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History gets a woman's touch

Editor Susan Ware has made it her career to rescue notable women from the obscurity created by gender discrimination.

June 02, 2004|Bob Thompson | Washington Post

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — It hardly seems like the gateway to immortality, this shabby temporary office just off Brattle Street, with its barren white walls and its sweating overhead pipes. But if you were the ghost of Erma Bombeck, Ayn Rand, Wilma Rudolph, Margaret Chase Smith, Tammy Wynette or any other accomplished female American who died in the last quarter of the 20th century, you might well be hovering here, peering anxiously over Susan Ware's shoulder, hoping to spot your name on one of the nearly 500 slips of paper tacked to a bulletin board.

Ware is the editor of the latest volume in the "Notable American Women" series, which is scheduled for publication late this year. A biographical dictionary published initially by Harvard University Press in 1971, "Notable" was conceived as a scholarly antidote to the neglect of women in American historical writing. But it has also become a "who's in/who's out" filtering exercise in which Ware and assistant editor Stacy Braukman play history's handmaidens.

A quick glance at the bulletin board reveals such diverse notables as comedian Lucille Ball and social activist Dorothy Day; dancer Martha Graham and civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer; actress Rita Hayworth and anthropologist Margaret Mead.

Keep glancing and you'll run into the likes of Bette Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Dian Fossey, Barbara Jordan, Georgia O'Keeffe and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. And yes, Bombeck, Rand, Rudolph, Smith and Wynette.

Even more interesting, however, are some names you're less likely to know.

Take Dorothy Arzner, the only woman to regularly direct Hollywood films in the heyday of the studio system. Or Pauli Murray, a multitalented lawyer and writer who bridged the gap between civil rights and women's rights, then became the first African American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. Or Brownie Wise, the entrepreneur who taught Earl Tupper how to sell Tupperware.

Or take one of Ware's personal favorites: the scientist who studied roaches.

As she learned more about women's mid-20th century scientific careers, Ware says, she began to see a pattern of scientists marrying each other and forming lifelong professional partnerships. "But what happens is, because of nepotism rules, the women never get the academic appointments," she says. "And so you have them working together in a lab -- it's his lab, and the wife is an unpaid research associate."

By way of illustration, she mentions Berta Vogel Scharrer, whose collaboration with her husband, Ernst, greatly advanced the nascent field of neuroendocrinology. The Scharrers had made a joint decision to follow the paid/unpaid pattern, Ware says, but this meant that Berta didn't get research funding and had trouble acquiring subjects for her experiments.

No problem.

The basement of their lab offered plenty of cockroaches, and the work proceeded.

Beyond queens, mistresses

It's easy to forget that women were barely considered part of the historical narrative until just a few decades ago.

Oh, you'd run into some powerful queens and influential mistresses in the textbooks, plus the occasional exception (Susan B. Anthony, Joan of Arc) from other walks of life. But as recently as the 1950s and '60s, when the original "Notable American Women" project was gearing up, history was assumed to be a record of the activities of men, with the defining of it largely a male prerogative.

This notion began to be seriously challenged in the early 1970s. And "Notable" came along at the perfect time to help.

The idea was first proposed in 1955 by Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. (not to be confused with his Harvard historian son, Arthur Jr.). The elder Schlesinger "had long deplored scholars' neglect of women's history," wrote Edward and Janet James in the preface to the three-volume, 2,075-page work, whose 1,359 meticulously researched biographical essays they spent more than a decade commissioning and editing.

Like the Scharrers, the Jameses were an academic couple for whom the wife's career was secondary. Yet Janet James contributed the ambitious introductory essay that attempted to synthesize 350 years of women's history, ending it with the cautiously worded prediction that "the future might well witness a larger, long-term commitment to the world outside the home."

By the time those first volumes came out in 1971, the so-called "second wave" of feminism -- whose origin is often dated to the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" -- had started rocking America's sociocultural boat. In profession after profession, women began forcing their way through previously barred doors. The study of history proved no exception, though the first women through those doors didn't have an easy time of it.

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