“The book of heroes should never be separated from the book of heroines,” begins this 1915 collective biography by Hamilton Mabie and Kate Stephens. The suggestion is somewhere along the lines of ‘behind every great man…’, but what we get in this volume is an earnest and admiration-filled account of the lives of thirteen heroic women, from Alcestis to Florence Nightingale. The volume was published to accompany the popular and obviously more widely known volume, Heroes Every Child Should Know, also by Hamilton Mabie. The introduction to this volume hardly allows the reader to forget even for a moment that our Heroines have been accompanied if not preceded by Heroes at every turn.
In the spirit of the CBW project, our team has chosen its most beloved heroines from our database. What follows is: “Heroines Every Child Should Know: The CBW Edition.”
Antigone is one of my favorite characters in all of western literature. Very few people (you might say she’s not supposed to be a “real” person, as Bernard Knox would argue) are willing to die for the truth of a single conviction, but she doesn’t have one moment of hesitation in the entire play about ensuring her brother has the proper burial and then dying for that commitment. Antigone is one of those books (and people) you would take to a deserted island. She is now so immortal that we hold her up as if a real historical person, exemplary of independence and self-reliance, as if she’s a modern, post-enlightenment subject just like us.
2. Mata Hari
One of my favorite figures in CBW is Mata Hari, born Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod (née Zelle; 7 August 1876 – 15 October 1917). Mata Hari was Zelle’s chosen name, meaning “Eye of the Morning,” and she was an exotic dancer and courtesan. During WW1, Mata Hari served as a double-agent for the Germans. She was tried by the British on July 24, 1917, convicted as a spy, and executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917.
3. Dr. Marie E. Zakrzewska
My pick for a heroine is Dr. Marie E. Zakrzewska (1829-1902). After immigrating to the US from Germany under the mistaken impression that it would be easier for a female physician to establish her own practice, Marie eventually gained a medical professorship and founded the New England Women and Children’s Hospital. It was the second hospital in the US to be staffed exclusively by women and enabled female physicians to gain the clinical experience necessary to meet the same level of training and care exercised by their male counterparts.
4. Sarah Martin
I love Sarah Martin, the Bristol seamstress who visited female prisoners and began a kind of social-work mission with the poor. She was a good writer, which is why people knew enough about her to keep her in the biographical collections. She’s interesting because she’s on the margin of the middle class but gained stature by helping a sector of the poor. She’s fairly well known, with 22 biographies in CBW.
Professor Alison Booth
5. Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez
During the Mexican War of Independence, Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez went against the patriarchy and was responsible for organizing one of the biggest rebellions against the the colonizers. She would soon be caught and forced to promise that she would no longer engage in radical activity. However, she did partake in various revolutionary groups in her later years and denied any kind of recognition or award for the work that she did.
6. Adrienne Lecouvreur
My favorite so far is Adrienne Lecouvreur, broadly for her political cunning, but to get at her positive attributes one needs to wade through layers of biographer Albert Payson Terhune’s condescension and misogyny (in his chapter on Lecouvreur, entitled “The Actress Heart Queen”, from the volume Superwomen). Lecouvreur (1692-1730) was a hugely popular French actress. According to one biographer, “at fourteen she joined a road company; and within a few years she was acclaimed as the greatest actress the world had thus far known.” She was credited, at the time, with popularizing a more natural, realistic form of acting.
7. Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth shows up many times in the CBW database, in volumes such as ‘Fifty Black Women Who Changed America’ and ‘100 Greatest Women of all Time.’ What I love about Ms. Truth (born Isabella Baumfree, 1797-1883) is that she fought for equal rights for all blacks and women, putting her way ahead of her time in terms of her activism. Then there are the extraordinary and well-known details of her life: she was born into slavery in New York to a Dutch family, where Dutch was her first language. She was the first black woman to go to court against a white man and win, and it was this case that secured the freedom of her son, who was a slave. She recruited black troops for the Union army during the civil war. Throughout the 1850s and beyond she gave hundreds of public speeches advocating for abolition and women’s rights.