Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 5: Completing the Twentieth Century


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“The publication of the first volumes of Notable American Women in 1971 was a watershed event in women’s history. By uncovering and documenting the enormous contributions that women had made–previously overlooked or underappreciated–this important reference work changed the way historians thought and wrote about American history.This latest volume brings the project up to date, with entries on almost 500 women whose death dates fall between January 1, 1976, and De… More >>

Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 5: Completing the Twentieth Century

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  1. #1 by Kevin Killian on April 17, 2010 - 4:33 am

    This project has been a long time in the making. Previous editions of the dictionary have kept pace with the recognition, since the early 1970s, of women’s importance to American culture. But it has been awhile since the last update, and now here we are with what amounts to obituaries for hundreds of prominent women who died, say, between 1976 and 1999.

    They hail from many fields, including art, writing, science, acting, business, sport, psychology, the military, theory, aviation, religion, and humanitarianism. Some worked with animals, like Dian Fossey. And some come from no field at all. Look at Jackie O, who is listed rather lamely as “First Lady, editor, reporter.” (There’s a whole category called “Socialite,” which includes such long running venerables as Pamela Harriman and Alice Longworth.) And there are other unlikely articles such as the one on Valerie Solanas. That is part of what makes the book such a rich stew. There’s something to read for just about everyone and I recommend reading a different letter every day, soon you will have caught yourself up with everyone.

    You’ll find yourself reading about women you never heard of, as well as those you always wished you knew more about. One weakness of the system is that practically everyone gets written about to the same extent, so that Martha Graham receives the same word count as (say) someone who lived for a much shorter time–for example, Gilda Radner. This leads to a certain imbalance I think, but it’s interesting nevertheless.

    In some cases editors Wake and Braukman have brought out the really big guns, hiring the biographers to digest their books into the length of a long column. For example, Margot Peters writes about Lynn Fontanne; He;en Sheehy on Eva Le Gallienne. It is spooky how many of these women died at age 79! Surely this must be a dangerous age for the notable.

    I wonder also that some experts were able to write across genre; thus the same scholar completes a fine job on Ella Fitzgerald and another on the novelist Ann Petry. You’d think you would need different muscles to do a good job on, but apparently not! Pat Kirkham writes on Clare Potter, Vera Maxwell, AND Ray Eames! I guess if you had enough time and chutzpah you could work up a listing for just about anybody, but in this case Pat Kirkham was hit each one out of the park–it’s a trifecta! For a reference book to be a pleasure to read, that’s a rarity. Latch on to this volume, keep it by your bedside or rocker. It’s grand.
    Rating: 5 / 5

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