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Gynocentrism

GYNOCENTRISM

GYNOCENTRISM (derived from the Greek gyno, meaning "woman," and kentron, meaning "center") is a radical feminist discourse that champions woman-centered beliefs, identities, and social organization. It also challenges the androcentric promotion of masculine standards as normative, and the presentation of those standards as neutral rather than gendered. Consequently, from a gynocentric perspective, the assumption of masculine-neutral norms has meant that femininity has traditionally been presented as deficient, secondary, and lacking. Gynocentric feminism is concerned, therefore, to revalue sexual difference and femininity positively.

Theories of Gynocentrism

The literary scholar Elaine Showalter was one of the first feminists to develop a systematic program that was critical of the androcentrism of mainstream literary studies and that sought instead to illuminate the "subculture" of women writers and readers. She coined the term gynocritic s to refer to this project, suggesting in her article "Towards a Feminist Poetics" (1986) that:

The program of gynocritics is to construct a female framework for the analysis of women's literature, to develop new models based on the study of female experience, rather than to adapt male models and theories. Gynocritics begins at the point when we free ourselves from the linear absolutes of male literary history, stop trying to fit women between the lines of male tradition, and focus instead on the new visible world of female culture. (p. 131)

Showalter thus argued for the realignment of the conceptual standpoints of literary studies by seeing women's writing as primary, rather than as marginal. For her, it was a matter of identifying the difference in women's writing and of demonstrating how the psychodynamics of female creativity shaped women's literary productions and readings differently from those of men. In order to identify female difference, the gynocritical approach sought to study the history, styles, themes, genres, and structures of writing by women, as well as the constraints on, and impact of, female literary traditions. The aim of gynocritics was the transformation and redefinition of the androcentric parameters of the study of literature.

Showalter's gynocritical approach coincided with, and reflected, a shift in second wave feminism away from the promotion of the humanist ideal of gender-neutral equality, towards a model of liberation that affirmed female experience. Iris Marion Young, in her essay "Humanism, Gynocentrism, and Feminist Politics" (1990), outlines the benefits of this change in emphasis, arguing that:

[G]ynocentric feminism finds in women's bodies and traditional feminine activity the source of more positive values. Women's reproductive processes keep us linked with nature and the promotion of life to a greater degree than men's. Female eroticism is more fluid, diffuse, and loving than violence-prone male sexuality. Our feminine socialization and traditional roles as mothers give to us a capacity to nurture and a sense of social cooperation that may be the only salvation of the planet. (p. 79)

Gynocentric feminism thus promoted a vision of femininity at odds with traditional androcentric and misogynist formulations, neatly reversing the values that had been traditionally assigned to women. In doing so, it simultaneously rehabilitated those aspects of femininity that were historically belittled or maligned, and articulated a theory of female difference in contrast to, and against, a masculine logic of neutrality.

For Showalter, writers like Adrienne Rich and Susan Griffin have exemplified gynocritical writing, as has Hélène Cixous's theorization of l'écriture féminine (feminine writing and language). Within religious studies, the gynocentric approach has been epitomized by the feminist theologian Mary Daly, and by Goddess feminists who have argued that patriarchal religions have promoted detrimental and erroneous models of femininity, which can only be corrected by developing an inspirational, woman-centered ontology rooted in female experience.

Critiques of Gynocentrism

However important the restoration of dignity to women may have been for many feminists, the viability of the gynocentric approach has been subject to sustained criticism for some time. The most common critique has been the suggestion that reliance on a theory of sexual differencewhere femininity is promoted as the source of values by which to criticize androcentrism and to realize a better societyis problematic in that it depends on ahistorical, essentialist, and universalist ideas about gender attributes. Moreover, it is contradictory for feminists to advocate binary thought (in this case male/female, with the qualities that accrue to each member of the pair simply reversed). The idea of an essentialized femininity confronting an equally essentialized masculinity is not a coherent feminist strategy for the defeat of misogyny; on the contrary, it reifies the very system it seeks to undo by invoking the dichotomous logic that many feminists have argued is the mechanism by which male-dominant hierarchies are sustained (see Moi, 1989, pp. 125126; and Young, 1990, pp. 8790, for a more detailed critique of gynocentric feminism). Gynocentrism is perhaps best seen as a transitional phase in feminist theory, one that was probably necessary for addressing the wholesale marginalization of women's voices, but which has been critically adjusted as gender theory has emerged as a preferable mode for understanding sexual identity and for challenging notions of gender neutrality.

See Also

Androcentrism; Feminism, article on Feminism, Gender Studies, and Religion.

Bibliography

Belsey, Catherine, and Jane Moore, eds. The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. Basingstoke and London, 1989; 2d ed., 1998. This anthology surveys the range of feminist critical theory on writing and language that followed early feminist interventions in literary studies, and includes some of the main criticisms of gynocritics. Contributors include Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Toril Moi, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Dale Spender.

Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." In French Feminism Reader, edited by Kelly Oliver, pp. 257275. New York and Oxford, 2000. In this essay Cixous begins to develop her theory of l'écriture féminine, and calls for women to return to their bodies in writing the feminine as a way of subverting phallocentric reason. Cixous characterizes this kind of writing as tactile, bodily, and interior, and one that embodies a giving without taking back and without expectation of return, drawing on metaphors of a mother's milk and menstrual blood.

Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston, 1978. Gyn/Ecology (a deliberate pun on gynecology ) is a lively, iconoclastic, and provocative book that maps male domination of women in a wide range of contexts, from Chinese footbinding to American gynecology and the European witch craze. In drawing sweeping parallels between such a diversity of practices, and insisting on their connection, Daly is able to sketch a universal pattern of misogyny that exemplifies the gynocentric approach.

Griffin, Susan. Woman and Nature: The Roaring inside Her. New York, 1978. Griffin writes in her preface to this book that, "I found that I could best discover my insights about the logic of civilized man by going underneath logic, that is by writing associatively, and thus enlisting my intuition, or uncivilized self" (p. xv). What follows in the book is a poetic and fluid, gynocentric exploration of the connections between the female body and nature as a challenge to the history of man's domination over woman and nature.

Moi, Toril. "Feminist, Female, Feminine." In The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism, edited by Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore, pp. 117132. Basingstoke and London, 1989. The title of this essay alludes to the three categories of writing identified by Elaine Showalter in A Literature of Their Own. Moi critiques the belief that female experience is the basis of feminism, and argues that the gynocentric approach fails to avoid the dangers of biological essentialism in its depictions of men and women.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. 2d ed. London and New York, 2002. Moi examines the strengths and limitations of the two main strands in feminist criticism, the Anglo-American and the French, and argues against the essentialism of gynocentric approaches to literature, paying particular attention to the works of Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York, 1977. Rich's influential and landmark investigation links the experiences of women with the institutions (like motherhood) that are imposed on them and that determine their sense of self. It is also a celebration of motherhood that seeks to revalorize women's identity in gynocentric terms.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Princeton, 1977. This work has become a classic of feminist literary criticism and, through a close study of female novelists, presents a detailed argument for gynocritics.

Showalter, Elaine, ed. The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. London, 1986. A useful collection that brings together some of the most influential and controversial essays on the feminist approach to literature that followed from Showalter's development of gynocritics. Particularly relevant are the two articles by Showalter in the volume: "Towards a Feminist Poetics" (pp. 125143), which is a good summary of gynocritics, and "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness" (pp. 243270), which reiterates some of her earlier descriptions of the gynocritical approach and seeks to outline future directions for the feminist study of literature. Other authors in the volume include Rosalind Coward, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, and Carolyn Heilbrun.

Showalter, Elaine, ed. Speaking of Gender. New York and London, 1989. This volume brings together influential essays by male and female critics dealing with a broad range of topics in literary studies where gender theory has been applied to the production, reception, and interpretation of texts. Showalter's introduction shows a subtle shift in her earlier commitment to gynocritics, so that it has become possible to start asking questions about the construction of masculinity and its relationship to literature.

Young, Iris Marion. Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory. Bloomington and Indianapolis, Ind., 1990. See especially chapter 5, "Humanism, Gynocentrism, and Feminist Politics" (pp. 7391), which assesses the benefits and pitfalls of gynocentric feminism.

SÎan Hawthorne (2005)

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