Reconstructing a Genre of Publication. Rediscovering Histories of Women. Transforming Digital Studies of Biography.

The core of the Collective Biographies of Women project, from the beginning, has been the annotated bibliography of English-language books that collect three or more short biographies of women only: a forgotten British and American publishing tradition that provided a surprisingly ample and wide-ranging biographical history of women. Alison Booth published a study of this archive and its implications for all kinds of recognition: How to Make It as a Woman: Collective Biographical History from Victoria to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). The book included the bibliography as of 2003, omitting the growing annotations; a chart of rates of publication 1830-1940; and the Pop Chart based on samples of non-specialized collective biographies in three periods. Since 2003, Alison Booth has worked with a team of colleagues and assistants (see acknowledgments) in the University of Virginia Libraries and the Department of English at the University of Virginia, and in recent years the Scholars' Lab, Digital Scholarly Services, Special Collections, the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, and NINES. We hope to provide data and access to all books in this genre. The project has expanded into studies of the biographies of individuals and groups of women.

A first step in the move from bibliography to biographical studies has been a set of Featured Subjects: gateways for studying well-known historical women who appear in many books (scoring high in the Pop Chart) or who flourished in the Victorian period; we provide short critical biographies written in collaboration with students and assistants. The plan is to expand Featured Subject, and we encourage new collaborators. Contact Alison Booth if interested in working with this template to contribute new Featured Subjects.

Simultaneously, we have been working on a second initiative, the Sister Dora Project. Dorothy Pattison, known as Sister Dora (see Featured Subject introduction to her life and the biographies about her) appeared in eighteen collective biographies in the CBW bibliography. We are producing editions of the books in which Sister Dora appears and comparisons of all the other subjects in those books in order to study a particular kind of late-Victorian social network, women sometimes referred to as "noble workers." Through a focused archive and database, we will model ways to compare versions of one person's life (after all, there is never only one definitive biography), as well as to study parallel biographies in networks or in various forms of collection. We hope to find methods and tools for analyzing narrative structures in life writing about groups, or prosopography.

What is prosopography? And what kinds of female subjects appear in these books? Prosopography or collective biography is a widespread genre of publication since the rise of print, a convenient and effective way to assemble representative personalities in social, historical, or vocational categories such as the learned men of Oxford, the founders of the United States, prominent African Americans, engineers. We examine a complex rhetorical communication in words and images, from presenters (biographers, editors, illustrators, publishers) to subjects, the historical individuals as portrayed in the texts, to audience, that is, the readers implied or addressed by the presenters as well as the actual people encountering the books. These books followed ancient precedent in many kinds of "parallel lives" or saints' lives with patriotic or religious themes and conventions. In 1640 Thomas Heywood, for example, presented Nine of the Most Worthy Women of the World, three Jews, three Gentiles, and three Christians. As publishing expanded, the collective biographies added portraits beyond the frontispiece and adopted techniques of historiography and fiction, checking evidence and fleshing out personality and scene. A hundred years after Heywood, collections of learned women, women writers, and recent social leaders began to join the legendary or religious types of womanhood. Queens and aristocrats, women associated with great men, performers, a few visual artists, and women who participated in wars and religious movements gained international and lasting fame. By the Victorian era, some volumes included women of limited renown as models of faith or social service. As the nineteenth century progressed, the collections specialized more in order to measure female achievement in ethnic or regional sectors (representative women of Georgia or Illinois) or in new careers such as medicine, business, academia, design (from fashion to landscape architecture), and in due course, journalism, film, aviation, sports, and others.

This is not a digital literary project on women writers or on fiction or poetry. Women writers are frequent subjects in collections of biographies after 1750. Certain women specialized in compiling biographical histories of women such as queens of England or women of the American Revolution. But presenters were more often men than women.

Unexpected models for gender roles, and astounding access to forgotten as well as famous women. Studies of nineteenth-century advice literature or novels for the most part presume that these texts endorse conservative gender ideology. The nonfiction books gathered in this project do tend to dictate a different destiny for women than men—in their prefaces or narrative asides. But in part because the biographical and historical narratives have some factual fidelity to noteworthy actions, personalities, and circumstances, these narratives stretch what twenty-first-century readers have come to expect of proper women in the past. The standards of feminine conduct are waived for the saints, queens, politicians, warriors, nurses, writers, assassins, mistresses, explorers, artists, reformers, farmers, entrepreneurs, celebrities, educators, and mothers, wives, or sisters of famous men—all types of "women in all ages and all countries," as a common phrase puts it.

Prosopography must be selective, but it can claim a share of attention for marginal identities. Most women have gone missing in history and have no printed memorial. The Anglo-American catalogues in CBW tended to exclude all but the rare working woman, woman of color, or woman who did not belong to the Christian middle class of English descent. Religious nonconformists and various minorities nevertheless began to use this tool of recognition. The collections camouflage or accept some examples of diverse sexuality and same-sex relationships and many examples of single or old women. It is high-ranking women who pursue heterosexual affairs who get censured in these books—but not always or not with conviction. Some books celebrate opposites of the "good woman" type. The limitations of the lists—and any canons or lists—notwithstanding, a search through this bibliography and the books it registers helps to correct some distorted generalizations about the lack of records of women in the past.

How we continue to find these books: In the era of Google Books, Project Gutenberg, Open Library, and others, more and more of the books are available in some form online (sometimes this is partial view of a single edition though the collection was reprinted or revised in pre-copyright days). The University of Virginia Library and other good historical libraries own many of these volumes, usually in open stacks and available through interlibrary loan. Both the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the British Library have rich holdings in collective biographies of women—distinct but often intersecting with American publications. Microfilms such as the History of Women series (New Haven, Conn.: Research Publications, 1975) were helpful, and OCLC WorldCat continues to improve as a means of tracing publication history and other data about these books. There is no quick way to search online for all instances of a genre that has been little recognized. Titles and author names can be misleading; some that seem to offer biographies turn out to be discursive advice books, whereas some titles suggesting general histories or principles are organized around a sequence of famous lives. Works in this format were often treated as ephemeral or published by smaller educational, sectarian, or regional houses. The writers of these lives were at times established professionals, but others have left little more than a surname and initials or a pseudonym. We assume that new books will continue to resurface in spite of our best efforts. There is still much in this far-flung archive to reopen and carefully examine.

The Dimensions of the Bibliography

This bibliography lists all books published in English between 1830 and 1950 that present three or more women's biographies in some narrative detail, as well as many before and after these dates: approximately 1200 items. Although collections of women’s lives often appeared in periodicals, reference works, or series of monographs, such sources are generally excluded. We do list a few exceptions: a book featuring men as well as women; a work of poetry, drama, lectures or essays, even historical fiction; a few early or specialized encyclopedias or histories; some self-help. Each of these exceptions has been admitted for a reason: perhaps the history, poem, pageant, or advice book features a series of named women; perhaps the work affirms a new constituency (e.g. a "Who's Who" of the women of a region or organization); a collection of men with women may have been produced by someone who also contributed to the CBW genre; or in some way the work closely relates to other items in the bibliography. We indicate such relevant but formally divergent works with the shorthand "NOT" followed by a short identification of the format or genre of the item.

What is the historical scope of the project? The bibliography began with a complete list of all prosopographies of women published in English 1830-1940, with a selective list before 1830. The production of female prospopography increased in the 1830s and boomed by the later nineteenth century. Rates of publication increased after World War II, and especially with the second wave of the feminist movement. The exhaustive bibliography originally ended at 1940 for that reason. More recently, the list is as complete as possible through 1950, with plans to round out the listings of later decades. The project is international (largely transatlantic) because these publications often were reprinted or imitated in Britain and the United States; because many European and North American women were internationally celebrated and some lectured or campaigned abroad; and because the discourse of women's education, social progress, and cultural achievement was shared in various colonies and former colonies of the British Empire. Spanning the centuries of this genre helps us reveal fascinating trends in the models for women and in representation of various careers and individuals. Women who stood out in the nineteenth-century panorama fell behind the scenes in the new era and were supplanted by more recent counterparts.

English-language but not just British and American. The concept of a biographical collection of the commendable women of a country arises in ancient Rome and China, Germany and France, and other literate and historical contexts. Boccaccio and Chaucer gave it a try in their new vernaculars. Especially before 1800, female prosopographies printed in Britain might be translations or adaptations of European works. It seems that the largest number of female prosopographies were produced in English, some in Australia, India, Canada, or other nineteenth-century reaches of the British Empire, but most in London, Edinburgh, and various publishing centers in the United States.

The main bibliography 1830-1940 is alphabetical by author rather than chronological in part to serve those who are interested in the presenters, but primarily because of the extraordinary fluidity of these publications: the same collection often was reprinted many times, republished under different titles, or partly lifted into other collections.

Before and after the main bibliography are selective lists: first, a chronological selection of female prosopographies in earlier centuries, and second, an alphabetical selection of books collecting women's lives published from 1941 through the present. These separate selective bibliographies may be brought up from the "Earlier and Later Examples" tab on the Browse page and are integrated in any searches. Various collections published after 1940 first appeared before that date, and their entries appear in the main list.

Anonymous publications are alphabetized by title unless authorship is known; pseudonymous works are listed under the pseudonym.

In the main bibliography, the publication data includes the date of every known edition or reprint, though we have not attempted complete histories of each work. Where Alison Booth examined a specific edition in either the Bodleian or the British Library, this is indicated immediately following the publication date of that edition. In some instances entries will refer to information derived from the two other related bibliographies, both less complete than CBW by design (Oldfield's selective British list) or the limited resources of the 1930s (Riches): Oldfield, Collective Biography of Women in Britain, 1550-1900 (London: Mansell, 1999)= "Oldfield"; Phyllis M. Riches, An Analytical Bibliography of Universal Collected Biography, Comprising Books Published in the English Tongue in Great Britain and Ireland, America, and the British Dominions (London: The Library Association, 1934)= "Riches."

Annotations—in progress—may identify other works by the author; provide if possible the table of contents or list of subjects; describe contents; or draw links to interrelated works. Where an item is discussed in How to Make It as a Woman, the entry includes page references.

Entries marked See also Pop Chart are unspecialized or eclectic collections that contribute to the "Pop Chart" of subjects. Subject names were compiled from 44 books 1850-1870, 67 books 1880-1900, and 57 books 1910-1930. Generally to be included in the chart a person must have appeared a total of five times or more over more than one period, the purpose being to measure rate of appearance in books that have no stated principle of exclusion. The three periods were chosen to give a broad sense of change in the history as well as the representation of types and individuals of women. It may not go without saying that the rates do not count all the times that a subject appears in the entire archive of all-female collections in these periods, and that some of these women also appear in mixed-gender prosopographies or have monographs of their own.

Additions: As we expand and enhance the bibliography, we wish to retain its correspondence with entries in the printed version of 2004. Where an entirely new publication is inserted in the alphabetical lists, it is marked by a capital letter (e.g. 762A, 762B and so on), to avoid changing or confusing item numbers discussed in How to Make It as a Woman.


This project has been developed through the research support of the University of Virginia Department of English, the Dean of Arts and Sciences and the Vice Provost for Research, numerous graduate research assistants in English, and in many indispensable ways, the faculty and staff of the University of Virginia Libraries. Bethany Nowviskie, Director of Digital Research and Scholarship and Joe Gilbert, Head of the Scholars' Lab, along with Bess Sandler, have brought fresh inspiration, expert guidance and insight, as well as generous hours of consultation. Joe Gilbert has been a gifted teacher and collaborator, and continues to train and advise the team. Worthy Martin and Daniel Pitti along with colleagues in the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities have shaped a new vision for CBW, and IATH has generously provided an Associate Fellowship in 2009-2010 and Resident Fellowship in 2010-2012. Bethany, Worthy, Daniel, and Sarah Wells have helped with applications for funding and fellowship support.

Alison Booth compiled the original bibliography with the assistance of Christopher Jackson, Karen Dietz, Erin O'Connor, Sarah Whitney, Christine Bayles-Korstch, Margaret Cooke, and Regan Boxwell. The annotations are by Alison.

The design and construction of the online site, now reshaped by Joe Gilbert, Jessica Swope, and Julie Fuller as well as Alison Booth, was originally guided by Cindy Filer Speer--now Cindy Maisannes--and Ethan Gruber of the Electronic Text Center. Joe Gilbert has been largely responsible for the adaptation of Alison's Pop Chart from the book to an interactive digital tool. Aimee Geoghan and Mara Bandy assisted with tables of contents, cross-referencing, and other annotations, and Kiera Allison helped with the beginning of the Sister Dora project. Jessica Swope had a hand in creating many new aspects and designs of the site, including illustrations, in 2007-2008. In 2008-2009, Bella Cooper, Lindsay Halle, Claudia Bendick, Ben Lee, Julie Fuller, Kirsten Andersen, and Michael Chambers continued to develop the Sister Dora page images and edited texts, and to construct the Featured Subject sites. It has been rewarding to incorporate short biographies written by students or research assistants. Julie Fuller built the 1941-1950 list from Alison's files, and has discovered a range of new items. Featured Subjects and the new structure of the site are indebted to Julie's and Joe's spirited and generous collaboration. In 2010-2011, Heather Kileff, Darby Walters, and Ken Lota have contributed to additional entries and illustrations in the bibliography, located new books, tables of contents, and annotations, and collaborated in the experiment with Sister Dora biographies, using BESS analysis. Brooke Lockwood Lestock, Emily Major, Anna Hermesmann, and Andy Foust continued the venture with BESS in 2011-2012. Brooke played a key role in developing the database of persons and collections, and Andy has continued, in 2012-2013, to shape the vocabularies and procedures of the BESS work. In 2012-2013, Stephanie Kingsley, too, has created BESS analyses of Dora and Lola biographies and has assisted in identifying Italian women and the various types of collections. Blythe Fiscella, Kelly Riley, Amanda Thompson, and other undergraduate assistants have added to the showcase of scanned page images and the annotations and tables of contents of the books in this bibliography. I am grateful to them, to IATH and to the Department of English for the indispensable assistance.