Born 21 January 1941, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Daughter of Paul and Violet Rottenberg Cottler; married English Showalter Jr., 1963; children: Victoria (Vinca), Michael
Elaine Showalter invented gynocriticism, a feminist critical theory and approach that focuses on the woman writer, the meaning of her text, the structure of literature written by women including its history, themes, genres. She introduced this new method of reading specific texts and its application in an essay, "Toward a Feminist Poetics" (1979). Because of the relative success of gynocritics, especially of Showalter herself, whose prolific works demonstrate the method in all its possible combinations (Daughters of Decadence—highly praised by the Times (London) Literary Supplement when it was published in 1993—applies gynocritics to 19th-century short fiction in Britain), the very foundations of feminism have shifted from practical concerns to intellectual ones. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Showalter is named "one of the founders of feminist criticism and still one of its most important and influential practitioners." She began by concentrating on British women novelists, studying their work not as part of a tradition dominated by male writers but as a separate tradition altogether, even a subculture with its own "values, conventions, experiences, and behaviors." Her subsequent books, especially Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (1990), include literary histories that contribute to the modern area of "gender studies," since she is concerned with the language, especially the rhetoric, of popular fiction and periodicals as these reflect the changes in themes and tensions at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th.
Showalter has had a significant academic career. She earned a B.A. at Bryn Mawr (1962), an M.A. at Brandeis (1964), and a Ph.D. in English at the University of California at Davis (1970). She began teaching at Douglass College, Rutgers University, in 1970 and rose steadily to full professor by 1983. While at Rutgers, she received the Christian and Mary Lindbach Foundation award for distinguished teaching (1976). The following year, she was a Guggenheim fellow (1977-78), and she spent an additional research year as a Rockefeller humanities fellow (1981-82). Since 1984 she has been Avalon Professor of Humanities (and professor of English) at Princeton University, where she remains an active faculty member despite frequent visits to places as diverse as Dartmouth College's Critical Theory School (1986), the Salzburg Seminars (1988), and Oxford University (1989).
Showalter's leap to national prominence came in April 1997 when she appeared with Lynne Cheney on Crossfire Sunday, a popular confrontational television show, as a guest during a discussion of the causes of Gulf War Syndrome. Her recent book, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (1997), proposes that afflictions like Gulf War Syndrome arise not from exposure to chemicals but from the mind of the individual. Naturally, this was not a popular opinion or one that people suffering from modern maladies like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome were going to admit without loud arguments against it. It must be said that Showalter does not consider these conditions faked or made up; on the contrary, she contests these claims by suggesting that "we're a society that doesn't understand or really take seriously the effects of psychological stress and conflict and anxiety and a certain kind of helplessness on our bodies and on our emotions." After Crossfire 's speakers had finished for the evening, one of the hosts (Bob Beckel) remarked that Showalter was driven from a book signing because of a confrontation with "people who have legitimate, legitimate suffering." It cannot be easy for Showalter to keep explaining that psychological suffering can be just as devastating to the body as physical suffering. Nevertheless, she continues to pursue this frequently marginalized line of inquiry and research. One might note that she does not ever connect "hysteria" to "hypochondria" (which is imagined illness), though her critics seem to believe her choice of term means the same thing. In a balanced review of Hystories, Jenn Shreve applauds her "slow, well-researched study of the history of hysterical epidemics and their modern day manifestations." The inclusion of alien abduction, satanic ritual abuse, recovered memory, and multiple personality disorder with Gulf War Syndrome has made Showalter the object of intense scrutiny by the very press she says assists in spreading the contagion of these illnesses rooted in the unconscious. There are stories widely circulated on the Internet of people suffering from some of the conditions Showalter lists who appear at events where the author/scholar is present to attack her verbally. These unfortunate people seem to be confirming her diagnosis rather than refuting it. She writes: "The United States has become the hot zone of psychogenic diseases, new and mutating forms of hysteria amplified by modern communications and fin-de-siècle anxiety." It is only fair to point out that David Futrelle, a regular contributor to Salon and a self-diagnosed hypochondriac, recognizes a moral vision in Showalter's unmasking of the forces making people sick in modern society. Indeed, the shrill tone of her loudest critics makes it absolutely necessary to read and understand Showalter's position on hysteria and psychosomatic illness. It is characteristic of Showalter that she continues to work as editor of two prestigious scholarly publications, Women's Studies and Signs: Journal of Women, Culture, and Society, and to contribute regular essays to respected academic periodicals.
A Literature of Their Own: British Women Writers from Brontë to Lessing (1977). The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (1985). Speaking of Gender (1989). Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing (1991). Hysteria Beyond Freud (coauthor, 1993). Scribbling Women: Short Stories by Nineteenth Century American Women (1997).
CANR (1997). DLB (1988). Feminist Writers (1996).
Crossfire Sunday (20 Apr. 1997).
—KATHLEEN BONANN MARSHALL