Writing Biographies of Women
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Review Essays Writing Biographies of Women Sara Alpern, Joyce Antler, Elisabeth Israels Perry, and Ingrid Winther Scobie, eds. The Challenge of Feminist Biography: Writing the Lives of Modern American Women. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992. 210 pp. ISBN 0-25-201926 (cl). Teresa lies, ed. All Sides of the Subject: Women and Biography. New York: Teachers College Press, 1992. xi + 174 pp. ISBN 0-80-776255-5 (pb); 0-80-776256-3 (cl). Sidonie Smith. Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body: Women's Autobiographical Practices in the Twentieth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. xii + 226 pp. ISBN 0-25-335286-x (cl); 0-25-320789-4 (pb). Nell Irvin Painter P) erhaps ironically, certainly usefully, the time I took completing a biography delayed this review. It is a good thing this essay comes after my book, for actually constructing a biography allowed me to compare these authors' experiences with my own. I base my conclusions on that comparison, which also suggests challenges to biographers of the future. Over the course of the last seven years, I conceived, researched, and wrote a biography of one of the two currently best-known nineteenthcentury African-American women, the ex-slave feminist and abolitionist, Sojourner Truth. (The other, Harriet Tubman, was also an unlettered former slave.) As a biographical subject Truth is singular, and her biographer must grapple with three contradictions. First there is the odd combination of Truth's familiar face and her obscure actions. Further, Truth's visual and verbal images are chaotic in that she is identified with a ladylike photographic image that clashes with the taunt of the question—ar'n't I a woman?—we associate with her. Moreover, that phrase itself represents more what someone else said she said than her own utterance. In contrast with Truth, the subjects of these three books are known mainly to specialists. This does not mean that as biographers and critics these authors and I have nothing in common. On the contrary, the processes of crafting a biography of Sojourner Truth and of analyzing what passes for her autobiography—the Narrative of Sojourner Truth—belong to the same categories of theory and praxis as the work under review. The Challenge of Feminist Biography collects essays by women histori- © 1997 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 9 No. 2 (Summer) 1997 Review Essay: Nell Irvin Painter 155 ans who have written the biographies of better or lesser known twentiethcentury women. A session at the first Southern Conference on Women's History held in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1988 entitled "Biographies of Women in Public Life: Challenges and Results," inspired the anthology. The session met so warm a reception that the presenters decided to expand and publish their papers in what they call a "workshop in print" on feminist biography. The essayists range in status from holders of named chairs, such as Kathryn Kish Sklar and Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, to independent scholars and associate professors, such as the editors of the volume. I note that all are white and middle-aged, but they present themselves as ethnically and racially transparent. None stresses her class origin or ethnicity, either to draw comparisons with her subject or to embed difference or sameness in her methodology. For the most part, these biographers did their graduate work in the 1970s and published their biographies in the mid-1980s. Hence their self-consciously feminist scholarship reflects both the prejudices of 1970s feminism against white women of privilege and the nationalist, antifeminist atmosphere of the Reagan-Bush administrations of the 1980s. The structural conditions of their labor also appear, as several biographers mention having been supported financially by the National Endowment for the Humanities and having presented their work in progress at meetings of the Berkshire Conferences on Women's History. If ever proof were needed that the NEH and the Berkshire Conferences materially advance scholarship, it lies in this book. What self-consciously binds together the biographers and subjects in The Challenge of Feminist Biography is, first, shared gender. According to the introduction, when both the subject and the biographer are women "gender moves to the center of the analysis" (7). Other aspects of a woman's identity...


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