The MLA President Incites Mass Hysteria


When the Princeton University feminist scholar and president-elect of the Modern Language Association (MLA) Elaine Showalter confessed to a lifelong love of shopping in the pages of Vogue last December, few colleagues were taken in by the piece’s lighthearted, gamely self-mocking tone. Here, masquerading as a paean to lipstick and Loehmann’s, was nothing less than a political manifesto. "From Mary Wollstonecraft to Naomi Wolf, feminism has often taken a hard line on fashion, shopping, and the whole beauty Monty," Showalter wrote. "But for those of us sisters hiding Welcome to Your Facelift inside The Second Sex, a passion for fashion can sometimes seem a shameful secret life.... I think it’s time I came out of the closet."

In academic circles, the backlash was fierce. Throughout the month of December, a Cornell University—based women’s studies discussion list debated the article’s merits on-line. What did it mean for a leading academic feminist to come out in favor of hair extensions, nail polish, and Armani outlets–dubious symbols all of consumer capitalism and traditional femininity? Even those list members who rose to Showalter’s defense were careful to maintain their critical distance. "I worry about arguments that associate a type of dress with the contents of one’s mind and one’s political persuasion," wrote one Showalter supporter. "The only name I have for regimes that require one to do so is FUNDAMENTALISM." Yet this same participant began her post by stressing that she herself did not subscribe to Vogue; she had perused the article "at a newsstand."

As the Cornell feminists raged on, Showalter was also rankling legions of anxious graduate students and jobless Ph.D.s with her pronouncements about the academic profession. Inaugurated as MLA president in January, Showalter turned briskly to the labor crisis now sweeping the humanities. In her first column in the association’s quarterly newsletter, she suggested that doctoral candidates face up to their hard prospects and prepare themselves for nonacademic careers. Ph.D. programs, she argued, should ensure that "all graduate students in literature learn to write well enough to get paid for it," provide seminars "on educational organization, management, and negotiation," and offer "training in public speaking, small-group dynamics, [and] new media." Such skills, she insisted, are "as useful and transferable to those who will work in media, business, not-for-profits, or government as to future professors."

The MLA’s Graduate Student Caucus was appalled. In a scathing response to Showalter titled "Tripping Over Our Gowns: Elaine’s World," published in Workplace, the caucus’s on-=line journal, editor Marc Bousquet attacked the MLA president’s "blame the victim pronouncements (graduate students write badly)," "embarrassing enthusiasm for the corporatization of the academy (graduate students need training in organization and management)," and "economically naive effort to get hold of our working lives and prospects with low-rent market metaphors." Bousquet quoted a line from Showalter’s Vogue article: "For years, I’ve been trying to make the life of the mind coexist with the day at the mall." This, evidently, was a smoking gun. How could an MLA president who spent her spare time at Bloomingdale’s be anything but hopelessly out of touch with the graduate student labor predicament?

But the angry feminists and graduate students were not the only or even the most populous of Showalter’s unhappy constituencies. By the time she took up the helm of the MLA, she had spent nearly a year fending off hate mail and death threats inspired by her latest work of scholarship. This time, however, her antagonists weren’t academics at all. For the most part they were tired and ill, sufferers of chronic fatigue and Gulf War syndromes. When Showalter’s Hystories (Columbia) appeared last spring, dozens of irate patients turned up at book signings and on talk shows to protest the work’s central thesis: that the debilitating symptoms of their own and several other contemporary afflictions are in fact "hysterical" disorders, in the old-fashioned Freudian sense of the word. Not just chronic fatigue sufferers and sick Gulf War veterans, but alien abductees, women possessed of multiple personalities and recovered memories, as well as survivors of satanic ritual abuse–all these people, Showalter argued, were latter-day Doras. Their suffering, she told them, was serious and real, but it was also entirely in their heads. So infuriating was this diagnosis to some of her readers that Showalter had to be escorted in and out of Barnes & Noble by armed guard.

Thus a middle-aged English professor became a lightning rod for controversy, provoking an outpouring of antipathy that few could have predicted. For unlike, say, Camille Paglia or Henry Louis Gates, Showalter was not known for personal flamboyance or empire building, had never appeared in Vanity Fair or on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, and did not regularly arouse extreme emotions in either her students or her colleagues. True, she was a frequent contributor to the popular press, wrote a lot of book reviews, and had even spent a year moonlighting as a TV critic for People. But none of these activities seemed to have left much of a mark on her academic reputation. For more than a decade, the epithets usually attached to her name connoted not modishness or iconoclasm but straightforward respectability ("one of the doyennes of American literary feminism" is a typical description). In her own words, Showalter was simply "not a person around whom legend accrues. I’m very much on the margins of that particular kind of academic celebrity. I’m not a topic of hot gossip."

So how within the last year she had become such a person–an object of feminist opprobrium, graduate student hostility, patient protest, and frequent media attention–requires some explaining. Was it possible that behind Showalter’s bold language–in her book, in Vogue, as MLA president–was a calculated P.R. move, an attempt to jump-start a flagging career, to counter the whispers of intellectual irrelevance ("Elaine is this parody of the modern academic, a woman who spends her time writing for People and jet setting")? Or was Showalter–a professor protected by tenure, a history of pathbreaking scholarship, and years of service to her profession–merely speaking from personal conviction regardless of the political advisability of doing so?

One way to begin answering these questions might be with the story of Showalter’s gold briefcase. The year was 1985–what Showalter terms "the fag end of the dress-for-success movement." She had recently arrived at Princeton from Douglass College, the women’s division at Rutgers University, where she had distinguished herself as a pioneering feminist scholar, establishing one of the country’s first programs in women’s studies and publishing one of the first major works of feminist criticism, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë to Lessing (1977), as well as several important articles on feminist theory. Along the way, she had racked up a number of impressive political bona fides, including a year as president of the New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Women. These were the boom years for feminist literary criticism; credentialed professors were in demand, and Princeton was fortunate to snag Showalter from Douglass as well as Sandra Gilbert, co-author, with Susan Gubar, of the 1979 classic The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, for its English department.

Despite her considerable reputation in the field, however, Showalter says that initially she had little to do with Princeton’s women’s studies program. "The last thing the women who started it wanted was some big hotshot coming in and telling them what to do," she explains. Still, she was invited to attend a weekly seminar for feminist graduate students, which she did–accompanied by a gold briefcase.

"I had bought a couple of them at a street market in London," she recalls. "Big, glittery, gold leather briefcases. And at the end of that year, the students in the seminar published the equivalent of an academic slam book–an anonymous thing that satirized the faculty in a very cruel way. It was particularly hard on the women; it was quite vicious. There was this paragraph about me, saying I was a suburban tootsie, a Long Island JAP. It singled out my gold briefcase and said I spent too much time having coffee with men: Here comes the big-deal feminist with all the hoo-ha, and she has a gold tote bag and coffee with men."

Shocked and humiliated, Showalter went home and threw the gold briefcase away.


"Years later," she says now, "I got another one. But it’s not the same." Showalter is telling this story in the living room of her London flat, a modest two-bedroom in the heart of the city’s bustling retail district. It’s June and unseasonably hot for London, but Showalter appears not to notice. Listening to her talk, her ample body draped casually across the sofa, her bare feet resting on a cushion, her bright-blue fingernails wrapped around a can of Diet Coke, it is difficult to imagine her succumbing to self-doubt or bowing to the demands of a cabal of anonymous feminists. A warm, brash, effusive woman with an easy laugh, Showalter projects only extraordinary confidence and good humor. More remarkably, she seems to exist at a great remove from the contemplative quiet and humdrum pace of scholarly life.

Although she has been in London on unpaid leave from Princeton since January, officially devoting herself to the MLA and research for her next book, Showalter’s daily routine is anything but academic: a whirlwind of television and radio appearances, newspaper deadlines, and phone calls–from her agent, publicist, editors, and producers. My visit falls on one of the few weekends all summer when Showalter doesn’t have a speaking engagement out of town. Even so, when I arrive at her flat on Friday morning, she is wrapping up a feature article for the Guardian on why stress is passé. Fifteen minutes later, she is accepting an invitation to discuss hooliganism and soccer on a BBC Sunday morning news program. In the days ahead, she will host a BBC discussion of an exhibition at the Tate by the British abstract painter Patrick Heron, comment on a new play by Paula Vogel, and complete a lengthy review of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s posthumous novel Shadows on the Hudson for the London Review of Books.

Testimony to her prolificness, the walls in the kitchen of her flat are decorated with covers of issues of the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books in which her essays have appeared, flyers for conferences at which she has spoken, and one large poster for a prestigious British fiction contest for which she served as a juror.

"I was once a compulsive reader of academic theory and journals," she tells me. "But it’s not part of my routine anymore. Instead, I read three daily newspapers, all the British magazines and many of the American ones, as well as a tremendous amount of contemporary fiction and nonfiction." The reading material in Showalter’s living room, which doubles as her home office, supports this claim; there are several glossy hardbacks on the coffee table and stacks of magazines like In Style, Entertainment Weekly, Tatler and Vogue.

More appealing even than fashion magazines are fashion outlets. Showalter’s idea of a good lunch place is the food court in the mall on Oxford Street: It is air-conditioned and strategically poised at the center of a row of trendy women’s boutiques, whose window displays she follows much more closely than the debates in Victorian Studies. And as a reward for completing her hectic week of journalistic assignments, she proposes a trip to a discount couture warehouse on the other side of town, where, after a couple of hours spent blissfully browsing the racks, she buys a sky-blue caftan for herself and a copper-colored raw-silk cocktail dress on huge markdown for her good friend back at Princeton, the novelist Joyce Carol Oates.

If the image of Showalter dutifully discarding her gold briefcase seemed incongruous at first, her apparent indifference to academic culture was in some ways just as puzzling. After all, there was plenty of evidence that Showalter cared deeply about academic life, was devoted to her teaching and her graduate students, and, as MLA president, seriously concerned about their diminishing prospects. Then again, this was a woman who had worked her way to the top of a profession that, at least when she had joined it, couldn’t have been more indifferent to her fate. Insular, snobbish, and sexist, American academe had hardly extended Showalter a warm welcome, and yet she had succeeded again and again, despite the odds. Would it be surprising if she did not harbor feelings of great warmth and gratitude toward her profession? The story of her complex, often contradictory professional allegiances turns out in some ways to be the story of American literary feminism itself.

In the late 1960s, when Showalter was writing her dissertation on Victorian responses to women’s writing, almost no one, including professors on her dissertation committee at UC-Davis, was interested in feminist criticism–let alone in hiring female English professors. When, after following her husband, a professor of French, to New Jersey in 1966, she tried to apply for teaching positions at Princeton and Rutgers, she was curtly informed that neither institution hired women. So Showalter got a part-time job writing test questions for Princeton’s Educational Testing Service and slowly completed her thesis while raising a family. Soon she found more interesting work at Douglass College, where she taught a course on the image of the educated woman in English and American literature. The subject was an obvious choice for a scholar who was herself a graduate of a women’s college (Bryn Mawr), a politically active feminist, and a student of women’s literature. At Douglass and at most other American colleges, however, no one had ever attempted such a course.

Then, abruptly, the academic climate changed, and the advent of feminist criticism began to seem not just inevitable but desirable, an untapped gold mine for literary studies. In 1970, the British scholar Kate Millett published Sexual Politics, arguably the world’s best-selling Ph.D. thesis, which did much to establish feminism as a viable and important new approach in English departments. Yet although her work addressed power relations between the sexes, Millett focused exclusively on male modernists–D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean Genet. For women scholars on the other side of the Atlantic, Showalter prominent among them, Millett’s book was just the first step. Showalter argued for the recognition of a separate female literary canon. "Women writers," she wrote in 1971, "have a special history susceptible to analysis, which includes such complex considerations as the economics of their relation to the literary marketplace; the effects of social and political changes in women’s status upon individuals; and the implications of stereotypes of the woman writer and restrictions of her artistic autonomy."

Six years later, when Showalter published A Literature of Their Own, the field was still wide open. Her book was one of the first to trace the development of a female literary tradition and, along with Ellen Moers’s Literary Women (1976) and The Madwoman in the Attic, figures as a founding document of literary feminism. Retrieving from obscurity dozens of women writers, such as Elizabeth Gaskell (1810—1865) and Olive Schreiner (1855—1920), Showalter proposed a neat historical framework to explain their thematic and stylistic concerns. In her view, women’s writing had progressed through a series of stages, from an early Victorian feminine phase, much indebted to the dominant male tradition, to a turn-of-the-century feminist phase, characterized by rebellion against this tradition and the exploration of alternatives, and, finally, to the current female phase, marked by the successful assertion of authentic female experience.

Showalter showed herself to be a bold and original critic. In one particularly polemical chapter, she took feminists to task for embracing Virginia Woolf as a heroine and role model. The androgynous imagery that pervades Woolf’s novels and essays, from Orlando to A Room of One’s Own, Showalter argued, should be understood not as the product of an emancipated sensibility, one in which the limitations of female identity had been triumphantly overcome, but, rather, as a doomed, utopian fantasy. Considered against the circumstances of her life–and in particular her suicide at the age of fifty-nine–Woolf’s literary feminism rang hollow, and Showalter judged her severely. "Androgyny was the myth that helped her evade confrontation with her own painful femaleness and enabled her to choke and repress her anger and ambition," she wrote. "The ultimate room of one’s own is the grave."

The book was innovative in other ways as well. There, on page 28, for example, is the analysis of Jane Eyre that two years later, in The Madwoman in the Attic, would become a feminist commonplace: "The mad wife locked in the attic symbolizes the passionate and sexual side of Jane’s personality, an alter ego that her upbringing, her religion, and her society have commanded her to incarcerate."

In this, as in later phases of her career, Showalter’s importance had a good deal to do with her having been among the first, a trailblazer whose arrival on virgin soil was a signal to dozens of more cautious, deliberative scholars that it was safe to follow. From A Literature of Their Own, she plunged into theory, a domain that American feminists, unlike the French, had strenuously avoided. In a 1979 essay, for example, Showalter enumerated the liberatory aims of "gynocriticism," her alternative to male-dominated literary theory. Indebted to French feminist discussions of écriture féminine–writing that in its grammar, logic, and silences was purely female–gynocriticism sought to elucidate elements of an authentic female experience in writing by women, as opposed to the less reliable, often sexist representations of female experience found in male fiction and criticism. As one of the first attempts at feminist theory building in the United States, gynocriticism enjoyed a brief vogue (and then vanished from sight).


In the late 1970s, Showalter turned her feminist gaze on the psychiatric profession. She was once again in uncharted territory. Her book The Female Malady (1985) was an unflinching account of British psychiatry’s historical mistreatment of women, including its use of such concepts as hysteria to label and even institutionalize women whose only symptom was intellectual or political ambition. The book provided a factual basis for feminist complaints about patriarchal culture’s pathologization of women and became an instant classic. Although Foucault’s Madness and Civilization (1961) had produced a surge of academic interest in insanity during the 1970s, few scholars had attempted a history of modern psychiatry, let alone a history that took gender as its guiding principle. "Elaine’s book was pioneering," says Andrew Scull, a sociologist at UC-San Diego who has written extensively on the history of madness. "Nobody had looked at these things through the prism of gender before. She launched a number of people on that trail."

Beginning with the Victorian era, Showalter argued, insanity became a quintessentially female disorder; by the 1850s, women patients far outnumbered men in asylums and clinics–a trend that continued well into this century. What she found was shocking: a British doctor who performed clitoridectomies on five women "whose madness consisted of their wish to take advantage of the new Divorce Act of 1857"; a British home secretary who brought in psychiatrists to treat suffragettes incarcerated at Holloway Gaol; and the medical rationale for why more women than men were given lobotomies in postwar Britain–"the operation is potentially more effective with women because it is easier for them to assume or resume the role of housewife."

Even the French psychiatrist Jean-Martin Charcot, whom Showalter credits with refusing to treat hysteria as a physical illness requiring sexual surgery, turns out, in her account, to be something of a quack: an egomaniac who ran a human freak show from his clinic at Salpêtrière, pressing anxious, impressionable young women–some ill, some not–into service as expert swooners during his standing-room-only public lectures. "Throughout the history of psychiatry, there have been many male liberators–Pinel, Conolly, Charcot, Freud, Laing–who claimed to free madwomen from the chains of their confinement to obtuse and misogynistic medical practice," Showalter declared. "Yet when women are spoken for but do not speak for themselves, such dramas of liberation become only the opening scenes of the next drama of confinement." Still, she was not entirely pessimistic: The best hope for the future, she wrote on the last page of her book, lay in what she referred to vaguely as "the feminist therapy movement."

The Female Malady was Showalter’s most ambitious book to date. Yet before she had a chance to savor her achievement, she suffered an unexpected shock. The feminist professor who only recently had been ostracized for her fashion sense suddenly found her scholarship under intense and disparaging scrutiny.

The source of the attack was an obscure young scholar of French literature named Toril Moi, who in 1985 published Sexual/Textual Politics (Routledge), a terse, opinionated survey of the state of feminist literary criticism in France and the United States. The book sold thirty-three thousand copies, became required reading in introductory women’s studies courses, and turned Moi into a star lecturer on the theory circuit. It also made a passionate case for why Elaine Showalter was, disciplinarily speaking, a dinosaur.

Beginning with her introduction, in which Showalter’s discussion of Woolf in A Literature of Their Own becomes an object lesson in the deficiencies of a politically retrograde and theoretically uninformed feminist criticism, Moi treats the Princeton professor to a singularly harsh scolding:

    There is detectable within [Showalter’s] literary criticism a strong, unquestioned belief in the values...of traditional bourgeois humanism of a liberal-individualist kind.... Showalter in her own criticism takes no interest in the necessity of combatting capitalism and fascism. Her insistence on the need for political art is limited to the struggle against sexism.... What feminists such as to grasp is that the traditional humanism they represent is in effect part of patriarchal ideology. At its centre is the seamlessly unified self–either individual or collective–which is commonly called "Man."...

    It is surely arguable that if feminist critics cannot produce a positive political and literary assessment of Woolf’s writing, then the fault may lie with their own critical and theoretical perspectives rather than Woolf’s texts.

Imperious and doctrinaire, Moi’s criticisms struck a nerve. From the vantage point of a radical feminist steeped in French poststructuralism and psychoanalysis–now considered minimal requirements for membership in women’s studies–Showalter’s early feminist work looked distinctly old guard. Not only was her worldview disturbingly bourgeois, her scholarship lacked even a token acknowledgment of the intricate, indirect, and wholly vexed relationship between literary creations and lived experience. The problem with Showalter’s approach, Moi complained, is that "all art becomes autobiography, a mere window on to the self and the world, with no reality of its own."

Showalter was devastated. "The evolution of feminist studies mattered to me hugely," she says, "and I was very shaken by Toril Moi’s book. She makes me the enemy, the straw woman of Anglo-American feminism. One of the phrases that sticks in my mind from that book is ‘grim Lukácsian ideologue.’ It’s been a widely influential book, and a lot of people formed their views of me from it. I felt I had been rendered obsolete in a single stroke."

Moi’s assault made waves outside feminist studies, leading extra-disciplinary observers such as Duke English professor Frank Lentricchia to welcome the arrival of "a younger wave of the verge of open revolt against their mothers." In retrospect, Moi’s book was proof that feminist studies was a vigorous and growing discipline, already old enough to have produced generational debates and divides.

As she had with the criticisms of Princeton feminists the year before, Showalter took Moi’s judgments to heart. She spent the next several years trying to compensate for her deficiencies as a feminist. She joined the swelling ranks of feminists studying the trendy new concept of gender (which, unlike the old term "sex," encompassed cultural beliefs about femininity as well as biology), edited two volumes of feminist literary criticism, served on the editorial board of Genders, an influential but short-lived interdisciplinary journal, and earned an endowed chair. She also threw herself into professional service, completing a rocky four-year term as the Princeton English department’s first (and, to date, only) woman chair and taking on increasingly high-profile responsibilities at the MLA. It was not a happy period. "I tried to be everything to everyone," she says. "I felt very self-conscious and under pressure. I tried to make myself in other people’s eyes. I worried about theory. I worried about postcolonialism. I felt I needed to get with it."

In the end, being a pioneering scholar was both a virtue and a liability. Being first put Showalter repeatedly in the limelight, but it also put her under tremendous pressure from the growing community of scholars working in her wake. It was one thing to be a trailblazing feminist at Douglass College at a time when women’s studies was considered an intellectual backwater. It was quite another to be an Ivy League scholar with an endowed chair and a national reputation. As Showalter discovered, the price of recognition was constant critical scrutiny of her work–and person!–by dozens of younger scholars, and she felt accountable to their judgment. Over the years, that judgment–alternately admiring and harsh–has tended to focus on what might be Showalter’s most distinctive trait as a scholar: her preference for bold, sweeping claims over subtle analysis.

Reviewing The Female Malady in The New Republic, Patricia Meyer Spacks, a sympathetic colleague at Yale, found Showalter’s "singleness of thesis" both formidable and troubling. "She writes with the authority of both conviction and knowledge," Spacks noted approvingly, "the same message about the endless, protean, inescapable social oppression of women, repeatedly and ingeniously hammered home." At the same time, Spacks complained, "the monolithic thesis of persecution does not adequately account for the data.... The etiologies of madness that Showalter provides are simplistic in the extreme.... Women go mad, this writer believes, because society leaves them so little room. But surely one must acknowledge other–many other–possibilities."

According to Michael Neve, a historian of medicine at London’s Wellcome Institute, Showalter is a quintessential "big picture" theorist–strong on an overarching idea, weak on nuance and ambiguity. "She’s very much to be admired because she’s the first one off the block," he says. "She bursts into a field and does the large, general noisemaking. The big picture she produces is cool. We like it. But the small picture has issues in it that she doesn’t address and that contradict her big picture." By way of example, Neve points to recent research by Andrew Scull that suggests Showalter’s claims about the disproportionate number of female patients in Victorian asylums may not be accurate. "Statistically, it isn’t the case that more women go into institutions in the municipal or state system. It’s far more of a close call than you’d imagine if you bought the big theory in The Female Malady."

Once stung by such criticisms, today Showalter appears not to care. "I don’t pay any attention to academic fashion at all," she says breezily. "I have no interest in it. I don’t care what the latest development is in feminist theory or gender theory. It’s completely irrelevant to me. I feel like these are my books. They’re going to be about what I’m interested in." But there is defiance in her nonchalance. And it’s this defiance that animates Hystories, her most recent book.

With Hystories, Showalter moved even further toward the bold, sweeping claims that had infuriated her critics. This time she turned her big-picture approach not to the abstract themes of history but to anguished, living populations. Most provocatively, these were people who, in their own eyes and in the eyes of most doctors, had very little in common–from chronic fatigue syndrome sufferers to putative alien abductees. Defying the official opinion of the American medical establishment, Showalter decreed that individuals whose physical complaints doctors were in the process of investigating were certified hysterics, throwing sick Gulf War veterans into the same diagnostic category as people with multiple personalities.


But perhaps most surprising of all, the thesis of Hystories seemed in many ways to contradict the argument of The Female Malady. A decade after publishing what many regard as the first major work of feminist medical history, Showalter now appeared to be saying that hysteria wasn’t a political fiction after all. The malady dreamed up by a bunch of nineteenth-century shrinks to keep women from acquiring too much social influence became in Hystories achingly real. Hysterics were everywhere. And, what was most surprising, feminists had inadvertently contributed to their swelling ranks.

Only three factors, Showalter argued, were required to launch a hysterical epidemic: a group of vulnerable patients, a receptive media, and a charismatic authority figure who develops and promotes a unified field theory about their affliction. In recent years, she suggested, the charismatic authority figure has increasingly been female. By embracing hysteria as "a rallying cry for feminism itself," "the sign of women’s protest against patriarchy," some women were guilty of romanticizing mental illness. Similarly, by promoting multiple personality disorder, recovered memory, and satanic ritual abuse as plausible explanations for (typically female) patient distress, feminists in the psychological community were responsible for introducing and spreading new hysterical disorders among women. "Feminism has a strong enlightenment, rationalist tradition of debate and skepticism, whose memory I attempt to recover and reassert," she wrote sternly.

Some close readers of Showalter’s work were taken aback. "In The Female Malady, she was saying that hysteria’s a prison, a category that annihilates the adventurous, the non-familiar, the antibourgeois," says Michael Neve. "But in Hystories, she sounds like a psychiatrist–like Charcot." To Neve, the idea of a literary historian assuming the mantle of medical authority is downright reckless: "This woman has global reach. She’s the Bill Gates of the diagnostic category, applying it transnationally, transculturally, even globally!"

Suddenly, it’s hard not to see Showalter as a charismatic, latter-day Freud or the high drama inspired by her book-tour appearances as classic Charcotian theater. Besieged on talk radio, cable TV, the Internet, and in bookstores for breaking faith with medical science ("Brain scans show in many chronic fatigue patients diminished blood flow to frontal and other areas of the human brain") and feminism ("How can you call yourself a feminist when you discredit women who have recovered memories of sexual abuse?"; "I hate you, you fucking antifeminist bitch"), Showalter responded with patience, good humor, and affectionate condescension. The more unruffled her calm, the more unhinged her opponents appeared.

In the spring of 1997, The Chronicle of Higher Education took note of one of Showalter’s most ardent critics, a historian at Villanova University named Mary Schweitzer, described as a virtually bedridden chronic fatigue sufferer on her third year of disability leave. In response, Showalter sent the Chronicle’s reporter a clipping from a recent issue of a chronic fatigue sufferers’ periodical depicting a vigorous-looking Schweitzer, fist raised, leading a demonstration in San Francisco. More recently, in an essay for the London Review of Books, Showalter turned an account of her book tour into a stand-up comedy routine–in which all the jokes were at the expense of the kooks who turned out to debate her:

    In New York, I appeared on Rolonda, a morning show.... We began with me on stage with the alien therapist, a stunning brunette in a purple mini-skirt, who gave me sisterly tips on eye make-up off the air.... Posey, one of the alien abductees, was a 400-pound black man who claimed to have been floated out of his apartment window in the Bronx by ETs. ‘I didn’t know there were aliens in the hood!’ Rolonda exclaimed. Bob, the Texas evangelist, got rounds of applause when he called me a ‘godless feminist’, but after the show he invited me for a drink and thought we made a terrific team. My hands-down favourites were pretty blonde Deborah of the multiple-personalities, decked out like Heidi in a girlish dirndl, and her therapist Dr. Jim, a nerdy guy who hovered protectively over her.

Showalter calls Hystories "a declaration of independence," a description that in many ways may turn out to be the most meaningful. Among other things, declaring independence meant risking self-contradiction: The endorsement of feminist therapy at the end of The Female Malady was, Showalter says now, "a utopian gesture"; the feminization of the psychology profession had numerous, unfortunate effects she had not anticipated. Skeptical observers might see in her willingness to change course only crass self-interest–why else write a sensational, dubiously scientific book about hot-button issues? But more sympathetic colleagues suggest another, less intuitive explanation. "In Elaine’s case, it’s not that you couldn’t construct a cynical interpretation," says Andrew Scull. "But careerism is not enough. Many people followed The Female Malady. She could have moved comfortably into feminist circles, echoed the party line, and been embraced by those circles. But she didn’t. Instead, just as she risked making the psychiatrists angry with The Female Malady, she risked making the feminists angry with Hystories."


Declaring independence, then, also meant daring to offend. In her chapter on recovered memory, Showalter recounts the outraged reaction to a talk she gave on the subject for an academic audience at the Dartmouth School of Criticism and Theory in the summer of 1994. Deeply disturbed by her remarks, a group of women students convened a special workshop with Showalter: "They asked me how, as a feminist, I could wash our dirty linen, so to speak, in front of men, including Dartmouth undergraduates who might use my words against any women complaining of any kind of abuse? How could I live with myself, knowing I was making it harder for women to be believed? How did I dare challenge the authority of therapists and psychologists? A few of the women asked me to take the chapter out of my book. They looked stunned when I said that, on the contrary, I planned to expand it."

Hearing this story, it is hard not to think of Showalter’s gold briefcase or her reaction to Toril Moi’s withering assessment, the many unhappy years during which she tried to redeem herself in the eyes of her discipline. Whatever the merits of its analyses of disturbing cultural phenomena or its potential contribution to the understanding of mental illness, in Hystories Showalter had expressed beliefs she knew would be controversial and sticking by them. "I had resolved the issue of whether I would say what I thought," she says. "I really don’t care about offending. I’m having my shot at being the authority figure. I don’t see why I shouldn’t." Why not, indeed? Was it any accident that Hystories appeared as Showalter was preparing to become president of the MLA, or that she describes her present mood as one marked by "a feeling of incredible liberation"? With Hystories, Showalter was no longer striving for power or approval from her profession. She had both. And now she no longer needed either. Like modern women’s writing in A Literature of Their Own, Showalter had moved through a feminine and feminist phase to emerge, glowing and triumphant, as a fully realized female.

"I’ve got tenure," she told me. "I’ve published enough books. I’ve done my service. I don’t have any academic ambition. I don’t want to go to Yale, Harvard, Berkeley, or Oxford. What I want to do is be in London, do a lot more journalism. I have a lot of things I want to say."

Remarks like these don’t go over well with the MLA’s Graduate Student Caucus. To prospectless and underemployed Ph.D.s, the tale of a tenured professor and MLA president’s pursuit of happiness outside the ivory tower cannot but leave a bitter taste. Intellectual and material fulfillment are luxuries they suspect they are unlikely to enjoy, and many take offense at Showalter’s efforts to offer her own career path–in particular, her satisfying extra-academic pursuits–as a model for theirs. "Many of these people who run the MLA have lived sheltered, elitist existences," says Mark Kelley, the current caucus president. "Elaine’s idea is that we should practice our phone skills. We are Ph.D. candidates who have dedicated years of our lives to serious study. It’s an abdication of responsibility and willful ignorance."

For anxious graduate students without steady jobs, viable wages, or regular benefits, the MLA president’s private life–as a successful journalist with an agent, a publicist, a rental flat in London, and pocket change to blow on a dress at the mall–is as fraught with political meaning as her public pronouncements. "Elaine is making more money at Vogue than at Princeton," says Cary Nelson, a (tenured) English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a longtime activist on behalf of graduate student interests. "When she brings a Hollywood scriptwriter to dangle in front of graduate students at the MLA, they have every right not to feel this is manna from heaven. Offering them an alternative career is a slap in the face."

Hearing these complaints, Showalter shakes her head sadly. "I understand how they see it, but I think they’re quite mistaken," she says. "The job crisis is not something that the MLA can change by decree or that departments and universities can change on their own. The Ph.D. has become a much narrower degree than it used to be or has to be. I think graduate education is a good thing–it’s a good thing to spend a couple of years reading literature after college. It’s a good thing for any career. I’m saying, let’s bring people in and make it as valuable for them as we possibly can. But let’s broaden their horizons instead of narrowing them. Let’s give them the tools to be successful in a number of different professions."

It would be nice to argue that Showalter’s plan for saving graduate education is based on a clear-eyed understanding of the American economy and the university’s place within it, one informed by decades of tracking the ebb and flow of jobs and students under her watch. And perhaps it is. Yet coming from a woman whose extra-academic pursuits have proved so satisfying, it seems just as likely that some other impulse is at work here. By advising students to regard the university as preparation for life outside its walls, Showalter may be guilty of a grandiose if benevolent projection.

Emily Eakin is a senior editor of Lingua Franca. Her article "Liberté, Egalité, Parité" appeared in the April issue of LF.

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