[Paleopsych] Oscar: Noble women
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Sun Feb 6 16:32:21 UTC 2005
By Robert Brickhouse (MFA, Creative Writing '91)
In the long quest for equal rights for women, generation after
generation has lamented the supposed absence of stories celebrating
womanhood in the past. Until recent decades, feminist scholars and
others have assumed that accounts of female role models have been
largely missing or found only as stereotypes of good, elegant
But life stories of notable women, often showing them as daring
leaders and innovators, have proved influential and flourished for
centuries, according to a University literary scholar.
English professor Alison Booth has analyzed hundreds of biographical
collections about women in a newly published book and online
archive. Most of these forgotten collections were written by men who
might appropriately be called the "lost ancestors" of today's women
As Booth shows in her book, "How to Make It as a Woman" (University of
Chicago Press), beginning about 600 years ago, volumes collecting the
life stories of exemplary women appeared in Europe and, with the help
of expanding literacy and printing, gained phenomenal popularity
towards the 19th century. Featuring heroines of war such as Joan of
Arc and queens Elizabeth and Victoria, and honoring famous
adventurers, reformers, writers and bold murderesses such as the
biblical Judith, these widely read "group biographies" exerted
enormous influence and furthered the progress of women's rights, Booth
At various times during the previous two centuries, readers of both
sexes were absorbing the life stories of hundreds of interesting royal
characters such as Catherine the Great of Russia, Marie Antoinette and
Mary Queen of Scots, authors such as Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth
Barrett Browning, and leaders in science, religion, the arts and other
fields. Readers today would recognize many of the most popular
heroines of history, but also rediscover dozens of once-famous
personalities, such as the blind Laura Bridgman, who has been replaced
by Helen Keller in this sort of book, which is still frequently
Booth traces the long history of the neglected genre beginning with
Christine de Pizan's "The Book of the City of Ladies" in the 15th
century, and focuses on the more than 900 all-female collections
published in English during the genre's heyday between 1830 and 1940.
With such titles as "Gift Book of Biography for Young Ladies,"
"Heroines of Modern Progress" and "Portraits of Celebrated Women,"
most were designed for entertainment and to instruct on praising
famous women the same way that famous men have long been praised.
In the 19th-century collections, "the obscure saintly woman drops out
and the career woman comes in," Booth said. "They are a preparation
for women's movement role models and young women modeled careers on
them. They helped change expectations for women's roles."
By the 20th century, books took a tone of advocacy, putting forth the
political rights of groups. One chapter of "How to Make It as a Woman"
focuses on the collected lives of African-American women such as
Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells.
These collections were intended not only to be reliable guides to
female excellence but also as contributions to national history in
England and America, Booth said.
They are not as numerous as the many life stories of men throughout
the centuries, but they were still important role models for young
women, she said. "We have forgotten most of these books, and many of
the women in them. They show there has always been a lot of
recognition of women who broke the mold of good wife and mother. I
like to ask how and why these records get lost, as much as what
purposes they served in their time."
Booth's annotated bibliography is online at the U.Va. Electronic
She plans for the project to continue to grow and eventually include
some of the original texts. Often still available in libraries today,
many of the group biographies were lavishly illustrated and aimed at
male and female readers. The bibliography lists 930 all-female
biography collections published in the United States and Britain
between 1830, when both book publishing and women's education began to
gain strength, and 1940, when the modern publication boom brought
countless stories of women's lives.
Most of the 19th-century and early-20th-century books were written by
men, often ministers writing to earn money, said Booth, an authority
on British and American literature of the period. These authors and
their hundreds of collections helped lay the foundation for today's
women's studies, she noted. Some pioneering feminist writers,
including Anna Jameson and Virginia Woolf, contributed to the
development of the genre.
Coming out at annual rates from 10 to 40 times per year, the
biographical accounts took women seriously, recommended the importance
of education and showed that women have played key roles in history.
They also showed that there were many variations to strong womanhood.
Often nationalistic in tone, "they are proud of their women. They are
kind of boasting about `our' women," Booth said. Yet a few "exotic"
women, such as Pocahontas, were included as well.
Often given as school prizes or sold as coffee-table books, they told
the lives of role models -- such as famous nurses Florence Nightingale
and Clara Barton, who were not only pioneers of their profession but
also great administrators, similar to the prison reformer Elizabeth
Fry -- as proof that women could change public policy.
The author of a study of Virginia Woolf and George Eliot and co-editor
of "Norton Introduction to Literature," Booth teaches a course in
biography and autobiography. She said these collections of women are
more effective in breaking the stereotypes of "good" or "noble"
womanhood because the biographies are presented as a group, showing
variety and contrast among the names, images and stories. Her
curiosity was sparked when she began to notice how widespread these
short biographical collections are.
She began to read them and "it was really a lot of fun. It was
detective work. The books can be beautiful, and the stories are like
great historical fiction." Searching first through online catalogues
and then with visits to major libraries, she has now produced what is
the first full interpretation of the genre.
But her news shouldn't be surprising, she added, because written
accounts of strong and famous women are found in societies all over
the world. "As soon as you have a literate culture with a sense of its
own history, you have a collection of exemplary women," she said.
Robert Brickhouse (MFA, Creative Writing '91) is a freelance writer in
Charlottesville, formerly with the U.Va. Office of News Services.
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