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Wollstonecraft to Lady Di | The Nation

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Wollstonecraft to Lady Di

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Elaine Showalter couldn't really mean it, could she, putting this forth as the trajectory of feminism, intellectual feminism no less! From thinker to celebrity, from social outcast to star, from iconoclast to icon? Could she?

About the Author

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

This was the mystery I found myself confronting as I reeled from the sight of the smoking, intellectual wreck that is the conclusion of what is sure to be Elaine Showalter's most marketable crossover book to date. What would lead a self-respecting academic intellectual to an unabashed celebration of celebrity? Was Showalter shamelessly mercenary, academically suicidal...or, the victim of a deadly theoretical error?

To get some perspective on Showalter I had to go back--way back--to 1985, the year she received a famous shellacking at the hands of postmodern feminist critical literary theory's elite wing, personified by one bright, blonde Norwegian dame named Toril Moi. My impression that Showalter was fending off an unspecified critique had not been wrong.

It seems that there is still no better book to read against Inventing Herself than Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics--the book that started these particular culture wars by first applying critical theory to Showalter's 1970s feminist classic A Literature of Their Own and attacking Anglo-American literary feminism in general as dull-witted and un-revolutionary. Although Showalter has published several books and many other writings since then, her new book is her clearest, and in some ways cleverest, riposte to Moi. I found a used copy of Moi in a Berkeley bookstore, black covered and thin as a stiletto to slip between an aging mother's ribs. And sure enough, there is a story here, too--of Showalter, a pioneer of feminist theory, and of the next generation of critical theory stepdaughters who deny that there can ever be an unsuspicious "woman's point of view" and so, it was sometimes feared by the jargon-phobic feminists, were going to "deconstruct" the feminist baby in its crib.

For her part, Moi had predicted back then that Showalter would come to no good end if she did not mend her ways. Moi complained, "Showalter's aim, in effect, is to create a separate canon of women's writing, not to abolish all canons."

Showalter had argued that women's literature could be divided into three phases, which she labeled the feminine, followed by the feminist and finally the female. In the first, prefeminist stage, women imitated the dominant tradition to win acceptance. The second was a phase of protest against these standards and values, and advocacy of minority rights and values, including a demand for autonomy. Finally, after enough protest, followed presumably by a goodly measure of vindication and success, there is a phase of self-discovery, a turning inward freed from some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity.

Moi had a lot of problems with phase three, and its notions of a woman's singular "autonomy" and searching inward for identity. How could she not, informed as she was by poststructuralist theories that meaning is contextual and historical, and that identity is socially, and linguistically, constructed? If the European avant-garde that Moi was speaking for got it right, then the last place feminists would find a road map to liberation would be from a bunch of educated women searching within themselves. A woman might be a woman, and she might be an intellectual, but the meaning of these "situations" could never be her autonomous creation. She would have to contend with the construction of meanings that she had not agreed to. The friction encountered there (and embedded in language, and internalized in the psyche) is where the pressures of patriarchal power come into play.

Moi's critique, and her introduction of French feminist thinking to the US cultural studies scene, hit a big nerve. In ultra-serious circles in the humanities, the perpetuation of an "essentialist" conception of woman (where there was some uncompromised inner female to discover and give freedom to, à la Showalter) received a giant thumbs-down (in the biological sciences, it was a different story, but not one we have room for here). What is a woman? Philosophically speaking, no one can be sure.

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