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Wollstonecraft to Lady Di | The Nation

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Wollstonecraft to Lady Di

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Wollstonecraft spun from rejecting romance, intellectually, to being romantically rejected by a man with whom, against her principles, she had fallen passionately in love and had an out-of-wedlock baby, and over whom she tried to commit suicide. Her story almost had a happy ending: She found harmony at last in a marriage to the philosopher William Godwin and gave birth to their daughter, who became the writer Mary Shelley. But Wollstonecraft died in that childbirth.

About the Author

Deirdre English
Deirdre English teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Wollstonecraft's story sets the goal of the inquiry--can a woman ever find satisfaction in both work and love? Men face this problem, but not as a self-negating paradox. Traditionally, a man who has the drive to be successful will be loved for it, but a woman who is ambitious for success may be deprived of love for that very reason. She is asked to choose, or suffer the consequences.

The daisy chain of brief biographies that follow are all variations on this theme, set out as interconnected parables from which feminist instruction may be deduced. Here is Margaret Fuller, the great transcendentalist writer, who pined, "a man's ambition with a woman's heart--'tis an accursed lot." Abandoning the cold Yankees who had rejected her sexually, she overthrew her own Puritan ideas and embraced love in Italy, emerging as her "radiant sovereign self" at last. But Fuller died tragically in a shipwreck.

The powerful South African figure Olive Schreiner, was one of the fin de siècle New Women who, Showalter writes, "came to see themselves as a tragic generation, compelled to sacrifice love or motherhood or both in the interests of women's future freedom."

Eleanor Marx, Karl's daughter and Schreiner's friend and a committed socialist activist, committed suicide in despair over her husband's betrayal. According to Showalter, the New Women of the nineteenth century never found happiness because they were unable to "suppress guilt for behaving in 'unfeminine' ways."

But with the twentieth century, Showalter promises, newer women would imagine a fuller life. The American author of Women and Economics, Charlotte Perkins Gilman ("Work first--love next"), was a member of Heterodoxy, a feminist women's club that flourished in New York from 1912 to 1920. We meet the wonderful tribe of feminist anthropologists:Elsie Clews Parsons; the incredible Ruth Benedict, who was the mentor of Margaret Mead; and Zora Neale Hurston, who had to surmount the tribulations of race as well as sex, and whose "presence at Columbia was almost miraculous."

There is a section on Mary McCarthy, never a feminist but rather the first twentieth-century "dark lady" of letters, selected to be one of the boys by the New York intellectuals at Partisan Review. McCarthy had a long correspondence with her friend, the German Jewish refugee Hannah Arendt, who came to this country imbued with the ideas of Martin Heidegger, her philosopher ideal, lover and, in very real ways, her enemy. We meet again the incomparable Simone de Beauvoir, and hear about her love affair with the tough-guy Chicagoan Nelson Algren, and her lifelong sexual-intellectual relationship with her philosopher-lover, Sartre. Then on to Susan Sontag, who first read Beauvoir when she was 18 and pregnant, vowed to live the life of an independent woman and, according to the rites of the male intellectual tribe of her day, was initiated as the successor "dark lady," picked to replace the aging McCarthy. One declining diva to the upcoming one, McCarthy is said to have hissed, on meeting Sontag, "Oh, you're the imitation me." As Sontag displaced McCarthy in the iconography of the intellectuals, so Camille Paglia tried desperately to replace Sontag (and Showalter ruefully admits that she at one time tried, too, to succeed Sontag as America's singular woman of letters). Paglia is skewered as a brilliant madwoman and fool, and on the jacket copy are the words of Showalter's friend Joyce Carol Oates: Paglia's "comical pursuit of Susan Sontag...is worth the price of the book alone." It's true, and there are tons of similarly gossipy tales of women's sexual peccadilloes and the embarrassments of ambition. But we have lost the thread of feminism.

Instead, one gets the feeling of a picaresque tale of trial and error, with plenty of tragic pitfalls in the past yielding to more humorous pratfalls as women continued their epic struggle with their two bête-noires: intellectual and sexual frustration, and the confounding connection between them. Showalter's decision to focus on the psychobiographies of female intellectuals, then, while hardly constituting an intellectual history of feminism, is illuminating in its own right--but more depressing than she wants to acknowledge.

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