IN HER first foray into female biography, British novelist (Georgy Girl) and biographer (Thackeray) Margaret Forster provides an easy introduction to women's history through brief biographies of eight important and engaging English and American feminists. The Americans include Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to meet male standards to practice medicine; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who launched the woman suffrage campaign in 1848; and Margaret Sanger, the birth control pioneer. Less well known to American readers will be the British entries: Caroline Norton, who challenged English laws forbidding married women property rights, maternal custody of children, and divorce; Florence Nightingale, who established the nursing profession; Emily Davies, who founded Girton College at Cambridge and assured access to equal university education for Englishwomen; and Josephine Butler, who attempted to change laws and attitudes about prostitutes as well as the double standard of Victorian morality. The eighth woman is anarchist immigrant and exile Emma Goldman.
By calling each of these women "first in her field," Forster has imposed on the book a construct too rigid for the reality of such lives. Each entry is supposed to represent a single sphere of activity which improved women's lives -- politics, medicine, education -- without allowing for the multiple interests of these women leaders. Heralding Goldman as the "first Feminist ideologue" ignores the roles of Stanton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Similarly, identifying Stanton only with suffrage overlooks the farsighted scope of her revolution against male authority in law, medicine, and religion. The omission of any black woman of comparable status, such as Mary McLeod Bethune, is also surprising.
The similarities among these heroines, although not made explicit, are intriguing. Seven of them were the daughters of dominant fathers, most of whom encouraged opportunities and achievements unusual for girls. Five of them married, but only one (Josephine Butler) made a match with a man who supported her crusade. Four had children and another, unmarried (Elizabeth Blackwell), adopted a daughter. All of them struggled to balance public and private roles. All of them evidence enormous anger rooted in the circumstances of their own lives and their empathy for the lives of other women, whether married or mothers, indigent or immigrant, prostitutes or pioneers.
Based on diaries, letters, autobiographies, and unpublished dissertations, each entry is thoroughly documented, if not always factually accurate. (The Stanton chapter contains 14 errors.) Fortunately, the colorful personalities of the subjects serve to break the repetitive pattern of presentation and differentiate each heroine. Especially memorable are the gorgeous Mrs. Norton, continuing to appear at London balls while her reputation was debated in court; the feisty Stanton, seated at her dining room table surrounded by seven children, forging thunderbolts for women's rights; the difficult Dr. Blackwell, driven by jealousy of her siblings; the free- loving Sanger, who abandoned husband and children in her fight for legal birth control.
FORSTER's purpose was two-fold: to use these life-stories to illustrate progress for women and to trace the development of feminist ideology. Unfortunately, her explanation is sophomoric rather than sophisticated. Forster's self-imposed format, her preference for description rather than analysis, her lack of methodology, and her failure to place her characters in a wider historical context undermine her achievement.
For example, in describing Elizabeth Blackwell's efforts to gain admittance to medical training and practice, Forster does not provide any background. She does not mention that women dominated medical care as healers, witches, midwives, and caregivers prior to the institutionalization of medical training and the legal exclusion of women by men. She notes the irony that few women entered obstetrics, yet she fails to note that women were more likely to explore new fields like pediatrics, anesthesiology, and public health than to attempt entry into areas already dominated by men.
In claiming that nursing was the first profession for women, Forster overlooks generations of teachers. Nor does she incorporate established conclusions about women and work: that women created new fields like social work, kindergarten teaching, and librarianship, rather than compete in a male-dominated sphere; and that whenever women became the majority in a profession previously occupied by men (teachers, secretaries, nurses), both their salary and status declined.
In another example of an incorrect conclusion, Forster asserts that both reformers and conservatives wanted to improve women's education. In fact, the struggle to expand educational opportunities for women epitomized the mid-19th century conflict over defining appropriate roles for women. Reformers like Emily Davies in England and Emma Willard, Mary Lyon, and M. Carey Thomas in the United States believed that women had equal mental capacity and could undertake the same curriculum offered male students. In contrast, opponents believed that studying Latin or logic or algebra would engender hysteria and render women infertile.
Recently we observed Women's History Week, celebrating the strength and viability of an academic discipline now more than 15 years old. Perhaps women's history is still in a nascent period in England, accounting for the lack of depth in Forster's narrative. Nonetheless, carried by the appeal of its subjects, Significant Sisters offers a tempting introduction to women's history and its heroines. It provokes novices and experts alike to probe further into a burgeoning, intriguing and important field of inquiry.