The feminist from suburbia

August 29, 1997

Feminist doyenne Elaine Showalter admits that she is bourgeois, likes shopping and is a bit girly, but tells Jennifer Wallace why looking suburban has been very useful

The only part of my life that is really interesting and odd is the beginning part of it. I never should have been here. Everything in my life suggested that I was never going to be teaching at Princeton University." Elaine Showalter, 56, breezes into a central London restaurant, clutching bags of shopping and with sunglasses perched on top of her girly bobbed hair. Perfectly at home among the ladies who lunch, she seems every inch the classic American mom, anxious about her kids, about her clothes, about getting things done. It is hard to believe on first meeting her that Showalter is one of the leading members of the women's movement in America, that she virtually invented feminist criticism and that she is admired hugely by scholars on both sides of the Atlantic.

She is the first to acknowledge the apparent incongruity between her life and her reputation. "I've never fitted in within the stereotype of my generation. I've been married for 34 years. I like shopping. I like all sorts of girly things. I was always a very bourgeois, suburban lady who dyed her hair and everything like that." But she explains that looking suburban has been politically very useful. When the popular image of women's libbers was one of bra-burning, ugly man-haters, she could dispel that image as the acceptable face of American feminism. "We were not scary, we looked like we could fit in, so we would go up and say the hard stuff," she remembers.

She found herself saying the hard stuff a lot during the mid- and late-1970s. In the run-up to the publication of her most famous book, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bront to Lessing, and as her work on neglected women novelists became more widely known, she was invited to speak at conferences around the country. She frequently addressed meetings alongside the most eminent and feared Yale school of critics, the hardened literary theorists like Geoffrey Hartman, who dominated the criticism of literature at the time. "It was terrifying. There were these traditional emigre scholars with degrees from seven European universities. I hardly slept for three years." Her courage in speaking out then is greatly admired by Isobel Armstrong at Birkbeck College, London, who has since edited anthologies of women's poetry. "It was a major achievement to make women writers visible and to take them seriously", Professor Armstrong says. "She altered a mindset." As a result of her work, people began the task - now taken for granted - of rediscovering, publishing and studying forgotten women novelists and of recognising that there was a wealth of female literature beyond the books of Austen, the Bront s, Eliot and Woolf.

It was when she was faced with converting the traditional critics and scholars that Showalter coined the term with which she is now most closely associated, gynocriticism. "Gynocriticism", she wrote, "begins at the point when we free ourselves from the linear absolutes of male literary history, stop trying to fit women between the lines of the male tradition, and focus instead on the newly visible world of female culture". The term was a calculated ploy to make her work noticed. If structuralists and deconstructionists were going to bandy incomprehensible terms, then she could match them. "I was very struck by the way in which people were generating vocabulary, and so I just decided that if I'm going to invent this thing called feminist criticism, then I have to do this or nobody will take it seriously". Suddenly the simple process of studying and enjoying novels by women had acquired a name and momentum of its own. Showalter was borrowing pseudo-scientific terms acceptable to male critics in order to describe what she saw as the separate, great, female tradition of writing.

Despite her terminology, however, her work has provoked criticism. She has been blamed for not being theoretical enough. The feminist critic Toril Moi attacked her for limiting her gynocriticism to "sympathetic, identity-seeking approaches" and for not taking account of "the text as a signifying process". Women's writing, in other words, was simply confessional for Showalter and not subject to the same complexity and textual ambiguity as male writing. She was not sufficiently radical in her politics or her literary criticism. Fellow feminist and friend Juliet Mitchell explains the conflict: "Showalter's feminism is the constituency of women; others like Toril Moi think feminism is a political theory. Showalter is interested in women's literature, not the politics of feminism or what feminism might be". Showalter herself, who admits that Moi's criticism made her seriously consider her methodology, thinks that the non-theoretical tag misrepresents her. "Toril polarised things in a striking but distracting and totally misleading way," she argues. She was contrasted with the French theoretical feminists, whom Moi admires, and so was portrayed as American and simple. "I'm just as international as Toril is herself," she says rather tartly.

It was this prickly determination not to be pigeon-holed or stereotyped that led Showalter to follow A Literature of Their Own with a study of madness, The Female Malady. She wanted to surprise her critics who were expecting her to defend gynocriticism for the rest of her life, and studying 19th-century psychological illness also meant a year in England at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, another incentive. But the method of working, the scholarship for which she is widely admired, was unchanged from her days of feminist criticism. She continued to amass a huge amount of background detail, to build up an archive of research before generating the theories. "People at that time used to read 'Dora' (Freud's infamous case-study) and THAT'S IT!", she says in surprise and exasperation. Untroubled by the task of reading a very different genre of writing from women's novels, she just knuckled down with her study - "my usual way of working", she says.

Her latest book Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Medical Culture continues her interest in madness as a socially created disease, although it departs from women's experience specifically. Showalter argues that the end of the 20th century has provoked so much anxiety that psychological trauma or hysterical epidemics are rife, and that while the public seeks "organic" or "external" explanations for these illnesses, it should recognise their psychological origins. For an illness to be psychological does not make it less serious or any less of an illness, but it is important for patients to face the truth. We need to make distinctions between "therapeutic narratives and destructive hystories", she writes briskly.

The book has already created considerable outrage, mainly because it classes chronic fatigue syndrome (ME) and Gulf war syndrome among such other fin de si cle panics as alien abduction and satanic ritual abuse. Showalter gets irritated by newspaper reports of chemical leaks or inoculation cocktails during the Gulf war which might explain the soldiers' illnesses. "There is just no correlation between recorded symptoms and recorded exposure," she says in characteristic no-nonsense style. Often consulted by the media now whenever a medical breakthrough in the diagnosis of ME or Gulf war syndrome occurs, she feels a duty to comment whenever she can in her efforts to "change social attitudes". Hystories has made the bestseller list and achieved Showalter's aim of reaching a popular audience beyond the world of academic feminism.

But despite the new hysteria controversy and despite Showalter's efforts to escape her stereotype as what she calls the "Edith Wharton Yankee from the plains", she retains the housewifely pragmatism which marked her earliest days. After marrying English Showalter, lecturer in French, a year into her graduate work at Brandeis, she followed him around the country for the next few years, swapping graduate schools as he moved. She squeezed three-year courses into two when another move was imminent while her work on her doctoral dissertation on Victorian women writers was sent by post from Princeton to her supervisor in University of Davis, California, where her husband had previously been based. Her first child was born after the first year of marriage, and she combined graduate work with motherhood efficiently. "We just made it up as we went along. We had good babysitters."

Coping with family and work was paradoxically made easier because she had no family to tell her that "it's bad to work with a baby". Her parents, second-generation Jewish immigrants in Boston, had been unhappy about her attending university (Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia) in the first place, and considered her "much too educated for a Jewish girl". Her graduate work at Brandeis was just about acceptable because the college was thought a "religious extension of the synagogue". But when she announced she wanted to marry Showalter, a non Jew, that was the last straw. They denounced her, and refused to see her for the next 15 years. "They sent my sister round with a list of everything they had given me," Showalter remembers. "The radio, the rug, the clock - and she packed everything up and took them off and left me."

This ostracism by her family bred a self-sufficiency and determination still evident today. She steeled herself to say what she thought and ask for what she wanted. She ensured that she always had her own source of income and was not dependent on anybody. And she became involved in the women's movement, campaigning for the independence of Douglas College, the women's college at Princeton where she taught part-time, and set up a women's studies course. This practical response to life shapes her feminism. According to Juliet Mitchell, Showalter is interested in the ethical side of feminism. "She tends to resolve questions rather than open them. While some feminism is exploratory, hers is resolving." Reluctant to strike out into the wilder world of feminist speculation - she dismisses Andrea Dworkin as the "lunatic fringe" - Showalter continues to maintain her position as the sane or well-balanced voice of feminism, someone who values experience more than philosophy, commonsense more than hyperbole.

As we rise from our hour-and-a-half chat, she turns finally to ask me a question. "How about you? Do you have any kids?" When I answer in the negative and mutter something about career and commuting, she quickly responds. "It's a new problem. Not having any career ambitions meant that I did things without thinking them through, whereas now people have to plan. If I had been paradoxically more ambitious, I might have said, 'well, it's not my idea to have children and to wait till later'. I just sort of had them because I thought that I would never amount to anything so what did it matter?" So that is what one needs to be successful: no ambition and no plan.

Jennifer Wallace is director of studies in English at Peterhouse, Cambridge University.

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