Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage

 
9780330488006: Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage

Sure to take its place alongside the literary landmarks of modern feminism, Elaine Showalter's brilliant, provocative work chronicles the roles of feminist intellectuals from the eighteenth century to the present. With sources as diverse as "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" and "Scream 2, Inventing Herself" is an expansive and timely exploration of women who possess a boundless determination to alter the world by boldly experiencing love, achievement, and fame on a grand scale. These women tried to work, travel, think, love, and even die in ways that were ahead of their time. In doing so, they forged an epic history that each generation of adventurous women has rediscovered. Focusing on paradigmatic figures ranging from Mary Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller to Germaine Greer and Susan Sontag, preeminent scholar Elaine Showalter uncovers common themes and patterns of these women's lives across the centuries and discovers the feminist intellectual tradition they embodied. The author brilliantly illuminates the contributions of Eleanor Marx, Zora Neale Hurston, Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Mead, and many more. Showalter, a highly regarded critic known for her provocative and strongly held opinions, has here established a compelling new Who's Who of women's thought. Certain to spark controversy, the omission of such feminist perennials as Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Virginia Woolf will surprise and shock the conventional wisdom. This is not a history of perfect women, but rather of real women, whose mistakes and even tragedies are instructive and inspiring for women today who are still trying to invent themselves.

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Review:

"From Mary Wollstonecraft on, the great feminist icons were anything but saints," writes this literary critic, chair of the Princeton English Department, and '60s feminist activist. Choosing from her personal list of heroines, Elaine Showalter illuminates the lives of American and English female intellectual notables from the 18th century to the present, and demonstrates the timeless division in the feminist psyche between the need for independence and the need for love. She begins with Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, who was the first to call for political, emotional, and sexual liberation. Wollstonecraft's own life anticipated all the contradictions between theory and practice that would challenge women, as she extolled reason and independence over passion, then became suicidal over the abandonment of her lover. Olive Schreiner was the chief spokeswoman for the New Women of the late 19th century, a group that felt compelled to sacrifice love or motherhood in the interest of women's future freedom. Another feminist mainstay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was the first to find both work and love on her own terms, but only after a severe depression brought on by internal conflicts over mothering in the Victorian era.

Showalter doesn't limit herself to traditional feminist icons, however. Her book also explores the lives of Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, who scorned feminism, and more recent feminist critics such as Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia (with an emphasis on the latter's egomania). She reveals the enmity between Simon de Beauvoir and Mary McCarthy, as well as their similarities, and the unbalanced bonds between de Beauvoir and Arendt and their philosopher lovers (Sartre and Heidegger, respectively). As she moves into the 21st century, the effort to combine independence, adventure, and love is embodied in Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and Princess Diana, who was killed exactly 200 years after Wollstonecraft died in childbirth. It's an idiosyncratic but entertaining list, with its revealing and refreshing focus on these women's risk-taking and rule-breaking lives. --Lesley Reed

About the Author:

Elaine Showalter is professor of English and Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and the author of A Literature of Their Own and Sexual Anarchy. A frequent contributor and book reviewer for American magazines and British newspapers, including the London Times Literary Supplement, she has also written television reviews for People. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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