Booth’s ‘How to Make it as a Woman’
Traces the long history of stories about women, questions why such records get lost
|Alison Booth’s latest book shows that life stories about noteworthy women have long existed. “We have forgotten most of these books, and many of the women in them,” she said. “I like to ask how and why these records get lost, as much as what purposes they served in their time.”
By Robert Brickhouse
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 behavior.
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 studies.
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 writes.
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heroines of history, but also rediscover dozens of once-famous personalities, such as the blind Laura Bridgman, who has been replaced by Helen Keller in this sort of book, which is still frequently published.
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 Text Center at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/WomensBios/
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, and 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 visitings 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.