Feminist scholar Showalter (Sister’s Choice, 1991, etc.) stirs together literary history, biography, personal reminiscence, and pop culture in a peculiar narrative that devotes as much time to female thinkers’ dysfunctional private lives as to their public achievements.
The opening pages set the tone, with a strained analogy between the childbirth-related death of Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797 and the car crash that killed Princess Diana 200 years later. Both women, Showalter (English/Princeton Univ.) claims, are “feminist icons,” a pairing that trivializes the author of Vindication of the Rights of Women and hyperbolically identifies the Princess of Wales as a “courageous activist.” Subsequent chapters on Margaret Fuller, Olive Schreiner, Eleanor Marx, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman display the author’s gift for cogently summarizing current scholarship, though they convey little new information. “Heterodoxy in America” and “Heterodoxy in Britain” contain intelligent mini-biographies of lesser-known but important figures such as American anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons and English pacifist Vera Brittain. But even granting that the personal is political, the author pays an awful lot of attention to her subjects’ sex lives and physical appearance, especially in the sections on Mary McCarthy, Simone de Beauvoir, and Susan Sontag. She also devotes an excessive amount of space to fellow academics like Ann Douglas, Carolyn Heilbrun, and Eve Sedgwick—all strong writers and thinkers, but hardly “icons” in the wider culture. A sharp portrait of Germaine Greer and an acid one of Camille Paglia are more relevant to Showalter’s alleged topic (the feminist intellectual tradition, in case you’d forgotten), but the closing section on Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and Diana shows how catch-all her choice of subjects really is. Her argument that this eclectic group “reflects both cultural change and the span of identification that goes far beyond the academic and political” is both unconvincing and muddily expressed.
Readable and mildly interesting, but shallow and sloppily reasoned—which is a disappointment from someone of Showalter’s stature.