Elaine Showalter (1941-) - Key Figures in Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Elaine Showalter (1941-)
Key Figures in Literary Theory

Elaine Showalter was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and educated at Bryn Mawr College, Brandeis University, and the University of California at Davis in 1970. After teaching at a variety of institutions, including high school and adult education, she landed at Princeton University, where she is Avalon Foundation Professor Emerita. She has chaired the department of English at Princeton and served as president of the Modern Language Association (1997). She has been actively involved in writing for the popular press, with articles in People, Vogue, The New Statesman, the London Review of Books, and other periodicals, and appearing as a regular guest on television talk shows.

Showalter was one of the leading figures in US Feminism in the 1970s. She coined the term “gynocriticism,” which refers to the study of the unique literary traditions of women writers. Her second and most influential work, A Literature of Their Own (1976), rewrote the literary history of the novel and developed a compelling alternative to the PATRIARCHAL tradition in fiction. Her theory of “the female aesthetic,” influenced by French Feminism, especially the work of Helene Cixous, argues for a vision of literary art in which language and narrative resist the constraints of patriarchal traditions. Showalter turned to cultural history in The Female Malady (1985), in which she critiqued the medical establishment, particularly psychiatry, and its attempt to define and control women by “medicalizing” personality traits and behaviors that violate heterosexual masculinist norms. Her next two books were elaborations on this critique. Sexual Anarchy (1990) continued her interest in the cultural history of women's experience, focusing on the psychology of gender in the 1890s. In Hystories (1997), Showalter continued the argument advanced in Sexual Anarchy, but went beyond the limits of her critique of gender to focus on chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf War syndrome, recovered memory, satanic ritual abuse, and alien abduction. Her work in the twenty-first century has so far focused on pedagogy, feminist history, and the academic novel.


Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

---- . Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

---- . A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing. 2nd Expanded Ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

---- . Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle. New York: Viking, 1990.

---- . Teaching Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2003.