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Great American Women of the Nineteenth Century: A Biographical Encyclopedia.

Francis E. Willard and Mary A. Liver-more, eds., GREAT AMERICAN WOMEN OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: A BIOGRAPHICAL ENCYCLOPEDIA. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2005. 834p. illus. index. $99.00, ISBN 1-59102-211-8.

People familiar with nineteenth-century sources on American women's history will recognize this book from the names of the editors as a reprint of a work originally published in the 1890s. Each time it's been issued, including this time, the title has been changed slightly. It began as A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred Seventy Biographical Sketches Accompanied by Portraits of Leading American Women in All Walks of Life (1893). By 1897, the title lengthened to American Women: Fifteen Hundred Biographies With Over 1400 Portraits: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of the Lives and Achievements of American Women During the Nineteenth Century, "newly revised, with the addition of a classified index; also many new biographies and recent portraits ..." According to a note in an OCLC/Worldcat record, there was also a 1901 edition called Portraits and Biographies of Prominent American Women, although there are no OCLC library holdings for that edition. In the 1960s and 1970s, the 1893 edition was reprinted by two publishers and microfilmed by two others, and the 1897 edition was reprinted once. With all of these opportunities to acquire the work, hundreds of libraries already have at least one edition, and they may not need to purchase this one. However, for those libraries that have none of them, only hold a microfilm edition, or find that their hundred-year-old text is wearing out, this is a must acquisition.

The current edition has a very interesting thirteen-page introduction, in which sociologists Patricia Lengermann and Jill Niebrugge-Brantley discuss the authorship, purpose, content, and historical context of the work and assess its usefulness today. They start with authorship, first by describing who Willard and Livermore were, how influential they both were in the nineteenth century, and how they've both sunk into relative obscurity. That may be slightly different for Wisconsin readers, with respect to Willard. Although born in New York State, this educator, suffragist, reformer, and leader of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union was raised near Janesville and attended the Milwaukee Seminary. Frances (the spelling more frequently used today for her name) is therefore claimed as a daughter of the state, appearing in virtually all works about Wisconsin women in history. Livermore, too, was a suffrage spokesperson and temperance leader, as well as a journal editor. But how much either Willard or Livermore actually had to do with editing the book is still a bit of a mystery, as are the identities of the participants in the "corps of able contributors" who actually wrote the entries. (The introduction by Leslie Shepard to the 1967 reprint of the 1893 edition does not question that Willard and Livermore were the actual editors.) According to Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley, neither Willard nor Livermore claimed public credit for the volume; perhaps mostly they lent their names to the endeavor, though the "corps" provide clues that they were people who shared Willard and Livermore's social activism. Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley quote the statement of purpose from the 1893 edition: "This book ... aims to show what women have done in the humbler as in the higher walks of life. It is a record of American women offered ... to the consideration of those who would know what the nineteenth century of Christian civilization has here brought forth ..." They agree that the manifest content of the volume supports the original aim. However, they also analyze its latent content, finding the biographies to be entirely of middle-class white women and overwhelmingly Protestant. They also note subtle digs at marriage as inhibiting wives in their activism and personal talents, and remark on the unevenness of the entries, as evidence of their authenticity and "woman's eye for the details of a life" (p.16). My only problem with the introduction is that with all these interesting themes to explore, I wish it were longer. While many historians cite the Willard and Livermore volume, a search of various databases turned up no other sustained analysis along these lines of the book as a whole.

The classified index of endeavors is weighted toward literary contributors (248), authors (178), temperance workers (122), educators (99), physicians (78) and philanthropists (73). Looking at the other end of the spectrum is equally instructive. There are two orchestra conductors, librarians, telegraph operators, violinists, historians, peace advocates, horticulturists, kindergartners (?), dress reformers, dramatists, designers, brokers, archaeologists, architects, Christian Scientists (leaders), and Delsartean (1) instructors, and only one photographer, military genius (!), spelling reformer, woodcarver, train dispatcher, social economist, pharmacist, literary secretary, dairy farmer, decorator, ethnologist, astronomer, banker, bee keeper, sanitary chemist, harpist, and dentist. The photographs are worthy of study in and of themselves. Most of the women are in their prime and wear the high-necked collars and swept-high ringlet hairdos of their time. Many are very stern or serious, but some let a smile creep up on the corners of their mouths.

When reading through the biographies, Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley enjoyed the serendipitous nuggets about nineteenth-century women's lives; some they found so intimate as to suggest that those entries were submitted by women about themselves. I found such a sketch quite readily as well. I looked up one of the Delsartean instructors, Mrs. Emily Mulkin Bishop, but first read, by mistake, the subsequent entry about Mrs. Mary Agnes Dalrymple Bishop. This Mrs. Bishop was a journalist and newspaper editor. In discussing her childhood writings, we learn that "[i]n local papers her childhood poems were printed readily, the reading of Horace Greeley's 'Recollections of a Busy Life,' in which he has some good advice for youthful writers, caused her to determine not to be tempted to allow her doggerel to be published, and for years she adhered to her determination" (p.105). Would someone writing about someone else refer to that person's early poems as doggerel? I think not. On the other hand, the life of Mrs. Lelia P. Roby is summed up as: "She is a model homemaker, a connoisseur in architecture and art, a fine linguist, thoroughly educated, and a well-read lawyer" (p. 622). This does not sound like something one would write about oneself.

I recommend delving into Great American Women of the Nineteenth Century or any of its prior editions. You will be rewarded with fascinating glimpses into the lives of educated, middle-class white women from over a century ago who made it into the work world or who cared about improving the world around them, and partially succeeded.


1. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th edition, Delsarte was an acting and singing teacher who formulated rules for coordinating voice and gestures. Entry is online at
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Author:Weisbard, Phyllis Holman
Publication:Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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