Here we go, starting on what promises to be a pleasantly engrossing tour of the landmarks of three centuries of Anglo-American intellectual feminism, guided by a seriously impressive scholar, Elaine Showalter of Princeton University. Showalter is the erudite author of some classic feminist literary texts and a founder of women’s studies, yet she has a light and deft hand on the wheel. It’s only that–there aren’t a lot of signposts that tell us where we’re going as we start out, and Showalter breezily informs us that whether women participated in the organized women’s movements of their day or thought of themselves as intellectuals or not, "I am most interested in the risk-takers and adventurers" of the past.
She illustrates what she means with the book’s very first paragraph, in a way that seems perplexing–by equating Mary Wollstonecraft, the eighteenth-century author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Princess Diana, of all people, as examples of the sort of feminists–or "icons," she calls them–she is looking for.
A bit of a further worry is her flippant reassurance, "Life stories retain their power when theories fade." This comes off as defiant, or defensive. Feminist literary theory, which she helped initiate, has been producing a lot of heat in the English departments for some twenty or thirty years now, and some women outside academia, including myself, have wondered if the whole theory thing was going to produce any light to guide the women’s movement by. Otherwise, what are all those feminist professors doing in there?
We can guess that Showalter hasn’t lived immersed in literature and theory without picking up a few tricks about how to spin a story, so her deflection seems to be a broad hint that she will be expressing her opinions indirectly, speaking through the biographies she picks. Because if she says she’s staking a claim to the feminist intellectual heritage, she must have an argument to make about what’s important, and who’s in and who’s out. That means it will be up to us, as readers, to absorb the moral of her stories, or to play the literary critic ourselves, and try to pry the meanings out.
The book is pitched away from potential critics, though. It’s a book most ordinary readers will love–I loved it myself the first time through, as a popularly written ode to great women in history, sort of an Intellectual Feminists for Dummies. Showalter is a good writer, very Modern Language Association (of which she is a past president) meets People magazine (where she took a yearlong joy ride as a media critic). Her central theme, as it emerges in the telling, is as delicious and guiltily indulgent as a box of Godiva chocolates: the educated woman’s timeless quest for identity, especially the reconciliation of love and ambition. It could be an alumni seminar at Reunion Week.
"Biography, as a genre," writes Carol Brightman, in "Character in Biography," "has undergone a fundamental shift in recent decades…to what the market in its infinite wisdom calls ‘Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous.’ Especially among women writing about women for women." Showalter proposes that we see ourselves, today, in the courageous lives of heroines who refused to "accept limits…on the basis of sex" and so were "ahead of [their] time." They are a mirror of us.
A perhaps unsettling mirror. Settling down with the book, one is amazed to read how many of our feminist foremothers had unhappy love affairs, with some real bounders, too, and how many died tragically! Look at Mary Wollstonecraft, first on the "in" list. Her brief biography reveals the themes that Showalter is interested in. We read little about Wollstonecraft’s breakthrough feminist political philosophy. What she calls our attention to is Wollstonecraft’s life–and her struggle to be both a thinker, when that was forbidden, and a woman.