Wollstonecraft to Lady Di
Showalter yearns for more upbeat spin in a tale of progress and success for women who choose both love and freedom. Perhaps not finding any other, she portrays her own story, uniquely, as one that has reconciled love, marriage, feminism, ambition and success. Her autobiography is interwoven with the emergence of the second wave of feminism, represented primarily as an "I was there" memoir of Showalter and her own close friends and colleagues in women's studies and literature, especially at Douglass College, set against the background of the distant outbursts of radical women all over the country.
"I have tried to write about my heroines of the past as if they were my friends and contemporaries, and to write about my friends and contemporaries as if they were historical figures," she explains, which seems just the tiniest bit narcissistic, especially at the expense of influential feminist figures representing such disparate streams as Gloria Steinem, Florynce Kennedy, Alice Paul, Eleanor Smeal, Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Kate Millett, Maxine Hong Kingston, Betty Friedan or Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Since Showalter does not portray herself as a romantic adventurer, she substitutes food imagery for sexual escapades as metaphors for risk. Thus we hear of her first cheeseburger, the intimidations of brie and camembert served at Bryn Mawr, heaping platters of food passed at a black church, dysentery on a honeymoon in Mexico. Mostly, though, she looks back nostalgically at the 1970s as a golden age of solidarity among women that we may not see again.
When Showalter finally leaves the 1970s and zooms in on the present day, we're in for a shock, though it was foreshadowed from the very first paragraph. We might have expected that the problems that educated women have always had reconciling love and work might now, after the successes of the second wave, be re-examined as the more widespread and familiar problems of most educated women. To do so would have required that Showalter expand her discussion of love from romance to the questions of combining work with motherhood, family and childcare. She might have had to ask, as Arlie Hochschild and many other imaginative feminists are doing, whether the ethics of love and care can migrate from being women's sole, private and familial responsibility to a place more shared with men and also closer to the center of society. But, incredibly, the question of children and their welfare never comes up for discussion in this book. Only romantic love matters to intellectuals?
Veering away from the modern woman's dilemmas, Showalter praises celebrities--Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton and Princess Diana, as the three prime role models for "the way we live now." Turns out that Showalter has a wicked case of Dianamania, and here in the book's triumphalist finale, she is really driving us straight to the Princess's shrine, which she describes in loving detail, complete with women on the grounds weeping.
"I realized that Diana Spencer, like Mary Wollstonecraft, had become a role model of her time. She too had evolved an ideal of the fullest, most meaningful life she might dare to live as a woman in her historical circumstances, and then courageously tried to live it." This comparison is bizarre, but by this point Showalter has completely lost control of her own vehicle, declaring, "By the time of her death, she had achieved independence against enormous odds and seemed to be on the brink of realizing Freud's formula for adult psychological health: love and work."
Love? With an immature, though aging, rich man's heir, unremarked for any achievement but notorious for his playboy lifestyle and compulsive infidelities? Work--what work? Independence? Was her death, in a car chase fueled even more by multiple testosterone sources than by alcohol and gasoline, really the last act of a woman in charge of her life--or even trying to be?