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Dissertations Deconstructed: Elaine Showalter, Ph.D.
by Arianne Chernock

IN THE LATE 1960S, ELAINE SHOWALTER was struggling to finish her dissertation-a project no doubt interrupted by NOW protests and feminist consciousness raising sessions. Showalter, today the Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and a freelance journalist, recalls the influence that feminist activism had on her fledgling career. "When I returned to the United States [from France] in September 1968," she writes in the recently published Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage, "the American women's liberation movement was beginning, and the dissertation I had labored over seemed already out-of-date; I had to begin rewriting it again."

"The Double Standard: Criticism of Women Writers in England, 1845-1880," completed in 1970, is the product of those revisions. True to the times, her dissertation features a cast of fiery "lady novelists," ranging from Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Mary Ann Evans to the lesser known Dinah Mulock Craik, Elizabeth Lynn Linton and Margaret Oliphant. Enraged by the separate and unequal standard used to judge their writing (praise if they endorsed "proper" female conduct, criticism if they challenged it), these ambitious women devised a range of strategies for avoiding special treatment. Some like Bronte (Currer Bell) and Evans (George Eliot) adopted pseudonyms, while others simply withheld autobiographical information. All, according to Showalter, were unquestionably "feminists, rejecting the protection and confinement of the domestic sphere, and in their lives, if not in their words, asking to be treated without special consideration for their sex."

For a dissertation purportedly about feminists, however, "The Double Standard" makes some rather surprising observations about its subjects. Far from simply championing these mid-Victorians for taking on the male literary establishment, Showalter goes to great lengths to reveal their political and intellectual shortcomings. Throughout, she describes them as courageous yet ultimately self-centered figures, too concerned with their own professional advancement to conceive of women's greater good. Obsessed with concealing their femininity in the literary realm, Showalter argues, they were loath to openly identify with feminist issues. Many, in fact, went out of their way to distance themselves from the women's movement. "I care little for Female Suffrage," Mrs. Craik wrote to Oscar Wilde in 1887, "I have given the widest berth to that set of women who are called, not unjustly, the Shrieking Sisterhood." Bronte, a staunch Christian Tory, was horrified to learn that Jane Eyre was seen by many as a radical feminist document. Even Eliot, known for her bold and learned heroines, feared that speaking publicly on women's behalf would jeopardize her career plans.

It is these unexpected insights that make Showalter's dissertation a rewarding read. For unlike so much of the early academic work in women's studies, "The Double Standard" does not will the past to fit a contemporary narrative. Though undoubtedly tempted, Showalter refuses to portray her subjects as the prototypical bra burners that they weren't. Clearly, they were less than exemplary. But as Showalter points out in Inventing Herself, "[I]mportant changes don't have to come from perfect people."

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