ALAN v26n1 - Telling Our Stories, Sharing Our Our Lives: Collective Biographies of Women

Volume 26, Number 1
Fall 1998

Telling Our Stories, Sharing Our Lives:
Collective Biographies of Women

Katherine T. Bucher and M. Lee Manning

Collective biographies of women provide young adults with descriptions of the lives of women, serve as valuable informational resources, and offer considerable reading enjoyment. As the name implies, collective biographies of women are collections of biographies of women that tell about their lives, frustrations, obstacles, and achievements. These books have the potential for adding new perspectives to young adults' learning and reading pleasure. In order for this to happen, educators and library media specialists must be aware of appropriate titles of collective biographies, know specific evaluation and selection criteria, and provide young adults with access to the best books available.

Evaluating Collective Biographies of Women

Just as with all young adult literature, proper selection and evaluation of collective biographies of women are absolute essentials. Professionals need guidelines to assist in the balance of standards for literary and other qualities with collection demands and available resources ( Betz-Zall, 1993 ). First, young adults deserve accurate collections- they need to know that controversial information and personal fallacies have neither been omitted nor glossed over. Readers see the women as human beings with both strengths and weaknesses and can understand and at least sometimes relate to their feelings of frustration and happiness. Second, collective biographies of women should avoid stereotypes based on gender. While one cannot disguise the fact that women received second-class treatment for many decades (and this treatment should be accurately portrayed), writers should avoid placing women in stereotypical roles as being helpless and dependent upon a male's help. In essence, historical perspectives and events cannot be changed, but women need to be shown as individuals with unique strengths and weaknesses. Third, with limited budgets, educators and library media specialists need to acquire the best biographies available. Collections cannot be purchased without careful examination--one cannot assume that all authors write and that all companies publish accurate and well-written biographies.

Keeping these general guidelines in mind, educators and library media specialists need to engage in a methodical and planned evaluation process to determine the most accurate and best- written biographies for young adults. They need to look at indicators of accuracy, the worthiness of the subject, and the balance between the storyline and fact. However, other important criteria also need consideration. Designed to aid in the evaluation process, Figure 1 provides a look at selected questions that educators and library media specialists can use when evaluating collective biographies of women. By using questions such as these, individuals can develop a quality collection of collective biographies. These criteria were applied to identify the titles included in the following sections.

Collective Biographies of Women

While some collective biographies include women from many backgrounds, others have an organizing theme, such as these examples:

women as politicians and world leaders
women in science
women in business
women in war and peace
women as notable achievers.

Virtually any topic that allows women's lives and stories to be "collected" together might be used as an organizing theme. Either format, background or theme, provides a valuable resource in middle and secondary schools, especially for students writing reports on notable women. One inclusive work, Herstory, Women Who Changed the World ( 1995 ), provides 120 biographies of both well-known and relatively unknown women of all times, places, and professions who impacted the world. In addition, Herstory includes geographic, alphabetical and occupational indexes. Another example is Elizabeth Goldman's Believers ( 1996 ) which looks at the lives and times of such women as Mother Theresa, Mary Baker Eddy, Elizabeth Seton, Ann Lee, Annie Hutchinson, Joan of Arc, and Hildegard of Bingen.

Suggested Collective Biographies of Women

Although some collective biographies focus on women's achievements in a wide array of areas, many can be grouped into categories--mostly to provide representative examples. While other collections can be identified and other groupings devised, depending on educators' and library media specialists' interests and goals (for providing young adults with informative and enjoyable collective biographies), the books in the following categories show the richness of the current collective biographies of women.

Politicians and World Leaders

Several collective biographies focus on women politicians and their roles in shaping and reforming America's future. One such collective biography, Women on the Hill ( 1996 ), by Jill S. Pollack, provides a comprehensive history of women who served in the U.S. Congress. Using numerous black-and-white photos, Pollack profiles many female members of Congress (such as Margaret Chase Smith, and Geraldine Ferraro) and focuses on their campaign styles and legislative interests and contributions.

Two collections of women's biographies by Isobel V. Morin, deserve mention. First, in her Women Chosen for Public Office ( 1995 ), readers learn how Constance Baker Motley's early experiences shaped her commitment to civil rights, and why Julia Lathrop worked to regulate child labor. Clear and thorough discussions give considerable information in each short chapter. The individual vignettes provide perspectives of the times during each woman's crusade. Black-and-white photographs of the featured women complement the text. Morin also provides a detailed index and appendix listing other women appointed to federal office. Another Morin book, Women of the U.S. Congress ( 1994 ), represents a range of backgrounds and political styles such as pacifist Jeanette Rankin (the first woman elected to the House of Representatives), Margaret Chase Smith, Barbara Jordan, and Nancy Landon Kassebaum. The biographies, both concise and interesting, highlight women's most significant contributions and contain anecdotes that indicate gender-based political inequities without being didactic.

Is There a Woman in the House--or Senate? ( 1994 ) by Bryna J. Fireside reflects a rich and varied tapestry of the American experience. The women originate from many parts of the country and have various ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds. Fireside looks at her subjects' childhoods, how and why they decided to run for office, their sacrifices and rewards from a professional and personal perspective, the people and events that influenced them, and their legislation and ideas. The inclusion of comments that have been written or spoken by these congresswomen bring this well-written and informative book alive. Similarly, LaVerne McCain Gill, in her African American Women in Congress ( 1997 ), tells of African American women who have served in Congress through 1996. Based on a public radio program, "The Talented Ten: African American Women in the 103rd Congress," Gill's book stresses the trailblazers of the group and discusses how they combated sexism, racism, and classism. She also includes statistics for such areas as age upon entering Congress, marital status, and religious affiliation.

Marcy C. Kaptur's Women of Congress ( 1996 ) focuses on the legislative achievements and committee assignments of women. Kaptur, a member of Congress since 1983, has produced a fascinating look at the women (and their personalities) who have served as senators and representatives. Women of Congress ( 1996 ) includes selected readings focusing on biographies and autobiographies and an extensive subject and name index.

In 100 Women Who Shaped World History, Gail Meyer Rolka ( 1994 ) provides a chronological selection of 100 profiles that reveal how women impact history. The concisely written profiles span history and place each woman's accomplishments within the context of the society in which she lived.

Scientists and Inventors

Unfortunately, when many people think of scientists and accomplishments in the field of science, they think only of men. Such a habit might result from historical tendencies to study only male scientists in school or from the traditional lack of collective biographies focusing on the accomplishments of women. A number of fine collective biographies of women can be suggested to young adults who might be surprised to learn that women have made many notable scientific achievements.

One excellent book about ten obscure American women who invented famous things, Women Inventors and Their Discoveries ( 1993 ), by Ethlie Ann Vare and Greg Ptacek, shows that women sometimes did not receive credit for their inventions. For example, when South Carolina was still a colony, it was Elizabeth Lucas Pinkney, not a male scientist, who developed an indigo plant that produced a superior dye. Vare and Ptacek illustrate their book with black-and-white photographs and provide an informative chapter devoted to the life of each remarkable woman.

Frances A. Karnes, in Girls & Young Women Inventing ( 1995 ), uses amazing detail to describe how each inventor began and continued the process of inventing. Inventions include laborsaving devices, items that help the environment, products that address health concerns, objects that improve safety, and gadgets that add make life more convenient. Photographs of the inventors and diagrams of the inventions enhance the clarity of the text and provide the reader with a realistic image of the person and product.

Extraordinary Women Scientists ( 1995 ), by Darlene R. Stille, describes the lives and contributions of more than fifty important scientists from many different disciplines. With black-and-white photographs of the subjects throughout, this volume can be used as a reference book or as a book introducing readers to women's contributions to science. These brief and readable biographies of women and their fields range from the familiar (astronaut Mae Jemison, primatologist Dian Fossey) to the obscure limnologist- one who studies bodies of fresh water--Ruth Patrick). Obstacles faced by the women included racism, anti-Semitism, poverty, and sexism; however, women's achievements receive the major emphasis.

Lisa Yount's Contemporary Women Scientists ( 1994 ) describes two challenges women in science face: the glass ceiling and balancing a career with family life. Each of the ten chapters presents an excellent biography of a woman, born anytime from 1898 to 1946, who contributed significantly to the natural sciences. The author selected a fair representation of the sciences, which includes physics, astronomy, marine biology, neuroscience and medicine. The information about each scientist includes the scientific basis for her discoveries and accomplishments. In another Lisa Yount book that might inspire young women to consider careers in science, Twentieth-Century Women Scientists ( 1996 ), the author describes the struggles and discrimination that each faced. Highlighted quotations and chronologies enhance this readable book that focuses on the important milestones in the woman's life and career.

Writing in an informal style in Women of Strength ( 1996 ), Louis Baldwin provides brief profiles that highlight 106 women who have made marks in their fields. The majority of the women are contemporary rather than historical figures. Many politicians and journalists are among those represented along with scientists and a sampling of other occupations.

Artists, Athletes, and Professionals

A number of collective biographies focus on women's achievements and their hardship, unhappiness, trials of endurance, and determination to achieve their goals, as artists, athletes and professionals.

Doris H. Pieroth, in Their Day in the Sun ( 1996 ), presents a well-documented glimpse into the lives of the women who represented the US in the 10th Olympiad in Los Angeles. Pieroth does an outstanding job profiling each of the forty young women. Also, she encourages girls and young women to compete and to take pride in sports participation.

Margot F. Horwitz's A Female Focus ( 1996 ) looks at professions in which the contributions of women have been largely ignored. She identifies prominent women in their respective fields and discusses their accomplishments. Horwitz chronicles a multitude of notable photographers--she groups them chronologically and thematically, discussing women such as Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Margaret Bourke-White and a plethora of lesser-known but significant artists and professionals.

In Women Who Write ( 1994 ), Lucinda Smith provides an organized look at both the professional and personal lives of women writers past and present. Smith asked all these women "Why do you write?" She concludes with a brief section that offers instruction and advice for young women who aspire to write. While not a comprehensive guide, Women Who Write provides an overview of the experiences of the authors profiled and complements their works. Another book featuring women writers, Jane T. Peterson's Women Playwrights of Diversity ( 1997 ) looks at playwrights recommended by selected theater groups, experts and scholars.

Mary E. Lyons, in Keeping Secrets ( 1995 ), supports her narration with direct quotes from the personal writings of her subjects. She carefully separates known facts from speculation. Individually, these stories of women writers tell tales of endurance, talent, hardship, and often, unhappiness. As a group they reflect the impossible odds against African American women; the economic, class, and gender barriers that all women faced. Each chapter provides a thorough introduction to her subject, and readers with particular interests will find ample resources for further investigation.

Another book about achievers, They Wrote Their Own Headlines ( 1994 ), by Nancy Whitelaw, presents thoughtful and insightful profiles. Whitelaw chronicles the early lives, professional growth, and career decisions of women achievers, whose areas of expertise range from news and war reporting to photography, advice columns to television anchors, and spans a time period from the late 1800s to the present. A full-page, black-and-white portrait of each woman introduces each chapter. Whitelaw describes these women's drive, and the courage and intelligence that contributed to their success.

Laura S. Jeffrey looks at businesswomen in her Great American Businesswomen ( 1996 ) as she profiles ten 20th-century American women who have achieved success in the world of business. She draws heavily on primary sources to help readers understand both the challenges these women faced and the obstacles they overcame. Robert B. Pile also deals with women in business in Women Business Leaders ( 1995 ) which describes how these individuals organize people and resources to achieve success. The author gives a well-rounded picture of the women achievers, often touching on charitable work and personal connections with British royalty, sports stars, and other celebrities.

Uncommon Individuals

Using original sources, such as oral history, letters, diaries, and memoirs, Kemp P. Battle, collected vignettes and stories of women from all aspects and time periods of American life, from pre-Columbian Native Americans to Vietnam War nurses, from the average woman to the celebrated. The result is Hearts of Fire ( 1997 ). Joyce Antler, in The Journey Home ( 1997 ), introduces readers to an impressive cast of characters as well as to more general themes in Jewish American women's history. Dealing with Jewish women radicals and organization women, with Emma Goldman and Henrietta Szold early in the century and Robin Morgan and Betty Friedan at the end, Antler paints a colorful picture of women who defied both the Jewish and the American stereotype of women's proper role in society. Intended as a research tool for high school, public, and academic libraries, its articles tend to be longer and to treat subjects in depth.

Women of Peace ( 1994 ), by Anne E. Schraff, brings a number of women together in a collective voice on behalf of service to humanity that their separate voices and victories do not attain. Strengths of Schraff's book includes factual stories, clear portraits, competent writing, and interesting quotations.

I Have Arrived Before My Words ( 1997 ), by Deborah Pugh, is a collection of direct, uncontrived, and completely distinctive essays that represent compelling portraits of homeless women as individuals. Women who have spent too much time on the streets or in mental, physical, or social trouble have stories to tell that most readers have never heard. Looking at women at a pivotal time in U.S. history, Karen Zeinert, in Those Incredible Women of World War II ( 1994 ), devotes chapters to women civilian and military flyers, to women in medical fields, and even to women war correspondents. The discussion of the work of women in war industries reveals pertinent side issues; the lack of appropriate work clothes for women in the early 1940s, and the racism that confronted African American women eager to move up from their traditional work as domestics and cooks to better-paying blue-collar jobs are two examples. Zeinert's subjects include famous women during World War II, such as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, flyer Cornelia Fort, and Dr. Emily Barringer, as well as a discussion of teenage girls' volunteering their efforts.

Prominent Women of the 20th Century ( 1995 ), by Peggy Saari, tells of women selected to reflect one or more categories: women who have struggled against bias or personal circumstances to achieve their goals, from Nobel Prize winners in science to Candy Lightner, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving; innovators and discovers, from Alice Evans, the microbiologist who successfully campaigned for pasteurization of milk, to Debi Fields of Mrs. Fields Cookies; and women who made a mark in their fields (e.g., aviator Jacqueline Cochran and industrial pathologist Alice Hamilton). This book includes biographies of women who are enormously diverse and usually little known despite their achievements.


Educators and library media specialists make valuable contributions when they provide young adults with collective biographies of women. Many young adults do not realize the educational benefits of collective biographies for writing term papers or oral reports; some have never read well-written biographies (especially of women) for enjoyment. Also, for many years, most biographies dealt with males--young people often developed the mindset that only males deserved biographies written about them. Biographers today increasingly focus on women and write more collective biographies. Just as with all genres of young adult literature, quality varies and some collective biographies are better than others. In an effort to avoid basing purchasing decisions solely on publishers' comments, educators and library media specialists need to use specific criteria for evaluating collective biographies for young adults. Such an assertion is not to suggest publisher's advertisements and reviewers' comments should not be included in the selection process; however, educators and library media specialists need to apply their own evaluative criteria for selecting the best collective biographies for young adults.

Collective Biographies of Women Cited

Antler, Joyce. The Journey Home. Free Press. 1997.

Baldwin, Louis. Women of Strength. McFarland. 1996.

Battle, Kemp P. Hearts of Fire. Harmony Books. 1997.

Fireside, Bryna J. Is There a Woman in the House--or Senate? Whitman. 1994.

Gill, LaVerne McCain. African American Women in Congress. Rutgers Univ. Press, 1997.

Goldman, Elizabeth. Believers. Oxford University Press. 1996.

Horwitz, Margot F. A Female Focus. Watts. 1996.

Jeffrey, Laura S. Great American Businesswomen. Enslow. 1996.

Kaptur, Marcy C. Women of Congress. Congressional Quarterly. 1996.

Karnes, Frances A. in Girls & Young Women Inventing. Free Spirit. 1995.

Lyons, Mary E. Keeping Secrets. Holt. 1995.

Morin, Isobel V. Women Chosen for Public Office. Oliver. 1995.

Morin, Isobel V. Women of the U.S. Congress. Oliver. 1994.

Ohrn, Deborah G., & Ashby, Ruth. Herstory, Women Who Changed the World.

Viking. 1995.

Peterson, Jane T. Women Playwrights of Diversity. Greenwood Press. 1997.

Pieroth, Doris H. Their Day in the Sun. University of Washington Press. 1996.

Pollack, Jill S. Women on the Hill. Watts. 1996.

Pile, Robert S. Women Business Leaders. Oliver. 1995.

Pugh, Deborah. I Have Arrived Before My Words. Charles River Press, 1997.

Rolka, Gail Meyer. 100 Women Who Shaped World History. Bluewood. 1994.

Saari, Peggy. Prominent Women of the 20th Century. Gale Research. 1995.

Schraff, Anne E. Women of Peace. Enslow. 1994.

Smith, Lucinda. Women Who Write. Messner. 1994.

Stille, Darlene R. Extraordinary Women Scientists. Children's Press. 1995.

Vare, Ethlie Ann, and Ptacek, Greg. Women Inventors and Their Discoveries. Oliver. 1993.

Whitelaw, Nancy. They Wrote Their Own Headlines. Morgan Reynolds. 1994.

Yount, Lisa. Contemporary Women Scientists. Facts on File. 1994.

Yount, Lisa. Twentieth-Century Women Scientists. Facts on File. 1996.

Zeinert, Karen. in Those Incredible Women of World War II. Millbrook. 1994.


Betz-Zall, Jonathan. "Balancing Quality and Relevance: Selecting Series Biographies for Children About Women and People of Color." Multicultural Review September 1993.

Figure 1

Evaluating Collective Biographies of Women: Questions to Ask Questions About the Author:

1. Who is the author or collector?

2. What are his or her credentials?

3. What else has he or she written?

4. Does he or she write about the selected women with an "insider's" perspective, or does it matter in this case?

Questions about the Collection Itself

1. What is the scope of the collection?

2. Who is included and who is excluded?

3. How were the individuals selected for inclusion?

4. How is the collection organized? Is the organization logical?

5. How are the individual biographies written?

6. Is the biography authentic, or is some information fictionalized?

7. Are sources cited for authentic biographies? In a fictionalized biography, is it clear what information can be documented and what information is based upon inferences and suppositions?

Questions about Bias and Stereotypes

1. Is the content up-do-date and objective, to the best of the critical reader's knowledge?

2. Is the work free from bias? Does it present all sides of controversial issues or is it patronizing?

3. Does the work put women on an unrealistic pedestal?

4. Are the women shown in non-stereotypical roles for their gender and for their racial/ethnic groups?

5. How complete is the information on each individual?

6. Are there special features such as period art work or photographs, an index, replicas of documents, or quotations?

Questions about the Relationship of the Collective Biographies Text to Other Books

1. What is the depth of the research? Are bibliographies of additional readings included?

2. How does the collection compare with similar books? How does it differ from other collective biographies?

3. Does it present new information or women who have not been covered in other biographies?

4. What makes this book unique?

Questions about the Intended Audience

1. For what audience is the book intended?

2. Is the material appropriate for young adults?

3. Will it help young adults develop empathy for and understanding of the women presented?

Katherine T. Bucher is associate professor specializing in library science and Graduate Program Director for Elementary/Middle School Education at Old Dominion University. She is the author of Information Technology for Schools and numerous articles on selecting and evaluating multicultural materials.

M. Lee Manning is professor of Educational Curriculum and Instruction and the senior author of Appreciating and Teaching Young Adult Literature, to be published by Prentice-Hall during 1999. Also, he has published nine other books and over a hundred articles on literature and educational experiences for adolescents.

Reference Citation: Bucher, Katherine T. and M. Lee Manning. (1998). "Telling Our Stories, Sharing Our Lives: Collective Biographies of Women." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 1.