FEMINISM, LIKE ANY OTHER ideology, comes from private struggle within a unique historical period. A biographer, to do justice to her subject, must place the public woman in the context of her private life and her times. Too much personal detail can reduce the woman to her relationships and problems. Too little fails to illuminate her fight to transcend them. And losing sight of the surrounding history can trivialize all her achievements.
No matter how rigorous the biographer, however, she is always limited by what materials exist. So, Lois Banner's excellent, unsentimental account of suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton is marred only by the paucity of information about her intimate preoccupations and relations. Evidently, the Stanton papers are scarce and Banner's interest in her subject's psychological development was not intense.
Banner gives us almost nothing about Stanton's daily habits. She sketches her childhood efficiently, touching on her resentment toward her powerful mother, her attachment to her often-absent father, her resolve to act like a son, her profound fears inspired by the family's strict Presbyterianism, and her tendency toward depression. The glimpses of her marriage to Henry Stanton, abolitionist and politician, are provokingly few. Banner writes that Elizabeth decided to marry only one day before the ceremony, but doesn't tell us how or why she made up her mind. Henry Stanton, a self-made man like Elizabeth's father, but destined for less success, doesn't quite emerge as a character.
After three children and seven years of marriage, the Stantons moved to Seneca Falls, N.Y., where Elizabeth suffered a major depression. There she first publicly stated her domestic unhappiness with too much housework and with her husband's long absences from home. The act of articulation propelled her, at first slowly, and then with increasing momentum, into a life of feminist activism. With the support of her long-time friend and ally, Susan B. Anthony, she directed the first phase of the American women's movement.
Stanton ultimately made herself unpopular with abolitionists and split the women's movement by insisting on the equal importance of women's and black rights. Eventually, the women's movement rejected Stanton as too radical and too undisciplined. Her passionate attacks on all kinds of injustice to women alienated the more conservative, for whom getting the vote defined their feminism. Toward the end of her life Stanton retreated from active political life, leaving suffrage to Anthony. Her last campaign, against organized religion, was more theoretical than practical. By the end of her life her activism had evolved into a broad philosophy.
Banner writes clearly and vigorously, never trying to protect Stanton or explain away thorny aspects of her nature or excesses in her political life. She covers the strife and vagaries of the reform movements with the same impartiality and briskness with which she treats Stanton. The result is an impressive but somewhat unsatisfying book which leaves one wanting to know more about not only Stanton's husband, but also her children, her long and sometimes rocky friendship with Anthony, her emotional life, depressions and fears, all the conditions which bore on the formation of her beliefs.
If one wants to know more about Elizabeth Cady Stanton's private life and thoughts, one wants to know less about those of feminist-economist and journalist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In the first volume of Mary Hill's projected two-volume work, Gilman explained the dilemma, writing that she was "very busy 'being me' -- it is engrossing, and I expect other people to be as interested in the process as I am, and they are not!" Gilman, engrossed in self-discovery, left an abundance of documentation about her feelings and difficulties. The author shares Gilman's interest, identifies with her personal dramas and argues that "her historical significance stems not only from her brilliance, but also from the way she lived her life."
Gilman's childhood and adolescence were singularly unhappy. She and her older brother lived with their exhausted mother, miserably married to a man who eventually left her. Gilman feared and idolized her father, while needing and disliking her mother. These tendencies -- enormous need, a constant fear of desertion, coupled with an extremely volatile disposition, made her own first experience of marriage and motherhood extremely painful. Her marriage foundered in part on her incapacity to respond to her child's and her husband's needs when she still hadn't finished being a child herself.
Out of these difficulties Gilman elaborated a feminism based on a woman's right to work outside the home, and to be something other than a wife and mother. In her private life she tried to attend to her emotional needs while making a career possible. She moved to California during the breakup of her first marriage. When her husband remarried a close friend of Gilman, she sent them her little girl. In this period Gilman's emotional involvements were almost exclusively with women, and included two lesbian affairs. Her professional life as a journalist and feminist-at-large picked up momentum, and she traveled and lectured on various women's topics. During these years she wrote Women and Economics, the work for which she is probably best known.
There are two related problems with this volume. One is that the author, less detached from her subject than Lois Banner, adopts to some degree Gilman's view of herself as the hit-and-run victim of her life. Mary Hill skillfully puts us inside Gilman's claustrophobic existence, but then doesn't offer us any perspective on it. We see people with Gilman's vision, stunted by her desperate needs. For example, her letters to her first love, Martha Luther, flatter, wheedle, insist and bully, now in baby talk, now in coy dialect, but they never admit the existence of another person. Nor does the author, following Gilman's example, make Luther or any other character truly distinct. Consequently, the reader begins to feel exploited by Gilman's profound self-absorption.
This short-sighted vision of Gilman does her the disservice of undermining our confidence in the importance of her work, especially troubling since her achievements were neither as tangible nor as obvious as those of Stanton. We are left with the uncomfortable impression that Gilman's contributions to feminism were all based on her unrelenting and hopelessly subjective self-consciousness. We bog down in her feuds and don't see her purposes. From up close Charlotte Gilman looks like a candidate for the already overpopulated gallery of unbalanced American women still waiting for some historical meaning to be attached to them. Maybe volume two will provide the distance needed to put her into social and intellectual perspective. In any case, Mary Hill's extensive scholarship and her sympathy for her subject will make Gilman accessible to contemporary women looking for historical parallels for their personal battles.