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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1630

Literary scholar Elaine Showalter, one of the founding mothers of American academic women’s studies, took her inspiration for this volume from an unrealized project of American anthropologist Ruth Benedict called Adventures in Womanhood—a work intended to document the stories of remarkable women intellectuals who had, in Benedict’s words, “made of their lives a great adventure.” Showalter terms her chosen subjects “feminist icons:” female “symbols of aspiration who have exercised both spiritual and psychological power over women for the last two centuries . . . [and who] constituted a subterranean, subconscious tradition as they have been rediscovered and reinvented by successive generations of rebellious, intellectual, and adventurous daughters.” Showalter locates their staying power in the dynamic intersection between their intellectual agendas and their personal struggles to transcend the mind/heart, male/female dichotomizing so rigidly encoded in societal gender conventions. Iconic feminists have resisted their assigned position on the emotive side of that spectrum and crafted public voices through which to theorize a visionary alternative to the status quo. Just as importantly, by insisting on their right to pursue “a full life” they have heroically striven to balance personal fulfillment with professional or intellectual satisfaction, dramatizing “a seemingly timeless division in the feminist psyche, the split between the need for independence and the need for love.” That their efforts have frequently met with failure or exposed unresolved inconsistencies between thought and action only strengthens their status as genuine feminist heroines who persistently seek to integrate the affective and reflective facets of their humanity in the face of relentless cultural opposition.

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Showalter’s focus is essentially biographical: How and why, she asks, do her subjects’ life choices, in all their messiness and self-contradiction, speak to contemporary women still engaged in the quest to honor both their womanhood and their ambition to matter in the larger world. Though wary of distilling too fixed a paradigm from the lives under consideration, she does identify a number of recurrent themes distinguishing feminist icons: a determined sense of their own autonomy; an oppositional dynamic with their mothers; intense bonds, romantic or otherwise, with other women; accommodation with the getting and wielding of power; and an infusion of new energy and direction in middle age. This careful enunciation of her central trope proves misleading, however, since in the chapters to follow Showalter applies its premises erratically. Nor does she include in her list any mention of the deeply conflicted negotiation of traditional marriage and motherhood that so dominates many of the stories she tells.

Perhaps the reason for this slippage between Showalter’s theoretical intent and its execution lies in competing, even incompatible, agendas for the book. A thoroughgoing scholar responsible for a body of work that helped to create contemporary feminist literary criticism (for which she even coined the oft-cited term “gynocriticism”), Showalter nonetheless makes the surprising announcement in Inventing Herself that “I myself stopped writing essays on feminist criticism in 1989; they had outlived their usefulness. . . .The stage was being cleared for the next act.” Her controversial foray into cultural criticism, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media (1997) might be regarded as an illustration of her determination to forge new modes of critical discourse that would extend beyond the walls of the academy. Inventing Herself continues that trajectory by adopting a stance that replaces scholarly detachment and specialization with conversational expansiveness about and acknowledged personal identification with one’s subject. As a feminist scholar, she equates the personal and political by collapsing distinctions between the writer and her object of study through regular first-person interjections of her own relevant experiences. The resulting text thus becomes far less an overview of modern feminist intellectual history than an idiosyncratic hybrid combining reflections upon modern women intellectuals who have shaped Showalter’s own feminist understanding, with a gossipy insider’s account of Anglo-American academic feminism in the humanities since the 1960’s. One fears, however, that for all the good intentions informing its style, this volume will ultimately disappoint most readers, whether they open it to acquire a picture of intellectual feminism over the last two centuries or to immerse themselves in profiles of the women who have forged that tradition; in doing some of both, this study does neither consistently.

Its early sections, albeit academically grounded, offer rather perfunctory introductions to such major feminist “messiahs” as Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller, seemingly aimed at newcomers to women’s studies. Showalter’s writing on these feminist foremothers comes most alive in her discussion of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, where the main threads of the story seem less overworked and overgeneralized. This may be because Gilman provides a compelling success story to counterbalance so many tragically abortive or incomplete ones: As an avatar of the possibilities awaiting self-directed women in the twentieth century, Gilman moved herself out of the domesticity that had trapped her, immersed herself in feminist and socialist activism, wrote well-received treatises on women’s oppression by the conditions of modern life, and negotiated emotionally satisfying relationships with loving women (failing, it would seem, only with her daughter). Showalter does a better job of delineating the cultural continuity linking her American subjects than her British ones. As an American feminist herself, Showalter clearly derives satisfaction from tracking the work of generations of intellectual women who forged the circumstances making possible her own life choices. Her decision, then, to move the book back and forth across the Atlantic results in a fragmented and episodic discussion (though it should also be noted that Showalter regularly cites the ways in which the life or writings of one of her subjects touched that of another).

With the chapter on Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, one is left to conclude that Showalter’s true organizing principle is autobiographical, as she describes how their admission to the inner circles of the New York cultural elite inspired her own adolescent intellectual development at mid-century. Admittedly, she explores the contradictions presented by her strong subjects. She borrows Norman Podhoretz’s description of McCarthy as a modern-day Zenobia, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s erotically intellectual heroine in The Blithedale Romance (1852), and contrasts McCarthy’s sexual adventurousness with her male-identified prejudices against feminism and her refusal to recognize gender as a major determinant of her own life. Showalter also explains that while Arendt acknowledged the role gender could play in the reception of the female intellectual, she eschewed the identity politics of feminism and its ideological absolutes (meanwhile playing lifelong acolyte to the disturbing figure of her youthful mentor and lover, the philosopher Martin Heidegger). Still, there is no getting around the fact that Showalter elevates both women as “feminist icons,”a label neither woman would have accepted since both openly disdained the second wave women’s movement. Moreover, the attention given to McCarthy and Arendt makes glaring the omission of any sustained focus on figures such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Sanger, or Betty Friedan. As the timeline moves forward to embrace the decades of Showalter’s own career, the autobiographical engulfs the analytical even more thoroughly in what at times becomes an unhappy blend of academic backbiting and insider namedropping that is more likely to alienate a general female readership than to inspire enthusiasm for updated versions of feminist heroism.

There are important sections amidst this material in the latter half of the volume, particularly the discussion of Susan Sontag’s intellectual odyssey from the singularity of her “dark lady” status at the Partisan Review (as Mary McCarthy’s heir) to her mature feminist acceptance of gender as a determinant of her career and her life. Showalter also shrewdly captures the role of the modern mass media in anointing spokeswomen for the movement and thereby shaping the message delivered to the larger culture, a phenomenon evident in such widely disparate careers as those of Margaret Fuller, Victoria Woodhull, Margaret Mead, and Gloria Steinem. In the late twentieth century, such conflation of medium and message even followed feminism into the once rarified halls of academe, where feminist “divas” such as Germaine Greer and Camille Paglia invert Showalter’s feminist paradigm so that self-promotion adopts messianic rhetoric and egalitarian opportunity edges out musty sisterhood to become “power feminism,” the “riot grrl” version of rugged individualism.

That Showalter is eager to understand this newest variant of feminist ideology is evident in her closing chapter, “First Ladies: The Way We Live Now.” Her effort to listen to the voices of the larger culture and the next generation is laudable and the mark of a conscientious teacher. However, it also produces more evidence of the book’s uneasy vacillation between being yet another mass cult search for role models and a serious intellectual meditation on the lives of thoughtful women who recognized the radical experiments of which they were a part and the challenges to which they were not always equal. It is the fallible human within the feminist icon that Showalter declares to be her real subject in these life stories, and one might regard Inventing Herself in that same light: In it Showalter allows herself an unguarded frankness and political incorrectness she would likely have excised from her earlier writings. For those going into the book with an understanding of its freewheeling perspective, there are many pleasures to be had: kaleidoscopic portraits of true feminist icons seldom given center stage (Ruth Benedict, Rebecca West), a glimpse behind the curtain of faculty hauteur while looking into the ugly maw of university politics, the infectious excitement of the first victories for women’s studies. Beyond that, one would be hard pressed not to start making lists of worthy titles to continue one’s education in modern feminist thought.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal 126 (January, 2001): 132.

Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 18, 2001, p. 14F.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (March 25, 2001): 30.

Publishers Weekly 247 (December 11, 2000): 69.

The Washington Post, April 16, 2001, p. C04.

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