(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1630 words.)