Forgotten Wives. How Women Get Written Out of History

Oakley, Ann
Anzahl Seiten
256 S.
£ 19.99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Katerina Piro, Wirtschaftsgeschichte, Universität Mannheim

Biographers still focus, more often than not, on famous men. Currently, the world mourns Jacques Delors and Wolfgang Schäuble, two politicians who undoubtedly shaped the European Union and a reunified Germany. Their wives Marie and Ingeborg left little imprint of their own, when judging by numbers of biographies, wikipedia space or mentions in their husbands’ obituaries. Most often, they got praised for supporting their husbands and doing charitable work on the side of raising a family. Women, it seems, still get written out of history.

In her deep dive into four female biographies from 19th and early 20th century Britain – more than a century before Delors and Schäuble – Ann Oakley shows how women were perceived both by contemporaries and biographers. Some of her findings are strikingly simple: she points to Charles and Mary Booth’s joint gravestone, that lists his many achievements and omits any of her‘s (p. 63); she explains that the Shaw Library at the London School of Economics was actually named for Charlotte, rather than her famed playwright husband George Bernhard Shaw (p. 66); she does the math to show the male-favouring imbalance of biographical writing about couples; she reminds us that archives catalogue women under their husbands‘ names, making wives‘ stories harder to find; thus revealing how „women’s experiences and achievements can so easily sink into the sediments of marriage“ (p. 100).

Ann Oakley is not a historian, but a sociologist; her numerous books and projects have focussed on gender relations, women’s unpaid work in the house; or the history of social scienece research and the welfare state. She has produced biographies, as well as novels. Her book about „forgotten wives“ stems from her lifelong interest in the history of social science research and the London School of Economics (LSE), where her father had been a founding member. That is why the book reads in part as a history of LSE, albeit its lesser known or „forgotten“ history.

„Forgetting“ for Oakley is an umbrella term that includes such actions and filters as ignoring, devaluing, marginalising, distorting (p. 3), silencing or sidelining of contributions (p. 176), morally judging (p. 171), maliciously appraising (p. 90), stereotyping (p. 175), perpetuating negative or inaccurate assessments (p. 101f), active disremembering (p. 197) or misremembering (p. 7). Oakley’s book is in good company with other studies trying to pry women from being forgotten.1 In a way, it is disconcerting that forgetting women has not yet been overcome to a greater extent in the 21st century.

The women that Ann Oakley portrays were born between 1847 and 1880 and married men that were either generally famous (George Bernhard Shaw or William Beveridge, considered the Father of the British welfare state) or instrumental in setting up or running major social science projects including the fledgling LSE. She flanks these with a number of other wives’ stories (like Clara Schumann, Mileva Maric Einstein, Harriet Taylor Mill or Sofia Tolstoy) in the introduction and conclusion. The forgetting was being done both by the husbands, i.e. when they dedicated their works to their wives, but did not offer co-authorship (p. 62); by peers and contemporaries, as well as later biographers.

Even well-remembered women are most often looked at through what Oakley calls the „political filter of wifehood“ (p. 2) and judged by how well they fit society’s ideas of being a good wife. At least one of the women portrayed did not fit the 19th century mould of what a good wife should be and Oakley shows how harshly she was judged both by contemporaries and even biographers today (p. 101f); pointing to the long-term momentum of reputations.2 Husbandhood does not have the same effect for judging men and Oakley points to the (still continued) „yawning gender gap in expectations“ on marriage (p. 113).

Oakley’s main point is not merely to flesh out the women’s biographies based on vast archival sources like letters, diaries and records of their writing; but to focus on marriage as a „primary political experience and institution that defines the work and identity of women“ (p. 1). Methodologically she attempts to present the facts on the one hand, and how the women and their marriages were looked upon by contemporaries or biographers (usually, their husband’s biographers) on the other.

While revealing much that is private and intimate, her main attempt is to show the wives’ relationships to their husband’s work and to judge how vital their input was – be it as caretakers or household managers, but more importantly as idea givers, writers and propagators. It is perhaps not so surprising that Oakley finds that the women’s efforts and contributions were hugely played down – what is actually surprising is the extent of devaluation or forgetting. She finds wives’ work „in the background, at the margins, or often in footnotes“ only (p. 27).

At times, the individual biographies get lost in too much detail on kinship networks, country houses or committee work. At other times, Oakley tries to elevate the women, by perhaps judging the husbands too harshly; she is herself not immune to perpetuating some stereotypes, i.e. by describing one of the women‘s first job as a „welcome change from typing for her father“ (p. 111), rather than as a career choice. However, these are minor criticisms.

Ann Oakley’s book is important for historians and biographers alike: she suggests alternative reading of women’s lives, and paying much more attention to the women in a partnership and their achievements or lack thereof due to their marriages. Biographres should ask: „what might he have accomplished without her?“ (p. 191) when appraising men’s achievements. Husbands and men should be judged more by the support they received from their wives and other women and by whether they pushed their wives to achieve and be recognized or not. In any case, it would be fantastic to see more biographies like those of the forgotten wives portrayed by Oakley; biographies that critically assess the effects of marriage on individual lives.

1 Henriette Hufgard / Kristina Steimer, [ausgeklammert]. Die Philosophinnen der Frankfurter Schule – eine unerhörte Geschichte, München 2023.
2 This is reminiscent of Yvonne Ward’s book on Queen Victoria’s male biographers, who not only shaped, but also censored and cemented her image for decades to come. See: Yvonne M. Ward, Censoring Queen Victoria. How Two Gentlemen Edited a Queen and Created an Icon, London 2013.

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