Wollstonecraft to Lady Di
Perhaps it would be foolish to dwell too long in that arcane world of academic feminism which, in the words of Katha Pollitt, "absorbs vast amounts of female brain power and probably does less to liberate real women than Brandi Chastain's picture on a cereal box."
The skepticism of a woman in search of common sense comes as welcome relief. Unimpressed by all sides of the canon wars, in an essay called "Canon to the Right of Me..." Pollitt went so far as to defend (gasp) even the dead white males of the conservatives--meaning Homer, Shakespeare, etc. Yet Pollitt admits, just like a feminist, that finding poetry written by women (even very bad poetry) had been vitally important to inspiring her when she was a girl, and she goes on to argue, like a postmodernist, for a much broader and more inclusive syllabus when it comes to our reading. And right she was, in all these perspectives, too, and her undogmatic freedom to pick and choose among them.
So what, if anything, do these pomo critiques of feminist canons, shrines, lists, essentialist ideas or concepts of gender-identity mean from the point of view--dear to readers of The Nation--of politically engaged, activist feminism? What is that called these days, anyway? Liberal, or bourgeois, feminism are the terms one used to have for people with the politics of Elaine Showalter--where the goal is empowering women while somehow keeping their identity as women intact. In this posture, they are expected to enter the professional and intellectual classes without disarranging the furniture too much, or bringing in too much of a cool breeze relating to other aspects of the status quo. To such a woman, the conventional terms of success--making money, being beautiful, strong, a celebrity--are all seen as identical with the markers of feminist success. Today, with the disappearance of the left and the dismantling of liberalism, this is garden variety feminism, and it is this paralyzing expectation of individual achievement that young women have inherited and bravely but foolishly accepted as their mission. What were once socialist feminists, radical feminists, cultural feminists or women's liberationists had different points of view, but shared ideas of more sweeping social changes, to put it mildly. The vitality of feminism came not merely from women's integrationist demands but from this insistent and radical questioning of everything about the way the world was structured.
If the liberal, assimilationist idea of feminism has really won the day, and claims, as in this book's subtitle, the "intellectual heritage" of feminism, one still wishes that Showalter would have a more inclusive concept of what made up feminism in the first place. As Pollitt writes in the introduction to her recent book of columns from The Nation, "feminism is not a single, independent, all-powerful force, but is connected in complicated and even contradictory ways with other historical forces--egalitarianism and individualism, hedonism and puritanism, capitalism and the critique of capitalism." Showalter has the individualist, hedonist and capitalist parts down, but shows little interest in the other dimensions.
If this is her perspective, it's fair enough for her to uphold it. But it's hard to believe that Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, Margaret Mead, Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt and others in her pantheon would feel comfortable being force-marched down a path that leads to such a worldview, especially once they catch sight of Diana coming down the pike.
Woman's struggles with her splintered psyche, her often-failing attempts to live fully, are only one part of the story. The other part of feminism is woman's struggles to reimagine and to change society, her political fight (also often failing) not just for herself but for all the generations to come--and that is a transcendent and romantic quest, too. If Showalter thought so, she would have included such heroines as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, Eleanor Roosevelt and others who were more socially minded thinkers than some of her pure intellectuals. In this light, Moi's critical theory descends from past radical critics of society, feminists and others, and its contribution serves to reinvigorate the arguments of a less established feminism, without a doctrinaire heroizing of women.
In contrast, Showalter's film criticism in The American Prospect proves what a confused place you can land in following the I-Am-Woman-Hear-Me-Roar line. In her recent column, "The Film Critic," Showalter liked Charlie's Angels, though it is "lite, or low" feminism, because "I think it would have made a real impact on me if I had seen this on-screen when I was a girl, in addition to my trusty Wonder Woman comics." OK, fine, this is like the updraft from Pollitt's very bad women poets. But she bashes the plump and plucky Bridget Jones, chastising her as "incompetent in every area of her life--work, cooking, dating, drinking" and sternly states that the film, though it was made by a woman writer and woman director, has "no feminist consciousness whatsoever." Bridget Jones's Diary may be lite feminism too, but it's sad that Showalter doesn't appreciate a story about a woman who does stand for up herself (she tells off the rotter who is her boss and bedmate in front of cheering female office workers--that would have done a lot for me as a girl!), who can laugh at her own sorry messes and who, by the way, walks off at the end with a good looking, politically conscious barrister who loves her "just as she is." Like Charlie's angels, the apotheosis of Princess Di may serve as escapist fare, but today's younger American scene seems full of complicated, doubting, ironic Bridget Joneses who can't be--and as their feminist consciousness continuously grows, don't want to try to be--anybody's perfectionist fantasy.