Feminist Biography: A Contradiction in Terms?

By Zinsser, Judith P. | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Feminist Biography: A Contradiction in Terms?


Zinsser, Judith P., Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


Long ago in the beginnings of 1970s feminism, women's historians forced a new understanding of the construction of all history. Only thus could the elimination of half of humanity from the historical record be explained and remedied. This "postmodern" enterprise proved so successful that it spawned its own angry "backlash" and anguished cries from traditional historians for "a return to narrative." Biography, with its built-in storytelling from birth to death, fell into the center of these disputes as feminist historians of the 1980s formulated the radical deconstruction of this genre as well. "Auto/biography," the intertwining of biographer and subject, was but one of the most important aspects of this ancient art highlighted by feminist critics. Experiments with "life writing," as many came to call it, questioned the nature and uses of evidence, abandoned the construction of any coherent narrative, and focused instead on the self-conscious description of the process by which an individual's past might be imagined in the present.

Initially, even the choice of subject for a biography posed questions for feminists. The elite and educated, those designated as "women worthies," had long been preferred, but feminist historians now hoped to go beyond the "exception" and to chronicle the lives of all women, exploring intersections of race, class, religion, gender, and ethnicity. However, these critical feminist approaches undermined the very definition and purpose of biography, whether feminist or not: to use the historian's evidentiary authority to validate the life, thoughts, and accomplishments of a particular woman. The essay that follows discusses the unfolding of these challenges to traditional biography, the range of responses by feminist historians, and some of the ways eighteenth-century biographers of women resolved the inherent contradictions.

In the 1970s, feminist historians discovered that all but a few women had been quietly eliminated from the formal and informal stories of our past. (1) Gerda Lerner, who wrote on black and white women in the United States, and later on feminism in Western culture, divided and set the tasks. Using the histories of Europe and North America as her model, she identified "compensatory history" as the first step: the stories of exceptional women, like queens, the wives of presidents, regents, and women exercising male political power. The next step, "contribution history," told the stories of the reformers, such as Florence Nightingale, Josephine Butler, and Jane Addams. In hindsight, even the suffragists would probably be included here, as Lerner defined the women of this type as those who affected men's history. They functioned within a male-defined framework, choosing and acting on men's not women's terms.

The vast majority of biographies of women, or of men for that matter, whether in the long eighteenth century or any other, added to history in one of these two ways. Biography, by tradition, if not by definition, has been about the extra-ordinary person, a particular individual who in some manner did something deemed noteworthy by the conventional canons of significance. In the eighteenth century, Queen Anne ruled an expanding mercantile nation; Madame Marie Therese Rodet Geoffrin hosted the men of Denis Diderot's circle and facilitated the writing of the Encyclopedie; and Laura Bassi and Maria Agnesi participated in the major intellectual conversations of their day, Newtonian optics and the new mathematics, respectively. Even those women who questioned the long-standing constraints on women's activities, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, asked for a man's education, for the end of women's exclusion from aspects of what were in their eras men's worlds.

The fact of "men's worlds" cannot be changed for those who study the past. Rather, the feminist historian's perspective must be different. As Lerner so clearly and emphatically phrased it in her essay "Placing Women in History," "the true history of women is the history of their ongoing functioning in that male-defined world [but] on their own terms.

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