Wollstonecraft to Lady Di

Wollstonecraft to Lady Di

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.


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.

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.

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.

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?

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?

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.

Showalter’s essentialist theorizing, and the search for a "woman’s literature" with special characteristics, put her in bed with the wrong people. According to Moi,


[there is a] fundamental complicity between this empiricist and humanist variety of feminist criticism and the male academic hierarchy it rightly resists…. The humanist believes in literature as an excellent instrument of education: by reading "great works" the student will become a finer human being…. The literary canon of "great literature" ensures that it is this "representative experience" (one selected by male bourgeois critics) that is transmitted to future generations, rather than those deviant, unrepresentative experiences discoverable in much female, ethnic and working class writing. Anglo-American feminist criticism has waged war on this self-sufficient canonization of middle-class male values. But they have rarely challenged the very notion of such a canon…. But a new canon would not be intrinsically less oppressive than the old.


As the poststructuralist critique of identity politics took hold over the following decade and more, it became unfashionable, in ideas and in dress, it seemed, for the avant-garde of the female professoriate to identify with either men or women, which must have made it harder than ever to figure out what to wear to teach a class (unless, luckily, you were a public cross-dresser or male to female gender-bender, armed with queer theory–the only ones allowed, in a sort of campy way, to have fun with frippery). Basic black might be the obvious answer, but some confident women rejected that straitjacket and had the chutzpah to break the taboos.

Elaine Showalter was one of them, enjoying fashion and even flaunting her "political incorrectness" in Vogue in 1997, when she was president of the MLA. In a feature for Lingua Franca ("Who’s Afraid of Elaine Showalter?") Emily Eakin wrote,


few colleagues were taken in by the piece’s lighthearted, gamely self-mocking tone. Here, masquerading as a paean to lipstick and Loehman’s, was nothing less than a political manifesto. "From Mary Wollstonecraft to Naomi Wolf, feminism has often taken a hard line on fashion, shopping, and the whole beauty Monty," Showalter wrote [in Vogue]. "But for those of us sisters hiding Welcome to Your Facelift inside The Second Sex, a passion for fashion can sometimes seem a shameful secret life…. I think it’s time I came out of the closet."


That took some admirable nerve, and Eakin’s article (which first led me back to Moi) reports that the backlash was fierce in academic circles. "What did it mean for a leading academic feminist to come out in favor of…symbols…of consumer capitalism and traditional femininity?" Eakin says that at Cornell University, feminists raged for a month in online debates.

Incisive as Moi’s critique was at the time, one has to have sympathy, too, with what Showalter was rebelling against later, especially to the degree that it became another form of timid conformity. Moi and Showalter could each accuse the other of political correctness of different kinds. A feminism that is insufficiently self-critical and requires a reverent attitude toward women, without even being able to give an adequate definition of "women," must be shallow and doctrinaire, and that is the charge against Showalter. Moi had predicted that her lack of critical thinking would put Showalter in the "painful position" of colluding with the "patriarchal elite" she thought she was resisting. This would mean that Showalter privileged a "pro-woman" perspective at the cost of excluding other points of view, and remained willfully ignorant of the flaws in her theory.

On the other hand, a feminism that loses sight of real women who come to it with a sense of their needs and desires, and occupies itself instead with nervous philosophical hairsplitting, could be a charge leveled against the postmoderns. Moi, with her egalitarian Norwegian background, could probably not appreciate what it was like for American feminists to take on the educational establishment. Showalter scolds her critics: "We needn’t fall into postmodern apocalyptic despair about the futility of political action or the impossibility of theoretical correctness as a pre-condition for action." (It’s good to remember, as these feminists face off, that in the current climate, a conservative antifeminist like Lynne Cheney would lash them together and toss them both overboard.)

Still, this book leaves us at the scene of the shrine where Showalter intones her eulogy to Princess Diana: "Her elegance, taste and style were truly exceptional even in a beauty-conscious age," writes Showalter. "She was a feminist who championed feminine values." The question for us is, has Showalter’s frustration with the (say it slow) po-mo-fem/lit/crit hellhounds on her trail driven her around the bend? Or, had Toril Moi’s old prediction proved true? Moi had predicted that, as the reader also produces the text, eventually feminist critics would give "irreverent scrutiny" to the work of women writers, and cast doubt on Showalter’s essentialist biases. Curious thought–could it be that I, a feminist critic of a feminist critic, with my unflattering opinion that Showalter’s veneration of Princess Di represents an intellectual crack-up, am partially the author of that crackup and hence an unwitting agent helping to make Moi’s 1985 prediction come true? Such are the headachy ideas that wandering among lit/crit texts can give you.

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.

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