Elaine Showalter 1941-
American critic, nonfiction writer, essayist, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Showalter's career through 2003.
One of America's foremost academic literary scholars, Showalter is renowned for her pioneering feminist studies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century female authors and her provocative cultural analysis of women's oppression in the history of psychiatry. In her influential book A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1977), Showalter advanced a new form of feminist literary theory under the term “gynocriticism,” offering an alternative framework for the interpretation of women's literary history. Likewise, in works such as The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (1985) and Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (1997), Showalter forged the branch of feminist criticism known as “hystory,” an attempt to reinterpret and redefine the pejorative notion of women's hysteria as embodied in literary and social history. Showalter's contributions to feminist criticism and women's studies have helped influence the canon of British and American literature, bringing new visibility and legitimacy to often forgotten or under-appreciated female authors.
Showalter was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1941 to parents Paul Cottler and Violet Rottenberg Cottler. Though he never finished grammar school, Showalter's immigrant father was a successful wool merchant. Showalter's mother completed high school but remained at home in the role of housewife. Showalter chose to attend Bryn Mawr College against the wishes of her parents who both disapproved of their daughter's intellectual leanings and educational ambitions. Nonetheless, Showalter completed her bachelor's degree in English at Bryn Mawr in 1962 and subsequently pursued graduate studies in English at Brandeis University. Her parents also objected to her engagement to English Showalter, a French scholar, who was not Jewish. When Showalter began her graduate work at Brandeis, her parents stopped supporting her financially, and after she married Showalter in 1963, they disowned her. Showalter completed her master's degree in English at Brandeis in 1964 and embarked upon her doctoral studies at the University of California at Davis, where her husband had taken a teaching appointment in the French department. In 1970, after starting a family and moving to Princeton University, where her husband had accepted a faculty position, Showalter received her doctorate in English from UC Davis and was hired as an assistant professor at Douglass College of Rutgers University in New Jersey. In the late 1960s, she became active in the new women's movement and served as president of the Princeton chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1969. Her involvement in NOW brought her into contact with other emerging feminist leaders, most notably feminist literary scholar Kate Millett and feminist art historian Linda Nochlin. During this early period of activism, Showalter edited Women's Liberation and Literature (1971) and published A Literature of Their Own, her first major work of literary scholarship. While at Douglass, she moved from assistant professor to associate professor in 1974, and became a full professor of English in 1983. She also served as a visiting professor of English and women's studies at the University of Delaware between 1976 and 1977. During this period, she received several important fellowships, including a Guggenheim fellowship in 1977 and a Rockefeller humanities fellowship in 1981. In 1984 Showalter left Douglass for Princeton University, where she accepted a position as a professor of English and was later named the Avalon Professor of Humanities. She has worked as an editor for several feminist scholarly journals and publishers, including Women's Studies, Signs, the Feminist Press, and Virago Press. A member of the Modern Language Association (MLA), Showalter served on its Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession from 1971 to 1972 and as the organization's president from 1998 to 1999. Showalter has also worked as a freelance journalist in both the print and broadcast media.
Among the founding scholars of feminist literary criticism and women's studies in America, Showalter broke new ground in the 1970s by creating a progressive literary theory known as “gynocriticism.” Unlike traditional literary criticism, gynocriticism focused on the “history, themes, genres, and structures of literature by women,” seeking to create a method of analyzing literature written by women and to develop models of interpretation based on female experience, rather than adapting male interpretive theories and models. Putting her theory into practice, Showalter edited the anthology Women's Liberation and Literature, consisting of excerpts from works considered essential to feminist literary study, such as Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women and Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. In A Literature of Their Own, a revision and elaboration of her doctoral dissertation, Showalter rebukes the unfair critical standards applied to the work of English women writers in the nineteenth century and contends that, as a result, female artists paid a terrible price for their creative work in terms of guilt, self-loathing, and frustrated effort. Showalter divides the evolution of women's writing into three phases—“feminine,” from 1840 to the death of George Eliot in 1880; “feminist,” from 1880 to 1920, the date of female suffrage in America; and “female,” from 1920 to the present. Between 1975 and 1981, Showalter published three essays in academic journals that, taken together with A Literature of Their Own, form the foundation of her literary critical outlook and have become major tenets of American feminist literary criticism. The first, “Literary Criticism” (1975), published in the journal Signs, discusses two approaches to feminist criticism—feminist critique, which examines the anti-female biases of traditional readings and literary canons; and feminist reevaluation of women writers considered to be minor figures, as they represent the idea of a historical female subculture. Showalter's next seminal essay, “Toward a Feminist Poetics,” was originally published in Mary Jacobus's anthology Women Writing and Writing about Women (1979). In this piece, Showalter introduced the term “gynocritics” and demonstrated its efficacy with a feminist critique of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge and its male-centered critical interpretations. In the third essay, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness” (1981), originally published in the journal Critical Inquiry, Showalter used the female cultural analysis developed by Oxford anthropologists Shirley and Edwin Ardner to argue that women form a muted group within the dominant male culture, a group whose reality and culture overlap with those of the dominant culture, but is not contained within it. She further maintained that women's writing constitutes a “double-voiced discourse that always embodies the social, literary, and cultural heritages of both the muted and the dominant.”
As editor of The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory (1985), Showalter brought together one of the most comprehensive collections of feminist literary theory and criticism to date, including examples of French feminism, gynocriticism, and African-American and lesbian feminist criticism. Showalter subsequently published Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing (1991), a critical counterpart to A Literature of Their Own, in which she traces the development of American women's writing through a wide-ranging literary survey and close studies of Margaret Fuller and Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, and various gothic forms of women's writing from the 1960s. In the mid-1980s, Showalter extended her critical outlook from literary criticism to cultural history, focusing on embedded conceptions of mental health and the expression of sexual issues in terms of gender. In The Female Malady, a study of the sexual politics of British psychiatric history, Showalter argued that a feminization of madness occurred in the nineteenth century, and that women became the primary recipients of psychiatric treatment, serving as the cultural exemplars of insanity. She further maintained that until the late 1970s, psychiatry treated women in the confining context of “femininity,” which was largely responsible for their psychological demoralization. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle (1990) presents a literary and cultural analysis of the corresponding millennial crises of the 1890s and the 1990s, particularly as evident in the anxiety wrought by female sexual liberation and the corresponding scourges of syphilis and AIDS, and expressed in homoerotic elements of male adventure fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson and Rider Haggard, and late-twentieth-century films. Showalter returned to the subject of mental health in Hystories, in which she examines a variety of mysterious afflictions that emerged during the 1980s and 1990s, including chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf War syndrome, alien abductions, and recovered memories of sexual abuse. Turning a skeptical eye to these ambiguous epidemics, Showalter asserts that all are psychosomatic conditions that reflect a proliferation of mass hysteria, amplified by widespread communication media and millennial anxiety. Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage (2000) presents a survey of various “feminist icons,” a broad label that Showalter affixes to intellectuals such as Wollstonecraft, Fuller, Eleanor Marx, and Simone de Beauvoir as well as contemporary celebrity figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Diana, Princess of Wales. Showalter has also edited Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle (1993), an anthology of women's writings from the late-nineteenth century, and Scribbling Women: Short Stories by Nineteenth-Century American Women (1997), a collection of short stories by nineteenth-century American women, both of which seek to introduce readers to the work of previously obscure or underrated female authors.
Showalter has been widely appreciated by critics for her prodigious knowledge, insightful analysis, and accessible prose. Most feminist literary scholars have lauded her achievement in helping to legitimize and further develop feminist critique, particularly by reevaluating the social and historical context within which women's writing is studied. However, some critics have contended that Showalter's reach often exceeds her grasp, faulting her for raising provocative questions and presenting a wealth of material without analyzing it, or trying unsuccessfully to force-fit her usually expansive subject matter into a rigid critical context. Others have criticized Showalter for omitting or glossing over women writers who do not fit neatly into her thesis or analytical construct. In addition, some reviewers have objected to Showalter's literary biases, especially in regards to the Victorian era, and her dubious psychoanalytic assumptions. Showalter's works of cultural history, particularly The Female Malady and Sexual Anarchy, have received mixed reviews, but have been generally praised for their broad, interdisciplinary approach to literary, cultural, and social trends. Showalter's feminist history of psychiatry in The Female Malady has been commended for raising disturbing and important questions about the politics of interpretation and the power of gender as a determining factor in psychiatric treatment. Her focus on the psychiatric patient—rather than the history of the psychiatric profession—has also been viewed as a valuable contribution to the subject. However, some reviewers have faulted Showalter for her selective use of data and statistics, and her imprecise use of key terms, such as “hysteria.” In later works such as Hystories and Inventing Herself, critics have hailed Showalter's impressive synthesis of evidence, though some have found her arguments less substantial and convincing than in previous works. Despite such shortcomings, Showalter has been highly regarded for calling attention to complex issues surrounding gender and sexual politics. Many of her works, most notably A Literature of Their Own and The Female Malady, have endured as staples of feminist literary criticism in university curricula.
Women's Liberation and Literature [editor] (criticism) 1971
A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (nonfiction) 1977
These Modern Women: Autobiographical Essays from the Twenties [editor] (essays) 1978
The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (criticism) 1985
The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory [editor] (criticism) 1985
Alternative Alcott [editor] (criticism) 1988
Speaking of Gender [editor] (criticism) 1989
Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle (criticism) 1990
Modern American Women Writers [editor; with Lea Baechler and A. Walton Litz] (nonfiction) 1991
Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing (criticism) 1991
Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle [editor] (criticism) 1993
Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (criticism) 1997
Scribbling Women: Short Stories by Nineteenth-Century American Women [editor] (short stories) 1997
Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage (criticism) 2000
Teaching Literature (nonfiction)...
(The entire section is 133 words.)
SOURCE: Landy, Marcia. Review of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, by Elaine Showalter. Modern Fiction Studies 23, no. 4 (winter 1977-1978): 637-45.
[In the following excerpt, Landy praises Showalter's broad historical analysis of female authors in A Literature of Their Own, but criticizes her tendency to offer unsympathetic, overly negative judgments of individual writers.]
Two of the four books reviewed here are distinguished by new and challenging critical methodologies, and two are not. Gabriel Josipovici's edited collection of essays on the modern novel reveals a primarily structuralist and linguistic orientation and Elaine Showalter's work, A Literature of Their Own, presents an exploration in feminist criticism. The third book, Lisa Ruddick's essay, is a reading of Woolf's To the Lighthouse, and the fourth, Ronald Hayman's British Council pamphlet, while raising some critical issues, makes little pretense to critical analysis. The latter is restricted to a discussion of fifty English and Commonwealth novelists and their works. …
The second book, Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own has a more overt concern for the immediate social context of the writers she discusses than do the essays in The Modern English Novel [by Josipovici]. Showalter attempts to provide the reader with critical...
(The entire section is 2267 words.)
SOURCE: Cahill, Daniel J. Review of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, by Elaine Showalter. World Literature Today 52, no. 1 (winter 1978): 114-15.
[In the following review, Cahill praises the range and the scope of material in A Literature of Their Own, noting that the work “change the content and perspective of literary history as it is currently taught in our colleges and universities.”]
The truly significant accomplishment of A Literature of Their Own is the creation of a new perceptual framework, an accurate and systematic literary history for women writers in the British tradition. In the most comprehensive and convincing study to date, Showalter has extended a radically new awareness of the evolution of a female literary tradition. In 1869 John Stuart Mill argued that if women lived in a different country from men and had never read any of their writings, they would have a literature of their own. To many observers—past and present—it seemed that the besetting sin of women was to write as men write. In contradiction to Mill, Showalter argues that many readers of the novel over the past two centuries have had the indistinct but persistent impression of a unifying voice in women's literature. This distinctive female identity in art has been obscured by a “residual Great Traditionalism,” which has reduced and condensed the...
(The entire section is 616 words.)
SOURCE: Krouse, Agate Nesaule. Review of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, by Elaine Showalter. Criticism 20, no. 2 (spring 1978): 216-18.
[In the following excerpt, Krouse compliments Showalter's examination of “the female literary tradition” in A Literature of Their Own, but finds fault with Showalter's treatment of twentieth-century writers, including Virginia Woolf.]
Only recently have critics become fully aware that knowledge about women writers and therefore literary history itself is fragmentary and biased. Innumerable articles and some books from a feminist perspective have reinterpreted the achievements of well known women writers, reassessed the work of neglected ones, exposed the shortcomings of “phallic” criticism, and developed concepts useful for the theory and practice of feminist criticism. Meanwhile extensive and diverse new research about women in other disciplines has contributed to the need for intelligent synthesis of information about the work and experience of women writers.
Professor Showalter's A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing provides such a synthesis and more. Unlike Ellen Moers's Literary Women (Doubleday, 1976), the earlier widely discussed study which took the implications of the gender of writers seriously, Showalter's book is an orderly,...
(The entire section is 1241 words.)
SOURCE: Paulin, Tom. “Fugitive Spirits.” New Statesman 96, no. 2470 (21 July 1978): 94.
[In the following excerpt, Paulin offers a negative assessment of A Literature of Their Own, arguing that the work makes a “snobbish mockery of Women's Liberation.”]
Those Victorian photographs of bearded patriarchs flanked by their unsmiling families may seem merely quaint to us nowadays, but it's important to remember how they were once the agents of hideously formidable cultural tyranny. As Gloria Fromm shows in her long, loving biography of Dorothy Richardson, the effort to escape the domination of ‘masculine culture’ involved an intense struggle against a series of possessive father-figures. Dorothy Richardson's father was a cultivated, eventually bankrupt despot who made her mother feel both damned and stupid, and finally drove her to commit suicide. Stricken by guilt, Dorothy left home to become a dentist's receptionist in London. She wrote reviews, attended Fabian meetings and had an affair with H. G. Wells. She came to realise that Wells was a tyrant who preached freedom, and throughout her life she remained a shrewdly critical friend of the man who appears as ‘Hypo Wilson’ in her now neglected novel-sequence Pilgrimage. Wells put her in his novel The Passionate Friends as a minor character called Stella Summersby Satchel, who is ‘blonde, erect, huffy-mannered’. …...
(The entire section is 762 words.)
SOURCE: Colby, Vineta. Review of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, by Elaine Showalter. Modern Philology 77, no. 3 (February 1980): 357-60.
[In the following review, Colby praises the range of material covered in A Literature of Their Own, but criticizes Showalter's assertions about Victorian feminism and her analysis of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot.]
A Literature of Their Own is by far the best account yet published of the emergence of the feminine sensibility in the English novel. It documents with sound research and reasoned, if sometimes controversial, theory a subject that too many writers in recent years have exploited irresponsibly, with too little reading and too much hasty prejudgment. Elaine Showalter rides no hobbyhorses after fashionable trends in psychology or sociology, and it is refreshing to find in her index no entry for Herbert Marcuse or Norman O. Brown, and only passing references to Karen Horney, Erik Erikson, and R. D. Laing. This is not to suggest that she is anything but aware of and sensitive to studies in feminine psychology and sexuality. Her reading in these areas is extensive, ranging from too often neglected contemporary Victorian sources—journals, memoirs and periodicals—to the latest (1976) scholarly books and articles. Her bibliography and biographical appendix, which lists 213 prominent English...
(The entire section is 1763 words.)
SOURCE: Belsey, Catherine. “The Work of Womankind.” New Statesman 111, no. 2870 (28 March 1986): 24-5.
[In the following review of The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, Belsey examines the differences between American and British feminist criticism and asserts that more attention should be paid to the social construction of women's reality rather than to promoting a gender-inclusive “populist” canon.]
Feminist criticism has come of age. Eighteen years on from Mary Ellman's Thinking about Women, these two collections of essays are elegant, accomplished and quite free from the (tomboyish?) high spirits that antagonised some women and electrified others in the early years. Feminist criticism is now ready to assume adult responsibilities. Confidently, fluently, readably, both Making a Difference [edited by Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn] and The New Feminist Criticism [edited by Showalter] reiterate the case for reading as a woman, point to the work that has already been done and define a series of projects for the future.
Both these volumes are predominantly American. Taken together, they give the impression that before the advent of feminism literary criticism was even more misogynistic there than it was here. Elaine Showalter reprints Nina Baym's witty analysis of the American literary canon as a series of ‘melodramas...
(The entire section is 1267 words.)
SOURCE: Spacks, Patricia Meyer. “Crazy Ladies?” New Republic 194, no. 17 (28 April 1986): 34-6.
[In the following review, Spacks commends Showalter's extensive knowledge and detailed accounts of psychiatric abuses in The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980, but finds shortcomings in Showalter's myopic thesis and oversimplified interpretations.]
Uncovering the sexual politics of British psychiatric history, Elaine Showalter tells an often lurid, sometimes blackly comic, usually surprising story [in The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980,] that raises disturbing questions. England has a distinctive association with madness. In the early 18th century, Showalter reports, George Cheyne, a medical doctor, lent official sanction to popular belief by writing a book on insanity called The English Malady. Because of their climate (according to many Europeans) or their natural sensitivity (as Cheyne argued) the English were considered especially susceptible to mental disorders. The most vulnerable portion of this vulnerable population allegedly consisted of women, whose physical and psychic makeup presumably increased the likelihood of their descending into madness. From Ophelia to Sir Walter Scott's Lucy of Lammermoor (who murdered her bridegroom on their wedding night) to Doris Lessing's Lynda Coldridge (in The Four-Gated City),...
(The entire section is 1730 words.)
SOURCE: Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. Review of The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980, by Elaine Showalter. Women's Studies 13, no. 4 (1987): 390-96.
[In the following review, Scheper-Hughes praises the “original and exciting” subject material in The Female Malady, despite citing flaws in Showalter's analysis of schizophrenia.]
Foucault's brilliant social history of western madness [Madness and Civilization, 1967] opens with a compelling image, Sebastian Brant's Das Narrenschiff, the “ship of fools”, in order to fix in the reader's mind a picture of madness as it was prior to the “Enlightenment” when the insane still circulated freely through society on land and sea, their incessant babbling forming the backdrop of everyday language and experience. Similarly, Elaine Showalter opens her daring account of the recent history of English madness [The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980] with Tony Robert-Fleury's painting of Philippe Pinel's freeing the insane at the Bicêtre and the Salpêtrière. The historical moment that Showalter wishes to fix in the minds of her readers is the late 18th century (the Age of Reason) when, she argues, the cultural representation of madness is transformed from a violently male to a sickly female condition.
Prior to the 19th century the dominant...
(The entire section is 2219 words.)
SOURCE: Kauffman, Linda. Review of The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, by Elaine Showalter. Signs 12, no. 2 (winter 1987): 405-09.
[In the following excerpt, Kauffman offers a positive assessment of The New Feminist Criticism, but notes that the collection lacks any substantial analysis of film and French feminism.]
The great danger to avoid is the self-isolating nature of critical discourse.
“Literature” is what gets taught.
These four collections evoke distinct stages in the recent history of feminism: Women's Personal Narratives recalls the remarkable efficacy of grass-roots consciousness-raising in the early 1970s, and Elaine Showalter's introduction to The New Feminist Criticism reminds us that a female literary tradition was one of the hallmarks of feminist criticism in the late 1970s. Showalter argues that literary theory has always been a “zealously guarded bastion of male intellectual endeavor,” whereas “the success of feminist criticism has opened a space for the authority of the woman critic” (3). In the 1980s, however, that approach has come to seem as insular as New Criticism was in its day. But, to Showalter's credit, some of the essays she...
(The entire section is 1254 words.)
SOURCE: Tomes, Nancy. Review of The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980, by Elaine Showalter. American Historical Review 92, no. 1 (February 1987): 131-32.
[In the following review of The Female Malady, Tomes commends Showalter's provocative cultural analysis, but finds shortcomings in her exaggerated premise and flawed historical interpretation of women's psychiatric treatment.]
[In The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980,] Elaine Showalter, a feminist literary critic, has set out to write a “feminist history of psychiatry and a cultural history of madness as a female malady” (p. 5). Analyzing medical and literary texts as well as photographs and paintings, she traces the conception and treatment of women's insanity through three phases of English psychiatry: psychiatric Victorianism (1830-70), psychiatric Darwinism (1870-1920), and psychiatric modernism (1920-80). Showalter's central premise is that a “feminization” of madness took place in the nineteenth century; women not only became the primary recipients of psychiatric treatment but also served as the cultural exemplars of madness. She also argues that, until very recently, psychiatrists treated female patients within the context of a restrictive femininity that was itself the origin of their psychological demoralization. Showalter concludes that women have begun to...
(The entire section is 558 words.)
SOURCE: Bair, Dierdre. “End-of-the-Century Birth Throes.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (2 September 1990): 12.
[In the following review, Bair praises Showalter's amusing and informative discussions in Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle.]
Elaine Showalter is a distinguished feminist critic whose new book, Sexual Anarchy, is a provocative comparison of the last years of the 19th Century (the fin de siècle) with the final decade of our own. Her view is optimistic, as she chooses to view the 1990s as “the embryonic stirrings of a new order, a future that is utopian rather than apocalyptic.” She soundly rejects the idea that our century's “terminal decade” is in “the death throes of a diseased society and the winding down of an exhausted culture.”
In effect, she is agreeing that history is indeed doomed to repeat itself, and even though we have begun the 1990s describing the decade with words like exhaustion, malaise, epidemic and violence, (pretty much the same terms as were used in the 1890s), we can cheer ourselves up if only by thinking back to the early years of this century and the renewal and change inspired by modernism and all that the term has come to mean.
Showalter, chairperson of the department of English at Princeton and a specialist in Victorian literature, has written what might well be called a...
(The entire section is 1059 words.)
SOURCE: Wheelwright, Julie. “Odd Women.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 144 (29 March 1991): 29-30.
[In the following review, Wheelwright lauds the “fundamental questions” raised by Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, but notes that the work focuses too heavily on the Victorian era.]
The final decades of a century often spawn apocalyptic fantasies, doom-sayers and outlandish prophets. Like the anti-nuclear scientists' vision of the world at “two minutes to mid-night”, we fear that time, for our species, is not only finite, but rapidly running out. If death by chemical warfare or terrorist sabotage during the Gulf war wasn't enough to worry about, mad cow disease, burning oil wells, the greenhouse effect and homelessness continue to haunt us. As Angela Carter recently noted, “the fin is coming a little early this siècle.”
For many social critics, sexual anxieties are masked as end-of-the-century worries. Tory party pundits decry the breakdown of the family, laying the blame for falling education standards and rising Aids statistics on the permissive society. The American right condemns the women's movement and gay rights, drug epidemics, satanism and the decline of religion for causing the nation's ills.
None of this future-fear is new. George Gissing once described the 1880s and 1890s as decades of “sexual...
(The entire section is 1253 words.)
SOURCE: Maitland, Sara. “The Way They Were Then, Too.” Spectator 266, no. 8491 (6 April 1991): 28.
[In the following review of Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, Maitland finds shortcomings in Showalter's emphasis on popular male, rather than female, writers and her premature effort to draw parallels between the 1890s and the 1990s.]
I am a fan of Elaine Showalter's, and have been since A Literature of Their Own—a study of women writers, particularly novelists, through the 19th century up until the creation of the present phase of the Women's Liberation Movement. I am a fan because she seems to have read everything and her readings are solid responses to actual novels based within feminist theory and within a historical social reality. Moreover, she writes about books so that you want to read them too.
In all these senses Sexual Anarchy does not disappoint. Showalter suggests a neatly packaged set of parallels between the 1880s and 1980s and the 1990s and … well that is a problem. We have not had a lot of the 1990s yet; and though we doubtless will, the book has an awkward shift to make between reportage and prophesy. Nonetheless, given that inevitable constriction, the parallels are there—‘feminism’ and ‘homosexuality,’ as words, were invented in the 1880s. They were created to meet a social need: a radical attempt to...
(The entire section is 867 words.)
SOURCE: Young, Pamela. “A New Sexual Order.” Maclean's 104, no. 20 (20 May 1991): 68.
[In the following review, Young praises Showalter's central arguments in Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, calling the work “provocative” and “eloquent.”]
The twilight of the 20th century is deepening beneath an overcast sky. In the current era of AIDS, economic decline and environmental decay, it is perhaps natural to wonder whether the world is plunging into unending night. In an intriguing new book, Elaine Showalter, head of English at Princeton University, points out that the same dire speculation shadowed the last two decades of the 19th century—for some of the same reasons. In Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, the feminist author focuses on late-19th- and late-20th-century responses to such issues as women's rights, homosexuality and sexually transmitted diseases. And she concludes that, on the sex-and-gender front at least, there is room for cautious optimism. “What seems today like the apocalyptic warnings of a frightening sexual anarchy,” she writes, “may be really the birth throes of a new sexual equality.”
Showalter argues that fin-de-siècle periods seem especially portentous because societies tend to graft metaphors of death and rebirth onto the years at the end of centuries. She notes that, like the...
(The entire section is 816 words.)
SOURCE: Carr, Helen. “Patchwork Quilt.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 170 (27 September 1991): 54.
[In the following review, Carr compliments Showalter's research and analysis in Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing, but faults Showalter's romanticized notion of female community and virtue.]
Sister's Choice is, so to speak, the American sister of Elaine Showalter's first book, A Literature of Their Own, which traced a distinctive literary tradition through British women writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Her argument then was that women formed a subculture, and their writing had to be interpreted like that of other literary subcultures. It was not the story of the classics alone: the rediscovery of forgotten and disparaged female writing was an essential part of drawing the historical line.
A Literature of Their Own was a landmark of feminist criticism. Yet, as Showalter says at the beginning of Sister's Choice, although critics took issue with her feminist arguments, nobody commented on the oddity of an American writing about British women novelists as if she shared their culture. Now, 14 years later, she has turned to her native land, but it has not been “an easy reclamation”. She wants to extend the practice of what she has since named “gynocriticism”—the study of women's writing—to...
(The entire section is 673 words.)
SOURCE: Boos, Florence. “The Anatomy of Culture.” Women's Review of Books 9, no. 2 (November 1991): 26-7.
[In the following excerpt, Boos lauds Showalter's “eclectic virtuosity” in Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle but finds shortcomings in her ambiguous use of the term “anarchy” and her treatment of class issues and AIDS.]
Each of these three books treats late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century attitudes towards women's sexuality, health and physical capacities. All three focus on men's more than women's actions and beliefs, document repellent forms of sexist and gynophobic regimentation with horrific examples and note ways in which the constrictive patterns they describe remain with us Patricia Vertinsky and Ornella Moscucci modulate and focus their outrage with the aid of careful historical method, Elaine Showalter with irrepressibly eclectic virtuosity of arrangement and presentation. …
The style of Elaine Showalter's Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle contrasts markedly with Vertinsky and Moscucci's scrupulously anatomized world of medical control over women's bodies. Showalter surveys the literary, cinematographic and cultural effect of debates about gender and sexuality in two societies—Great Britain of the 1890s and late twentieth-century United States—in an impressive 240 page tour de force....
(The entire section is 1161 words.)
SOURCE: Lee, Hermione. “Separate Spheres and Common Threads.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4624 (15 November 1991): 8.
[In the following review, Lee offers a negative assessment of Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing.]
This is a friendly title, [Sister's Choice,] and it comes in a positive red colour, with a bold quilt-pattern design, because “Sister's Choice” is the name of the quilt made by Celie and Shug in The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and the quilt is an emblem, Elaine Showalter says, of “a universalist, interracial, and intertextual tradition”. In deliberately selecting a title from a non-literary and non-white context, Showalter makes her main point: that American women's writing does not, or “must” no longer, belong to a “separate sphere”, but belongs, or “must” belong, to a common, pluralistic heritage of races, genders and cultures. These are rousing sentiments, and this short book (based on her Clarendon Lectures of 1989) is lavishly bolstered with a utopian rhetoric which makes “sister's choice” into a bravely hopeful prescription for “a new map of a changing America”. But one sister's choice may be another sister's anathema.
Showalter is no newcomer to anathematizing: she has been “dancing in the minefield” (in Annette Kolodny's famously perilous phrase) of feminist literary criticism for...
(The entire section is 1590 words.)
SOURCE: Shannon, Elizabeth. Review of Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, by Elaine Showalter. Commonweal 118, no. 21 (6 December 1991): 728.
[In the following review, Shannon offers high praise for Showalter's scholarly examination of “social, sexual, and political attitudes” in Sexual Anarchy.]
There is one book I especially want to recommend this year, Elaine Showalter's Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle. Showalter is both engaging and scholarly in comparing social, sexual, and political attitudes prevalent at the end of the nineteenth century to our own fin de siècle. The parallels she discusses are fascinating in their similarities, but depressing in their recurrence.
She discusses literature, art, and film, both American and English, and finds that the fin de siècle brings with it an earthquake of social and sexual upheavals, and that this occurs cyclically, perhaps caused by a “sense of an ending.” She quotes Frank Kermode, who suggests that “we project our existential anxieties onto history; there is a real correlation between the ends of centuries and the peculiarity of our imagination, that it [increased anxiety] chooses always to be at the end of an era.”
Public dialogue at the end of the nineteenth century created the use of the words “feminism” and...
(The entire section is 849 words.)
SOURCE: Baym, Nina. Review of Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing, by Elaine Showalter. American Literature 64, no. 3 (spring 1992): 629-30.
[In the following review, Baym compliments the structure and subject material of Sister's Choice.]
From its dust jacket illustration of a quilt block to a final chapter on quilting, this book takes “piecing”—women's creation of patterned art from snips of available fabric—as the metaphor for American women's writing. The book itself is artfully pieced, inserting four previously published essays between two each of four Clarendon Lectures delivered in 1989. This elegant congruence of content and form forestalls (though it cannot entirely eliminate) concern about completeness; the book presents itself not as master narrative but as scrap-bag assemblage. The first chapter uses postcolonialist theory to deny the aptness of master narratives for histories of muted or minority discourses; piecing becomes, implicitly, the most responsible way to generalize about women's writing.
As readers familiar with Showalter's influential work in feminist theory and English literature might expect, her overview is immensely perceptive and wonderfully accomplished. Oscillating between close reading and survey, merging biography with textual analysis, and enacting the sisterliness of its title in generous footnotes and...
(The entire section is 524 words.)
SOURCE: Lyons, Brenda Foglio. “American Patchwork.” Essays in Criticism 42, no. 4 (October 1992): 338-44.
[In the following review, Lyons argues that Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing is an inconsistent and incomplete, though entertaining, literary history of American women's writing.]
The notion of being simultaneously inside and outside patriarchy and its institutional processes is a feminist ideological construct that has achieved the status of mainstream cliché. Titles by French writers have surfaced which name this borderline as a discursive subject: Inside by Hélène Cixous, which won the Prix Medicis in 1969, is a fictive elaboration of l'écriture feminine; Outside: Selected Writings (1984) by Marguerite Duras, released in an English translation by Carol Barko in 1986, is a diverse collection of short pieces that comment on social and political injustices. Elaine Showalter's book, Sister's Choice, asks questions that concern boundary disputes on a remapped topography of English studies—for example, how and where to position a literary history of American women's writing: is it inside or outside British or masculine traditions, an American canon, national borders, European influences? The terrain has been complicated, readers are informed in the first chapter, ‘American Questions’, by the difficulties of defining...
(The entire section is 2153 words.)
SOURCE: Fraiman, Susan. Review of Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, by Elaine Showalter. Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 12, no. 1 (spring 1993): 119-22.
[In the following excerpt, Fraiman praises Sexual Anarchy for its “gripping” examination of such works as Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Ann Ardis's New Women, New Novels.]
At the center of Elaine Showalter's gripping study of the fin de siècle is a reading of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I cannot help appropriating this duo to figure the relation between Ann Ardis's upbeat, brightly lit New Women, New Novels and Showalter's own darker and more disconcerting work. True that, in their attention to proto-modern texts by men as well as women and in their historicizing ways, both books represent a second phase of American feminist criticism, beyond its earliest thematic readings of nineteenth-century women's fiction; indeed Sexual Anarchy, treating books and plays alongside films and crimes, actresses and autopsies, is an exhilarating example of the newest, thickest kind of cultural description. Nevertheless, in their different emotional emphases these two works remind me of the old, axiomatic distinction (worded most famously by Showalter herself) between one feminist approach that celebrates writings by women and...
(The entire section is 1029 words.)
SOURCE: Stuart, Andrea. “Missing Links.” New Statesman and Society 6, no. 257 (18 June 1993): 38.
[In the following review, Stuart offers a generally positive assessment of Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle.]
Elaine Showalter has made something of a literary cottage industry out of the angst and alienation of the fin-de-siècle. In her book The Female Malady, she turned the tables on the men of knowledge who spent so long dissecting “the woman problem” in lieu of confronting their own anxieties. And in Sexual Anarchy, she explored the fears that stalked the psyches of those nervy Wildean decadents and their brittle female counterparts, the “New Women”, as they made their uneasy journey into the 20th century.
So it was no great surprise to see her edit this collection of short stories by women writers of the period [Daughters of Decadence]. But as spin-off books go, this is quite a creditable offering. In the introduction, for example, Showalter, steers clear of the gratuitous hermeticism that plagues most academic writers and manages to be both informative and pithy. And she really works her choice of stories, making them reveal as much about the present as about the past.
“Endism”, the fear of the end of the century, seems to have gripped our collective consciousnesses in much the same way...
(The entire section is 525 words.)
SOURCE: Baldick, Chris. “Secular Variations.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4718 (3 September 1993): 20-1.
[In the following excerpt, Baldick praises Showalter's exploration of the fin-de-siècle in Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle.]
Like the widow in Wilde's play whose hair has turned gold with grief, the study of the last century's Nineties sports an unseemly glow of prosperity. Nothing flourishes quite like decadence, and productivity is booming in the languor industry. The shiny new conference centre at Warwick University accommodates symposia on world-weariness, while publishers look forward to issuing fresh volumes on cultural exhaustion. The calendar has, of course, something to do with it, but unlike the Nineties of Mary Wollstonecraft or of Christopher Marlowe, no less deserving of resurrection by rote, the Yellow Nineties or Naughty Nineties seem to address us with the additional sinister allure of the hypochondriac, superstitiously mesmerized by his self-assigned curse of decadence, degeneracy and the knelling phrase fin de siècle.
Our unfinished business with this fin has much to do with its confounding of ends with beginnings, under the presidency of Janus Bifrons. Blink again at this twilit decade of pessimism—or simply substitute Shaw and Morris for Beardsley and Dowson—and it transforms itself into the dawn of...
(The entire section is 1442 words.)
SOURCE: Hedges, Elaine. Review of Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing, by Elaine Showalter. Signs 19, no. 2 (winter 1994): 507-11.
[In the following excerpt, Hedges criticizes Sister's Choice, drawing attention to Showalter's historically inaccurate understanding of quiltmaking.]
Of the three authors whose books are reviewed here, Cheryl Walker and Elaine Showalter bring to their material familiar feminist critical approaches. Lev Raphael, in contrast, offers a new critical methodology—one, he argues, that will provide “revolutionary insights into human motivation” (322), but that feminists concerned with issues of gender may find questionable. Although Showalter's book also raises serious questions—of fact and historical accuracy—the problems with Raphael's are more apparent. …
In Sister's Choice, Showalter also sees Walker's poets as “casualties” of their time (108). The tenor of her book, however, is better represented by her interpretation of Wharton, whom she views, unlike Raphael, as overcoming her emotional conflicts to become a precursor of a literature of “female mastery and growth” (103). Sister's Choice reads American women's literary history expansively: once comprising a separate tradition, its texts, genres, and metaphors now have entered the literary and cultural mainstream.
(The entire section is 805 words.)
SOURCE: Hooker, Navina Krishna. Review of Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing, by Elaine Showalter. Review of English Studies 45, no. 178 (May 1994): 288-90.
[In the following review, Hooker commends the variety of questions that Showalter raises in Sister's Choice, but notes minor flaws in Showalter's “untimely polemics.”]
Elaine Showalter's Sister's Choice grapples with the problem of first identifying and then adequately describing a philosophical and aesthetic framework that links the work of major American women writers from Fuller onwards. The question is an important and challenging one, for it addresses a key problem of feminist literary theory, and has rightly attracted much recent critical attention. As Showalter states on the first page of her book, ‘Could women … ever hope to have a criticism of their own?’, given that the linguistic tools at their disposal are the same ones handed down to them by their male literary predecessors. Showalter correctly, although as she herself admits unoriginally, ties the female plight to discover a voice and vocabulary with which to express itself to that of third-world writers such as the novelist Raja Rao who remarks, ‘The telling has not been easy. One has to convey in a language that is not one's own the spirit that is one's own’ (p. 7). The call for an authentic, pure, and original language...
(The entire section is 1024 words.)
SOURCE: Gitlin, Todd. “Millennial Mumbo Jumbo.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (27 April 1997): 8.
[In the following excerpt, Gitlin commends Showalter's cultural analysis of texts and fads in Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, but finds shortcomings in her selective approach and tendency toward “ultra-Freudian logic.”]
Headlong passion was always said to be female, while men, even as they lost their heads, were supposed to be cool. Throughout history, men have been the accusers, diagnosticians and judges, women the witches, patients and victims. Today, allegations of satanic abuse, extraterrestrial abduction, multiple personality and chronic fatigue tend to come from women too. What is new is that, curiously, many of these charges come from feminists apparently more committed to unearthing evidence of their own frailty than to claiming their human powers.
Elaine Showalter, Avalon Foundation professor of the humanities and a professor of English at Princeton University, a historian of medicine and one of America's distinguished feminist literary critics, will have none of what she calls today's “psychological plagues.” “As we approach our own millennium,” she writes [in Hystories], “the epidemic of hysterical disorders, imaginary illnesses, and hypnotically induced pseudo-memories that have flooded the media seem to be reaching a...
(The entire section is 851 words.)
SOURCE: Crews, Frederick. “Keeping Us In Hysterics.” New Republic 216, no. 19 (12 May 1997): 35-8, 40-3.
[In the following review, Crews argues that Showalter “builds no conceptual bridge” between her topics in Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, noting that Showalter's arguments are weak and poorly supported.]
For over a decade now, the object of keenest interest within American interdisciplinary scholarship has been a disease, and a possibly nonexistent one. As Elaine Showalter, Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, puts it near the outset of her own latest contribution to the field [Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture]:
While physicians and psychiatrists have long been writing obituaries for hysteria, scholars in the humanities and social sciences have given it new life. Social historians, philosophers, anthropologists, literary critics, and art historians have taken up the subject of hysteria because it cuts across historical periods and national boundaries, poses fundamental questions about gender and culture, and offers insights into language, narrative, and representation.
This statement is certainly right about the disillusionment of the medical authorities. By now it is reasonably clear that hysteria, which was once thought to cause...
(The entire section is 4708 words.)
SOURCE: Micale, Mark S. “Strange Signs of the Times.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4911 (16 May 1997): 6-7.
[In the following review, Micale praises Showalter's examination of feminine hysteria in Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture.]
The ritualized self-immolation of thirty-nine members of the Heaven's Gate sect near San Diego, California, late last March could almost be seen as a promotional event for Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, Elaine Showalter's provocative and immensely readable new book. Showalter examines a series of large-scale functional psychopathologies, originating in the United States but now metastasizing, that she reads as the pandemic hysterias, or “psychological plagues”, of the late twentieth century. That emotional distress can emerge through bodily symptoms, and that styles of psychosomatic suffering vary among cultures and periods, is an accepted insight of modern medicine. On the eve of the millennium, Showalter's book suggests, the dominant psychogenic sicknesses have taken especially florid and dramatic forms.
Hysteria has had many past meanings. In Hippocratic times, physicians believed that the uterus, or hystera, moved mischievously through the female body cavity, causing dizziness, loss of sensation and laboured breathing (including the sensation of a ball lodged in the throat, or globus...
(The entire section is 3201 words.)
SOURCE: Benn, Melissa. “Out of Control?” New Statesman 126, no. 4338 (13 June 1997): 48.
[In the following review of Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, Benn commends the “impressive clarity” of Showalter's discussion, but finds flaws in her presumptuous assertions about the nature of mysterious new afflictions.]
It is rare for a book of cultural criticism to make so much real world trouble. But Elaine Showalter, professor of English at Princeton University and a television critic, has provoked outraged reactions in the US with [Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture,] even to the point of death threats. A male friend and I bickered for hours over its central thesis. So why this hysteria about hysteria?
The problem is, in part, etymological. In common usage hysteria means making a fuss over nothing. Showalter returns it to its 19th-century meaning: the bodily expression of unspeakable distress. There is even a group of academics called the New Hysterians who are rediscovering its many manifestations, as Peter Melville Logan's rather opaque book [Nerves and Narrative] on hysteria and the early 19th century British novel demonstrates. Logan argues that this period was not only the point where hysteria passed from being the province of the aristocracy to the new middle class but that “nervous narratives”, such as De Quincey's...
(The entire section is 977 words.)
SOURCE: Sailer, Steve. “Hysteria, His and Hers.” National Review 49, no. 16 (1 September 1997): 48-50.
[In the following review, Sailer contends that Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture is a “sensible but limited book” as a result of Showalter's rationalist feminist perspective.]
Sometimes you get what you ask for. Back in 1985 Elaine Showalter, a Princeton English professor specializing in the social history of mental health, concluded her critique of the traditional psychotherapy profession by proclaiming: “The best hope for the future is the feminist therapy movement.” By 1997, the mental-health industry has become thoroughly feminized, but Professor Showalter has had second thoughts: “The therapist's role is more and more to affirm, support, and endorse the patient's narrative, … and not to challenge the truth or historical reality of the patient's assertions.” This credulous atmosphere, she believes, has helped unleash “hysterical epidemics,” such as the disgraceful witchhunts for satanic cults running day-care centers. Mrs. Showalter cites five other “hysterical” outbreaks: the booms in recovered memory of incestuous abuse, multiple-personality disorders, alien abductions, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Gulf War Syndrome. For an academic treatise with a first printing of only 7,500 copies, Hystories has already generated quite a backlash. In...
(The entire section is 1133 words.)
SOURCE: Edis, Taner, and Amy Sue Bix. “Tales of Hysteria.” Skeptical Inquirer 21, no. 5 (September-October 1997): 52-3.
[In the following review, Edis and Bix offer a positive assessment of Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, but note flaws in Showalter's exaggeration of medieval millennial panic, her defense of psychoanalysis, and her premature dismissal of chronic fatigue and Gulf War syndrome.]
We skeptics do more these days than shake our heads at psychics or roll our eyes at UFO-abduction tales. Because postmodern humanities scholars seem out to drag science down, the Skeptical Inquirer keeps tabs on relativist philosophers, literary critics, Freudian psychoanalysts, and feminist critics of science, as well as the usual suspects. So when a feminist literary critic with a soft spot for psychoanalysis writes a book about topics like alien abduction and satanic ritual abuse, we might expect some gobbledygook about validating the experiences of those people dismissed by the scientific elite and so on. Elaine Showalter—president-elect of the Modern Language Association, no less—would make us think again. Hystories is not only a skeptical book, but an important book many skeptics can benefit from.
Showalter is not interested in defending the truth of recovered memories or alien-abduction tales; in fact, she thinks they're obviously false. She...
(The entire section is 1292 words.)
SOURCE: Bemis, Virginia T. Review of Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, by Elaine Showalter. NWSA Journal 10, no. 1 (spring 1998): 172-73.
[In the following review of Hystories, Bemis commends Showalter's historical overview of psychoanalytic theory, but objects to her “Eurocentric” view of millennial panic and her generalized, dismissive treatment of chronic fatigue and Gulf War syndrome.]
Controversial books relating to Women's Studies reach the shelves fairly regularly. Some are picked up by the mass media, land their authors on the talk-show circuit, and occasion much debate outside the standard academic circles. In the past few years, we have seen Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe and Christina Hoff Sommers follow this path, and their work has been used as ammunition by a wide variety of pundits. The latest book to follow along this road is Hystories, Elaine Showalter's study of hysterical epidemics.
Showalter has a distinguished record of literary scholarship from a feminist perspective, including such standards as A Literature of Their Own (1977), The Female Malady (1986) and Sexual Anarchy (1990). In Hystories, she seems to take up where she left off in The Female Malady, with a discussion of labeling, how mental illness has been defined and its “rules” set by the medical profession, and that women's...
(The entire section is 729 words.)
SOURCE: English, Deirdre. “Wollstonecraft to Lady Di.” Nation 272, no. 23 (11 June 2001): 44-9.
[In the following review, English lauds the central themes of Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage, complimenting the unlikely parallels that Showalter creates between the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Diana, Princess of Wales.]
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 [Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage] 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...
(The entire section is 4611 words.)
SOURCE: Hughes, Kathryn. “Holding the Middle Ground.” New Statesman 130, no. 4542 (18 June 2001): 52-3.
[In the following review of Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage, Hughes praises Showalter's accessible writing style, but criticizes her methodology and diluted analysis.]
When Elaine Showalter published A Literature of Their Own in 1977, it was a revelation and a celebration all in one. In her characteristically fluent prose, she suggested that British women's writing in the 19th and 20th centuries (her bookends were the Brontës and Doris Lessing) had been systematically sidelined, obscured and trivialised. Now here was Showalter, an American academic at the forefront of the new wave of “women's studies”, showing us not only why those muffled voices mattered, but how they connected to one another to create, if not exactly a lineage, certainly a web of influence and sympathy.
It was perhaps inevitable that Showalter's work would lose some of its glamour after that high point. In the 1980s, the intellectual beacon in women's studies passed from the Americans with their biographical bias to the intricate linguistic and psychoanalytical teasings of French feminists such as Julia Kristeva.
Increasingly, the work of Anglo-American academic feminists seemed naive, dull and slightly beside the point. In The Female...
(The entire section is 855 words.)
SOURCE: Maitland, Sara. “Oprah Winfrey Joins Diana, Princess of Wales.” Spectator 286, no. 9021 (30 June 2001): 44.
[In the following review, Maitland argues that Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage suffers from a lack of thematic focus and overall “trivial” subject material.]
Something has gone wildly awry with [Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage]. I am bemused. I am especially bemused because I am an Elaine Showalter fan. Over many years and generous books she has opened up aspects of feminist ‘critical theory’ (both literary and cultural) to a wider audience by the elegance and readability of her writing and the good sense of her opinions. But in the first place the book cannot decide what it is about.
From the subtitle you might anticipate a history of feminist ideas, but more probably, knowing Showalter, a history of women who had intellectual ideas. We might be encouraged to explore the way these ideas shaped the experiences of the women who held them. And indeed there is quite a lot of that here—although, however much one may admire her, it is difficult to pin down the exact part in my ‘intellectual heritage’ that I have gained from Oprah Winfrey.
Even with women whose claim on our attention is genuinely intellectual, Showalter offers only ‘gossip’. Hannah Arendt, for...
(The entire section is 813 words.)
SOURCE: Wineapple, Brenda. “Unparalleled Lives.” Women's Review of Books 18, nos. 10-11 (July 2001): 34-5.
[In the following review, Wineapple offers a generally favorable assessment of Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage.]
Everybody's doing it: in the fourteenth century Boccaccio did it in tales of 106 famous women that extol their dominion and inventiveness—as well as some more predictable virtues, like long-suffering patience. (They've just been freshly translated by Virginia Brown and republished by Harvard.) More recently Phyllis Rose did it in her slim collection, Writing of Women (1985), and Susan Ware did it in her ambitious Letter to the World (1997), celebrating seven women who, as she put it, shaped the American century. Sylvia Brownrigg did it too, though in her Ten Women Who Shook the World (1997), the women, though not their ability to shake, are fictional. And just last year, Claudia Roth Pierpont's women did it in a best-selling volume of essays, Passionate Minds, a trenchant exploration of twelve female pioneers, unlikely bedfellows who include Gertrude Stein, Mae West, Ayn Rand, Marina Tsvetaeva and Margaret Mitchell.
Now Elaine Showalter's new book chronologically sketches the lives of a motley collection of writers, thinkers, politicians, celebrities and superstars “who would not accept limits to a woman's...
(The entire section is 1696 words.)
SOURCE: Lee, Hermione. “Rule-breakers Rule.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5132 (10 August 2001): 22.
[In the following review, Lee commends Showalter's “energetic and opinionated” arguments in Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage.]
“Life stories retain their power when theories fade.” So Elaine Showalter claims at the start of her book of energetic and opinionated “claiming”, [Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage,] turning her back on feminist literary criticism and social history in favour of a collection of potted biographies of notable women. These are not, as she explains, the standard high-achieving, exemplary success stories (her examples of that would be Marie Curie, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher). Nor are they necessarily women who defined themselves as feminists. The intention is to broaden the definition of feminism, to claim for it (whatever “it” is, under this rubric) a much more inclusive membership. These are women who, as Showalter puts it, have refused to be constrained in their ambitions by the fact of being female. They are “risk takers and adventurers”, “trouble makers and rule breakers”. They struggle to combine independence with personal happiness, often to no avail. Their lives are flawed, even tragic. Such lives, she says, have been unduly neglected.
Yet the argument about...
(The entire section is 2119 words.)
SOURCE: Nokes, David. “Classics in the Classroom.” Spectator 291, no. 9103 (25 January 2003): 48-9.
[In the following review, Nokes criticizes Teaching Literature, arguing that Showalter fails to present “any serious or settled argument about the nature of teaching English.”]
There comes a time when all professors of literature think of writing a book like this [Teaching Literature]. Elaine Showalter has been professing it for 40 years, and after such a long and varied career what could be more apposite or timely than to share the wisdom of such experience with her younger colleagues? The answer, I fear, is much. She should have been gently dissuaded from writing a book which ranges from the tendentious (‘methods can be overrated’) to the banal (“the main difference between lectures and seminars was that in seminars the tutor sat down.’). One says ‘writing’, but the word is misapplied; ‘compiling’ would be a better term to register the very many practices which are commented upon, both by the teachers and the taught, throughout this book. There are about three citations per page, thrown in without discernible order, to give the book the appearance of variety; but pretty soon that appearance breaks down into a welter of frantic asides (‘it does not have to be original to be good’) or fussy advice (‘wear a different suit every day of the week’).
(The entire section is 724 words.)
Cohen, David. “Gullibility Is Catching.” New Scientist 154, no. 2086 (14 June 1997): 45.
Cohen offers a positive assessment of Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture.
Cott, Nancy F. “A Canon of One's Own.” American Prospect 12, no. 10 (4 June 2001): 46-7.
Cott offers a mixed assessment of Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage, concluding that Showalter's “idiosyncratic book” may appeal to the general reader but not to scholars.
Harris, Ruth. Review of The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980, by Elaine Showalter. Signs 15, no. 2 (winter 1990): 408-10.
Harris praises The Female Malady, but argues that Showalter's discussion of “Darwinist psychiatry” and the medical rationale behind the practice of lobotomies is incomplete and flawed.
Heller, Scott. “Scholar Sees Hysteria behind Many Modern Maladies.” Chronicle of Higher Education 43, no. 32 (18 April 1997): A15-A16.
Heller discusses Showalter's controversial assertions about hysteria, presented in The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 and Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture.
Ignatieff, Michael. “Sergeant Jones's...
(The entire section is 565 words.)