New Historicism & Feminism
A Brief Overview

New Historicism 
  1. Literature is not an aesthetic, isolated object. Nor does literature represent an autonomous body of set meanings that can artistically resolved, which would be an illusion of the text. (These are some of the assumptions of the New Criticism.) Literature does not have a special status as a "text." In addition to literary texts, there are, for example, historical, political, and economic texts.
  2. History is not a static, objective set of facts and events that serve as a background setting for literature or that are reflected in literature. History is a set of practices, beliefs, and cultural relationships. Literature is shaped by history as history is shaped by literature--how history is understood and values attached to history.
  3. Literary texts can accommodate or challenge prevailing views of society and culture within a given historical moment. In addition, writers or authors are shaped by historical conditions in which they write and either reinforce prevailing social/cultural views or subvert them, or both.
  1. Western civilization is patriarchal--male-centered and controlled. Social structures as well as classic literary texts reinforce the values associated with masculinity--strength, reason, intellect, leadership, bravery, action, sexual desire--and the values associated with femininity--frailness, emotion, virtue, passiveness, obedience, nonsexual desire (except for procreation and conjugal obligation). These ideas are accepted (and presented in some literature, for example) as natural, the result of socialization.
  2. Sex refers to biology while gender--traits that define masculinity and femininity--is socially constructed. Some feminist theorists argue that sex itself is not a stable, natural category but also is constructed through discourses about medicine, biology, and sexuality. Cross-dressing and transgendering complicate an understanding of sex and gender.
  3. Literary texts, particularly "classic texts" written by men that constitute the literary canon, promote a patriarchal ideology, consciously and unconsciously. Feminist readings aim to uncover this ideology as well as bring recognition to women writers excluded from the traditional literary canon. Some women writers reveal a hidden subtext of resistance to male patriarchy "underneath" an apparent surface text of patriarchal values. Finally, feminist readings in literature can lead to activism for social and political concerns.