Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist heroine sans pareil, didn’t approve of heroines. Great Women – or ‘icons’, as Elaine Showalter prefers to call the three centuries’ worth of feminist ‘rule-breakers and path-blazers’ celebrated in her new book – get short shrift in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman:
I shall not lay any stress on the example of a few women who, from having received a masculine education, have acquired courage and resolution … Sappho, Eloisa, Mrs Macaulay, the Empress of Russia, Mme d’Eon etc. These, and many more may be reckoned exceptions; and, are not all heroes as well as heroines, exceptional to general rules? I wish to see women neither heroines nor brutes, but reasonable creatures.
The point was political, but its immediate target was the late 18th-century literary market, where compilations of women worthies were proving nice little earners. Collective female biographies had been published in Britain from Tudor times, but became increasingly popular after 1750 as writers of both sexes started to exploit the commercial potential of the genre. The roll-call of celebrated women expanded from the traditional saints, queens, Biblical heroines and aristocratic savantes to include middle-class bluestockings, actresses and other non-elite prodigies. The declared purpose of these texts, Wollstonecraft’s criticism notwithstanding, was often feminist: ‘My pen has been taken up in the cause, and for the benefit of my own sex . . . I have at heart the happiness of my sex, and their advancement in the grand scale of rational and social existence,’ Mary Hays declared, introducing her six-volume Female Biography, a seminal contribution to the genre, in 1803.
Mary Hays – an intimate of Wollstonecraft’s, and one of the most audacious feminist writers to put pen to paper – does not appear in Showalter’s book, but her literary ambitions do. Female Biography was an avowedly non-academic work, written ‘for women and not for scholars’, and designed to encourage an emulatory admiration of those predecessors ‘whose endowments, or whose conduct, have reflected lustre upon the sex’, so confounding misogynist stereotypes. Relying on existing biographies, Hays made no claim to historical erudition; nor did she disguise her commercial ambitions. Like many 18th-century literary women, Hays survived by her pen, addressing her writing to a feminine audience whose ‘affections’, she judged, were more accessible than their reason, and who liked ‘pleasure mingled with their instruction’: ‘my design,’ the preface to Female Biography explained, ‘was not to . . . astonish by profound research, but to collect and concentrate . . . engaging pictures, instructive narrations and striking circumstances.’
As the most recent addition to the tradition of feminist hagiography inaugurated by Hays’s work, Inventing Herself is similarly crammed with instructive pleasures and appeals to the female affections. Elaine Showalter has long been one of the most influential and entertaining figures on the feminist academic scene, and Inventing Herself is typical of the lighter end of her corpus: racy, sentimental, opinionated. Like Female Biography, it is highly selective in its choice of subjects and sketchy in its treatment of them; like Hays’s volumes, too, it is – or aspires to be – a potboiler, targeted at the book-club market. It opens, inevitably, with Wollstonecraft and ends, with wonderful implausibility and two fingers raised to her detractors, with Princess Diana, ‘the last of the 20th century’s feminist icons and messiahs’. Nor is the inclusion of Diana the book’s only idiosyncrasy. For this is not just any catalogue of feminist icons but a very personal pantheon, composed (Diana and one or two others apart) of femmes de lettres in Showalter’s mould rather than of grassroots political activists, as we used to call those who preferred getting things done to talking about them. Figures familiar from other popular histories of feminism appear – Margaret Fuller, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Olive Schreiner, Simone de Beauvoir – but also women less often eulogised as feminist foremothers: Margaret Mead and her fellow anthropologists of the 1920s, Rebecca West and the pioneers of British ‘New Feminism’, Emma Goldman, Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt (the last two, both openly hostile to feminism, qualify on the grounds that as ‘trouble-makers and rule-breakers’ they lived the feminism they repudiated).
As the narrative approaches the present, a bevy of feminist writers who came of age in the Women’s Liberation Movement move into view, including Showalter herself, whose career as an activist and critic frames the book’s second half. The setting of feminist heroinism becomes almost exclusively the academy. Turning oneself and one’s contemporaries into emblematic figures proves tricky, however, and these chapters are weaker than their predecessors, disjointed and inconsequential. The thumbnail sketches of famous divas – Germaine Greer, Camille Paglia – are lively and shrewd, but Showalter’s personal reminiscences tend to be off-key, girlishly confiding and unrevealing at the same time. Obscure friends and acquaintances pop in and out with bare introductions, and the handling of better-known feminist critics is boringly discreet. We can see Showalter’s dilemma here: franker portrayals would no doubt have meant some awkward moments at the Modern Languages Association, the chief stomping-ground of the American feminist literati. But the result is a group portrait of the feminist academy, or at least its lit-crit wing, that is insular, coy and monochrome (only one black feminist academic, Gloria Jean Watkins – ‘bell hooks’ – and only one black writer of an earlier generation, Zora Neale Hurston, appear, and these only briefly). A pity this, since Showalter is probably right to regard herself and her sister critics as representative of the late 20th-century feminist intelligentsia; a shame, too: I would have enjoyed knowing more about some of these women, especially such grandes dames of the Paris scene as Hélène Cixous (the ‘eyeliner queen’) and the terrifying Luce Irigaray. (When it comes to awe-inspiring icons, French feminism can beat its American and British counterparts hollow.)
However, the chapters on 19th and early 20th-century feminism are fun, with well-told anecdotes and engaging detail (pace Mary Hays). Showalter has a sensitive understanding of the difficulties, particularly the sexual difficulties, confronting New Women in an Old Men’s world. Tragic, humiliating or bathetic elements in her heroines’ lives are described lucidly and sympathetically; complicated desires are given a voice, particularly the wish, frequently expressed, to escape womanhood entirely, at least now and then. Thus the American anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons (a ‘central-casting image of the New Woman’) writing in her journal in 1913: ‘This morning perhaps I may feel like a male; let me act like one. This afternoon I may feel like a female; let me act like one . . . It is such a confounded bore to have to act one part endlessly.’ Yet Showalter also shows how the business of femaleness absorbed these women, not just in grandly heterodox ways but in traditional ones like baby-care, fashion, homemaking. Clothes and hair are carefully described – ‘heavy Indian jewellery and long, drooping cardigans’ (Elsie Clews Parsons); ‘straight black hair, which sometimes needed washing’ (Mary McCarthy) – menus are outlined, furnishings catalogued (McCarthy’s New York apartment in 1933 was ‘painted apricot with white trim, with good closet space, elevator boys and a doorman, Hepplewhite chairs . . . and English ivy in white cachepots from Macy’s’).
Indeed almost everything about these ‘epic intellectuals’ interests Showalter, with the exception of their ideas, which for the most part receive only cursory treatment on the grounds that exemplary lives inspire in a way that original thoughts do not: ‘Life stories retain their power when theories fade.’ Personal derring-do, style and gritty endurance are more obviously heroic than long days spent hunched over a desk. This privileging of life over thought, while obviously essential if Princess Diana and Oprah Winfrey (another of Showalter’s favourites) are to make the grade, is odd nonetheless in a book dedicated mostly to influential intellectuals. It is not that one doesn’t want to know about Simone de Beauvoir’s trademark turban, or Jane Gallop’s penchant for sex with 36-year-old men, or whether Mary McCarthy shaved her legs (she didn’t). But in the absence of a sustained discussion of their ideas the result is not merely to popularise but to Cosmopolitan-ise, to turn professional thinkers into mass-market celebs.
The political intent here is plain. Like the readers of Mary Hays’s Female Biography who, ‘poorly content with the [destiny] of . . . slaves’, required Great Women to spur them to ‘advancement’, women today, Showalter insists, still need icons as ‘a way of confronting and reinventing ourselves’. The feminist intellectual who would perform this heroic service must be extraordinary enough to encourage and inspire, but also – and here’s the rub – ordinary enough to be imaginatively accessible. Only the not too exotic woman can serve as a popular role model. This leaves Showalter with two problems: the intractable peculiarity of lives devoted to thinking and writing, and the exoticism of the past. Avoiding any detailed examination of the life of the mind – not just its content but all the complex paraphernalia of professional intellectualism – takes care of the first difficulty. The second, the inescapable alterity of past lives and experiences, is simply denied. The line between past and present is erased with a magic phrase found in virtually every work of feminist hagiography: ‘ahead of their time’. ‘Like the feminist icons who lived after her, Wollstonecraft was ahead of her time,’ Showalter writes, ‘as incomprehensible to the 18th century as “the fourth dimension to a class in fractions”.’ Eighteenth and 19th-century feminists are ‘our sisters, our contemporaries’. Then vanishes into now in a gesture of historical appropriation common to most writing on past feminisms. Attacking Inventing Herself on these grounds may seem churlish: like Mary Hays’s Female Biography, the book is panegyric, not history. But it is irritating to be presented with, for example, a Mary Wollstonecraft so denuded of historical attributes that she can be equated with Princess Diana, as happens to her in the book’s introduction and accompanying publicity. Showalter’s unabashed admiration for Princess Di is disarming (can I be right in detecting some resemblance between Showalter’s jacket photo and a famous Vogue shot of Diana?). But Wollstonecraft, a revolutionary republican who loathed aristocratic women, would not have shared this admiration, nor would such a fiercely intellectualist woman have been flattered to find herself equated to a girl who regarded herself, rightly or wrongly, as ‘thick as two short planks’. Showalter’s rosy view of Diana – or Wollstonecraft – is no sillier than any other affectionate idealisation, but it is fantasy not history.
But then fantasy, as Showalter’s own reminiscences make plain, is what Inventing Herself is really about. ‘I never met a feminist when I was growing up. I never even met a “career girl” . . . None of the women in my huge extended family . . . had a job outside the home.’ So the young Elaine, steaming with literary ambition, sought role models in books (where she found Domna Rejnev of McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe, ‘elegant, austere, mannish’ and, as she says, pretty much her antithesis); amid the 1970s New York literati (where, dressed in a ‘Cossack minidress’, she tried to bamboozle her way into Partisan Review by imitating Susan Sontag); and, eventually, in the feminist academy (where her Princeton colleague Ann Douglas – ‘a rebel, a genius, a flash of light’ in a ‘green Diane Von Furstenberg wrap-dress’ – became an idol). Heroine-worship, in other words, is a real Showalter thing – and in this she is typical of the women she celebrates, all of whom, as she shows, were icon enthusiasts, turning to each other for heroic inspiration. For Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Vera Brittain, the ideal was Olive Schreiner, who in turn liked to imagine herself a second Mary Wollstonecraft (‘the greatest of all English women’). The young Juliet Mitchell, we are told, identified with Margaret Mead, while the influential critic and novelist Carolyn Heilbrun chose Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The Transcendalist Margaret Fuller – also a Wollstonecraft epigone – inspired innumerable American imitators, while de Beauvoir (who modelled herself on Jo of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, possibly the greatest feminist icon of them all) became a mythic figure for 1960s and 1970s feminists: ‘she was our mother, our sister, and something of ourselves,’ one acolyte recalls.
Are feminist writers, as a group, more likely to embrace such identificatory fictions than other women? Possibly, and for a reason that Showalter indicates, although she makes little of it: feminists’ relationships with their mothers. Women, Virginia Woolf once wrote, ‘think back through our mothers’, but what Inventing Herself shows is that feminists are much more likely to do the opposite, defining themselves in opposition to mothers who are seen as prohibitive and soul-destroying – an ‘enemy within’. This long quarrel between feminists and mothers may be one reason Mary Wollstonecraft – mother-hater and rebel daughter par excellence – is the icon of choice for so many of Showalter’s women, including the young Ruth Benedict (later an eminent anthropologist) who, gripped by ‘fear and disgust’ of her mother, and feeling it ‘a terrible thing to be a woman’, on a visit to London in 1914 found herself in front of John Opie’s portrait of Wollstonecraft: ‘I wanted so desperately to know how other women had saved their souls alive. And the woman in the little frame arrested me, this woman with the auburn hair, and the sad, steady, light-brown eyes, and the gallant poise of the head. She had saved her soul alive; it looked out from her steady eyes.’ Whether it was a living soul or a ‘radiant sovereign self’ (Margaret Fuller’s version of Wollstonecraft) that women saw in the author of The Rights of Woman, what the heroic image replaced – the woman one could not bear to be, generally one’s mother – was as important as the fantasy of liberated womanhood it embodied, and as distant from Wollstonecraft’s own troubled personality.
From Mary Hays to Women’s Liberation, these imaginary genealogies have been an important feature of the feminist tradition, deserving of study in their own right. What they get in Inventing Herself, however, is not investigation but re-enactment. The ‘epic adventurers of womanhood’ featured in her book are real heroines, Showalter insists, not merely idealised fictions or – in the case of more recent super-celebrities like Diana and Hillary Clinton – media creations. Feminists’ propensity to invent each other goes unexamined, replaced by a myth of heroic self-invention. Whether this is because the anti-maternal element in such fantasies is felt as too dangerous (Showalter’s own mother seems to have disapproved of almost every life-choice her daughter has made); or whether it is the denigratory fantasies with which such idealisations are inevitably twinned (as vividly displayed in Camille Paglia’s naked rhetoric of love and loathing, and detectable perhaps in Showalter’s perfunctory treatment of her icons’ ideas) that are being evaded, the result is a weirdly cryptic text, at once revealing and opaque. Seen in this light, the final chapter on Diana, with its blend of adoring hyperbole (‘a courageous activist’, ‘elegance, taste and style . . . truly exceptional even in a beauty-conscious age’, ‘one of the great success stories of contemporary psychotherapy’) and self-exposing commentary (‘her flaws, her wounds, her scars, were . . . what we saw in ourselves’) appears less idiosyncratic and more a coda to the book as a whole, its inflated images bouncing off each other in a dreamlike phantasmagoria.
As any ex-icon could have told Showalter, there is a price to be paid for this sort of thing. When Wollstonecraft denounced heroines in 1792 it was on the grounds that praise for Great Women was no substitute for respect for women in general. What was the exceptional woman an exception to, after all, but the frustrated, degraded condition of the majority? As long as most women were second-class citizens, the high-achieving woman would inevitably remain an oddity, a freak, and thus extremely vulnerable. On Wollstonecraft’s death in 1797, Mary Hays wrote in glowing terms of her friend’s personal virtues and exemplary efforts on behalf of her sex. But a chill wind of political reaction was blowing, and rights-of-women arguments that had been applauded five years earlier were fast falling from favour. In 1798 Wollstonecraft’s husband, William Godwin, published a memoir of his wife in which he revealed her unorthodox sexual history. Conservatives crowed in triumph, and she was publicly vilified as a whore; even former friends denounced her. So savage was the outcry that when Mary Hays came to write her Female Biography four years later, she was too intimidated to include Wollstonecraft. ‘Prudence’, she admitted, forced her to ‘waive’ any explicit discussion of feminist issues, which had to be smuggled in through portraits of less notorious women. Wollstonecraft disappeared from the feminist stage for almost a century. In a changed political climate, and with like-minded women unable to defend her publicly, a feminist heroine, it turned out, was a very expendable creature. The oppression that provided fertile soil for the exceptional woman could as readily bury her. Showalter’s loving chronicle of feminist ‘rule-breakers’ may be heartwarming, but as long as gender rules survive, such heroines will always have a whiff of the ghetto. Merely real women, ‘neither heroines nor brutes, but reasonable creatures’ in Wollstonecraft’s formulation, with no shaky pedestals to negotiate, are a firmer foundation for feminist hopes.