Women have accomplished far more than anyone has ever given them credit for, and authors Marjorie P.K. Weiser and Jean S. Arbeiter are now trying to do a little adjusting of the balance. Their joint research and writing effort, called "Womanlist," is being published this month (New York: Atheneum. $19.95;
The two women discovered, when they were compiling a book of quotations for young people a few years ago, that almost all words of wisdom, preserved in print, were of male origin. Women, they found, had not even made a noticeable dent on official lists of best actors, best opera singers, and the like. For the most part they had been left out and ignored.
After their initial response of "Incredible! Appalling! Don't they know? Can't they see?" they decided to research a book that celebrated women's accomplishments. It took two years to track down the 7,500 entries listed in the 500 pages of their book. It was challenging because, as Mrs. Weiser points out, "The world has seen no lack of memorable women's work, but unfortunately has recorded precious little of it. So we had to do a lot of sleuthing and reading between the lines, and tracing down tantalizing hints and slightest mentions in newspaper columns."
Most of the women they encountered, they claim, were pure joy to read about and write about. They included the notable, the great, the zany, the off-beat, and the undeservedly obscure, as well as the arbiters of manners, beauty, and fashion. Some were notorious, but they recorded some of those, too.
In the end, they could list only a fraction of the interesting women they found (particularly in the fields of women's liberation, sports, politics, music , literature, and the visual arts). Whole file drawers of unused material remain.
"In the end," they say, "we had to strive for a balance between women in the arts and sciences, in sports and politics, and in both traditional and nontraditional areas of accomplishment. We put the emphasis, of course, on American women, but we have a substantial British component, and we list women from many other parts of the world as well, including women from third world countries."
The volume includes such compilations as the names of the women buried in West- minster Abbey, lists of the women Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners, and names of women commemorated on US postage stamps. There are such fascinating tidbits as the fact that Sacajawea, the Indian woman guide to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, is the most honored woman in American history, with 11 monuments or memorials that mark her unique contribution.
"Womanlist" is meant to entertain as well as inform. "It is not an encyclopedia," explains Mrs. Weiser, "and its reference value is limited. Its chief value is in presenting, in quick takes, the wide variety of women's accomplishments and at least thumbnail sketches of the women accomplishers. We hope we have made it all tantalizing enough to inspire readers to do more specific exploration in the areas that interest them most."
After their own research, the co-authors agree that most women today do not know their own history, and they do not begin to recognize what they have accomplished. "They are only now beginning to learn about, and appreciate, th emselves, and it's about time," the authors conclude.