Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage Hardcover – 1 Mar 2001
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Wayne Koestenbaum author of "The Queen's Throat" and "Jackie Under My Skin"Elaine Showalter's phrases turn heads, inspire revolution: she is a brilliant critic, and this remarkable new book significantly extends the range of her sympathies and enthusiasms. Every reader will want to emulate the feminist mavericks whose lives she expertly sketches, for "Inventing Herself" gives a taste of these women's accomplishments but also of their amusements and transports. Showalter demonstrates a Wildean refusal to overplay earnestness; she pays keen attention to human foible, to sexual ambiguity, and to the often compromised relation between work and love. Her analyses are never predictable, always astringent. I frequently laugh aloud at the sly precision of her observations.
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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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Of course, this makes for a rather provocative and enticing read, but it can also cause a kind of deflation--too many “beautiful” feminists, too many father-lovers and chucked moms, too much disdain for other women, too much bonding to elite male circles, too much sexual notoriety (mostly heterosexual, lesbianism never being viewed as a political stance), too much Harvard/Oxford and plain class.
All this may be more heady than depressing to many readers, but be near the reverse to others who are not within its palliative zone. “Invention” can invoke “genius,” remarkable talent, uniqueness, flare, and a distaste for the continuous and committed. And unfortunately these too often attach by hook or crook to many of the lives in “Inventing” which seem, in many ways, to be much more fortunate than worthy. And an un-troubled individuality most often trumps interdependence. Yes, the book may start with Mary Wollstonecraft, but it culminates with Germaine Greer, Camille Paglia, and Princess Diana.
Each reader will question why certain well-known feminists are not included here. The major eliminating criterion would be the strength, consistency, and radical stance of their politics. They don’t fit the liberal framework, and they don’t fit the celebrity system. Nor does their questioning of male-defined sexuality and its many oppressive expressions or institutions cater to the book‘s purview (Showalter’s subjects never coherently, or at all, question this agency) So, Adrienne Rich can be quoted a couple times, but not covered. Woolf’s “Three Guineas” may go too far against the current. Robin Morgan? Catherine McKinnon? Andrea Dworkin? Forget it! Not a chance in hell, despite their secular commitments.
So then how do Wollstonecraft, and Simone De Beauvoir fit into Showalter’s set-up? First, “Inventing Herself” does not always steer clearly within the liberal margins, like its rebel subjects, it doesn’t always accommodate itself to the mainstream mode. But also these two are too influential and pivotal to feminist history to swerve past. To boot De Beauvor had very inconsistent, head-scratching politics which have been often and typically viewed, in part at least, as even anti-feminist. (“Inventing” can snappily expose contradictory politics, but not for the point) While Wollstonecraft’s life and politics are less known and long-distant so can be molded into different frameworks.
But if trustworthy politics and fame rarely or never jive, can we see this exemplified in Showalter’s selected subjects? Does PR and celebrity status affect their politics? Obviously, it does because so many of the “cringe politics” feminists are represented in “Inventing Herself”: de Beauvoir, Gerrmaine Greer, Hannah Arendt, Camille Paglia, Mary McCarthy, Olive Schreiner, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, and to a lesser extent, Susan Sontag. Each certainly made a name for herself, and each was as certainly all over the map with her feminist politics.
So, we get the uptake into fame with no critique of fame, the uptake into sex with no critique of sex, and the uptake into tolerance with no critique of tolerance. And “Inventing Herself,” using the tools of psychology and an individualist ethic, follows suit. So that no circle is broken. The covered get covered. No intolerable is tolerated. Men escape. And the beat goes on.
Elaine Showalter, whether writing about Janis Joplin or Germaine Greer, always draws similarities between the public importance and personal apprecation of feminism. It is obvious to the reader of her words that she has treasured feminism in her own life and wants to share it with others. Her book will inspire and motivate you....
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