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  • Editors' Note
  • Marilyn Booth, Special Issue Editors and Antoinette Burton, Special Issue Editors

Critical Feminist Biography

After several decades of energetic theorizing and the production of feminist life stories, auto/biography is well ensconced as a subject of feminist inquiry transnationally. Yet when Nigel Hamilton's How to Do Biography: A Primer came out in 2008, it had little to say about biography as a gendered project. This "Do It Yourself" manual, published by Harvard University Press, allows "women" only a few lines in the index.1 "Women" are followed closely by the British feminist writer (and frequent subject of biographical writing) Virginia Woolf, whose father Leslie Stephen was, famously, the chief editor of the Dictionary of National Biography (a series in which women were rarely if ever considered legitimate entries). Hamilton draws on a number of female examples to flesh out his primer (Anais Nin, Leni Riefenstahl, and Simone de Beauvoir), and his bibliography does reveal that he has read in the area of women's studies/feminist theory of life writing, but these markers highlight the cursory nature of his treatment of women as biographical subjects. Nor is such reading reflected in his assumption that the biological life story, from birth to death, is the necessary foundation for the biographical project, rather than a historically produced convention that might require interrogation. For Hamilton declares a striking certainty about the linearity of the life story (the march from birth to death) and a conviction that the whole self is the primary (and ahistoric) object of what we might call biographical desire. That a primer for aspiring biographers does not raise such questions—long on the feminist horizon—might disquiet us as theorists and practitioners of biography. It certainly suggests the persistence of older notions of biography—and perhaps of human self-awareness—and intimates that these questions need constantly to be insisted upon.

Indeed, until very recently, the linear self was not just the foundational premise for biography as a genre, it explained the limits of that genre for capturing the stories of subjects whose lives may not present in such developmentalist terms—and for whom a comprehensive archive may be an elusive, indeed impossible, quest. If, at the start of the twenty-first century, biography has never been more popular, Hamilton reconfirms that what counts as the biographical self in the western marketplace by and large remains wedded to quite conventional narrative forms. As recent work on the eighteenth-century former slave Olaudah Equiano suggests, studies which take a more complex approach to subject formation, in all its fragmentary and geographical dispersed forms, face disproportionate challenges about the truth or fiction of the histories embodied by the figures they track.2 To [End Page 7] be sure, even some "women's" and feminist biographies have emplotted their subject's lives on a developmentalist path, aiming to reconstruct the sovereign subject and, of course, privileging some subjects over others, typically to the detriment of non-western women and marginalized peoples of all kinds. Yet the marginalization of subjects—the question of who gets counted as a "worthy" biographical subject as well as the interrogation of what it is in a life that makes for "worthy" treatment—has been a shaping issue in the academic feminist study of biography and in feminist biographical practice since feminism's geographically and historically disparate beginnings. How to "do" feminist biography (and how to think about biography as praxis) is a conundrum because it confronts the big issues every feminism generates—questions of the division, fragmentation, and management of social spaces along gendered lines; or of the body and materiality; or of how gender both sustains and disrupts hierarchies of color, ethnicity, and class. Whether in China, Sri Lanka, India, Egypt, Sweden, Guatemala, or the United States, biography (and the study of it) continues to feed and complicate feminist imaginings, feminist politics, and feminist historiographies—even long after the eras when recuperative biography was an essential component of feminist visibility.

If the articles collected in Part I of our two-volume special issue "Critical Feminist Biography" do nothing else, they fly in the face of the notion that a coherent subject is the prerequisite...


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