Biography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 909

Elaine Showalter’s scholarship in literary criticism, history, Victorian literature, the English novel, and women’s studies intersects to inform the sociocultural texts that have made her a key figure in the resurrection of forgotten women writers. Showalter has struggled to redefine literary periods and the recognized literary canon to include the contributions of women.

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She was born Elaine Cottler to a father who had only an elementary-level education and a mother who was a frustrated housewife. Her eventual ideology was both an outgrowth of and reaction to her family background. She has cited her mother’s empty, unhappy life as a source of her own feminism. Although her parents protested against her intellectual pursuits, Elaine attended and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Bryn Mawr College in 1962. When she went on to earn her M.A. at Brandeis and announced her intention to marry English Showalter, who was not Jewish, her parents disowned her; Elaine married in 1963 and received her graduate degree in 1964. She went on to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis, under the feminist Gwendolyn Needham, but she took time out to bear her first child, Vinca, in July, 1965. Her second child, Michael, was born in June, 1970, just after she had received her Ph.D.

Showalter’s career began as a teaching assistant at the University of California, 1964-1966. When her husband was appointed assistant professor of French at Princeton University, Showalter became one of the first women to teach at Douglass College, the women’s branch of Rutgers College. While there, between 1969 and 1978, she progressed from instructor to associate professor of English; in 1978 she was awarded full professorship and in 1983 distinguished professorship. In 1984 she left Douglass to become the Avalon Foundation Professor of English and Humanities at Princeton. Over the years, Showalter also served as visiting professor at a variety of institutions, including the University of Delaware, Dartmouth College, and Oxford University in England.

Showalter is a pioneer in women’s studies and revisionist scholarship. In 1968 she became an active voice in the Princeton chapter of the National Organization for Women, whose presidency she assumed the following year. With her groundbreaking courses and scholarship, Douglass College became a center of women’s studies and feminist scholarship.

Showalter’s influence began to be felt most profoundly in the late 1970’s with her publication of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, which identifies and analyzes the double standards applied to women’s writing, and her 1979 article, “Towards a Feminist Poetics,” wherein she coined the term “gynocritics” to refer to a way of bringing women’s writings out of the periphery and into the center of literary study. She makes a clear distinction between woman-centered gynocritics and the political implications of feminist theory, which she sees as operating within a male-created paradigm. In revising literary history and notions of canonicity Showalter continues the momentum that begins with gynocritics and proceeds to the stage she identifies, using poststructuralist theories, as gynesic criticism (this term is drawn from Alice Jardin’s 1985 book Gynesis). Showalter’s alignment is with a French, feminist-inspired version of womanist thought; she suggests that, instead of creating an aesthetic in response to a male norm, a separate-but-equal tradition of women’s writing be created. Showalter sees the beginning of such a tradition in learning to reread and subsequently value women’s styles and forms as their own.

Showalter edited the first textbook on women in literature, the 1971 Women’s Liberation and Literature; her book A Literature of Their Own is the first to chronicle a separate tradition of British women’s writing; and her 1985 anthology The New Feminist Criticism compiles for the first time a collection of essays (from African American, lesbian, and French feminism points of view) that sketches the roots of feminist scholarship.

In The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 Showalter examines the way in which women were diagnosed and treated throughout psychiatric history. In this analysis she unveils the gender biases of psychiatry and analyzes the resulting social and cultural implications. In her 1990 Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle she explores a theory she terms “endism” to critique those cultural and sexual crises that recur in the end of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With her 1991 Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women’s Writing Showalter shifts her focus to American literature, offering the metaphor of a “literary quilt” to discuss the common threads that make up a tradition of American women’s writing and culture. In Hysteria Beyond Freud she offers a feminist response to the psychoanalytical theory. Showalter continues to be a formative voice in the study of women’s literature, and her criticism has become a guide to the development of contemporary feminist theories. However, she did arouse enormous controversy with her 1997 work Hystories, a commentary on the mind-body relationship and psychosomatic illness, when she suggested that Gulf War syndrome, a diffuse collection of ailments plaguing veterans of the 1991 Gulf War, chronic fatigue syndrome, recovered memories of Satanic ritual abuse and alien abduction, and multiple personality disorder are psychosomatic reactions to Freudian hysteria rather than organic in origin. Chronic fatigue and Gulf War syndrome sufferers were particularly vocal, some going so far as to issue threats against Showalter. She, for her part, noted that this reaction merely proved her point that physiological disease is still “less demeaning” than psychological disorder.

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