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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 19 January 2012
A rather original and very readable 'history of feminists', taking a series of famous examples from Mary Wollstonecraft to Hilary Clinton and giving accounts of their lives and what they contributed to feminism. There are some great stories: of Mary Wollstonecraft; Olive Schreiner; Margaret Mead; Simone de Beauvoir; Rebecca West; Vera Britten; Susan Sontag; Germaine Greer and more. Some of Showalter's choices on women to focus on are slightly odd. She begins by saying that she is NOT writing a book on pioneering career women, but on women who wrote on feminism, defined themselves as feminists and whose work contributed to the feminist movement. But in this case, why doesn't Virginia Woolf, whose 'A Room of One's Own' is considered a key feminist document, get much of a mention? And though I loved the sections on Hannah Arendt, it seemed odd to claim her first and foremost as an important feminist when Arendt didn't really see herself thus - Arendt saw herself more as a philosopher and as a testifier against the horrors of anti-Semitism and of war in the 20th century. I got the feeling Showalter had tended to pick people who interested her and who she already knew quite a bit about as her subjects, rather than going for 'creative women' or 'feminists' as a particular genre. On the whole, this wasn't too bad, as most of the women she discussed were very interesting and in their lives certainly changed the way that 'women' as a whole were considered. There were however some gaps - European feminists didn't get that much of a mention outside De Beauvoir, and I could have done with a bit on them instead of having such long sections on rather more minor figures (such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose work, outside 'The Yellow Wallpaper' is rarely read these days).

The real problems started to come in the final section of the book, when Showalter was writing on people she knew, and on herself. Although I enjoyed the autobiographical sections, I was annoyed by the way that Showalter seemed to be hinting that she, rare among feminists, had got the right balance and 'had it all': career, writing, children, husband. The writing become decidedly more biased too: almost hagiographical about Susan Sontag, rather abusive about Camille Paglia, who I'm sure isn't quite as straightforwardly arrogant and crazy as Showalter makes her sound. The Women's Movement in 1960s and 70s London (involving such feminist writers as Michele Roberts, Sara Maitland and Zoe Fairbairns) gets very little space, as Showalter concentrates more and more on her native America. And I'm not sure at all about her choice of feminist heroines for the 1990s: Oprah Winfrey, Princess Diana and Hilary Clinton. Couldn't she have ranged a bit wider?

All in all, a book that taught me quite a lot and led me on to a lot of further reading, but one that I felt could have done with a lot more editing in the final part, and that was much stronger on feminism up to 1960 than in the second half of the 20th century. Still, an impressive achievement.
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