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The Woman Of The Century
You’ve likely never heard of her
December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
Earlier this year, Time magazine celebrated the end of the twentieth century and its own seventy-fifth anniversary together with big parties and statistics. Here are one, or two, of the numbers: The man who appeared most often on the magazine’s cover, fifty-five times, was Richard M. Nixon; two women were tied, appearing eight times each, Princess Diana and the Virgin Mary.
Is there more to say?
Certainly I wanted to find out more. I began in libraries and found that the giant encyclopedias and most of the history books of what Henry Luce, the founder of Time Inc., called the American Century were accounts of men’s deeds decorated with posed photographs from a stock company of a couple of dozen celebrated women—particularly Isadora Duncan, Ethel Barrymore, Mary Pickford, Fanny Brice, Amelia Earhart, Mildred (“Babe”) Didrikson Zaharias, Katharine Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. There were, too, fuzzier shots of suffragettes and pacifists and reformers like Jane Addams and Alice Paul or Margaret Sanger, usually being arrested for protesting against male order.
The Book of Distinguished American Women by Vincent Wilson, Jr., backed up by an advisory board of women with impressive academic credentials, lists twenty women of the twentieth century, half of them born, raised, and educated in the nineteenth. Duncan, Barrymore, Earhart, and Didrikson are there, along with a jazz singer, Bessie Smith, and two photographers, Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White. Also included was Dr. Alice Hamilton, born in 1869, the pioneer American researcher of the health effects of industrial pollution, listed as the first woman professor at Harvard. True, she taught at Harvard Medical School from 1919 to 1935, but all her male colleagues would give her was a lowly assistant professorship.
I went to Renaissance Weekend, that earnest monument to American self-improvement, to see the Renaissance Women’s Forum “How Heroines Have Changed.” The panelists were successful and articulate, and most said their heroine was “My mother!”
I interviewed dozens of women and almost as many men, asking who was the woman of the American Century. Almost everyone answered, “Eleanor Roosevelt.” When I then asserted that marriage to a powerful man is still the route to female influence, other names came into conversation. Named most often were Sanger, Betty Friedan, and Margaret Mead.
Admirable choices. Very good cases could be made for Sanger and the crusade for birth control and for Friedan, the mother of modern feminism. But in my mind, right or wrong, birth control is more a product of science than social activism. And, as you must or will see, I do not believe that feminism has come as far as some of us would like to believe. (Margaret Thatcher was often named as an extraordinary person, but I would argue that she came to political power only after Great Britain had become an eccentric riding of the United States.)
My own secret choices were two writers of great influence, Ida M. Tarbell and Rachel Carson. Distinguished American Women lists Carson, the author of Silent Spring . No one I talked to, however, mentioned Tarbell, possibly the greatest of American journalists, the muckraking author of The History of the Standard Oil Company , published in McClure’s Magazine between 1902 and 1904. By then she was in her mid-forties—and unmarried. Defenders of Standard Oil’s creator, John D. Rockefeller, tried to dismiss her work as the “spleen” of a “spinster.” But within a few years, in 1911, using Tarbell’s evidence, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the breakup of Standard Oil.
By then Tarbell was considered something of an enemy of the women’s movements of the day. She was an opponent of women’s suffrage—as was Eleanor Roosevelt—arguing that politics, power, and such were against the “true nature” of women. She literally said that a woman’s place was in the home.
Most Americans believed that then and later. In July of 1952 the most famous Catholic priest in the country, Father Fulton J. Sheen, who had his own national television show, wrote this in Look magazine: “‘O Lord I am not worthy.’ This basic humility which looks upon the other as worthy of special consideration, which softens the rigor of law, which inspires that great to be little, is the specific role of woman in civilization.... A man makes cities; a woman makes the home. . . .”
That same year my choice for the Woman of the Century, Cornelia Gjesdal Knutson, a high school music teacher, farmer’s wife, and boardinghouse operator from Oklee, Minnesota, population 495, was running for her second term in the state legislature. She had won a first term in 1950 by sixty-six votes after driving around and around the three-county district, renewing acquaintances with folks she had met when she played the piano and sang at weddings and funerals. She sang and spoke Norwegian, her first language, to the farmers working the hard, windy land along the border with North Dakota.