Women’s History Month 2012: Elaine Showalter

29 Mar

Today we honor and celebrate a pioneering writer, literary critic, feminist, and observer of popular culture. Born in 1941 in Boston, Elaine Showalter received her BA from Bryn Mawr, her masters from Brandeis, and her PhD from UC Davis. She taught at Rutgers until accepting a faculty position at Princeton from which she retired in 2003.

Showalter is a specialist in Victorian literature and the Fin-de-Siecle. Her most innovative work in this field is in madness and hysteriain literature, specifically in women’s writing and in the portrayal of female characters. She is the Avalon Foundation Professor Emerita. Her academic honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship (1977–78) and a Rockefeller Humanities fellowship (1981–82). She is also the past-president of the Modern Language Association (MLA).

She is also a pioneer in the field of feminist literary criticism. Showalter coined the term ‘gynocritics’ to describe literary criticism based in a feminine perspective. Probably the best description Showalter gives of gynocritics is in Toward a Feminist Poetics:

In contrast to [an] angry or loving fixation on male literature, the program of gynocritics is to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature, to develop new models based on the study of female experience, rather than to adapt male models and theories. Gynocritics 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.

She has constructed a frame of three phases of women’s literature and recommends criticism and reading of literature through the lens of the phase in which it was written.

Because she is also comfortable discussing popular culture (having written for People and Vogue among other), Showalter is frequently consulted as an expert who can boil complex theory in to approachable mainstream concepts. She is particularly adept at skewering the overly masculinized concept of the “Great American Novel” as she does in this article which traces the success of a number of powerful American women writers.

Outspoken and sometimes controversial, Elaine Showalter is a great example of the kind of intellectual leadership that pushes an egalitarian agenda that we need in America today.

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