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  • How to Make It as a Woman: Collective Biographical History from Victoria to the Present
  • Mary Ellis Gibson (bio)
Alison Booth . How to Make It as a Woman: Collective Biographical History from Victoria to the Present. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004. 423 pp. ISBN 0-226-06546-4, $25.00.

Alison Booth's hefty and enlightening volume, How to Make it as a Woman: Collective Biographical History from Victoria to the Present, has an ambitious double agenda. Booth has compiled a thorough bibliography of collective biographies of women published in English between 1830 and 1940. From this important effort she derives a typology of biographical subjects and an interpretive frame for understanding the cultural work of such biography.

The first thing that strikes a reader of How to Make It as a Woman is the scale of Booth's work. This is best understood by reading back to front. The bibliographical appendix begins with a "Chronological Selection of Early Examples" of collective biography, from Plutarch's Mulierum virtutes to Felicia Hemans's Records of Woman (1828). The central bibliographical list, from which Booth draws her examples, is an exhaustive catalog of 930 entries, comprising "an inventory of books published in English between 1830 and 1940 that present three or more women's lives in more than skeletal outline" (347). Booth excludes reference works generally, but includes some biographical collections in the form of poetry, drama, lectures, and historiography.

The printed version of Booth's bibliography contains shortened titles, and omits variations in title and annotations. These are provided in Booth's complete online resource, "Annotated Bibliography of Collective Biographies of Women," which is searchable and may be accessed at The electronic resource includes fuller identification of authors, contents, and description of the included volumes. As Booth notes, her study and the print bibliography accompanying it provide a gateway, as well as a ready reference, to the larger bibliography.

In addition to the extraordinary labor of compiling this extensive biography, Booth and her graduate students have gone a further step in providing some statistical analysis of these materials. Her first appendix provides a chronological index of these collective biographies, revealing, for example, a [End Page 344] broad rise in the number of such collections published annually over the period she covers, but with significant peaks in the 1850s and again in the 1890s. As she observes, flurries of female collective biography "coincide with periods of economic prosperity, public agitation for rights, and newly minted celebrity careers" (29).

Still more fun—and a key to the typology that organizes Booth's study—is her "Pop Chart: Most Common Subjects from Nonspecialized Collections." I won't go into the details of her method here, but suffice it to say that Booth has measured the popularity of female biographical subjects in general collections from 1850 to 1930, a form of content analysis focusing on the fame of good women. She divides her pop chart into handy categories, "Areas of Renown/Fame," and to a large degree these categories provide a typology of goodness/achievement (or occasionally notoriety) that reveals much about nineteenth-century ways of thinking gender.

At the top of the "Pop Chart," in a category by herself, is Joan of Arc, who can only be called a "paragon." She is the single most popular figure in these collective biographies. As Booth remarks, Joan combines "sanctity with the functions of reform, revolution, and adventure (including combat), as well as the historical prominence of the queens and women of rank. To have placed her in 'religious mission' would have catapulted that category to the top, misrepresenting the other more perishable models listed there" (396). After the paragon come in descending order of importance, philanthropy/reform (Elizabeth Fry, Hannah More); nursing reform (Florence Nightingale, Sister Dora); queens/rank (Victoria, Lady Jane Grey); literature (Charlotte Brontë, Louisa May Alcott); role in revolution (Lady Rachel Russell, Madame de Staël); arts (Jenny Lind, Rosa Bonheur); rescue/adventure/exhibit (Pocahantas, Grace Darling); science/learning (Caroline Herschel, Harriet Martineau); religious mission (Ann Haseltine Judson, Monica). The examples I have listed here represent only the platinum and gold records of each...


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