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Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 120-121

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Book Review

Notable Women in World History: A Guide to Recommended Biographies and Autobiographies

Notable Women in World History: A Guide to Recommended Biographies and Autobiographies. By Lynda G. Adamson. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing, 1998. Pp. xiv + 393. $49.50 (cloth).

Lynda G. Adamson, a professor of literature, has specialized in writing guides to literature and historical fiction for secondary-school classes. She has used this experience and these reference skills in the creation of Notable Women in World History, an invaluable resource for those wishing to incorporate women into their world history courses at the university, community college, or secondary-school level. Although Jennifer S. Uglow's International Dictionary of Women's Biography (rev. ed., New York: Continuum, 1989) remains the most inclusive biographical reference work, Adamson's guide is also extremely useful. It gives information on 500 prominent women from around the world and offers the unique feature of annotated references to biographies, autobiographies, diaries, and letters for each entry.

These references suggest many potential additions to course syllabi. For example, Penguin has issued a translation of the Japanese [End Page 120] novelist Lady Murasaki's diary for the year 1008-1009, a primary source that could be used for the first half of world history surveys. Heinemann has published the Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta's autobiography, Head above Water, a wonderful addition to world history courses on the twentieth century. In addition, three appendices facilitate the identification of subjects and readings for particular eras, cross-cultural topics, and regions. These appendices categorize the women according to date of birth, by occupation (or how they have been identified in general history texts), and by country of birth.

As to caveats? Nothing is easier for a world historian than to criticize a biographical dictionary: "Why include this person and not...?" Specialists can argue: "Why this biography and not...?" Adamson must be commended for the process and the criteria she used in creating this reference guide. They seem eminently practical given the limitations set by the publisher (500 entries), and the vastness of the enterprise (pick from half of the world's population). Even so, this process and these criteria have consequences that readers should be aware of. Adamson began by eliminating women born in the United States. She then compiled a list of 1,000 women drawn from general biographical dictionaries (predominantly sources for men's biographies). To cut the number down even further, she limited the bibliographical search to those for whom full-length biographies have been published in English since 1970. A traditional definition of "notable" brought some women back onto the list with references to their own writings as resources.

The result is a set of entries skewed in two ways. First, women from western and eastern Europe, active in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, predominate. Second, writers, activists and political leaders, and entertainers (including musicians, actors, dancers, and so on) are significantly more numerous than any of the other occupational categories identified. Ideally, the United States should not be omitted from "world" history. Ideally, works in languages other than English should be cited. Ideally, the perspective of women's historians and their more varied definitions of "achievement" would broaden the male-oriented definition of "notable." But, as Adamson so rightly indicates in her introduction: "Readers wondering about the exclusion of a particular woman from these pages should look for biographies about her, find that none exist in English, and then amend the omission by either translating an existing biography or researching her life and writing afresh in English." This is a suitable challenge for world historians.

Judith P. Zinsser
Miami University