Saturday, May 7, 2011

The hazards of compilations

I recently picked up a copy of a 1997 book entitled The Giant Book of Influential Women: The 100 Greatest Women of All Time by Deborah G. Felder.  (Not to be confused with a recent work of the same name edited by Kathleen Kuiper and published by Britannica - available to read here on Scribd.)
I am always curious as to how an author or editor decides who is to be included in such books and, to be honest, why they get published in the first place as they usually end up in huge wobbly piles in remainder bookshops. They must be fairly easy to write but are not always reliable works as they are often derivative or cobbled together from secondary or previously published sources and some of them are guilty of perpetuating myths or inaccuracies.
While I concur with some of Felder's choices in this particular work - those women who have left important marks on history that still resonate around the world such as Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, or Emmeline Pankhurst - others left me baffled. As a non-American, they are unfamiliar to me: civil rights activists, psychologists and short story writers.
The author did admit in her introduction that the project was bound to generate controversy. She gathered her names from a survey of women's studies professors in American colleges or universities, which seems very narrow as surely their reasoning was bound to get skewed in the direction of their academic (American) interests? One who declined to submit a list wrote: "Frankly, I think your project is misguided and will lead to more criticism than you can imagine." I'm guessing it did as I notice the book has gone into subsequent editions in which the title has wisely been changed to 100 American Women who Shaped American History.
1997 Australian Edition
2005 American (Bluewood) Edition
In 2010, the British newspaper The Independent published a similar list. Again, if one is unfamiliar with modern British entertainment, politics or sport, the majority of these names mean nothing. These women might have changed Britain recently, but not necessarily impacted on the world as a whole. You can read that list here.
Other selections can be highly subjective and even verge on the ridiculous, such as an Esquire magazine list of 2010 in which serious contenders like Joanne of Arc and Golda Meir have to compete against B-grade actresses, pop princesses and even the 1972 Dallas Cheerleaders! 
One could spend many hours trying to find a definitive list of women who changed the world, but it would be impossible as of course no two people are going to come to the same conclusions. Much better to narrow down your search to specific eras or endeavours:  top women athletes, scientists, reformers, etc. I notice there is even a book out there on the 100 greatest Welsh women!
Surprisingly, two books on wild/notorious women have been published already this year in Australia that appear to go over tired ground. In this day of quick look-ups on Google and Wikipedia for anyone who wants a pocket history of an individual, I don't understand the reasoning by publishers as both books are rather expensive and will end up in those wobbly remainders piles sooner than later.
Wild Women by Pamela Robson includes individuals who have been written about extensively already like Bonnie Parker (Bonnie & Clyde) and the female pirate Anne Bonny but at least she does seem to offer some hope by including intriguing lesser-known characters such as a Queen of Angola.
Notorious Australian Women by Kay Saunders tackles well-worn women like Tilly Devine and Mary Bryant who have been covered in numerous compilations on infamous Australians.
And being the author of a major work on Lola Montez myself, I must take umbrage with the ludicrous and historically ill-informed choice of cover on this second work!
Lola Montez could never be described as an "Australian woman" by any stretch of the imagination. She only visited Australia for a short period in the 1850s as a performer, albeit creating a great deal of notoriety when she did so.
Nobody in their right mind would dare to suggest that other famous entertainer, Frank Sinatra, was a notorious "Australian man" as a result of his visit to the country in 1974 during which he created a similar degree of mayhem! (Check out the Dennis Hopper movie about that event.)

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