[Paleopsych] Oscar: Noble women

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Noble women

    By Robert Brickhouse (MFA, Creative Writing '91)
    Posted 1/20/05

    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 [2]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    personalities, such as the blind Laura Bridgman, who has been replaced
    by Helen Keller in this sort of book, which is still frequently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 [3]online at the U.Va. Electronic
    Text Center.

    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.


    3. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/WomensBios/
    4. http://oscar.virginia.edu/x2751.xml

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