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On Heroine-Worship

Notable American Women, 1607-1950 ed. by Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James and Paul E. Boyer The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1971 2075pp., $75.00

By Elizabeth R. Fishel

OUR HEROINES, like our dreams, tell us who we are and who we hope to become. The sources of our aspirations may be hidden from us at first, mystifying, even frightening us. But we are convinced that if we could only discover them, we would finally understand ourselves. And though reading through Notable American Women to analyze our heroines can be as unsatisfying as using Freud's Interpretation to unravel our dreams, it is at least a place to start. Prepared under the auspices of Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library over the last ten years, the new biographical dictionary is modelled after the Dictionary of American Biography (which includes no more than 700 biographies of women out of nearly 15,000 entries). Notable American Women presents 1359 women whose lives and careers have had significant impact on American life. Only the wives of presidents are admitted on their husbands' credentials alone: all the other women distinguished themselves by their ideas and actions--in the arts, in the sciences, in religion and reform, in business and philanthropy. The biographers are noted scholars themselves--Anne Firor Scott on Jane Addams, Allan Nevins on Jessie Benton Fremont, Leon Edel on Willa Cather and Alice James.

The entries date back to 1607, and the most recent are women who died in 1950 (thus excluding such perennial favorites as Helen Keller, Zelda Fitzgerald, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Marilyn Monroe). Still, the dictionary is a treasury of role-models, drawn clearly enough for those who have trouble naming an American woman they admire but detailed enough for those who are already champions of "herstory."

The biographies have common format and themes. Each begins with a brief description of the woman's family background, often emphasizing a father's influence on a daughter whom he wished had been a son. Then follows a chronological description of the woman's development and professional achievements, an account of her death and finally an appraisal of her social contribution. Within this framework, the similarities of individual struggles become apparent, full of unvoiced political implications: the laborious process of finding an identity, overcoming social prejudices, becoming proficient in a vocation and finally winning recognition--and always, the difficulties of working out a satisfying personal life.

Recently many of us have begun informally and in academic circles discussing the lives of women in history in order to discover these social and political patterns. But leafing through the volumes of Notable American Women. I was often astounded by the portraits of women whom I had considered heroines over the years, and began to wonder what had led me to admire them and why so often my image of them conflicted with reality.

Half-baked legends had prompted many of my misconceptions and a series of little Bobbs-Merrill books called The Childhood of Famous Americans completed them. In these orange covered, mini-biographies, no one ever grew old. Girls never became women, so their lives held endless promise undisturbed by disappointment or hardships. The heroines of my childhood fancies all shared a certain limited raciness; they were only daring within someone else's defined scheme of success--a pushy mother's, a family's, a colony's. All were more or less national heroines, eager to make the most of the status quo, but not to change it dramatically.

LOUISA MAY ALCOTT was the first of these childhood heroines. I always associated her with her autobiographical creation. Jo March, eldest of the Little Women, and the two fused as a symbol of dashing individuality and creativity within the loving constraints of the family. When I was eight, I thought nothing could be more glorious than the way Louisa Mary-Jo hid herself in a garret, recording the tearful story of her family's adventures, and then secretly sold the novel to make money to give to her family. In retrospect, I realize that this picture was as deceptively rosy as the rouge on Amy March's cheeks. Not only do Alcott's books celebrate the saccharine virtues of the middle-class home, but they falsify the bleakness of the novelist's own life, particularly as she got older. "Success brought her little contentment," says biographer David Smith. "Periods of elation alternated with depression and exhaustion."

Similar misconceptions distorted the images of my other childhood heroines. I once envisioned the daring aviator, Amelia Earhart, in helmet and goggles to be at least as regal as Joan of Arc. Now I read how she crashed to an ambiguous death in the Pacific, amid rumors that she was on a secret espionage mission against Japan. And I read that Pocahontas, after heroically saving John Smith, eventually married a settler she may not even have loved, only to die in England three years later--just twenty-five--overcome by a bitter winter. And I pictured Lotta Crabtree, the actress of the Wild West, dancing on tables in miners' saloons showered with coins and nuggets. But Janet Wilson James's biography dims the glamour by describing her tribulations--a stage-door mother, type-casting that kept her playing children's parts till the end of her career, and an increasingly lonely old age.

The heroines of my adolescence were artists, rather than adventure-seekers. I admired their creations and their professionalism rather than their personal lives, of which I often knew little beyond the myth of la vie boheme. I looked at Mary Cassatt's Impressionis paintings, I mooned over Emily Dickinson's poems, absurdly imitated Isadora Duncan's dances, and I rea a little Gertrude Stein, mostly impressed that any woman could be quite so charismatic and commanding. I respected their sensitivity without really wondering how they kept their flame going during the crises of everyday life.

Here again, the biographies prove enlightening, for they emphasize the women's struggles to learn and achieve recognition in a craft, as well as the sweet smell of their success; they record the traumas as well as the blessings that haunt the artistic soul. Biographer Frederick Sweet, for instance, describes the decade of apprenticeship which Mary Cassatt had to endure before Degas asked her to exhibit with the Impressionists. Later, Sweet adds how Cassatt's work deteriorated as she grew blind near the end of her life, and then, a bit ungenerously, how "friends from America found her querulous and vindictive." Albert Gelpi's portrait of Emily Dickinson similarly examines how the poet learned "the Transport by the Pain--As Blind Men learn the Sun!" and reminds us that despite her astonishing outpouring of poems (366 in 1862, 174 in 1864) only seven were published in her lifetime. Annette Baxter has little trouble recreating the disturbed melodrama of Isadora Duncan's career, recently popularized by Vanessa Redgrave--the erratic public acceptance of her work, the flamboyance of her marriages and the tragedies of her children's deaths and her own. And finally, Douglas Day helps to debunk the image of Gertrude Stein as blue-stocking and "great Jewish Buddha," by quoting Braque's comment that "Miss Stein understood nothing of what went on around her." Admitting that this judgment may be too harsh. Day concludes that Stein was an intelligent and lucky opportunist, "clever enough to make herself indispensable to those at the center."

MY MOST RECENT heroines have differed from the earlier breeds both in accomplishments and awakening feminist consciousness. They are often activists rather than artists; they perceive the imitations of their lives as women and struggle to break their own chains and their sisters'. Unlike their adventure-seeking predecessors, these women want to reform, even revolutionize the status quo--the Transcendentalist critic Margaret Fuller who combined Transcendental spirituality and practical agitation in her notorious Conversations and in Woman in the Nineteenth Century; the ex-slave Sojourner Truth who infused abolition and agitation for women's rights with her own "strange powers"; the anarchist Emma Goldman who pioneered the advocacy of birth control and tried to integrate Peter Kropotkin's emphasis on the community with Henrik Ibsen's emphasis on the strong, independent individual. Even the novelist Kate Chopin, though by no means a political agitator, transcended the school of local color in The Awakening, challenged the constraints of marriage and, profoundly questioned the "relationship for sensitive women between art, love, and fulfillment."

Having recently studied these women's lives and contributions, I was not started by their portrayals in the dictionary. I could enjoy Warner Berthoff's warm appraisal of Margaret Fuller and Richard Drinnon's spirited account of Emma Goldman without feeling the need to overlook these heroine's blunders or separate their work from their lives. For those of us who have already begun independently to study women's history, the dictionary should reinforce our dedication. For others it should provide a sound base for that scholarship.

The book is not without drawbacks. Its price is prohibitive for any woman who is neither a librarian nor fabulously wealthy. The editors have neglected to include an index of contributing biographers, thus preventing easy cross-reference or any evaluation of the balance of male and female scholars, (though I suspect the latter were a bit slighted). And I caught a few shocking bits of biased male scholarship, like "Emily Dickinson was extremely feminine in her aversion to intellectual abstraction and speculative argument." Sometimes the biographers are also annoying in their effort to bestow superlatives: the greatest writer or actress or one of the twelve greatest living women.

A dictionary of this scope must understandably concern itself only with the "greatest women," praising their "greatness" and treading more gingerly on their failures. It becomes our own responsibility, then, to find out about the millions of women excluded from the dictionary, women whose lives may have meaning for our own, though they have fallen short of "greatness"--maybe they are our own ancestors, our school teachers, women who have taught us to play the piano, to read Russian or to swim. These notable women are as much a part of our lives as are our heroines, and until we understand them as well as the dictionary characters, we cannot call ourselves sisters.

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