Rereading - Feminism revisited - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


10. Feminism revisited


Lissa Paul


At the end of the original version of this essay on feminism and children’s literature, in the first edition of this Encyclopedia, I wondered what feminist theory would look like in the new millennium. Now I know. It’s over. It’s not that criticism of children’s books influenced by feminism is no longer being written. There is a lot of very good feminist-inspired criticism about - and it has changed the landscape of children’s literature studies. What’s over is the feminist movement that supported the development of feminist criticism in the 1970s and 1980s. Feminism is over in the same way that Romanticism is over, and rationalism is over and existentialism is over and Marxism is over. We’ve been changed by those critical movements and they all continue to influence our readings of texts. But the movements themselves have been relegated to their particular historical periods. Although feminism as a critical movement is over, its influence is alive and well and exerting itself on what we read, and on how we interpret and value what we read.

The end of feminism in the late 1990s seems to have been precipitated by women (white, middle-class women) who felt that the feminist campaign promises of the early 1970s hadn’t quite been kept: that gender equity still wasn’t possible, that there was still a glass ceiling preventing them from reaching the tops of their professions, and that it was still all but impossible to have, simultaneously, a successful career, a good marriage, a happy family - and perfect beauty. Several books by jaded feminists told this story - but two turned out to be most influential: The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women (1991) by Naomi Wolf, and Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women (1992) by Susan Faludi. ‘Backlash’, in fact, became the word to describe the end of feminism - and the rise of various kinds of men’s movements and concerns about the failure of boys to do as well as girls on standardised tests. Despite the end of feminism, the basic tenets of feminist theory I outlined in the earlier essay are still very much with us (and available in a wonderful collection of essays, Feminisms, edited by Robyn Warhol and Diane Herndl) including attention to: distinctive patterns of women’s writing (ecriture feminine); to the ‘resisting’ feminine reader who recognises that ‘good’ literature had been implicitly defined as masculine; to the historical reclamation of a feminine literary tradition; and to the inclusion of voices other than white male ones. These critical ways of seeing continue to influence the ways in which literature, including children’s literature, is written, read and understood. Portions of the original essay that traced the history of feminist scholarship in children’s literature have been left intact. This new essay is not so much rewritten as overwritten - to reflect the ways in which feminist criticism has become an integral part of the landscape of children’s book criticism in the twenty-first century.

In the original essay, I named ‘the destabilisation of hierarchical orders’ as one of the mobilising features of feminist theory - and then pointed out, ironically, that people working as children’s literature scholars still set up an implicit hierarchical system that put literary critics at the top and put librarians, teachers - and children - lower down. The heartening news is that the boundaries have been breached. In 2002, for example, The Journal of Children’s Literature, a refereed journal published by the National Council of Teachers of English (so primarily a journal for people working in education faculties rather than literature faculties) published a special issue, ‘Feminist Approaches to Children’s Literature’. Essays by literary scholars Lynne Vallone and Wolfgang Iser appear in the same issue as education scholars Ruth McKoy Lowery and Patricia Austin. There is a shared critical ground, visible in the works cited in both kinds of essays: literary scholars attending to the work of education scholars - and vice versa. That’s encouraging in the twenty-first century, especially as the future of children’s literature studies will probably demand more interdisciplinary co-operation and attention. But not all the updated news is so good.

Issues of gender equity remain unresolved, despite the body of work pointing towards ways of addressing discriminatory practices. In ‘Sexism and Children’s Literature: A Perspective for Librarians’ (1981), Christine Nicholls recognises that ‘sexism is a type of colonialism’, but she then goes on to suggest that solutions to the problem include the use of ‘white out’ and the abandonment of books no longer in accord with contemporary definitions of gender equity. Hugh Crago (a psychotherapist and a fine children’s literature critic) offers a sensitively worked-out corrective. In ‘Sexism, Literature and Reader-Response: A Reply to Christine Nicholls’, he reminds Nicholls (and the rest of us) that responses to texts are subject to large fluctuations, especially in fluid forms like fairy tales where versions, translations and illustrations all contribute to shaping the interpretative possibilities of texts. He also foregrounds the idea that there is really no such thing as ‘the one-way cause and effect relationship’ (Crago 1981: 161) between reader and text - something implicit in the Nicholls article and in a great many like it.

There are two points worth highlighting here. One is that the emphasis on sex-role stereotyping and sexism, still found most often in education and library science journals, is connected with an honest front-line attempt to create a more female-friendly climate, especially in schools. That’s good. The other point worth keeping in mind is that poststructuralist discussions, especially those on semiotics, deconstruction, ideology and subjectivity, make it possible to develop language and strategies that speak - to borrow a phrase from Carol Gilligan - ‘in a different voice’. For an academic feminist children’s literature critic, feminist admonitions to remember our histories and value members of our communities continue to sound.

Children’s literature offers to children the promise of inclusion in a literate community (something regarded as culturally valuable, at least nominally). The critical apparatus surrounding children’s books offers an intellectual understanding of what inclusion means and how it might be achieved. What feminist theory has done for children’s literature studies - and for all fields of literary study - is to insist on the right to be included, not just as honorary white men. Beverly Lyon Clark, in ‘Fairy Godmothers or Wicked Stepmothers’, makes the issue explicit when she encourages children’s literature scholars to talk back and ‘recognise whom we are stepping on, whom we are putting down, and why’ (1993: 174). Clark’s questioning of the relations between children’s literature critics and feminist critics continued to resonate through the 1990s.

In the original essay I cited two special feminist issues of two children’s literature journals. The Children’s Literature Association Quarterly ran a special section, edited by Anita Moss, in the Winter 1982 edition: ‘Feminist Criticism and the Study of Children’s Literature’. In that early collection of essays there were several reviews of books of feminist literary criticism, each sketching possible critical lines children’s literature critics might find worth exploring. Virginia Wolf, for instance, writes about alternatives to the heroic quest in science fiction; and Lois Kuznets about texts that value communities rather than kingdoms. In December 1991, The Lion and the Unicorn published an issue called ‘Beyond Sexism: Gender Issues in Children’s Literature’. By that time the lessons of feminist theory had been internalised, and critics were actively constructing a feminist tradition in children’s literature. There was a switch from ‘feminist criticism’ to ‘gender’ studies, marking the subtle inclusion of gay and lesbian studies into the fray. ‘Gender’, even in the early 1990s, was being used as a code to prevent feminist studies from becoming a pink- collar ghetto. The broadening of the items on an initially feminist agenda progressed apace through the 1990s. In 1993, the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly published a special section, ‘Mothers and Daughters in Children’s Literature’, edited by Mitzi Myers. And in September 1999, Kenneth Kidd was the guest editor for an issue of The Lion and the Unicorn (24, 3) on sexuality and children’s literature.

In keeping with emphasis in this essay on tracking the historical record of feminist influence on children’s literature studies - and taking to heart critic Jane Gallop’s cryptic caution to remember that ‘history is like a mother’ (1992: 206-39) - I’m going to focus on three broad areas of academic children’s literature criticism influenced (unanxiously) by feminist theory: the rereading of texts for previously unrevealed interpretations; the reclaiming of texts that had been devalued or dismissed; and the redirection of feminist theory into providing a welcoming climate for texts by people marginalised by patriarchal colonial societies. The titles in each of my three sections in this essay, ‘Rereading’, ‘Reclaiming’ and ‘Redirection’, take their cue from Adrienne Rich’s ideas that feminist poetics are about ‘revision’ (Rich 1976).




The desire for feminist rereading comes from an understanding of the ways ideological assumptions about the constitution of good literature (or criticism for that matter) work. By the early 1970s, feminist critics like Kate Millett (1977) had made it common knowledge that assumptions about good literature had been predicated on the belief that the adult white male was normal, while virtually everyone else was deviant or marginal. And so was born a critical desire to see if a feminine literary tradition, and feminine culture, could be made visible. By using techniques from deconstruction (derived largely from Derrida) and from contemporary discussions of ideology (from Althusser and Pierre Bourdieu) and subjectivity (largely derived from Lacan), feminist critics began to look at the ways ideological assumptions are played out in the text. They searched for a feminine tradition of ‘other’ stories: mother, daughter, sister stories (Chodorow (1978), Hirsch (1989)); a preference for survival tactics over honour (Gilligan (1982)); a search for a ‘both/and’ feminine plot rather than an ‘either/or’ oedipal plot (Hirsch); a preference for multiplicity, plurality, jouissance and a valuing of pro-creations, recreations and new beginnings (Cixous (1991), Gallop, Rich); a questioning of rigid male/female gender distinctions (Butler); and an insistence women not white or Anglophone have a voice too (hooks (1992), Spivak). Feminist children’s literature critics also participate in this recovery of a female literary tradition (Clark, Kidd (2000), Myers (1986, 1987, 1991), Pace, Paul (1997/1990, 1998), Trites, Vallone (1990, 1991) and Zipes among others). The following small sketches of reinterpretation, rehabilitation and re-creation demonstrate the range of ways in which that tradition is being revealed.



Feminist reinterpretations of familiar classics like The Secret Garden and Little Women turn stories we thought were about struggles to conform to the social order into stories about women’s healing and successful communities of women (Bixler (1991), Nelson, Auerbach). Little Women - as read by Edward Salmon (a nineteenth-century authority on children’s literature) in his 1888 obituary of Alcott in Atalanta - is a story about instructing girls to be ‘the proper guardians of their brothers’ and to be ‘all-powerful for good in their relations with men’ (449). But for Nina Auerbach, in Communities of Women (1978), it is the story of ‘the formation of a reigning feminist sisterhood whose exemplary unity will heal a fractured society’ (37). The critical rereading turns it from a story about women learning how to serve men into a story of women supporting each other.

The turn to the new millennium raised Louisa Alcott’s status in the literary canon of children’s books - in much the same that Virginia Woolf’s status as a modernist was raised by feminist scholarship. As Rita Felski argues in Literature after Feminism (2003), Woolf wasn’t considered in the same league as Joyce or Eliot until feminist critics argued for her aesthetic as well as her political contributions. Alcott, too, had always been popular, but it wasn’t until considerations of her literary merit became a feminist project that the status of Little Women as an American classic came to be understood in the same way as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain is understood as an American classic. The brilliance of Alcott’s most famous book is made visible in an enlightening collection of twenty essays, assembled by editors Janice M. Alberghene and Beverly Lyon Clark, ‘Little Women’ and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays (1999). What is immediately clear in the collection is the way in which feminist theory has widened out to include discussions beyond the obvious mother/daughter or father/daughter relations. Victoria Roberts offers a comic strip Little Women, Roberta Seelinger Trites considers lesbian politics in the story, and Jan Susina writes about (resisting) male readers. Susan Laird writes about teaching, Susan Gannon about film versions of the book, and Aiko Moro-oka provides a bibliography that offers a glimpse of the way Alcott’s work is received in Japan. Those are just a few of the essays in the collection - but the range speaks eloquently to what feminist theory has become in the twenty-first century. Gender relations, gender politics, reception, translations (into other languages and other media) all seem perfectly at home under the collective umbrella of the ‘feminist imagination’.



The rehabilitation of works by Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth and other ‘lady moralists’ of the Georgian and Romantic periods is one of the major success stories of academic feminist children’s literature criticism. Although I am going to focus on criticism by Mitzi Myers, credit also goes to Anita Moss (1988, 1993-4) and Lynne Vallone.

As Mitzi Myers pointedly states, texts by Georgian ‘lady’ moralists as rendered in standard overviews of children’s literature, suffer from ‘something like the critical equivalent of urban blight’ (Myers 1986: 31). John Rowe Townsend dismisses these women as ranging ‘from the mildly pious to the sternly moralistic’ (1974: 39). Harvey Darton refers to ‘the truculent dogmatic leanings of Mrs Sherwood and Mrs Trimmer’ and the ‘completely dogmatic’ Mary Godwin (1982: 156, 196).

Myers offers different readings. She participates in what feminist critic Elaine Showalter calls ‘gynocriticism’, that is, criticism that attends to ‘the woman as producer of textual meaning, with the history, themes, genres, and structures of literature by women’ (Showalter 1985: 128). What Myers asks is how those Georgian women found autonomy and influence in a world where those freedoms were denied. Her answers transform lady moralists scorned for their conformity into the founding mothers of a feminist pedagogical tradition.

These and other late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century women, including Dorothy and Mary Ann Kilner and Eliza Fenwick, for example, all knew how to convey the sounds of real children fighting and playing and learning. Opening the Nursery Door: Reading, Writing and Childhood 1600-1900 (Hilton et al. 1997) is a collection of essays about women as teachers, inspired by Jane Johnson (1706-59), wife of a Buckinghamshire vicar, and a mother. Her homemade domestic teaching materials - poems, stories and alphabet mobiles - survive in the archive in the Lilly Library of Indiana University. Her story provided the impetus for other stories in the collection about maternal pedagogies.

In Georgian England, where there were few roles for (upper-class) women except as wives, mothers and governesses, Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth and other women like Mrs Trimmer and Mrs Sherwood transformed their roles. They constructed ‘an almost unrecognised literary tradition’, one that ‘accepts and emphasizes the instructive and intellectual potential of narrative’ (Myers 1986: 33). Maria Edgeworth, for example, creates female protagonists as ‘desiring’ subjects, not just objects of desire. And Mary Wollstonecraft, in her Mrs Mason stories, redefines power in unpatriarchal terms ‘as pedagogic and philanthropic power’ (43). For a full-length portrait of the relationship between maternal pedagogy and power, Becoming Victoria (2001) by Lynne Vallone offers a brilliant analysis of the educational influences that shaped the young Princess Victoria into a queen.



Although I’ve focused so far on the way academic critics construct feminist traditions in children’s literature, I’m mindful of the ways authors who published while under the influence of late twentieth-century feminism changed the way we read. Author Ursula Le Guin has chronicled the change most dramatically. In Earthsea Revisioned (1993), the published version of a lecture she gave in Oxford in 1992, Le Guin records the influence of gender politics on her Earthsea quartet. The first three Earthsea novels, published between 1968 and 1972, are in the genre of the traditional heroic fantasy, something Le Guin defines as ‘a male preserve: a sort of great game-park where Beowulf feasts with Teddy Roosevelt, and Robin Hood goes hunting with Mowgli, and the cowboy rides off into the sunset alone’ (Le Guin 1993: 5).

Le Guin does not apologise for the male-order, hierarchical world in the first three novels. But twenty years after their publication she recognises things about that world that she didn’t understand when she made it. With the insights of contemporary feminist theory, she understands that, at the time, she was ‘writing partly by the rules, as an artificial man, and partly against the rules, as an inadvertent revolutionary’ (7). In her revolutionary mode, in a partly conscious attempt to create a hero from a visible minority, Le Guin made Ged and all the good guys in the Earthsea books black, and the bad guys white. Nevertheless, the good guys were standard male-order heroes anyway. They lived lives of ‘continence; abstinence; denial of relationship’ (16). And they worked in a world predicated on ‘power as domination over others, unassailable strength, and the generosity of the rich’ (14).

But in Tehanu, the fourth and final Earthsea book, published seventeen years after the third, Le Guin scraps male-order heroism. She creates Tenar, a feminist pro-creative, recreative hero: ‘All her former selves are alive in her: the child Tenar, the girl priestess Arha ... and Goha, the farmwife, mother of two children. Tenar is whole but not single. She is not pure’ (Le Guin 1993: 18). The traditional male hero, the dragonslayer and dragonlord, marked by his capacity to defeat evil, to win, and to receive public adoration and power, is nowhere in sight. In the new mythology Le Guin creates, the dragon is transformed into a familiar, a guide for a new female hero: ‘The child who is our care, the child we have betrayed, is our guide. She leads us to the dragon. She is the dragon.’ Le Guin moves out of the hierarchical ordering of the heroic world, and into a new world where the search is for wildness, a ‘new order of freedom’ (26).

At the turn of the millennium, Le Guin’s fantasy novels seem touchingly well behaved in the context of the fantasy novels produced by younger women who never experienced a pre-feminist world. The fantasies of Francesca Lia Block belong here: urban, closer to wish-fulfilment dream than medieval romance, her stories, particularly those in the Girl Goddess #9: Nine Stories (1996) collection open out into a more overtly sexual world than the world of Earthsea.