 1991): 1241–1299 ; and Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought , rev. 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2000) .

75. See Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?,” in Women in Culture: An Intersectional Anthology for Gender and Women’s Studies , ed. Bonnie Kime Scott et al., 2nd ed. (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2017); Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism , ed. Frances Smith Foster and Richard Yarborough, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019); Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God , introd. Zadie Smith, afterword by Sherley Anne Williams (London: Virago, 2018); and Nella Larsen, Passing , ed. Thadious M. Davis (New York: Penguin, 2003).

76. Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing , new ed. (London: Virago, 1999). See further Goulimari, Literary Criticism and Theory , ch. 9.

77. Indeed Barbara Christian argues that black women writers have had to include self-theorizing in their texts, becoming their own critics. Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 1 (April 1988): 67–79.

78. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (London: Picador, 1990) .

79. Toni Morrison, “What the Black Woman Thinks about Women’s Lib,” in What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction , ed. Carolyn C. Denard (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 18–30, 24.

80. Morrison, “What the Black Woman Thinks,” 18, 19.

81. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2007). Also included in Audre Lorde, Your Silence Will Not Protect You , preface by Reni Eddo-Lodge, introd. Sara Ahmed (London: Silver Press, 2017) .

82. Lorde, Your Silence , 96.

83. Lorde, Your Silence , 113.

84. Lorde, Your Silence , 12.

85. Lorde, Your Silence , 29, and see the chapter “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred and Anger.”

86. See “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” in Lorde, Your Silence .

87. Lorde, Your Silence , 78.

88. See “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” in Lorde, Your Silence .

89. See “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” in Lorde, Your Silence .

90. Alice Walker, Color Purple (London: Women’s Press, 1983).

91. Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004) , xi (emphasis added).

92. Walker, In Search , xi (emphasis added).

93. Alice Walker, “Looking for Zora,” in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose , by Alice Walker (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004), 93–118 .

94. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination , 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000) .

95. Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s May Be: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 64–81 .

96. Hurston, Their Eyes , 29.

97. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982); Toni Morrison, Beloved (London: Picador, 1988); Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992); and Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) .

98. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection , 23, 36.

99. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection , 10 (emphasis added).

100. Saidiya V. Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 6.

101. Saidiya V. Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 1–14, 12.

102. Hartman, “Venus,” 11–12.

103. Saidiya V. Hartman, “The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner,” South Atlantic Quarterly 117, no. 3 (July 2018): 465–490, 470, 486.

104. Hartman, “Anarchy,” 471, 473.

105. Hartman, “Anarchy,” 474, 486 (emphasis added).

106. Hartman, “Anarchy,” 471, 470 (emphasis added).

107. Hartman, “Anarchy,” 469, 466, 471.

108. Hartman, “Anarchy,” 471. See further Saidiya V. Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019).

109. Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather (London: Routledge, 1995), 6.

110. H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines , ed. Robert Hampson (London: Penguin, 2007), 24.

111. Assia Djebar, Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade , trans. Dorothy S. Blair (London: Quartet, 1989).

112. Djebar, Fantasia , 6, 8.

113. McClintock, Imperial Leather , 45.

114. Assia Djebar, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment , trans. Marjolijn De Jager (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992) .

115. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 309. Delivered as a lecture in 1983, it was published in different versions of varying length. This article discusses the version in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999) .

116. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 271.

117. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 270.

118. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 267.

119. See Goulimari, Literary Criticism and Theory , ch. 11. See also Hartman on singularity, as discussed in the section “ African American Feminisms (Morrison, Lorde, Walker, Spillers, Hartman): Race, Intersectionality, Differences among Women and among Black Women ” in this article.

120. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 307, 273.

121. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 309.

122. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 310.

123. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 283, 284.

124. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (October 1985): 243–261, 243; and Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre , 3rd ed., ed. Jane Jack and Margaret Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

125. Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts,” 251.

126. Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts,” 248.

127. Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea , ed. Angela Smith (London: Penguin, 1997).

128. Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts,” 249.

129. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” boundary 2 12–13 (Spring–Autumn 1984): 333–358 .

130. Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes,” 333.

131. Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes,” 344.

132. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 39 (emphasis added).

133. Saba Mahmood, “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival,” Cultural Anthropology 16, no. 2 (May 2001): 202–236 .

134. Mahmood, “Feminist Theory,” 202.

135. Mahmood, “Feminist Theory,” 217.

136. Mahmood, “Feminist Theory,” 205.

137. Mahmood, “Feminist Theory,” 224.

138. Florence Stratton, Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender (London: Routledge, 1994), 1.

139. Stratton, Contemporary African Literature , 10.

140. Stratton, Contemporary African Literature , 18.

141. Florence Stratton, “Periodic Embodiments: A Ubiquitous Trope in African Men’s Writing,” Research in African Literatures 21, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 111–126, 112 .

142. Stratton, Contemporary African Literature , 11.

143. Stratton, Contemporary African Literature , 11.

144. Jasbir K. Puar, “Queer Times, Queer Assemblages,” Social Text 23.3–4 (2005): 121–139, 122 (emphasis added).

145. Puar, “Queer Times,” 131.

146. Puar, “Queer Times,” 122, 121.

147. Puar, “Queer Times,” 126.

148. Puar, “Queer Times,” 126.

149. See, for example, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire , 30th anniversary ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

150. See Eileen Myles, “ The Lady Who Appears to Be a Gentleman ,” Harper’s Magazine , June 2019.

151. Beauvoir, The Second Sex , 293.

152. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990), 140, 139–140.

153. Butler, Gender Trouble , 137 (emphasis added).

154. Butler, Gender Trouble , 138, 141.

155. Judith Butler, “Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of ‘Postmodernism,’” in Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange , by Seyla Benhabib, et al. (New York: Routledge, 1995), 35–58, 50–51.

156. Butler, “Contingent Foundations,” 49.

157. Butler, “Contingent Foundations,” 50.

158. Butler, “Contingent Foundations,” 39.

159. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter (London: Routledge, 1993), 38; and Luce Irigaray, “When Our Lips Speak Together,” in This Sex Which Is Not One , trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke, by Luce Irigaray (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 205–218 .

160. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 46 (emphasis added).

161. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 37 (emphasis added).

162. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 39, 41 (emphasis added).

163. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 46.

164. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 37, 42.

165. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 49.

166. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 167 (emphasis added).

167. Nella Larsen, Passing , ed. Thadious M. Davis (New York: Penguin, 2003); and Butler, Bodies That Matter , 182 (emphasis added).

168. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 178.

169. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 183; and Toni Morrison, Sula (London: Picador, 1991).

170. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 181–182.

171. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 182.

172. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 169.

173. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 175.

174. Butler, Bodies That Matter , 176.

175. See Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004); and Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2016).

176. Susan Stryker, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix,” GLQ 1, no. 3 (1994): 237–254 , 241. See also 251n2: “transgender” as “an umbrella term that refers to all identities or practices that cross over, cut across, move between, or otherwise queer socially constructed sex/gender boundaries.”

177. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein , 2nd ed., ed. J. Paul Hunter (London: W. W. Norton, 2012).

178. Stryker, “My Words,” 242.

179. Stryker, “My Words,” 244.

180. Jack Halberstam, Female Masculinity , 20th anniversary ed. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 171 .

181. Halberstam, Female Masculinity , 170.

182. Halberstam, Female Masculinity , 173.

183. Halberstam, Female Masculinity , xii.

184. Halberstam, Female Masculinity , xx, xxi.

185. Halberstam, Female Masculinity , xx.

186. Jack Halberstam, Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018), 95, 52–53, 4.

187. Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o, “Introduction: Theory in the Wild,” in “Wildness,” ed. Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o, special issue, South Atlantic Quarterly 117, no. 3 (July 2018): 453–464, 462.

188. Susan Stryker, “Transgender Studies: Queer Theory’s Evil Twin,” GLQ 10, no. 2 (2004): 212–215, 214.

189. Stryker, “Transgender Studies,” 212.

190. Stryker, “Transgender Studies,” 214–215.

191. Susan Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges: An Introduction to Transgender Studies,” in The Transgender Studies Reader , ed. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (London: Routledge, 2006), 1–18, 1.

192. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 3.

193. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 7.

194. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 7.

195. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 14–15.

196. Arundati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2017). On the expression of third-gender and non-normative gender identities in non-Western cultures, see, for example, the Rae-rae (Tahitian trans women), Faʻafafine (Samoan third gender), and Māhū (Polynesian “middle” or third gender).

197. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 8.

198. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 9.

199. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 9.

200. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 13, 3.

201. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 14.

202. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 12.

203. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 12, 13, 10, 7.

204. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 12.

205. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 13.

206. Stryker, “(De)Subjectivated Knowledges,” 13.

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WST 6001: Feminist Research Methodology

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Literature Review Basics

What is a Literature Review?

Literature reviews are designed to do two things:

1) give your readers an overview of sources you have explored while researching a particular topic or idea

2) demonstrate how your research fits into the larger field of study.

1) Decide on a topic and identify the literature base you will review

-Become familiar with the relevant databases for that subject

-Identify search terms that capture your subject

-Start with general search terms and experiment with different terms noting which work

-Identify the important studies on the topic

-Redefine your topic if necessary. Try to narrow it to a specific interest area with the broad area

2)  Analyze the literature (Your role is to evaluate what you’ve read.)

-Usually a review covers the last 5 years of literature on a topic

-Skim the articles to get an idea of the purpose and content.

-Group the articles into categories and sub-categories

-Take notes: Define key terms, key statistics, identify useful quotes

-Note strengths, weaknesses and emphases

-Identify trends or patterns

-Identify gaps in the literature

-Identify relationships between studies, which led to others etc.

-Stay focused on your topic

3) Synthesis

-Identify your area of focus and say why it is relevant or important to the topic

-summarize the contributions of important studies/articles to the topic

-evaluate the current “state of the art” point out gaps or inconsistencies in research or theories     point out areas of possible future research

-provide some insight into the relationship between the central topic of the literature review and a larger area of study

-write a conclusion that clarifies how the material in the review has supported your proposition in the introduction

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WS 412/512 Feminist Methodologies: Literature Review: An Overview

Literature review: an overview.

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What's a Literature Review?

A Literature Review...

  • Provides comprehensive discussion of the scholarly research that has already been done on a topic.
  • Includes some summary of important articles on a topic.
  • Includes comparison: between how different authors discuss the same topic and how the topic has been handled over time.
  • Synthesizes previous ideas on a topic, but also looks for gaps in the literature: what needs to be investigated further?

What Should a Literature Review Do?

A Literature Review should...

  • Relate directly and clearly to your thesis or research question.
  • Synthesize and contextualize results, not just report them.
  • Identify areas of controversy in the literature.
  • Formulate questions that need further research.

Adapted from “The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It”, by Dena Taylor and Margaret Procter, University of Toronto: www.writing.utoronto.ca (file linked below)

  • The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It This two-page PDF handout created by Dena Taylor and Margaret Procter at the University of Toronto has excellent guidance on conducting a literature review.

Literature Review Search Strategies

Strategies for a literature review search...

  • Comb through bibliographies of relevant journal articles and books. You'll probably start to see patterns: authors, journals, and themes that show up over and over.
  • Find Full Text through the Library : If you find an article in a bibliography that you’d like to access, look for the journal name (not the article name), and follow the steps outlined under the Finding Full-text Material tab in our How to find Full Text Guide .
  • Can't get the article you need in full text through PSU? Don't despair-- try ordering it from the library!
  • Find out who cited an article , and how many times it was cited, through Google Scholar . This will show you how influential an article was and gives you more articles and authors to investigate.
  • Learn How to Gut a Book -- in other words, how to get the most out of a book in the most efficient manner (i.e. it may not be necessary to read an entire book, word for word, taking diligent notes in order to get the gist of the book for use in a literature review).

This excellent overview of the literature review explains what a literature review and outlines processes and best practices for doing one. It includes input from an NCSU professor on what a literature review is and what it should do. (Shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US license, attributed to North Carolina State University Libraries ).

Writing the Literature Review: Part 1

Here's another excellent tutorial on what a literature review is and how to write it, in two parts, from David Taylor at the University of Maryland University College's Writing Program.  https://youtu.be/2IUZWZX4OGI

Writing the Literature Review: Part 2

Here's part two of David Taylor's "Writing the Literature Review" tutorial, from the University of Maryland University College's Writing Program. https://youtu.be/UoYpyY9n9YQ

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What is a Literature Review?

The scholarly conversation.

A literature review provides an overview of previous research on a topic that critically evaluates, classifies, and compares what has already been published on a particular topic. It allows the author to synthesize and place into context the research and scholarly literature relevant to the topic. It helps map the different approaches to a given question and reveals patterns. It forms the foundation for the author’s subsequent research and justifies the significance of the new investigation.

A literature review can be a short introductory section of a research article or a report or policy paper that focuses on recent research. Or, in the case of dissertations, theses, and review articles, it can be an extensive review of all relevant research.

  • The format is usually a bibliographic essay; sources are briefly cited within the body of the essay, with full bibliographic citations at the end.
  • The introduction should define the topic and set the context for the literature review. It will include the author's perspective or point of view on the topic, how they have defined the scope of the topic (including what's not included), and how the review will be organized. It can point out overall trends, conflicts in methodology or conclusions, and gaps in the research.
  • In the body of the review, the author should organize the research into major topics and subtopics. These groupings may be by subject, (e.g., globalization of clothing manufacturing), type of research (e.g., case studies), methodology (e.g., qualitative), genre, chronology, or other common characteristics. Within these groups, the author can then discuss the merits of each article and analyze and compare the importance of each article to similar ones.
  • The conclusion will summarize the main findings, make clear how this review of the literature supports (or not) the research to follow, and may point the direction for further research.
  • The list of references will include full citations for all of the items mentioned in the literature review.

Key Questions for a Literature Review

A literature review should try to answer questions such as

  • Who are the key researchers on this topic?
  • What has been the focus of the research efforts so far and what is the current status?
  • How have certain studies built on prior studies? Where are the connections? Are there new interpretations of the research?
  • Have there been any controversies or debate about the research? Is there consensus? Are there any contradictions?
  • Which areas have been identified as needing further research? Have any pathways been suggested?
  • How will your topic uniquely contribute to this body of knowledge?
  • Which methodologies have researchers used and which appear to be the most productive?
  • What sources of information or data were identified that might be useful to you?
  • How does your particular topic fit into the larger context of what has already been done?
  • How has the research that has already been done help frame your current investigation ?

Examples of Literature Reviews

Example of a literature review at the beginning of an article: Forbes, C. C., Blanchard, C. M., Mummery, W. K., & Courneya, K. S. (2015, March). Prevalence and correlates of strength exercise among breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer survivors . Oncology Nursing Forum, 42(2), 118+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.sonoma.idm.oclc.org/ps/i.do?p=HRCA&sw=w&u=sonomacsu&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA422059606&asid=27e45873fddc413ac1bebbc129f7649c Example of a comprehensive review of the literature: Wilson, J. L. (2016). An exploration of bullying behaviours in nursing: a review of the literature.   British Journal Of Nursing ,  25 (6), 303-306. For additional examples, see:

Galvan, J., Galvan, M., & ProQuest. (2017). Writing literature reviews: A guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences (Seventh ed.). [Electronic book]

Pan, M., & Lopez, M. (2008). Preparing literature reviews: Qualitative and quantitative approaches (3rd ed.). Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Pub. [ Q180.55.E9 P36 2008]

Useful Links

  • Write a Literature Review (UCSC)
  • Literature Reviews (Purdue)
  • Literature Reviews: overview (UNC)
  • Review of Literature (UW-Madison)

Evidence Matrix for Literature Reviews

The  Evidence Matrix  can help you  organize your research  before writing your lit review.  Use it to  identify patterns  and commonalities in the articles you have found--similar methodologies ?  common  theoretical frameworks ? It helps you make sure that all your major concepts covered. It also helps you see how your research fits into the context  of the overall topic.

  • Evidence Matrix Special thanks to Dr. Cindy Stearns, SSU Sociology Dept, for permission to use this Matrix as an example.
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Small Strokes Big Oaks

One small stroke of the keyboard at a time, literature review: feminism.

This begins a series of posts that, all together, comprise my literature review for my Master’s thesis research.  You can view all of the posts by clicking here .

What follows is the section on the feminist movement and defining feminism.  Enjoy!

For quite some time, feminists have used the power and ease of distribution of the written word to spread their ideas to a wider audience.  They wrote radical texts in the form of manifestos, guides, statements of purpose, and other political texts that were often linked together – or referential to each other in some way – and were distributed quickly and publicly and often disappeared as rapidly as they appeared.  Feminists have always used literacy events to spread information about their causes; from pamphlets and packets to websites and blog posts, feminists rely on the written word to create a community and recruit community members.  Historically, women activists have formed communities by holding meetings and quickly distributing information.  Now, however, feminists seem to have taken up a presence online, and communities of feminist bloggers are springing up seemingly out of nowhere and without a formal site or forum for discussion.  How do these feminist bloggers create a community online using nothing but literacy practices?  How do their processes of reading and writing online work together with others’ processes in order to create such a community?

Before we can begin to answer these questions, though, we must explore what we mean by “feminism.”  Feminism has taken many forms since women first started fighting for equal rights.  From the volunteer force of women including Jane Addams to activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and authors and theorists such as Simone de Beauvoir, feminism has produced as many theories as it has definitions for the term.  In fact, there seem to be as many definitions for feminism as there are feminists. bell hooks, one of the foremost feminist theorists of our time, discusses the problems with feminist discourse in her essay “Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression.”  She says: “A central problem within feminist discourse has been our inability to either arrive at a consensus of opinion about what feminism is or accept definition(s) that could serve as points of unification.  Without agreed-upon definition(s), we lack a sound foundation on which to construct theory or engage in overall meaningful praxis” (18).  This is precisely the problem feminist bloggers deal with on a daily basis.  Every writer has a different definition of feminism, and this can cause discrepancies and arguments within the feminist community – a community that needs solidarity to survive.

There are several feminists who have tried to define feminism; among them are Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards.  In their book, ManifestA: young women, feminism, and the future , they wrote an entire chapter titled “What is Feminism?”  In this chapter, they work to posit many definitions of feminism.  They write: “In the most basic sense, feminism is exactly what the dictionary says it is: the movement for social, political, and economic equality of men and women” (56).  Although this definition is very basic, it does cover all of the issues feminists want to cover in their activism.  Baumgardner and Richards take it one step further, and break down this definition:

It is a movement , meaning a group working to accomplish specific goals.  Those goals are social and political change – implying that one must be engaged with the government and laws, as well as with social practices and beliefs.  And implicit in these goals is access to sufficient information to enable women to make responsible choices. (56)

Baumgardner and Richards also point out that feminism is just as often described by what it is not than by what it is: it is not narrow minded; it is not about rejecting women who love makeup and designer clothes or women who decide to stay home with their children; it is not about “dissing men” (63).  The list goes on, but the implications are clear: feminism must be defined by what it is rather than what it is not in order to create a radical movement necessary for change.

Most researchers and theorists agree that definitions of feminism – and, consequently, feminists – exist on a spectrum.  In their 1996 study titled ‘I Am Not a Feminist, but…’: College Women, Feminism, and Negative Experiences,” Joan K. Buschman and Silvo Lenart found that college women, ages 18 to 22, strongly believed in equal rights for women and the importance of “nontraditional” gender roles, but the young women they interviewed did not necessarily identify as feminists.  Their study discovered that there were varying levels of group consciousness when it came to feminism.  Women who identified themselves as feminist made up 17% of the interviewees and were the strongest proponents of women’s rights and equality.  The population that Buschman and Lenart define as Post-Feminists make up 35% of their population and “are more likely to see the battle for equality as a past victory than an on-going struggle” (67).  The Anti-Feminists comprised about 4% of their population and such a small size did not allow them to conclude much about that part of the population.  They did identify a new cluster of people who existed between the feminist and post-feminist populations.  These interviewees were not satisfied with women’s status at the time, but believed that individual activism was necessary for change, not the group activism the self-identified feminists sought.  Buschman and Lenart also found that, more often than not, growing up with a mother in a “nontraditional” role did not make a woman identify herself as a feminist.  Experiences that did contribute to a positive view of feminism were acts of violence against women, such as rape, sexual harassment, or other forms of sexual violence.

In 2003, Pamela Aronson took this a step further in her study “Feminists or ‘Postfeminists’?: Young Women’s Attitudes toward Feminism and Gender Relations.”  She noted that, in the late 1990s – around the time Buschman and Lenart completed their study – mass media was touting the feminist movement as “dead.”  Aronson interviewed women in her study just like Buschman and Lenart did, but broke apart the results based on race, class, and life experience.  Aronson noted basically the same definition for postfeminists as Buschman and Lenart did – that they agreed that women’s rights are important but are not active in urging for further change.  She observes, as well, that negative images of feminism throughout the media could and did contribute to women refusing to define themselves as feminists.  This, however, began to change with women who came of age in the 1990s, and these women began to make up “Third Wave” feminism.  It is this “Third Wave” generation that Aronson interviews for her study, and discovers almost the same spectrum of feminism that Buschman and Lenart did.  They found that about one fourth of the women in their study identified themselves as feminists, 19% of their interviewees fell into the category of “I’m a feminist, but…” and roughly one third of their interview participants fell into the category of “I’m not a feminist, but…” (913-917) The final quarter of their research population were unsure of how they felt about feminism or had never thought about feminism.  They did not, however, find any part of their population with anti-feminist sentiments.  What they did find was that women who took the “I’m not a feminist, but…” approach were “associated with more privileged racial and class backgrounds” (919).  Those who identified as feminists in their study were mostly college educated or had taken women’s studies courses at some point.  They further state:

Those who qualified their feminist identities and those who had never thought about feminism were disproportionately from less privileged racial and class backgrounds… were college-educated, working-class women and/or women of color who came to feminism as a result of assumptions of equality when growing up. (919)

This suggests that, although many women in modern society do align themselves with feminism and agree with feminist principles, there is a good part of the population who either does not think about feminism or, as bell hooks states throughout the essays in Feminist Theory From Margin to Center , has felt excluded by the predominantly white, upper- or middle-class, college-educated mainstream feminism.  It seems that “feminism” may never be concretely defined, but that it is best to allow the definition of the term to be fluid and allow each individual feminist to take her – or his – own definition.  After all, as the Second Wave feminists said, the personal is political.

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Iconic Feminism: Narrative Analysis of Wonder Woman

"diana prince: what is a secretary etta candy: oh, well, i do everything. i go where he tells me to go, i do what he tells me to do. diana prince: well, where i'm from that's called slavery., literature review.

Wonder Woman (2017) was one of the most important films in 2017. This was the highest opening for a female director of 100.5 million dollars. This movie broke traditional demographics for a superhero movie. According to the Washington Post “52 percent of its viewers being women.” Normally males take up 60% or more of audiences when it comes to superhero films. Wonder Woman broke records that year and was able to appeal to a wide amount of people, grossing 800 million world wide.

It was the first female lead super hero film since the infamous Cat-Woman in 2004.  I found that there were common tropes in female lead super films such as Hyper-sexualization/objectification which leads to gender misrepresentation. I get this idea from the research done by Heldman, Franklin, and Holmes (2016) who conducted a content analysis that looked into the sexualization of female action leads from  the 1960s-2014. In there study they write “One in three (29%) female characters is portrayed in ‘‘revealing cloth- ing’’ (compared to 7% of male characters), and one in four (26%) appear partially or fully naked during the film (compared to 9% for male characters)” (p.1) This is due to action films having a generally male demographic. Film makers make movies that have characters that will appeal to a certain audience. Superheroes in comics books also started out the same way, and that continues to be reflected in the movies. Females in movies are subject to the Male Gaze as studies point out in the action films. There is strong imagery of sexualization in action films, wether its the characters clothes, sexual plot points, and or even the cinematography can apply the hyper sexualization.

In this research they found that rates of hyper sexualization have raised since the 2000s. (p.11) They also note that there is a public health consequence to the overly sexualization of women characters. They argue that the “increase contributes to broader cultural normalization of female objectification, which has measurable and negative public health effects. Short- and long-term exposure to sexually objectifying images has been linked to troubling beliefs about sexual.” “This environment causes girls and women to internalize the heterosexual male gaze, a process labeled self- objectification”

Heldman, Franklin and Holmes (2014) also found because of hyper sexualization female action leads  “lose agency and personhood in the eyes of viewers.” (p.10) Which Jennifer McClearen (2015) adds to that conversation with her research, where she conducted interviews with young women about the believability of female heroes bodies. She notes that most of the women found that have on film asserts that action heroines ‘combine elements of the “soft body” of “woman” and the “hard body” of “man,”’(p. 835) These studies give insight to the world female action heroes and narratives are important.

In this research we will be looking will be apply McClures reconceptualization the role  of Identification in Fishers Narrative Paradigm, she states that She writes that “narratives are coconstructions of meanings created by texts and audiences” (p. 199)  Narrative meanings are always changing with the times and society McClure (2009) writes that “Reconceptualizing the role of identification in the narrative paradigm enriches our understanding of how narratives foster beliefs, attitudes, and actions by accounting for the full range of the symbolic resources and processes of identification.” (p.191) In this research we will be using this reconceptualization to give us justification for our research.

Wonder Woman being the ultimate feminist icon, its important to look in to feminist theory. Sumi Kim (2005) writes “One feminist concern is research focusing on media portrayals of woman, been conducted to discover how gender portrayals in media texts function to impose the dominant ideology since women’s position as oppressed in patriarchal capitalism has been reproduced and maintained by the aid of ideological practice via media” (p. 3) The media portrayals of Wonder Woman and other female super heroes is extremely important for feminism as a whole. Female superheroes have been put through the ringer when it comes to hyper-sexualization, objectification, and sexism, which sets feminism back.

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Feminism Literature Reviews Samples For Students

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Free Women And Gender Studies Exam Literature Review Example

Intersectionality is one of the woman’s libbers and the most propagative conception of the critical race theory. Women of color formations are compelled to address Intersectionality and the mutual and complex interactions of race, class, gender and sexuality (Lowe & Lloyd, 1997, p.310). Many feminists debate that a kind consideration of intersectionality is an important element to gain equality in politics and community, and also to improve the autonomous system.

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Free literature review on women gender studies theory of intersectionality, introduction.

Addressing the objective of this academic investigation engages in dialogue how the writings of Norma Alarcon, Kimberle' Crenshaw, Judith Butler, and Roderick Ferguson align with the rearticulation of the theory of intersectionality criticizing the liberal notion of identity and subjectivity of women social and political issues. The ensuing academic goal also includes examining how these authors' seeming discrepant situations actually allow delineation of their shared point of conjecture, critical dialogues, and challenges of women in the 21st century.

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    literature review on feminism

  2. Amazing Feminism Essay ~ Thatsnotus

    literature review on feminism

  3. Review: Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings

    literature review on feminism

  4. Feminism in Literature 2 (1)

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  5. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Vintage Feminism Short Edition

    literature review on feminism

  6. Feminist Literary Criticism

    literature review on feminism


  1. 5 books to read on Feminist Theory! #philosophy #books #feminism #theory


  3. Ep. 2403 Feminism Triumphs, But Women Miserable

  4. Black Women Feminist Authors that I read last year

  5. Feminism in English Literature.. Clear explanation in Telugu

  6. A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf: Summary & Analysis


  1. Literature Review: The Question of Universal Feminism

    Literature Review: The Question of Universal Feminism Conspectus Borealis Volume 6 Issue 1 Article 9 10-27-2019 Literature Review: The Question of Universal Feminism Isabelle Ureel Northern Michigan University, [email protected] Follow this and additional works at: https://commons.nmu.edu/conspectus_borealis

  2. Feminist Theory

    Literary Theory Mapping 21st-Century Feminist Theory Feminist theory is a vast, enormously diverse, interdisciplinary field that cuts across the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. As a result, this article cannot offer a historical overview or even an exhaustive account of 21st-century feminist theory.

  3. Feminism and literary translation: A systematic review

    1. Introduction The translation is not only a process of transferring linguistic codes from one language to another, but it has also become a political activity ( Li, 2020 ). After the 1990s, scholars started analysing it from the perspective of cultural theories ( Hou et al., 2020 ).

  4. Feminism is for everybody

    "To be 'feminist' in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression." bell hooks made this clear and powerful statement in her 1981 study of sexism, racism, and the feminist and civil rights movements Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism.

  5. What is a Literature Review

    WST 6001: Feminist Research Methodology Brief outline of How to do a Literature Review Literature Review Basics What is a Literature Review? Literature reviews are designed to do two things: 1) give your readers an overview of sources you have explored while researching a particular topic or idea

  6. PDF Literature and The Development of Feminist Theory

    1. 1. Feminism and literature. 2. Feminist literature - History and criticism. 3. Feminism in literature. I. Goodman, Robin Truth, 1966- editor. PN 56. F 46 L 585 2015 809′.89287-dc23 2015018985 ISBN 978-1-107-12608-4 Hardback

  7. Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment: Feminist Mobilization for the

    The paper develops an analytical approach towards such an understanding, positing three critical drivers affecting feminist mobilization. It draws on the available literature, including the grey literature of civil society statements during various SDG processes, and the author's own personal experience and engagement in the mobilization.

  8. (PDF) Feminism: A Tool to Analyze Literature

    Feminism: A Tool to Analyze Literature July 2019 Transylvanian Review XXVII, (42):1012-10108 Authors: Muhannad Hadi Wasit University Abstract The ideology of woman has been varied and changing...

  9. Literature Review: An Overview

    This excellent overview of the literature review explains what a literature review and outlines processes and best practices for doing one. It includes input from an NCSU professor on what a literature review is and what it should do. (Shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US license, attributed to North Carolina State University Libraries).

  10. Feminist Review: Sage Journals

    Feminist Review 1.8 5-Year Impact Factor: 2.1 JOURNAL HOMEPAGE SUBMIT PAPER Feminist Review's purpose is to hold space for conversations that rethink and reimagine feminist scholarship and praxis: the modes and contexts in which it operates, the questions it takes up, and with whom feminisms are in conversation.

  11. Literature Reviews

    Research Guides Women's and Gender Studies What is a Literature Review? The Scholarly Conversation A literature review provides an overview of previous research on a topic that critically evaluates, classifies, and compares what has already been published on a particular topic.

  12. (PDF) The Feminist Views: A Review

    (PDF) The Feminist Views: A Review DOI: 10.21523/gcj2.16010101 Authors: Kalpana Nehere GATHA COGNITION Abstract Visit to www.gathacognition.com for free access. The first wave of feminism...

  13. PDF Feminism and literary translation: A systematic review

    research on feminism and translation of novels, and to analyse the ways through which feminist translation theory was applied in such trans-lation. Moreover, there is a difference between literature review and systematic review. A systematic review is thoroughly well organized (Kowalczyk and Truluck, 2013), and the studies are methodically

  14. Feminisms in Canadian Educational Contexts: A Literature Review

    A Literature Review Heather Syme Anderson, University of Manitoba, Canada Abstract: Feminism is a theory used to explain the phenomenon of gender inequality, and is particularly useful for researchers working in education, since gender inequity continues to be a pressing issue in educational contexts. The aim of this literature review

  15. (PDF) Feminism: An Overview

    ... In its simplest form, feminism is a general name for the struggles of women that began when they realized that they belonged to a group that was not equal to men and that they were being...

  16. JSTOR: Viewing Subject: Feminist & Women's Studies

    Feminist Review 1979 - 2020 Feminist Studies 1972 - 2020 Feminist Teacher 1984 - 2018 Frauen und Film 1974 - 2016 ... Literature, theology and feminism 2007 Little Pharma: Poems 2021 Little Women at 150 2022 The Lives of Girls and Women from the Islamic World in Early Modern British Literature and Culture ...

  17. Feminist literary criticism

    Feminist literary criticism is literary criticism informed by feminist theory, or more broadly, by the politics of feminism. It uses the principles and ideology of feminism to critique the language of literature.

  18. Literature Review: Feminism

    In fact, there seem to be as many definitions for feminism as there are feminists. bell hooks, one of the foremost feminist theorists of our time, discusses the problems with feminist discourse in her essay "Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression."

  19. (PDF) Feminism and Literary Translation: A Systematic Review

    A systematic review was used as a research methodology, and the studies were analysed using a content analysis method. The findings revealed that there are very few significant studies on feminism ...

  20. Staying with the Social Project: A Review of Feminist Criminology

    We are pleased to publish this Review of Feminist Criminology by Katharine Dunbar Winsor of Concordia University. We hope that our readers agree with us that the article provides an important addition to the literature and provides an invaluable template for contributors of future reviews. Editorial Board Social & Legal Studies

  21. Literature Review

    Literature Review. Wonder Woman (2017) was one of the most important films in 2017. This was the highest opening for a female director of 100.5 million dollars. This movie broke traditional demographics for a superhero movie. According to the Washington Post "52 percent of its viewers being women.". Normally males take up 60% or more of ...


    ... The literary world has been influenced by a history of male dominance over women, resulting in certain values and conventions that often prioritize men. As a result, women have found themselves...

  23. Feminism Literature Review Examples That Really Inspire

    Presenting high-quality samples isn't the only way our free essays service can aid students in their writing endeavors - our authors can also compose from scratch a fully customized Literature Review on Feminism that would make a genuine basis for your own academic work. Free Women And Gender Studies Exam Literature Review Example