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Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage

Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage

by Elaine Showalter

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Sure to take its place alongside the literary landmarks of modern feminism, Elaine Showalter's brilliant, provocative work chronicles the roles of feminist intellectuals from the eighteenth century to the present.

With sources as diverse as A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Scream 2, Inventing Herself is an expansive and timely exploration


Sure to take its place alongside the literary landmarks of modern feminism, Elaine Showalter's brilliant, provocative work chronicles the roles of feminist intellectuals from the eighteenth century to the present.

With sources as diverse as A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Scream 2, Inventing Herself is an expansive and timely exploration of women who possess a boundless determination to alter the world by boldly experiencing love, achievement, and fame on a grand scale. These women tried to work, travel, think, love, and even die in ways that were ahead of their time. In doing so, they forged an epic history that each generation of adventurous women has rediscovered.

Focusing on paradigmatic figures ranging from Mary Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller to Germaine Greer and Susan Sontag, preeminent scholar Elaine Showalter uncovers common themes and patterns of these women's lives across the centuries and discovers the feminist intellectual tradition they embodied. The author brilliantly illuminates the contributions of Eleanor Marx, Zora Neale Hurston, Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Mead, and many more.

Showalter, a highly regarded critic known for her provocative and strongly held opinions, has here established a compelling new Who's Who of women's thought. Certain to spark controversy, the omission of such feminist perennials as Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Virginia Woolf will surprise and shock the conventional wisdom.

This is not a history of perfect women, but rather of real women, whose mistakes and even tragedies are instructive and inspiring for women today who are still trying to invent themselves.

Editorial Reviews

"Life stories retain their power when theories fade," writes theorist and critic Showalter in her gossipy and entertaining look at female icons. From Margaret Fuller, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Eleanor Marx and Mary Wollstonecraft to Simone de Beauvoir, Princess Diana, Zora Neale Hurston, Camille Paglia and Susan Sontag, she provides a glimpse into the lives of women she calls "revered symbols...known for the daring and range of their demand for a full life." Throughout Showalter's book readers meet or revisit wily women who nonetheless suffered a range of ills, among them anorexia and depression. Their personal frailties—alongside their considerable, sometimes staggering, achievements—make their stories memorable. In the end, however, Showalter's book, like a distaff Profiles in Courage, celebrates the parts, not the whole. It leaves the reader longing for the empowerment of all women, not just the aggressive, if awesome, few.
—Eleanor J. Bader

(Excerpted Review)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Showalter begins and ends her account of the lives of famous women with Mary Wollstonecraft and Princess Di, both of them "rule-breakers who followed their own path, who were determined to experience love, achievement, and fame, and who wanted their life to matter." In short, they were "feminist icons," and along with a long list of American and British women (plus Simone de Beauvoir), their life stories make up Showalter's idea of a feminist inheritance. Hers is an idiosyncratic list, as notable for who is out as who is in: Rebecca West, but not Virginia Woolf; Hillary Clinton, not Eleanor Roosevelt; Camille Paglia, not Mary Daly; Princess Di, not Jackie O. The women she highlights were hardly monuments of either invulnerability or consistency, and the book invites us to identify with their wounds and scars as well as with their heroic search for autonomy. Although those familiar with the field of women's studies will discover relatively little that is new here, the general reader will find Showalter's vigorous retelling of the lives of these feminist foremothers engaging and blessedly free of both academic jargon and the weight of theory. Though readers may find her choices occasionally bewildering, they will also discover in them rich material for lively argument. Agent, Geri Thoma. (Mar. 20) Forecast: While this book will be required reading for countless introductory women's studies courses, it should also become a popular present from feminists from the 1960s and '70s to their daughters and sons. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Showalter (English, Princeton) has compiled a collection of short, readable biographies of unconventional women, focusing on their attempts to reconcile their need for intimacy with their need for achievement. Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Sontag, Germaine Greer, Camille Paglia, and Showalter herself each get their own 20-page chapters. Other notable women, including Margaret Mead, Mary McCarthy, Ann Douglas, Oprah Winfrey, and Hillary Clinton, receive even less substantial treatment. Showalter's portrayals, drawn from published biographies, are generally sympathetic (except for her assessment of Camille Paglia, whose life she describes as "narrow and ungenerous"). Her goal is "tribute" to these "feminist icons." Modern feminists need, she claims, to capture "a sense of the feminist past" and "to engage and to debate with the choices" her subjects made. These exceedingly brief portraits, however, will not further that end.--Cynthia Harrison, George Washington Univ., Washington, D.C. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Feminist scholar Showalter (Sister's Choice, 1991, etc.) stirs together literary history, biography, personal reminiscence, and pop culture in a peculiar narrative that devotes as much time to female thinkers' dysfunctional private lives as to their public achievements. The opening pages set the tone, with a strained analogy between the childbirth-related death of Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797 and the car crash that killed Princess Diana 200 years later. Both women, Showalter (English/Princeton Univ.) claims, are"feminist icons," a pairing that trivializes the author of Vindication of the Rights of Women and hyperbolically identifies the Princess of Wales as a"courageous activist." Subsequent chapters on Margaret Fuller, Olive Schreiner, Eleanor Marx, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman display the author's gift for cogently summarizing current scholarship, though they convey little new information."Heterodoxy in America" and"Heterodoxy in Britain" contain intelligent mini-biographies of lesser-known but important figures such as American anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons and English pacifist Vera Brittain. But even granting that the personal is political, the author pays an awful lot of attention to her subjects' sex lives and physical appearance, especially in the sections on Mary McCarthy, Simone de Beauvoir, and Susan Sontag. She also devotes an excessive amount of space to fellow academics like Ann Douglas, Carolyn Heilbrun, and Eve Sedgwick—all strong writers and thinkers, but hardly"icons" in the wider culture. A sharp portrait of Germaine Greer and an acid one of Camille Paglia are more relevant to Showalter's alleged topic (the feminist intellectual tradition,incase you'dforgotten), but the closing section on Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and Diana shows how catch-all her choice of subjects really is. Her argument that this eclectic group"reflects both cultural change and the span of identification that goes far beyond the academic and political" is both unconvincing and muddily expressed. Readable and mildly interesting, but shallow and sloppily reasoned—which is a disappointment from someone of Showalter's stature.

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Chapter One: Adventures in Womanhood

At the end of the summer of '97, the death of a famous Englishwoman shocked the world. Still young, the mother of two children, she died despite all the efforts of emergency medicine at exactly the moment when she seemed most poignantly close to achieving in her life the combination of autonomy, meaningful work, and intimacy she had long been seeking. To many women, she was a feminist role model, whose struggle to confront her contradictions was as illuminating as her effort to be independent. To others, she was dangerous and unstable, a hysteric given to unpopular causes, unhappy love affairs, nervous illnesses, even attempts at suicide. But however they viewed her life, women found it meaningful as a model of their own identities and potentialities. To confront her legacy was also a way of confronting and reinventing ourselves.

The woman was Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, who died September 10, 1797, at the age of thirty-eight, after giving birth to the daughter who would become Mary Shelley. Wollstonecraft's tempestuous life and tragic death is intensely modern and iconic because it represents a seemingly timeless division in the feminist psyche, the split between the need for independence and the need for love. Moreover, from Mary Wollstonecraft on, the great feminist icons were anything but saints. They too stumbled, loved the wrong men, took terrible risks, made bad decisions, behaved foolishly, made people angry, alienated their friends, felt despair. In September 1997, as I watched the television reports on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, I realized that Diana Spencer, like Mary Wollstonecraft, had become a role model for 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. Those who mourned her, particularly the women who cried at her funeral, brought bouquets to her grave, and bought books about her life, were confronting their own lives through her legacy.

From Mary Wollstonecraft to Diana Spencer, a small group of women have become feminist icons, symbols of aspiration who have exercised both spiritual and psychological power over women for the last two centuries. Absent from the standard compendia, conferences, coffee-table books, and CD-ROMs of notables and legends, these women have nonetheless constituted a subterranean, subconscious tradition as they have been rediscovered and reinvented by successive generations of rebellious, intellectual, and adventurous daughters.

I intend the term icon in its classical sense of "revered symbol." But the term has been debased in popular culture to mean a commercialized visual image or nonverbal sound endlessly repeated, packaged, parodied, marketed, and plugged. Nowadays, icon is a word usually linked with "celebrity" or superstardom. At worst, writes fashion journalist Holly Brubach, the icon is a "human sound bite, an individual reduced to a name, a face, and an idea."

At best, the icon is someone worshiped from afar, as Wayne Koestenbaum explains in regard to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: "We called Jackie an icon because she glowed, because she seemed ceaseless, because she resided in a worshiped, aura-filled niche. We called Jackie an icon because her image was frequently and influentially reproduced, and because, even when she was alive, she seemed more mythic than real. We called Jackie an icon because her story provided a foundation for our own stories, and because her face and the sometimes glamorous, sometimes tragic turns her life took were lodged in our systems of thought and reference, as if she were a concept, a numeral, a virtue, or a universal tendency, like rainfall or drought."

But the feminist icon is different. Before Princess Diana, they have not been primarily famous for their images; we don't really know how Wollstonecraft or Margaret Fuller looked. Unlike the contemporary icons of the mass media, their faces and stories have not been used to sell products or lifestyles. Their styles have not been fetishized as accessories or collector's items. Although they may have been beautiful and dashing, they are not imitated by drag queens or turned into paper dolls.

Instead, they are known for the daring and range of their demand for a full life. While women in every era have been instructed or advised to follow rules of conduct, seduction, and success, those who have become feminist icons and heroines were rule-breakers who followed their own paths, who were determined to experience love, achievement, and fame, and who wanted their lives to matter. We do not ask them for perfection. Rather, their fallibility and humanity make them real to us, and even their tragedies are instructive and inspiring for women today who are still trying to combine independence, adventure, and love.

Over the centuries, we find that women have turned to mythology and religion for clues to the feminist epic life, reaching back to the Amazons, Diana of Ephesus, Cassandra, Penelope, Minerva, or Isis. They have sometimes sought in history a Feminist Messiah, a saint or savior who can redeem the lives of other women by sacrificing her own. George Eliot wrote about the yearning for the epic life in her greatest novel, Middlemarch (1871), in which she traced the development of an ardent young Englishwoman, Dorothea Brooke, a "later-born" Saint Theresa, whose "spiritual grandeur" meets "no coherent social faith and order." For Dorothea, noble aims conflict with "the common yearning of womanhood" for love and maternity.

But while some women were thwarted by these desires, others made them part of the experiment. In 1917, the American anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote of how she "longed to speak out about the intense inspiration that comes to me from the lives of strong women. They have made of their lives a great adventure." Benedict planned to write a book called "Adventures in Womanhood," which would pay thoughtful tribute to the feminist icons who had inspired her. She wrote, but never published, the chapter on Mary Wollstonecraft, calling her the mother of us all. "The story of Mary Wollstonecraft," Benedict writes, "is that most precious of human documents: the story of a life that achieved an idea....For her, life had no axioms; its geometry was all experimental. She was forever testing, probing; forever dominated by an utter unwillingness to accept the pretense, the convention, in place of the reality...a passionately intellectual attitude toward living was her essential tool."

Like the feminist icons who lived after her, Wollstonecraft was ahead of her time, as incomprehensible to the eighteenth century as "the fourth dimension to a class in fractions." She shocked her contemporaries with her ideas about women's rights to full humanity, and she brought all her powers of reason and persuasion to the elaboration of those ideas. Yet of all these contributions, Benedict writes, "her own life is the commentary incomparably the most arresting and the most significant." Indeed, "the knowledge she won, the price she paid, her books may hint to us, but it is her life through which we understand. It is there that we can measure that passionate attitude toward living out of which all the restlessness of modern womanhood has grown. It is her life story that makes her our contemporary."

Life stories retain their power when theories fade. In many twilight conversations during the past few years, over coffee or over white wine, I have mentioned to men that I am writing a book about women with a passionate attitude toward living, and they have nodded and smiled and said, "Oh, yes, Madame Curie." But this is not a book about Madame Curie. Nor will you find Eleanor Roosevelt in these pages, or Jane Addams, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhart, Helen Keller, Rachel Carson, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher, or many other highly intelligent, pathbreaking, or gifted women who are frequently prescribed to us as role models. To be sure, there are great women, notable women, admirable women in history who have preached the doctrine of female self-realization and practiced self-denial. But as the very unsaintly Victoria Woodhull said during her daring campaign for the presidency of the United States in 1872, "To preach the doctrine you must live the life."

My choices among those who both preached and lived their freedom reflect my own situation as a literary critic and sixties feminist activist who has lived in England, France, and the United States. These choices, ranging from Wollstonecraft in the 1790s to Eleanor Marx, Olive Schreiner, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the 1890s, and Hillary Clinton, Princess Diana, and Oprah Winfrey in the 1990s, may not suit everyone, but they cover a spectrum from the intellectual to the celebrity that I believe reflects both cultural change and the span of identification that goes far beyond the academic and political. Obviously my definition of feminism is broad and inclusive and refers to those who would not accept limits to a woman's life on the basis of sex. Many intellectual women who lived adventurously had no interest whatsoever in the organized women's movement of their day, while many women whose lives exemplified feminist goals never thought of themselves as intellectual pioneers. I am most interested in the risk-takers and adventurers.

Moreover, I have put some of my own history into this book, in places where it intersects with the history of feminism in our time. And as I've studied the lives of my heroines, of course I've also asked whether these patterns describe and help explain phases in my own life. I never met a feminist when I was growing up. I never even met a "career girl," as she would have been called in the forties and fifties. None of the women in my huge extended family -- aunts, cousins, cousins once or twice removed -- had a job outside her home. But the Boston suburbs were an ideal place for a bookish girl; when I had read everything in the house, I took the nickel streetcar ride, first to the Brookline Public Library at Coolidge Corner, and later to the secondhand bookstores of Cambridge and Scollay Square. I met my women of adventure first in books, and 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 whose milieu I am trying to reconstruct.

I have not discovered any tidy patterns or plots in the lives of feminist rule-breakers, but I have noticed some common and recurring themes. Above all, these were women who defined themselves, however painfully, as autonomous. In her 1892 address "The Solitude of Self," the American suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton insisted that "in discussing the rights of woman, we are to consider, first, what belongs to her as an individual, in a world of her own, the arbiter of her own destiny, an imaginary Robinson Crusoe with her woman, Friday, on a solitary island. Her rights under such circumstances are to use all her faculties for her own safety and happiness." Like men, women ultimately "must make the voyage of life alone."

Women who became feminist icons and leaders tended to define themselves in opposition to their mothers. "If you look for the provenance of the feminist writer," notes Lorna Sage, "mother is the key. The women who really nailed patriarchy weren't on the whole the ones with authoritarian fathers, but the ones with troubled, contradictory mothers: you aim your feminism less at men than at the picture of the woman you don't want to be, the enemy within." Yet they also formed strong and sometimes romantic friendships with other girls and sustained these intimate friendships with women throughout their lives. In their relationships with men, they consciously sought male doubles, or twins, with whom they could form an intellectual, political, or professional partnership. Sometimes these partnerships were unequal. Toril Moi sees in Simone de Beauvoir's career the classic dilemma "of the intellectual woman's relationship to love." Because "thinking women have worried about their capacity to inspire love," Moi writes, they are vulnerable to forming intense "erotico-theoretical transference relations" with their male mentors, who they hope will appreciate both their minds and their bodies. The strongest of the women moved beyond this dependence.

In Writing a Woman's Life (1988), Carolyn G. Heilbrun sees the crucial element in the adventure of women as coming to terms with power. "What has been forbidden to women," she declares, "is...the open admission of the desire for power and control over one's life (which inevitably means accepting some degree of power and control over other lives)." Many women, even feminists, abjure and deny the necessity of power. They "would prefer (or think they would prefer) a world without evident power or control." Heilbrun hypothesizes that some gifted women unconsciously and indirectly take power over their lives by committing an "outrageous act," a social or sexual sin that frees them from the constraints of conventional society and its expectations -- defying parents, rejecting religion, leaving a marriage.

She also points to the significance of the age of fifty for women's lives. "It is perhaps only in old age, certainly past fifty, that women can stop being female impersonators, can grasp the opportunity to reverse their most cherished principles of 'femininity.'" For Simone de Beauvoir, the age of fifty was the moment to write her memoirs: "I took that child and that adolescent girl, both so long given up for lost in the depths of the unrecalled past, and endowed them with my adult awareness. I gave them a new existence -- in black and white, on sheets of paper."

Reclaiming our feminist icons is a necessary step in our collective memoir. As we come to the end of a century in which women have made enormous gains, we still lack a sense of the feminist past. Other groups have celebrated their heroic figures, but women have no national holidays, no days of celebration for the births or deaths of our great heroines. Whether they lived in the eighteenth, nineteenth, or twentieth centuries, all of these women lived before their time, trying to work, think, love, mother, even die, in ways that were in advance of what their societies approved and allowed. On the brink of a new millennium, we need to know about the patterns in our own intellectual tradition, to engage and to debate with the choices made by women whose restless, adventurous, and iconic lives make them our heroines, our sisters, our contemporaries.

Copyright © 2001 by Elaine Showalter

Meet the Author

Elaine Showalter is professor of English and Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and the author of A Literature of Their Own and Sexual Anarchy. A frequent contributor and book reviewer for American magazines and British newspapers, including the London Times Literary Supplement, she has also written television reviews for People. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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