Original Zins: Little thoughts on biography and women's history

dame-desprit.jpgAs in other history subfields, there is a great deal of contemporary interest in biography among women’s historians.  At the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women this year, we have two panels, a workshop, and a seminar on women’s biography and feminist autobiography, with a total of 32 scholars presenting their work or commenting on the proceedings (program available here).  When we announced that a seminar on women’s history and biography would be led by Judith Zinsser, co-author (with Bonnie Anderson) of the two-volume foundational work in European women’s history, A History of Their Own (1988, rev. 2000), and most recently the author of La Dame d’Esprit:  A Biography of the Marquise du Chatelet (Viking/Penguin, 2006), we were deluged with applications.  So, clearly biography is hot, and I expect that these sessions will attract throngs of other women’s historians who are working on biographies of their own.

But, are women’s history and biography compatable genres?  After all, biography is a genre of history that argues implicitly, if not explicitly, that men of action and vision are the great actors on history’s stage.  (See for example this thread over at Edge of the American West asking for names of heretofore obscure people who have changed American history.  When Historiann wrote in with women’s names, her suggestions were greeted by…a chorus of chirping crickets!  There were other women’s names tossed in later, but all of them–Lucy Stone, Margaret Sanger, Rachel Carson, the Grimke sisters–have had at least one biographer, and their places are assured in the women’s history cannon.)  So historians, who are prisoners of the text anyway, end up writing biographies of elite men who enjoyed the privilege of literacy, the time to record their thoughts in journals and letters, and the means to ensure that their papers didn’t end up lining shoes or at the bottom of a privy after their deaths.  (This is especially true of biographies of people who lived before 1800, when the politics of American literacy guaranteed that very few female, brown, and/or working-class people had either the education or the time for writing.) 


Zinsser is a pathbreaking scholar who has written frankly and compellingly about the challenges of feminist biography, and how the subjectivity of the author and her times inevitably and unavoidably influence her scholarship.  She was a guest blogger over at the Penguin Group blog last month–click here to read her reflections on her life and the life of Emilie du Chatelet, the great mathematician, Enlightenment salonniere, and the translator of the authoritative French version of Newton’s Principia.  (Zinsser’s book is now available in paperback as Emilie du Chatelet:  Daring Genius of the Enlightenment, shown here.)  Let us–Judith Zinsser and Historiann–know what you think in the comments.  Does women’s history demand a reconceptualization of biography?  Is there a difference between feminist biography and women’s biography?  What are some of the best women’s biographies that you have read, and why do you think they were successful?  If you are contemplating or writing a biography of a woman now, what are your challenges?  How do literacy politics and power play into the period and region of the world you work in, and how do they shape your agenda as a scholar?

0 thoughts on “Original Zins: Little thoughts on biography and women's history

  1. I read this post this morning and thought to leave a comment, but wasn’t certain what to say.

    Because it seems that most of the books I read are by and about men, I thought of a comic reference to a line in a Bob Dylan song: “you don’t read woman authors, do you.” But, then, I looked at my bookshelf and was reminded how many students praised the autobiography Mankiller: A Chief and Her People when I made them read it and write a paper in response. I also thought of my lecture notes on Seattle and the Klondike Gold Rush that I expanded and revised in light of Staking Her Claim: The Life of Belinda Mulrooney, Klondike & Alaska Entrepreneur.

    I also thought I might have something to say remembering the good time my partner and I had last week reading about the fall of Richard Nixon, as I read to her passages from Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time, which she answered with passages from Katharine Graham, Personal History. Some of the agreements between these two authors were simply astounding.

    I didn’t think that these thoughts would lead to an intelligent reply of the sort that Historiann’s excellent questions deserve, so I desisted. But, I was compelled to reply due to our exchange in response to post yesterday at Patriots and Peoples, The
    True Story of Pocahontas

    The oral history rooted text on Pocahontas that I discuss briefly certainly merits some consideration as a novel approach to women’s biography. Pocahontas was central to the survival of the English in North America, or to the stories that render such survival predestined, yet very little is known of her life, and most of what is known fits Mark Twain’s observation:

    “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”


  2. Well I am certainly not an expert on biographies, but I would hazard to guess that the biggest problem with women’s biographies is that American women tend to be famous for either being saints or sinners. Americans glorify the lives of social reformers or authors that represent domestic, middle-class, “American” values-think Betsy Ross, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ida B. Wells, Rachel Carson, the Grimke sisters, while women outside this norm are equally famous for their delinquency, there’s neurotic wives of presidents, Mary Lincoln, prostitutes, Polly Adler, or just plain radicals like Margaret Sanger. Thus, biographers catering to general audiences in the United States are forced to address elementary and outdated madonna/whore complexes. Americans still seem to think that the choices of famous men are some how more grippingly complicated.


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  4. Ooh ooh, biographers! You’ll have a bunch of biographers cornered? I have suggestions —- mainly as I need biographies but hate the thought of having to write them for myself.

    Please have them write full-length scholarly biographies of: Ann Petry, Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, Yolande Du Bois, oh, and Dorothy Parker, Anita Loos, Lois Weber … I have more.

    And if any of them decide to write an umpteen-millionth biography of Virginia Woolf instead, please shoot them.


  5. Mary makes a good point–for a Protestant country, the U.S. seems to have a raging Madonna/Whore complex.

    Sis, I have to say that I’m surprised to hear that there has been no biography of Zora Neale Hurston–but it looks like there’s been only 1 major bio, in addition to a more recent lavishly illustrated authorized biography. Surely Parker has had a literary biography–no?

    I wonder if we need to consider the sub-genres of biography here–literary biographies presuppose that an author wrote some pretty terrific or important things, a supposition that works very well with a feminist viewpoint. I can think of a number of great feminist literary biographies–Diane Wood Middlebrook’s now 15-year old book on Anne Sexton, for example. As Mary suggests, the conventions of American historical biography may force its women subjects into a narrower range of possibilities. (Is American historical biography in the main political biography, and therefore it’s harder to see women as the subjects? Even great recent feminist biographies like Nell Painter’s Sojourner Truth fits into the category of a political biography, as does the Mankiller bio and some of the recent Pocahontas stuff that James mentions.)


  6. Okay, I don’t have much to say on the discussion about biography and women’s history, but I thought this was as good a place as any to note that one historically important female judicial figure got TOTALLY disrespected during the Republican debates last night.

    All four candidates summarily dismissed Sandra Day O’Conner’s appointment as unworthy, due to her not being fervantly pro-life in her rulings. They didn’t even bother to add a perfunctory, “but she was an important, respected legal figure and a pathbreaker for women.”

    Do they KNOW that O’Connor graduated second in her law class only to former Chief Justice Rehnquist, and while he had a choice of plum jobs as a young attorney, her only employment opportunities were secretarial? I’ll bet she could kick these losers’ asses in any courtroom.

    And these guys couldn’t find it in their hearts to give a nod to the first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court?

    Not like I was going to vote for any of these bozos anyway, but I thought they might show a little — what’s the word — class or respect… It just demonstrates that that in appointing O’Conner, Reagan, for all his wrongness, was actually more progressive than the conservatives claiming his legacy all these years later.

    O’Conner’s fellow Arizonan Barry Goldwater must be turning in his grave to see JOhn McCain out-pandering his competition to win the hearts of the religious right.

    My message to the candidates, in the words of my third grader: “YOU ALL SUCK!”


  7. That’s a great point, formeroxfordian–I didn’t see the debate so I don’t know how O’Connor’s name came up. In any case, I thought that Souter was the conservatives’ bete noir of SC justices appointed by Republican presidents.

    O’Connor was a really pathbreaking figure, but because her biography was inconvenient/out of step with modern conservative ideology, it’s all down the memory hole. I have heard her talk about how she was only offered secretarial jobs after coming out of Stanford Law with honors, and had to *volunteer* in a law office before she could secure paid employment. How tragic it will be if her (voluntary!) departure from the Court and replacement by Samuel Alito leads to the undoing of all manner of women’s civil rights. She resigned for a reason no man has ever used in leaving the court (so far as I know–no many in recent history anyway)–she had to care for a sick family member. But as I understand it, her husband (who suffers from Alzheimer’s I think) was already too far gone by the time she left the Court to enjoy or appreciate her retirement. Tragic all the way around.

    Pretty crummy for a fellow Arizonan too, to shank O’Connor like that. (An Arizonan who graduated at the BOTTOM of his class at Annapolis!)


  8. Not biographies, exactly, but I have been reading, loving, and looking foward to teaching some amazing women’s diaries such as Ulrich’s /The Midwife’s Tale/ or Deese’s /Daughter of Boston/. Ulrich’s is a particularly fascinating book because the diary is so spare that she has provided a detailed reconstruction & interpretation of the author’s life. I love these books as models for a way of telling the lives of women that does not resort to the dry, third-person framework of a biography but relies much more centrally on the women’s own writing.


  9. Pardon me for pushing the point but The Politico ran an article about Republican women getting offended by their candidates’ dismissal of history-making Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner in the debate earlier this week:

    One point of contention was the candidates’ descriptions of retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. When asked if Ronald Reagan was right to appoint O’Connor to the Supreme Court, the candidates generally dodged the question.

    “This is a history-making woman, and they all said such terrible things,” said Katherine. “That made me feel like none of them were thinking, ‘Well, that’s going to offend some women out there.’”

    And although they said they wouldn’t vote for Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, they respected her historical position.

    “I don’t think I’ll vote for her, because I don’t agree with her policies,” said Joy. “But it is a monumental step that a woman as strong as she is has come as far as she has.”

    Could it be that independent and moderate women who don’t agree with Clinton’s policies might decide to support her after all, when no one is looking?


  10. Good for those Republican women, recognizing that they’re getting kicked in the teeth.

    I’ve wondered that myself about independent and moderate Republican women. Do you think women may diss Hillary when they’re around men who support either Obama or McCain/Romney, but then they may secretly pull the lever for the old girl? Kind of the opposite of the “Bradley effect” for African American candidates, maybe? (Or maybe just enough to counteract the people who will vote against Hillary just because they’re uncomfortable with ambitious women.)


  11. I’ll add to Bittersweet Girl’s remark by saying that I think Midwife’s Tale is actually excellent biography that radicalizes the form. Ulrich crossed the document editing of reproducing the diary with some very long commentary that is, essentially, biography. The author of the diary and the historian seem to collaborate across several centuries to produce the final product.

    The problem with biography is that it does tend toward that Great Man paradigm, and the more popular (as opposed to academic) the biography the more that is true. So the entire genre should really be re-thought to make it useful as something other than a sophisticated form of hero-worship.

    Yet, I still think that biography is a useful tool, if done correctly. Historical monographs are describing ideas and events from a collective perspective. Biography focuses on the individual’s experience of what those monographs describe. How does a particular person, whether famous, extraordinary, or one of the crowd, participate and make sense of their period of time? How do they negotiate their multiple identities? If they are extraordinary in some way, what conditions in their lives or personalities allowed them to become extraordinary? What might that say about the opportunities or limits for others of their class, gender, race, or whatever factor might be of importance? Also, sometimes the lives of extraordinary people can show, by contrast, the lives of the ordinary people.

    Perhaps I should add that I’ve written a biography myself, and that I seem to be working my way toward writing another one.


  12. Thanks for visiting Clio, and sorry to read about your Unfortunate Events! Clio is too modest, but she’s got an amazing set of blog posts on Frederick Douglass’s sister Ruth over on her blog. I’ve been meaning to catch up and leave some comments there–will do so later this weekend.

    I agree that Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale is a revolutionary biography of someone who was overlooked for years by male genealogists and historians. However, it’s a pretty conservative book in that it’s very much invested in seeing Martha Ballard in a “Separate Sphere” apart from “men’s business,” a strange decision when after all it’s politics–Ephraim’s and Martha’s loyalist politics–that got them ridden out of town on a rail in their 50s and forced to start over on the Maine frontier in the 1780s. I think I like Nell Painter’s 1996 bio of Sojourner Truth better, but then it’s not a stretch to see Truth as a political creature, and therefore as one who conforms more to the “Great Man” paradigm. So, Painter’s book is a more traditional bio in that sense.


  13. Thank you so much for the promotion (and the sympathy)!

    I’m not done with Ruth, yet, either. I would LOVE your input.

    I have to admit that I’m in the middle of re-reading Midwife’s Tale after far too long and am seeing that Separate Sphere aspect in a much different light than I did a decade ago. What I’ve read and what has been written since about the ways that women constructed and asserted their own political identities would take a similar type of biography much further.

    It was more in the way that she put the biography together that I found radical rather than in the content. Also, as a psuedo-former-archivist, I found the way that she essentially said “here’s a document that you guys have dismissed, here’s the story it tells, and here is why that story is important” wonderful. I had many a fight in as an archival student and employee over just such an issue!


  14. I am terribly late to this party, having just found your blog a few weeks ago, and am now working through your archives. Wonderful stuff.

    I’m an amateur women’s historian and English teacher. I’m always looking for ways to mine the data for lessons for my adult education and public school classrooms. I think it’s critical to get the information out there. I got this “hobby” by taking a class on women’s history in college, wherein I learned about so many fantastic and important political players, women I had never been introduced to before. It instantly turned me from a lack-luster cultural feminist into a proper political feminist. I still get teary eyed thinking about my ignorance previously. My thirst for that knowledge has never died.

    As far as biography goes, I like it as a genre, but I agree that it has problems in the presentation. The focus is often so narrow. What I would like to see, and what I don’t see much of, are historical books that cover ranges of history and a cast of characters, and historical narratives. Scholarly historical work I can find, but it’s not very presentable to people without specific knowledge of that discipline, and it’s often difficult to draw out the story, if there is one. I’d also like to see curriculum development for women’s history at all ages. I have to create all my lessons myself.


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