A bewildering roundup of undercelebrated females across the centuries.
Aiming to highlight women who managed to sustain themselves independently and even make an impact on their societies in spite of strictures and judgments about their innate inadequacy, British historian Robinson (Parrot Pie for Breakfast, 2000, etc.) assembles an eclectic group. Her subjects range from the obscure Alexandrian alchemist Maria the Jewess (whose water bath designed to change a substance’s temperature, the bain marie, remains in use) to the Empress Theodora; from 18th-century brick-maker Lucy Burrell to 18th-century astronomer Caroline Herschel; from “James Barry,” a Victorian doctor who disguised herself as a man, to Lydia Pinkham, whose wildly successful concoction for “woman’s weakness,” is still produced today. Although she lauds the numerous female blacksmiths, carpenters, chimney sweeps, tin miners, and undertakers in Britain’s 1841 census, the author seems to take most pleasure in women who made their independent livelihoods in more questionable careers. Included, for instance, are pirates Ann Bonny and Mary Read, a Japanese spymaster who trained female ninjas, and an Italian apothecary who specialized in poisons especially appreciated by wives who had tired of their husbands. Chapters proceed in roughly chronological order, from the early Mediterranean civilizations to the early 20th century, emphasizing women in England and the US. Robinson’s thesis is that history has neglected not just the usual suspects like Mary Wollstonecraft, but many others who also supported themselves and their families in ways that defied conventional roles, either out of necessity or an “irrepressible” spirit. The irrepressible spirits she has chosen to include, however, seem more a function of her serendipitous encounters in the library stacks than of their significant places in time and history.
Uncommon deeds are dimmed by the author’s rambling speculations on their connections to social change. (16 pp. b&w illustrations)