FEMINIST THEORISTS: Three Centuries of Key Women Thinkers by Dale--Ed. Spender
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FEMINIST THEORISTS: Three Centuries of Key Women Thinkers

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Theorising is something that men do--so they say."" Editor Dale Spender (ManMade Language) and the feminist writers included say otherwise, tracing in their biographical essays of earlier feminists from Aphra Behn (1640-1689) to Simone de Beauvoir a long, varied tradition of feminist thinking. Theory is broadly defined to include life choices and political actions: the most successful essays are those which reveal the interplay of life and thought. American readers are introduced to key figures in British feminism: among them Mary Astell (1668-1731), the first woman to propose a female institution of higher learning--not out of sympathy with secularism or Lockean political thought (as biographer Joan K. Kinnaird points out), but as a ""staunch loyalist and fervid defender of the Church of England."" That feminist theorists have come from both sides of the political fence is clear in contrasting the biographies of Barbara Bodichon and Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Bodichon (1827-1891) was the daughter of a radical MP and Chartist sympathizer, illegitimate cousin to Florence Nightingale, and educated in an Owenite school. Her theorizing and experiments in female education culminated in her co-founding (with Emily Davies) of Girton College at Cambridge. There, according to Jacquie Matthews, ""Barbara was to supply warmth, colour, understanding, pictures of unorthodoxy to relieve the somewhat grim requirements of academic and moral excellence which Emily imposed."" By contrast, Ann Oakley's portrait of Fawcett, considered ""the Mother of Women's Suffrage,"" reveals a nationalist and imperialist, a ""worshipper at the inner shrine, the holy of holies, all that England stands for to her children, and to the world."" Vera Brittain was a pacifist whose theories reflected ""the new direction of the feminist movement in the '20's."" With women having won the right to education and the vote, biographer Muriel Mellown emphasizes, ""the need was to utilise these gains in order to effect extensive legal and social reforms and Vera Brittain devoted much of her life to this end."" Alongside these and other portraits of British feminists (Wollstonecraft, Martineau, Gage, Butler, Christabel Pankhurst), we find South African Olive Schreiner, Australian Vida Goldstein, Germany's Hedwig Dohm, and France's Beauvoir, plus an American sampler: Fuller, Stone, Gilman, Goldman, Paul, and Beard. Some, such as Beauvoir, undergo a reevaluation (Mary Evans sees The Second Sex as presenting ""a male view of the past. . . as the true version of the emergence of contemporary society""). A final, cursory chapter speeds us past Friedan, Greer, Millett, Brownmiller, and Rich. Some essays use these historical figures to wage battles now being fought within British feminism (radical versus socialist), but these pieces, thankfully, are in the minority. Most others do fuller justice to the intellectual and political range, and expand in the interaction between feminist biographer and feminist subject.

Pub Date: Jan. 19th, 1983
Publisher: Pantheon