Women Biography: Biographies and Portraits about, by, or for Women: An International Conference, University of Bern 6-9 November 2002

Article excerpt

Every great man has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.

--Oscar Wilde

Biography is no longer the bastard of the humanities. (1) The genre suffered greatly under the influence of (post)structural theories which deny the idea of an autonomously acting subject, since exactly this subject is a necessity for any biographical approach. Presently, literary biography is mainly discussed in the fields of Literary Studies, Sociology, Psychology, and History, albeit with varying foci. (2) Still, there is not much research done on the systematic and theoretical framework of biography as a literary genre. (3) Helmut Scheuer's study on biography from the eighteenth century until today has established itself as the standard work in German Language and Literature Studies on this topic, and in 1999, Christian yon Zimmermann organized a conference about fictional biographies where the development of fiction was discussed within the scope of the debate about biography. (4)

At the international Women Biography Conference, there was vehement support for the renaissance of a criminally neglected genre, and biography's role in the fields of German, English, French, and Scandinavian literary studies was outlined. Following upon Zimmermann's 1999 conference, the Bern conference had its main focus on women's literature and gender research in connection with biography. Conference organizers Nina Ehrlich (Vienna) and Christian yon Zimmermann (Bern) provided the scientific frame within which the participants spoke about the wide-ranging topic. First, the focus was on those texts which deal with portraits of women, and therefore with specific concepts of womanhood. That is what united all the lectures. In addition, about a third of the lectures also shared a focus on texts written by women and/or written for a female audience.

Second, the conference was also understood to serve as a forum for looking at the actual genesis and writing of biographies about women. This aspect was clearly stressed in all its political importance by Ilse Korotin (Vienna), who introduced the database biografiA (www.biografia.at), a valuable electronic encyclopedia which contains entries about Austrian female scientists of all provenances, in a format that enables a quick exchange of data; and in Ines Geipel's (Berlin) report on the genesis of her biography of the GDR-author Inge Muller in the form of a book presentation. Geipel's biography is an attempt to re-integrate the works of Muller into a political context, as this aspect of her texts has been largely ignored.

Finally, the heuristic aspect of the conference's topic was stressed in the opening lecture by Christian von Zimmermann, who pleaded for a precise analysis of both the rhetoric and the narrative elements of literary biographies. They often even include argumentative and didactic strategies, a feature that is not only constituent for men's, but also for women's biography.

The seventeen lectures, given by researchers from four different countries, were characterized by a wide range of methodological and thematic approaches. They were, however, linked by a certain tendency; namely, the development from individual biographies towards collective biographies, which seemed to be the leitmotif of the conference. Gisela Febel (Bremen) described how biographies about women are increasingly characterized by service to the collective. She presented an elaborate matrix of elements of the "new" collective Women's Biography, and pointed out that women in certain biographies are less individual characters with unique features, and more stereotypes consisting of simple patterns.

Four papers dealt with the theory of biography. Stephanie Bird (London) looked at the biographical novel The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag, and discussed how facts and fiction are interwoven to draw the picture of a complex female character. Certain types of biographical writing call for a peculiar narrative structuring, so as to make identification with the characters more difficult. …