Elaine Showalter

“I Lived a Double Life for a Long Time.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, February 2020

[Edited transcript]

JW: Where did you grow up?

ES:  I was born January 21, 1941 in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I grew up in Brookline in a middle-class Jewish family. Even in the 50s, suburban Boston was a good place for a bookish girl to grow up. I hung out all the time in Harvard Square, and most of my boyfriends in high school were college students from Harvard and MIT.

In 1958 I went to Bryn Mawr. Most of the Ivy League schools did not accept women, so smart girls were channeled towards the top women’s colleges, and Bryn Mawr was the farthest away from home. Bryn Mawr had a great feminist history, but  I managed to get there in the interregnum between the 1950s and the women’s movement, when it was quite genteel and traditional socially. I was also disappointed in the limited curriculum, a function of its size. Bryn Mawr did not  have  the academic options  that I would had available  if I had gone to Yale or Harvard or Columbia, or indeed to any university. By 1960, students at Bryn Mawr and neighboring Haverford were beginning to protest the very early American involvement in Vietnam, because these were Quaker colleges, but feminism and the history of women’s movements was never part of our education and conversation.

In the summer after my graduation in 1962, I told my parents that I was going to marry English Showalter, a young professor of French at Haverford College. He grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, and went to Yale where he also got his PhD. His family was Episcopalian, but like me he was an atheist. My parents were not  particularly observant Jews, but they were  horrified at the idea of my marrying a gentile. They pressured both of us to give up the engagement. In September I started graduate school at Brandeis, where I had applied in an effort to compromise with my parents about further education.

My parents threatened to stop supporting me unless I gave up the engagement, but I had a job as the resident counselor in a huge women’s dorm at Brandeis which paid all my expenses, so I was not financially dependent on my parents.

I borrowed $300 from Brandeis—at the time it seemed like an immense sum—which paid for some bus trips to Philadelphia; and I bought a Singer sewing machine and made some of  my clothes. The year at Brandeis was tumultuous. In June 1963, English and I were married at a Unitarian church in Philadelphia, and my Bryn Mawr friends gave us a wedding brunch. His parents and siblings came too, and my best friends from Boston. But none of my family members were there, and I did not see them again for many years.

The morning after our wedding, English and I  got in our little Volkswagen, and headed to Mexico, driving through the segregated deep South in the summer of terrifying civil rights tension and violence. We spent over two months travelling around Mexico, until I got amoebic dysentery and landed in a Yucatan jungle hospital run by nuns. That summer was really when my adult life began; and surviving that honeymoon was probably the reason we have stayed together over fifty years.

Then we spent a year in Philadelphia where I taught 9th and 11th grade at a wonderful Quaker school, Friends Select, and realized how much I loved teaching. We both were eager to live in California, and when English got a job at the University of California at Davis, I applied to their graduate program and we moved out there in fall 1964. It was a very active time politically. Davis is in the agricultural center of California, in the Sacramento Valley and about an hour from Berkeley and San Francisco. Soon after we arrived a microscopic rainfall threatened the tomato crop, and most of Davis turned out in the fields to pick them before they rotted on the ground. The canning factories ran day and night and the whole town smelled like ketchup for weeks. 

Then the migrant grape workers, the braceros, went on strike, and we joined the marches organized by Cesar Chavez. In Berkeley and San Francisco, the counterculture in music, film, fashion, and politics was beginning and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley electrified and divided the Davis campus as well. We were early subscribers to the Berkeley Barb and other radical newspapers, although women were still expected to be chicks, mamas, cheerleaders, and subordinates to men. Still, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique had come out in 1963, and my husband was reading it in the Napaville county hospital in June 1965 while I was in the delivery room giving  birth to our daughter Vinca. 

I had a female thesis adviser, Gwendolyn Needham, at Davis, which was a rarity at the time, but the day I passed my PhD orals English was offered a job at Princeton. In 1966 we moved back to the east coast,  and  I never saw Gwen Needham again, although she advised me by mail – my graduate advisor again. The first year we lived in Princeton, in junior faculty housing, I had the idea that I would work on my dissertation on Victorian women writers when the baby napped.

So that clearly was a fantasy, and after a few months struggling with that impossible effort, I realized I needed at least a part-time job so I could hire a baby-sitter. I was so naïeve that I applied for teaching instructorships at  Princeton and Rutgers, who quickly let me know they did not hire women. My college and graduate school credentials were irrelevant in academia, but because I had received two perfect scores of 800 on the SATs when I was in high school, I was hired by the Educational Testing Service in Lawrenceville to write SATs, GREs, and a variety of other standardized exams. Working at ETS four days a week enabled me to hire a babysitter on the fifth day, and I slowly made progress doing the research for my thesis in the Princeton University Library.

JW: When did you begin to be aware of feminism?

In the revolutionary summer of 1968, my husband had a research  fellowship in France, and with our  three-year-old daughter, we lived in Paris during the student uprisings. I was still trying to finish my dissertation, and by then I had a part-time job teaching freshman composition at Douglass College, the women’s college of Rutgers. En route to Paris we had stopped in London, and ostentatiously displaying the Berkeley Barb in cafes, we met a group of brilliant and idealist young anarchist radicals from Oxford.

They were desperate to get to Paris, and we had rented a big Left Bank flat, but needed babysitters. So, they came with us, and then a couple of French students moved in as well, and eventually some graduate students from Princeton, and two faculty friends from Princeton and Douglass. We were all obsessed with the political issues being debated and confronted in the streets and cafes of Paris, including the start of the French women’s liberation movement.

When we came back in fall 1968, the American women’s movement was beginning, and I felt that the dissertation I had been laboring over was out-of-date and had to be completely rewritten in terms of the radical ideas beginning to circulate in pamphlets, small conferences, and consciousness-raising groups. In fall 1969, I read that a Princeton chapter of NOW—the National Organization for Women – was being organized and would have its first meeting at the Unitarian Church.

I went with great anxiety about the women who would attend. Many years later I wrote a biography of Julia Ward Howe, and discovered that after the Civil War, she went to her first women’s suffrage meeting in the Unitarian Church in Boston with much the same nervous feelings. Would they be respectable? Howe tried to disguise herself by wrapping up in her heavy “rain garment;” like me she sat in the back of the church in her trench coat. But as soon as the women began to speak she realized they were her sisters, and before many months she had become the president of the New England Women’s Suffrage Association. It took me six months to president of the NOW chapters.

JW: Oh my God. Me too.

ES:  Really? Where were you?

JW:  In Montgomery County, Maryland. 

ES:  Of course, this is what we were both looking for. I’m sure you had the same exhilarating experience of meeting other feminists. And there were so few us—18(!), including one man–that we did everything. We wrote the newsletter, mimeographed it, and distributed it. We had a diverse group of women and all of us had jobs. We were on the picket line for the Ford factory up in northern New Jersey. We filed a class action sex-discrimination suit against Princeton University. Some of us wrote and published a ground-breaking study of sexism in children’s books: Dick and Jane as Victims: Sex Stereotyping in Children’s Readers. We started a daycare center at Princeton, call U-NOW, which is still running, and celebrated  its fiftieth anniversary in fall 2020.

At the end of our first year, we decided to celebrate the group’s anniversary by having a drink in the men’s bar at the Nassau Inn, the big hotel in the middle of Princeton, which was rather absurdly called the Yankee Doodle Tap Room. In any case, we liberated it, and got a lot of press attention. In the summer of 1970, we had the first state-wide women’s conference with the goal of getting New Jersey women to run for office in the state and country. Karen DeCrow, then the national president of NOW, gave a very dramatic speech recalling the tactics of the pioneers of the suffrage movement, and urging us to emulate them by selling our engagement rings, our wedding bands, and our other jewelry, to fund women’s election campaigns. 

In the summer of 1970, I also got my PhD and became an assistant professor at Douglass. I was blessed to be in the right place at the right time. It was a moment where women’s colleges around the United States were disappearing, and there was pressure for Douglass College to be absorbed into Rutgers University. If we had agreed to merge, we would have lost the freedom to create our own curriculum and programs, just at the moment when the women’s movement was calling for attention to women’s history and achievements.

Along with Mary Howard, another young feminist professor in the sociology department, I wrote a proposal that Douglass should stay a women’s college, but become an explicitly feminist college, with courses on women and a women’s studies program, a day-care center, strong career advising, and opportunities for older women students. The Douglass faculty voted to stay a women’s college for at least five years, and to create a feminist program. Mary and I were asked to design it, and Douglass became an international center for scholarship, innovation, and support for women students. When it decided to merge with the university, it negotiated from a position of strength, protected its programs, and expanded research, teaching, counselling, and leadership training for women.

From 1970 on, my feminist activism was primarily focused on women and higher education, and on my work on women writers. My first book, A Literature of their Own (1977) was a re-reading of British women’s literature in the 19th and early 20th century from a feminist perspective. It was published by Princeton University Press, which gave it scholarly credibility, and it initiated many decades of research, revision, and writing about women authors. In the 1970s, my husband and I both had research fellowships and we spent two years living in London, 1972-73, and 1977-78, where I became active in the British women’s movement, but mainly in the area of feminist publishing.

JW: What would you say about your time at Princeton?

ES: I joined the Princeton English Department in the significant year of 1984, as a full professor. And when they offered me a position, I also had an offer from Harvard. So, I was choosing between Princeton and Harvard – something in my wildest dreams I never would never have imagined. In terms of teaching, absolute bliss; wonderful students, a great world-class library, ample research funds for undergraduates, graduate students and faculty. I was treated very well by the university in many respects. I was the first woman who ever chaired the English department; I had been department chair at Douglass, so I had some administrative experience. But there were only three women department chairs in the university at that time, and I certainly was made to feel like an outsider. Within the department, among various tensions, one colleague told me that I could never do the job properly because I was not a Princeton alumnus. Of course, Princeton had been coeducational for only 13 years!

Since I retired in 2003, however, Princeton has become a truly friendly and supportive environment for women and for other formerly excluded groups. The first woman president, Shirley Tilghman, was extraordinary, and made many important changes, and I think the administration at Princeton has made wise decisions in many tough circumstances in the 21st century.

JW: Did you ever reconcile with your family?

ES:  In 1978, fifteen years after my marriage, I made the decision to try to reconnect with them. I did not miss them, and in many ways I had a much easier life without my parents. They would not have wanted me to be in the women’s movement. They would not have wanted me to keep working when I had my kids. But when I turned thirty-five, reached a kind of midpoint in my life, I began to think that it was not a good idea to go on with the narrative of having been disowned by my parents. It seemed like the time to give that story up and move on.

And at Douglass, I had got to know the poet Adrienne Rich, who was teaching in the English department, and had the office next door to mine. Adrienne said to me, “No woman can be an honest feminist who has not made peace with her own mother and sister.” That made sense to me, and I rented a house in Boston by myself, and I called my sister and said we should have a meeting. At that point, my parents had been divorced, my father was dead, and my mother lived with my sister and her husband and three children on Cape Cod. 

We met for lunch at the rented house in Boston. I had not seen my sister since she was 18 years old, and it was a shock to meet her after so many years. We had a polite and tense discussion, and then she drove back to the Cape. That night I called her on the phone, and said, “I’m glad that you came. It was very good to see you;  I wish you well; but we have nothing in common, and let’s just call it quits.” She started yelling at me on the phone, I yelled back, and after about an hour she said, “Why don’t you bring your family here and visit?”  

I called my husband and told him to fly to Boston with the kids who were then 7 and 12. They arrived the next day after a major hurricane that practically closed down the city of Boston. By the time they landed I had such a migraine headache they had to take me straight to the emergency room at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital. I said, “I can’t do it. I can’t go through with it. I’ll call and cancel the visit.” But as we were coming into the driveway of the rented house, the phone was ringing. It was my sister and she said, “I can imagine that you are feeling really upset about this visit, and you don’t want to do it, but you’re coming to your sister’s house and it’s going to be OK.” So, the next day we drove to the Cape, and as we parked in front of her house, her 7-year-old-son came out to meet us and he could have been my son’s twin.

So, it was a fairly emotional and dramatic reunion. Since that time, with a lot of work, my sister and I have become pretty close. It was too late for me and my mother. We got along reasonably well; she liked my husband and the kids, and I supported her financially until she died. I did my best and they appreciated it. But it was too late for any deep honest connection between us, and our kids could never feel comfortable with people who had rejected their dad.

JW:  Well,  it still is a nice ending.

ES:  I agree. I’m very glad we went.