Movers and shakers (who were women) Notable American Women: The Modern Period, edited by Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.$35.
If there were any lingering doubts, this biographical dictionary eloquently shows that American history is more than a legacy from our fathers. Most readers will discover in these biographies of female scientists and artists and social activists evidence for profound optimism about the resilience of American women. Historians will consider the book an invaluable addition to the previous three volumes, "Notable American Women 1607-1950."
This new study of "the modern period" covers subjects who died between 1951- 1975, hence encompassing figures from such diverse periods as blues star Janis Joplin, born in 1943, and philantropist Marian Nevins MacDowell, born in 1857. It also includes such different personifications of American womanhood as Sophie Tucker, Helen Keller, Ethel Rosenberg, Billie Holiday, Hannah Arendt, Grandma Moses, and Anna May Wong.
More than a hall of fame for the neglected, this book is also an important investigation into the conditions women have faced from the late 19th century to the present. Each biography (some of them are several pages of narrative tour de force) considers the woman's public contributions as well as relations with family and friends.
The distinctions between these "notable women" and their comtemporaries are clear. They married less often, had fewer children, divorced more frequently. Forty percent of them remained single. For most, their independence -- whether political, professional, sexual or domestic -- was outside the realm of conventional social validation.
The white middle-classness of this volume is predictable. About half of the subjects have BA's, one-third of them from Seven Sister colleges. It was hard enough to be notable as a woman, let alone as a woman from a poor family or a minority race. Therefore the editors have reached far beyond classic references to discover women from differing ethnic, economic, and regional backgrounds. Some of these more hidden stories are the highlights of the book.
Avenues to notability varied.For many working-class and minority women, the channels were labor organizing, business, theater, and film. For women from comfortable families, the road was often a speciality within the professions or a new field like broadcasting or photography. Social service was a very fertile area; women were visible as leaders in the settlement houses, the civil rights campaign, the birth control movement. And of course many women distinguished themselves in the struggle which won them the vote in 1920.
The richness of this volume is found in the inspiring individual stories of people like Lorraine Hansberry, active in civil rights since childhood, who continued to foster social change through her plays," A Raisin in the Sun" and "The Sign in Mrs. Brunstein's Window." Julia Morgan, California's first licensed woman architect, contributed the University of California's Greek Theater, San Simeon Castle, and many other of the state's most remarkable buildings. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who began her radical organizing at age 16 with a speech to the Harlem Socialist Club, fought for labor issues for the next 40 years. Julia de Burgos, born in a Puerto Rican barrio in 1914, is one of the almost-lost voices in American literature; her lyrical writing has been compared with the best poets of her time.
Throughout the book, the descriptions are informed and engaging. But one can't help but wonder if the spirit of this study wouldn't have been better served with more women and fewer men as contributors.
The publication of this significant volume will be applauded by the women's studies programs burgeoning in our schools. One hopes it will also enlighten traditional history departments. The book documents the explosive potential of both American womanhood and sisterhood. As the editors say in their introduction. "Whether single, married, widowed, or divorced, many subjects formed close and long- lasting bonds with other women, continuing the tradition of mutual support that had characterized women's lives in an earlier era."