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Alison Booth, How to Make It as a Woman: Collective Biographical History from Victoria to the Present (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2004, $25.00, 424 pages, ISBN 0-226-06546-4)—Diana Dominguez, The University of Texas-Brownsville/Texas Southmost College



As a feminist scholar, it was impossible to pass up the opportunity to review a book with such an intriguing title. Perhaps because of the specter of Victoria and Victorianism that its subtitle implied, I expected a fascinating overview of etiquette, manners, and conduct books for women and girls that proliferated in both Britain and America in the late 1800s through the early- to mid-1950s—the kind of reading that undergrads (and quite a few grads) find so amusingly shocking from the safety of their thoroughly modern western world. Instead, Alison Booth's How to Make It as a Woman turned out to be an enlightening and empowering survey of prosopographies (collective biographical histories), published in Britain and the United States between 1830 and 1940, of notable women who either worked within or openly defied the strictures of their societal roles or class status. On the one hand, Booth's book dispelled the last remnants of my apparently still lingering stereotypical assumptions of Victorian attitudes and strict gender spheres. On another hand, her study has affirmed and confirmed my own and others' research in ancient, classical, and medieval periods that increasingly reveals that women were not quite as invisible or silent as previously thought and frequently lamented by feminist scholars. Any scholar with an interest in women's or feminist studies, Victorian through early twentieth-century social aspects, especially changing gender and class roles, or the genre of biography and its sub-genre of collective biographies will find How to Make It as a Woman a valuable research source as well as an entertaining and absorbing read. It has given me new avenues of research to pursue in my own field of women's historiography, and it should do the same for others who delve into this book.


Booth's book is divided into an introduction that accomplishes several aims, seven chapters that each focus on biographical collections examined according to specific criteria (i.e. type of women featured, stated or implied purpose of compilation, rhetorical patterns emerging from the collected biographies, theoretical/critical approaches to analyzing the collections, and/or historical/social context of the biographies), and a bibliography of the more than 900 published collections she analyzed for her project. She also includes an appendix that shows a chronological publishing history between 1830 and 1940, which attests to the popularity of collective biographies of women and belies the claim that women were missing from the canons of biographical publications, and a table listing the popularity of certain figures by the frequency in which they appeared in various biographical collections. The introduction gives readers a useful, informative, and clear framework through which to read the rest of the chapters as well as understand the historical place of collective biographies in what Booth calls nation-building and women's place in establishing that national identity.


Booth provides a thorough but not overwhelming history and definition of prosopography, including non-print forms of collective biography like monuments, murals, memorials, and other sculptural or artistic representations of famous, honorable, heroic, or otherwise memorable figures. Her discussion of both traditional and alternative forms of prosopography leads into an examination of their value to feminist and women's studies, which, she explains, have not paid sufficient attention to the form:

In form and function, the hundreds of collections of female biographies might be the lost ancestors of late twentieth-century women's studies […]. The collection of representative life narratives has contributed to each phase of debate about women's roles and rights since early modern times. Catalogs of notable women have flourished in plain view for centuries, while generation after generation laments the absence of women of the past. [3]

She clearly makes a case with her own study of how much can be added to the understanding of women's place in history and their impact (both subtle and overt) on defining a woman's ever-changing place and role in society. As a feminist scholar myself, engaged in the effort of shedding new light on ancient and medieval women (away from the traditional oppressed/victim studies), I share the sentiment Booth expresses about her own study: "Both the amplitude and the neglect of these influential records strikes me as remarkable. The exhilaration of rediscovery, however, takes on a certain pathos when I see that the act of unburial must be so often repeated" [21].


Booth then proceeds to explain the design of her book, the aims of each chapter and how they fit into the overall aim of the study, and a justification for "limiting" her study to Anglo-American biographical collections in book form between 1830 and 1940. Given the numbers of publications included in the study (930) in just this "limited" period, region, and type of publication, it is clear that a more encompassing study is a project no one person could hope to accomplish successfully. What Booth has provided with her study is the foundation for others to build upon. She makes it clear in her introduction that collective biographies of women (in all its forms: print, sculpture, other art forms, and now even television and web sites) are a fertile area of study, and others should take up the challenge to examine other ethnicities, nationalities, languages, media, or types of women. A glance at the women's studies shelves at any Barnes & Noble-like bookstore is evidence that prosopography is still (or again?) a highly popular publishing field; Booth laments (as should other feminists or women's studies practitioners) that these forms of celebrating and discovering or rediscovering women of the past or the present are often overlooked and underestimated as valuable sources of women's historiography. Booth's own study is one of very few that has attempted such a critical analysis of the form.


The subsequent chapters, rather than simply providing a summary or overview of different biographical collections in certain categories, help to contextualize the biographies in terms of social/historical aspects and provide critical and rhetorical lenses through which to read the grouped collections. In each chapter, Booth examines not only who is presented (and often, just as, if not more, important, who is not presented), but why (gleaned through prefatory material) and how (rhetorical analysis of the biographies themselves). This approach allows Booth to make cogent arguments about the changing social attitudes about gender roles and expectations. Each chapter also includes discussion of a more focused aspect that governs the grouping of certain types of biographical collections in that chapter. For instance, in Chapter One, Booth examines the function of collective biographies as emulative or instructive "self-help manuals." She charts the changing role of the presenters of the volumes through the prefatory material: from paternalistic/maternalistic pronouncements directed at readers to statements of solidarity with readers and subjects to "detached" disseminators of information left up to readers to decide how to use. She also examines the changing critical attitudes toward biography in general, from the role it seemed to play as serious, educative, emulative material (as opposed to the more suspect novel in the earlier periods studied) to what she claims it has become today—read primarily for its voyeuristic, entertainment value and often denigrated by critics in terms of both its literary and real historical value (she places into this category television prosopography like A&E Network's Biography series, which includes celebrity as well as more "serious" or "important" subjects) [81; n. 90, 307]. Later, in Chapter Seven, Booth examines the changes in and varieties of feminist critical thought by focusing on how feminist critics and analysts throughout different decades have portrayed, described, and analyzed Queen Victoria and the age named after her. As Booth explains: "[Victoria] seems to raise the topics of female agency, subjection, and sexual repression. No feminist herself, she exercised a power that inspired feminists in her day" [247]. In her day, Victoria was often compared with other notable women and portrayed as the ideal of womanhood; in contemporary collections and feminist historiographies, she serves as a model of "antiheroic veneration" [247], a figure more reproached for her anti-feminist attitudes and pronouncements than considered as a role model to emulate.


Booth writes in an accessible style, and provides copious notes and explanations to support her arguments. Although not weighed down with dense theoretical or scholarly jargon, the book is not for the casual reader, as Booth does engage in theoretically-based analysis that assumes readers who are familiar with those methods and ideas. I was amazed at the sheer magnitude of Booth's study—both in terms of the numbers of primary sources she analyzed and the kind of close reading from various critical stances she accomplished. It is a tour de force study that I sincerely hope generates more interest in this obviously understudied and underestimated form of feminist historiography. I would recommend How to Make It as a Woman as a text for a women's studies or feminist graduate course or for a course in historical biography; Booth's critical approaches on both counts are thorough, lucid, and quite valuable as resources for others to use as guides for their own research in either field. Aside from the much-needed close attention Booth has given to the books and women's history presented in her study, the most valuable aspect of How to Make It as a Woman is the foundation it has laid for expanding and extending this kind of research. Like the role model figures she examines throughout her book, Booth has herself become a guide to those reading this book to emulate her efforts. She extends both a challenge and an invitation to other scholars at the end of her introduction: "The differences among models and collections betray the instability of every foundational term in this arena, from exceptionality and fame to women and history. The standards of exemplary conduct for European and American middle-class women, far from being determined and timeless, require perpetual remodeling" [47]. There is still much left to discover and reevaluate. I know that I will be much more attuned to reading the prosopographies I already own (and the new ones I hope to acquire, from all eras) with a more critical eye, looking for the kinds of patterns and ideologies that Booth has so expertly and fascinatingly described.

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