Silence gives the proper grace to women.
- Tecmessa, a concubine in Sophocles' Ajax, 440 B.C.
TODAY, 26 centuries later, few women seek permission from men to speak in their own voices, let alone worry about doing so gracefully. While corporate women have yet to shatter the glass ceiling, they continue to rap loudly upon it. Equally vociferous are academic women, who have been disproportionately rejected from tenured professorships in many prestigious colleges and universities.
Less well-known are the recent efforts of the publishing industry to rectify centuries of the silence about women's lives through the publication of their biographies. Over the last 35 years, an army of authors, journalists and academics have been examining historical documents, letters and diaries from and about women with the goal of explaining their lives in print.
Among the earliest of those biographies were ones about controversial first ladies, among them Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary Todd Lincoln. Those portraits were followed by others about women of extraordinary achievement, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Golda Meir and Florence Nightingale.
Predictably, readers - most of whom were (and still are) women - were intrigued. Their appetites already whetted in the rising feminist consciousness of the late 1970s, they began to clamor for still more stories about their real-life sisters.
Formerly, women had been relegated to roles in history as queens, mothers, sirens and witches. Male historians were not entirely to blame. During the 26 centuries since Sophocles wrote his demeaning words for Tecmessa, the reality was that few woman had the opportunity - the training, education or socialization - to lead lives that would change society, for better or worse.
During the last two centuries, as women became increasingly literate, they began reading novels about other females who were often portrayed as larger-than-life innocents, victims or schemers. Who among us has not admired the uncompromising integrity of Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, chortled at the flirtatious Scarlett O'Hara of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind or longed for the tantalizing beauty of Daisy in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby? Yet, magnificently crafted as they were, they remained products of the novelist's imagination, a fictional dream of life, and thus difficult to imitate or model.
Then, thanks to a heady new breed of editors and publishers working at the height of the modern feminist movement, biographies began to appear that coolly examined and exposed the lives of real women, and often did so with all their flaws exposed.
Today, entire sections of libraries and bookstores contain biographies reflecting a wide variety of female voices, ranging from characters as glamorous as Mata Hari and Marilyn Monroe to those as notorious as Emma Goldman and Bloody Mary or as admired as Simone de Beauvoir and Jackie Kennedy.
The satisfaction readers gained from such biographies is probably as varied as the subjects themselves. For some, reading about another woman's life became a cautionary tale about the perils of traditional womanhood, epitomized in the life stories of talented women such as Zelda Fitzgerald and Sylvia Plath. For others, the lives of maverick celebrities such as Isadora Duncan or Amelia Earhart may have served as a reminder of the earlier constraints upon womanly behavior that they overcame. Finally, there were the books about accomplished women such as Katharine Graham, Abigail Adams and Mother Teresa, whose histories continue to inspire women to believe in themselves and the unique gifts of their gender.
Thanks to the range of powerful female voices preserved in books today, young women can easily find examples of the various and unusual ways that women conduct their lives.
Could he return to earth for a day, even Sophocles, that ancient misogynist, would probably be stunned by the spate of books about women and the silent lessons they teach. As a playwright and a thinker, the old tragedian might even be pleased. Especially if he had daughters. Like many a contemporary woman with a traditional father, they would probably have thrown the book at him. And not necessarily gracefully.
Nancy Rubin Stuart is the author of The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox.