Popular Science Monthly/Volume 82/June 1913/A Statistical Study of Eminent Women

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THE word eminent as used in this study covers the range of meaning designated by the Century Dictionary which defines the term as "high in rank, office, worth or public estimation; conspicuous, highly distinguished." According to the same authority, the word is rarely used in a bad sense. Dr. Francis Galton,[1] who made the first statistical study of distinguished men, defined his use of eminent thus:

When I speak of an eminent man, I mean one who has achieved a position that is attained by only 250 persons in each million of men, or by one person in each 4,000.

While my selection is closer, mathematically, than Galton's, among the 868 women whom I have designated as eminent, some are included because of circumstances over which they had no control, such as great beauty, or congenital misfortune. Many were born to their positions; to others is due but little credit for the fact that they married men sufficiently eminent to accord them a place in history. Some led spectacular lives and were notorious rather than meritorious. Many of them were women of unusual intellectual ability and were eminent in the ordinary connotation of the term. More or less biographical data are at command concerning these 868 women, and to the extent that reputation may be considered a just index of ability, they are entitled to a place in a catalogue of the distinguished of earth.

In selecting the group I have followed precisely the objective method devised by Professor J. McKeen Cattell[2] in his "Statistical Study of Eminent Men." My method, in detail, was as follows: I went through the Lippincott Biographical Dictionary, the Americana, Nouveau La Rousse, Brockhaus's Konversations-Lexikon, Meyer's Konversations-Lexikon and the Encyclopædia Britannica and noted the name of every woman mentioned in each. I retained for my list the name of every woman noted in any three out of the six encyclopedias or dictionaries. My original intention was to eliminate from the lower end of the group until I had 1,000, a convenient and sufficiently large number with which to work. But when the twenty-three Biblical characters were excluded, the entire number was only 868. It is a sad commentary on the sex that from the dawn of history to the present day less than one thousand women have accomplished anything that history has recorded as worth while. One can not evade the question, is woman innately so inferior to man, or has the attitude of civilization been to close the avenues of eminence against her?

When the list of names was completed, the amount of space accorded the women by the different encyclopedias was reduced to a common standard, and the names arranged in order of merit.

According to our standard of measurement Mary Stuart is the most eminent woman of history. She has no close competitor. Queen Victoria is the most recent of the preeminently gifted women, and therefore has a large probable error of position. George Sand is the most distinguished literary woman, and we may say that the chances are even that her position as fifth in the order of merit is correctly determined. The most eminent woman of American birth is Mrs. Stowe, who ranks twentieth. Had additional or different encyclopedias been used in compiling the list, the chances are one to one that her position would be between 17 and 21.

It must be borne in mind that had other sources been used in selecting the eminent women, the position of certain ones might have shifted more or less. However, we must concede that the women who are ranked in this list as the most eminent are the ones most familiar to us in literature and history, and they unquestionably deserve their position. The twenty preeminently gifted women of history are Mary Stuart, Jeanne d'Arc, Victoria of England, Elizabeth of England, George Sand, Madame de Staël, Catherine II. of Russia, Maria Theresa, Marie Antoinette, Anne of England, Madame de Sévigné, Mary I. of England, George Eliot, Christina of Sweden, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Madame de Maintenon, Josephine of France, Catherine de Medici, Cleopatra and Harriet Bcecher Stowe.[3]

A list of this sort makes possible comparisons which are not ordinarily evident and could not otherwise be made, and the known probable error makes it possible to determine within what limits the comparisons are true. Charlotte Bronte and Charlotte Corday seemingly have nothing in common, yet their respective numbers in order of merit are 21 and 22. Marie Brinvilliers, whose mania for poisoning makes it impossible to classify her as anything but a criminal, just precedes Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. Joanna Baillie, the poet; Mrs. Siddons, the actress, and Beatrice Cenci, whose beauty and tragic fate have been preserved for us in the colors of Guido Reni and in the lines of Shelley, are numbered 89, 90 and 91, respectively.

The range of eminence covered by these 868 women is wide. Mary Stuart, with 607.67 lines, is more than one hundred and eighty-eight times as eminent as Constance Bonaparte with 3.23 lines. There are forty-nine women who are given one hundred or more lines in the encyclopedias, and there are twenty-seven that are given less than ten lines. The average amount of space accorded is 43.2 lines.

This group of eminent women is spread over a long period of time. From the seventh century before Christ to the nineteenth century after Christ, inclusive, the light of feminine genius has never been extinguished, though sometimes it has burned but dimly. Beginning with three cases in the seventh century before Christ, we observe that the Golden Age of Greece records a rise in the curve. Who knows but that her women were potentially as great as her men, and if Plato's theory regarding the education of women had been universally applied, the curve might not have risen higher? In the second century before Christ, Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, is the sole representative. The period of Roman supremacy is clearly depicted, as is also that of the religious persecutions in the third century, eleven of the fourteen representatives of that century being martyrs. Through the Dark Ages, the level of the curve remains almost stationary. There is a little rise in the twelfth century, but a subsequent fall in the thirteenth. This, however, is insignificant because of the few cases. The curve rises considerably in the fourteenth century, almost doubles its height in the fifteenth, and does not drop again. The eighteenth century produces 213 cases, or 24.5 per cent., of the eminent women of history. We must bear in mind the fact that the records for the nineteenth century are neither complete nor accurate. The youngest woman on my list was born in 1880, therefore one fifth of the century is not represented, and one half of it but partially. Ability in woman is more readily and willingly recognized at the present time than formerly, so names of women whose reputation for eminence may not prove enduring may be included in the nineteenth-century group. On the other hand, the eminence of a large group of women is now in the process of making, and subsequent biographers may accord them a more important place than their contemporaries. While the figures for this last century are in no respect accurate, they are in many respects interesting. The century furnished 335 cases, or 38.5 per cent., of the total number of eminent women. Sixty-three per cent, of the eminent women of history were born in the last two centuries. If we were able to compare the number of cases in each century with the population of that period, as Professor Cattell pointed out in his study, the curve would, in some respects, be different from this one. For a partial comparison we have used a modified form of the table of growth of population given by Mulhall[4] and have found that while the number of eminent women produced by England, France, Russia, Austria, Italy, Spain, Germany and the United States increased from 28 in the fifteenth century to 187 in the eighteenth century, the ratio of eminent women per ten million of population also increased from 6.1 to 15.3 in the same period. Those who refuse to lose faith in woman's ability may find encouragement in the fact that the gain of the rate per ten million of population of the sixteenth century over the fifteenth was 19.6 per cent.; of the seventeenth over the sixteenth, 27.3 per cent.; of the eighteenth over the seventeenth, 64.5. An interesting conjecture is whether the complete record for the nineteenth century will give a gain per cent, over that of the eighteenth correlative with the increased social and educational advantages which women have attained.

PSM V82 D600 Distribution of eminent men and women by half century periods.png
Curve I. Distribution of Eminent Men and Eminent Women in Periods of Half Centuries.

Curve I. shows the distribution of distinguished women and distinguished men in periods of half centuries, the figures for the men being taken from the previously quoted article by Professor Cattell. In comparing the distribution of eminent men and eminent women through the centuries, three facts must be borne in mind. (1) One thousand eminent men were studied, and only eight hundred and sixty-eight women, so the male curve might be expected at all points to rise higher than the female. (2) The eminent men represent a much higher degree of selection than the women. (3) The study of eminent men was made in 1903 and no living persons were included. These facts do not, however, make it impossible for us to note certain similarities and dissimilarities.

The curves are similar during the period of Greek supremacy. The male curve for the Roman period is much more regular than the female. The last half century of the pre-Christian era which produced more eminent Roman men than any other, produced but one eminent Eoman woman. The lines cross for the first time in the second half of the third century after Christ. From the sixth to the eleventh century the number of women equals or exceeds the number of men. With few exceptions, the eminent women of these centuries are sovereigns, abbesses and saints, or belong to the groups "Marriage" and "Birth." If the eminent women were selected as rigidly as the eminent men, the position of the curves through these centuries would undoubtedly be reversed. Of the later period, Professor Cattell writes,

In our curve there are three noticeable breaks. . . . Thus, in the fourteenth century there was a pause followed by a gradual improvement and an extraordinary fruition at the end of the fifteenth century. . . . There was then a pause in progress until a century later England and France took the lead. . . . The latter part of the seventeenth century was a sterile period, followed by a revival culminating in the French Revolution.

If we except the first half of the sixteenth century, when the male curve fell and the female rose, the identical words might have been written of the eminent women. Whatever the factors in these centuries that cooperated to produce genius, they were effective in both sexes, though to a lesser degree in the one than in the other.

The 868 eminent women are natives of forty-two different nations. England has furnished eight more distinguished women than France. Germany ranks third with 114; America, only two centuries old, is fourth. Italy produced 60, Rome 41, Austria 24, and Spain 23, eminent women. Russia claims 20, Sweden 16, Greece 15 and Scotland 14. Twelve of the eminent women belong to the Byzantine Empire, 11 to Holland, and 9 to Ireland. Twenty-seven nations each produced fewer than ten eminent women.

The relative number of women of ability produced by England, France, Germany, America and Italy, at different periods, is shown in Curve II. In the fifteenth century, France and Italy were leading in the number of eminent women. By the beginning of the sixteenth century France was declining and England had surpassed them both. But England had a subsequent fall, and France a rapid rise, at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Later in the century, France declined again; England gained; the German curve rose rapidly; and the Italian remained very low. Of the five modern nations which have contributed the largest number of eminent women, France is the only one for whom the incomplete records of the nineteenth century show a decline in the number of eminent women over the eighteenth century. We quote as peculiarly applicable what Professor Cattell said regarding the eminent men:
PSM V82 D602 Numbers of eminent men and women of different nationalities.png
Curve II. The Numbers of Eminent Women of Different Nationalities.
The French Revolution brought into prominence many men not truly great, and the position then attained by France is not held in the nineteenth century.

The figures for the last century reveal a third period of Italian activity, chiefly in music and literature. In so far as the data for the nineteenth century are reliable, America gives greater promise for the immediate future than any other nation.

PSM V82 D603 Number of eminent women of various nationalities by population.png
Curve III. The Number of Eminent Women of Different Nationalities on the Basis of Population.

Curve III., which shows the record of these same five nations through the same centuries on the basis of population, is, in one sense, more significant. From the point of view of the number of eminent women per ten million of population, France is not the only nation whose nineteenth century ratio fails to equal that of the eighteenth. Germany, and especially England, have failed signally in this respect. Italy is the only one of the five modern nations which at present shows a gain in ratio of eminent women according to population, in the last century over the previous one. She seems to be rising out of the trough of a curve, the crest of which was reached in her sixteenth century Renaissance. These figures emphasize the promising situation in America, In another half century, it will undoubtedly be seen that while our population increased from 3,930,000 in 1790 to 50,155,783 in 1880, there was a corresponding increase in the number of American women of ability per ten million of population. No more vital problem in connection with the social and educational life of woman could be propounded than the one revealed by these curves. Is the racial difference an important factor, or must one look to the social conditions and educational opportunities of the time for an explanation? Why is it that England, starting in the fifteenth century with the same ratio as Italy (8 eminent women per ten million of population) should rise in the eighteenth century to 73, while Italy fell to 5? Or, why has the English curve, which started lower than the French, and equal with the Italian, towered, since the sixteenth century, so far above the remaining four? How explain the fact that while France was so prominent in the eyes of the world in the eighteenth century, and her women had unusual opportunity to come into public notice, the number of eminent women on the basis of population being produced by Germany, and especially by England, was far in advance of the number being produced by France? In America, the youngest of the five nations, what is there to explain our present position above Italy, Germany and France, and second only to England? Or, to be more insistent, what would a comparison of modern English and American conditions reveal that would determine that the latter should be second, instead of first, in the ratio of eminent women per ten million of population?

Accustomed as we are to thinking of the sphere of woman as a limited one, it is interesting to note that the 868 women became eminent in twenty-nine lines of activity, if some of the following classifications can be so designated. The distribution is as follows: Literature 337; Marriage 87; Religion 64; Sovereign 59; Actress 56; Music 49; Birth 39; Mistress 29; Scholar 20; Political Influence or Ability 19; Artist 17; Philanthropy 12; Tragic Fate 11; Heroine 10; Motherhood 10; Reformer 9; Dancer 6; Immortalized in Literature 6; Patron of Learning 6; Beauty 6; Educator 3; Revolutionist 2; Misfortune 2; Traveler 2; Adventuress 2; Physician 2; Fortune Teller 1; Conjugal Devotion 1; Criminal 1.

Of the entire group of women 38.8 per cent, won their eminence by the use of the pen. It is probable that woman has had more opportunity in literature than in any other line of work. Her actions have been restricted in various degrees at different times, and in different localities, and, to a certain extent, her thought has been regulated. It is, undoubtedly, her innate right to reign supreme over her feelings. An analysis of the group of 337 writers shows a large per cent, of feminine literature to be of an emotional or imaginative nature. If, to the group of writers we add the women classed under "Religion," the actresses and the musicians, we note that we have 506, or 58.2 per cent., of the entire group of eminent women before we reach the small group of scholars who have exercised the power of reason. Add to this the artists and dancers as further illustrations of emotional activity, and we still see that the common concept of a woman as a creature of feeling rather than a creature of reason may not be without foundation. If this conception is just, our classification tends to show that when woman has attained eminence, it has not been in spite of her femininity, but rather because of it.

As remote as the seventh century before Christ women became eminent in literature. This early work is poetry and undoubtedly represents the outburst of genius rather than the result of training. In the early centuries, a woman might be born to eminence, and in a few instances she was allowed to govern, but a large percentage of the names that have come down to us as late as the sixteenth century are those of women who were wives of men more distinguished than themselves. The Christian religion made a strong appeal to womanhood, and no century has been without its representative in this field. In the group of 64 eminent women classed under "Religion" in our study, five were founders of sects known respectively as Christian Science, the Buchanites, the Southcottians, the Countess of Huntingdon's Connection, and the Shakers. In addition, Saint Clara founded the Franciscan Order of Nuns; Saint Theresa, the Barefooted Carmelites; Angela Merici, the Hrsuline Order; and Jeanne Chantal, the Order of Visitation. Sixteen, or one fourth of the group, suffered martyrdom. Motherhood, heroism and beauty occur-occasionally without reference to time or nationality. Actresses date only from the seventeenth century, and musicians from the eighteenth. The reformers, dancers, educators, revolutionists, travelers and physicians are products of the last two centuries. For those who are interested in the problem of the modern woman the record for the nineteenth century ought to be of interest. Of the 335 women of the century, 184 are writers. The stage has been the stepping stone to eminence for more than eight times as many women as became noted because of their religion. If, however, we allow a broad interpretation of religion to include social service, and thus combine the groups "Reformers" and "Philanthropists" with the group "Religion," the ratio is 33 to 19. Forty-three of the eminent women of the century are musicians; eight are artists. There are five scholars. Of the seven women born to eminence in the last century, five are near relatives of Napoleon I., the most eminent man of history.

Of the 337 writers, 108 were English, 58 German, 56 French and 41 American. Rome furnished 10 of the Christian martyrs. Aside from Rome, England, France and Italy have produced most of the saints of history. Seven of the great queens were Spanish, and 7 Russian. Twenty-one of the 56 actresses were French, and 13 English. It has been in France more than in any other country that women have been born to greatness. Only seven nations are represented in the group "Mistresses," France producing 16 of the 29. England, Germany and Italy each claim 3 scholars; America has one, the astronomer, Maria Mitchell. French women have become eminent through politics more than the women of any other nation. The artists are scattered, France and Italy leading with 3 each. Germany and Italy have led in musicians with 9 each. England has led in philanthropy as the work of woman. The social reformers comprise the largest group, which belongs entirely to one nation. These 9 women were Americans.

Although 38.8 per cent, of the entire group of women became eminent in literature, it does not follow that in this line of work they attained the highest degree of eminence. The following table shows the average number of lives given to the different groups. The averages may be considered as indices of merit for the various occupations. The number of cases on which the average is based is indicated in each instance. The results show very clearly that it has been as sovereigns that women have become the most eminent. Second in rank, but reduced to almost one half the degree of distinction attained by the sovereigns is the group of politicians. Motherhood, based on fewer cases than either of the two previous groups, ranks third. This group of mothers does not include women, who, besides having eminent sons or daughters, were themselves distinguished in some line of activity. Such women fall in the several groups in which they achieved fame. This group is comprised of those women whose only claim to eminence is their motherhood. Undoubtedly, they were very capable women. Typical illustrations are Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine, and Lætitia Bonaparte, the mother of the first emperor. The mistresses—which group includes the early Greek courtesans—rank high, and justly so. Our standards have changed, and while our moral sense may be offended at seeing twenty-nine women so classified, we are led to believe that, in many instances, these women, whatever their morals, were intellectually among the most capable of their sex. Restricted by the social customs of their times, they found in this relation an opportunity to meet and associate with men of their own intellectual power. Were it not so, it scarcely seems probable that mere beauty or pleasing personality which, fascinated some weak-minded king could have been sufficient reason for the high degree of merit which history has accorded them.

The artists rank comparatively low in merit. However, if we consider the groups of activity in which women have actually done things—attained their eminence by genuine labor—of the groups sufficiently large in size to expect accuracy in results, we note that the artists rank higher than the actresses, writers or musicians. A possible explanation of the very low degree of merit accorded the musicians is the fact that 43 of the 49 belong to the nineteenth century, and of these 43, 20 are living at the present time, so their merit is not yet accurately determined.

The merit of George Sand, Madame de Staël, Madame de Sévigné, George Eliot, Mrs. Browning, Mrs. Stowe and Charlotte Brontë is not sufficient, when grouped with so many writers of less ability, to bring the average for the group "Literature" to more than 29.74.

Index of Merit for Occupations

Average No.
of Lines
No. Cases on which
Average is Based
Sovereign 112.10 59
Political influence 62.13 19
Motherhood 46.14 10
Mistress 46.09 29
Beauty 44.62 6
Religion 43.58 64
Tragic fate 42.83 11
Marriage 38.09 87
Patron of learning 37.60 6
Heroine 35.46 10
Scholar 35.35 20
Artist 34.54 17
Reformer 32.29 9
Actress 32.02 56
Literature 29.74 337
Immortalized in literature 29.30 6
Music 27.46 49
Birth 27.45 39

Considerable interest always attaches to the wives of eminent men, and to the husbands of eminent women. Personally, we do not believe that, with rational people, love is blind, hence it seems that a study of the marriage relations of this group of eminent women ought to reveal information, not only interesting, but valuable in throwing light on certain social and psychological problems. We must remember in this connection, however, that one current definition of genius docs not always grant the rationality of the individual. Only lawful marriages are considered in this study; liaisons are not recognized. Four morganatic unions are included. Owing to lack of information, ninety-three eminent women are unclassified as either married or unmarried.

One hundred and forty-two, or 16.3 per cent., of the entire number of women of ability, have not married. Of this group, 72.5 per cent, were born in the last two centuries, and 49.2 per cent, of the unmarried eminent women of history belong to the nineteenth century. There is, of course, the possibility that some of our contemporary women of distinction may yet marry, and thus reduce this ratio. England and America have produced 59.8 per cent, of the unmarried women of ability. The former country has twenty-one more unmarried eminent women than the latter, but the figures for America are the more significant, since in terms of per cent, they mean, that of the total number of distinguished women produced by England, 29.7 per cent, of them have not married; whereas, in America, the ratio is 42.6 per cent. It is a pertinent question whether our women realize that in attaining eminence nearly one half the number sacrifice their own homes and families. Our figures do not show that any one line of activity has appealed particularly to the unmarried group. Neither were they, in their freedom from the duties and responsibilities of wifehood and motherhood, able to attain a higher degree of eminence than the married women; nor was their average length of life found to be longer.

Two hundred and fifty-nine of the distinguished women married men sufficiently eminent to be recorded in three or more of the six encyclopedias used in collecting the list of women. The number of lines accorded these husbands was counted and submitted to the same system of standardization as that used for the women. Napoleon I., Peter the Great, Henry IA r. of France, Philip II. of Spain, Mark Antony, Nero, Philip II. of France, Claudius, Louis XII. of France, Ptolemy I. and Chilperic I. were each married to two of the eminent women. Five of the wives of Henry VIII. of England are included in our list of distinguished women. On the other hand, twenty-two of the women married more than one husband sufficiently eminent to fall within our classification.

Our knowledge of the relative eminence of the husbands and wives makes possible some interesting comparisons. Eight of the husbands, namely, Napoleon I., Mohammed, Julius Cæsar, Martin Luther, Alexander the Great, Frederick the Great, Socrates and Napoleon III. are more eminent than Mary Stuart, the most eminent woman of history. Jeanne d'Arc and Queen Victoria are less eminent than the poet Shelley, but more eminent than the first Roman emperor, Augustus Cæsar. Mary 1. of England is of equal eminence with Philip IV. of France. Rosa Bonheur and Antoninus Pius are accorded the same number of lines. Thirteen eminent women are less distinguished than King Hakon of Norway, the least eminent of the husbands. We have here an exact means for telling whether Robert Browning is more or less eminent than his gifted wife, and how much; whether the joint sovereigns of England, William and Mary, are equally distinguished; whether Cornelia, the mother, and Tiberius Sempronius, the father, of the Gracchi are equally famous; and whether Otto Goldschmidt is more or less distinguished than Jenny Lind.

The two hundred and fifty-nine eminent women who married men of sufficient distinction to come within our criterion of eminence were natives of thirty-one different nations, but France, England, Germany and Rome produced the larger number of them. Julia Ward Howe, Julia Marlowe and Elizabeth Drew Stoddard are the only noteworthy American women who married husbands sufficiently eminent to be included in our list.

The average age at which eminent women have married (based on 459 cases) is 23.4 years. This means, in each instance, the age when married for the first time. Three of the women wen 1 married under ten years; thirty were married before they were fifteen; five married later than fifty. The youngest bride was Joan of Naples, who at the age of six was married to Andrew, Prince of Hungary. The oldest bride was Angela Burdette-Coutts, who at sixty-seven married Mr. Ashmead-Bartlett.

The following table shows a fairly regular tendency through the centuries to postpone marriage from 16.2 years in the twelfth century to 26.2 years in the nineteenth. The range of age of brides has also varied, particularly in the maximum limit. Through the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries no eminent woman was married Later than thirty. In the last four centuries the maximum limit has varied from forty-three to sixty-seven. In other words, we may say that the maximum age of marriage during the last four centuries (nineteenth, eighteenth, seventeenth, sixteenth) averaged 53.3 years; for the preceding four centuries (fifteenth, fourteenth, thirteenth, twelfth) it averaged 25.8 years.

Age at Marriage in Different Centuries

Century Average Age at
No. of Cases on which
Average is Based
Range of Age of Brides,
19 26.2 189 15-67
18 23.1 127 13-53
17 20.0 50 13-43
16 21.7 28 12.50
15 17.6 20 13-26
14 13.8 11 6-18
13 16.6 5 12-29
12 16.2 5 8-30

There is considerable variation in the average age at which women of ability have married in different nations. Considering only those countries for which we have record of nine or more cases, it has been found that the average age at which American women of ability marry is 27.7 years, which is 9.3 years later than the average age at which Russian women of eminence marry. Distinguished women of English birth marry three years younger than American women, but 1.8 years later than German, and 3.5 years later than French women of ability. The average age at marriage of Italian and French eminent women is practically the same (21.3 and 21.2 years, respectively).

The average age at which eminent women engaged in thirteen different activities married is shown in the following table. Though we have record of only five reformers we feel fairly confident that the group is justly placed. Only a few American women of the nineteenth century have achieved eminence as social reformers; but American women of ability marry later than those of any other nation, and the average age at marriage in the nineteenth century is later than in any other period of history. The fact that musicians marry 3.1 years later than actresses, and 4.4 years later than artists, seems to indicate that, in many instances, marriage was postponed until a musical reputation had been won. The women who inherited or wedded their right to eminence, that is, the members of the groups "Marriage," "Sovereign" and "Birth" married earlier; where the cases are sufficiently numerous to justify a conclusion it seems that the women who have won by personal effort their right to distinction—the actresses, writers, musicians and reformers—married several years later.

Age at Marriage by Occupation

Average Age
at Marriage
No. Cases on which
Average is Based
Reformer 27.4 5
Music 26.7 35
Mistress 26.4 7
Literature 25.7 180
Actress 23.6 32
Religion 22.4 14
Artist 22.3 6
Scholar 21.3 8
Political influence 19.5 14
Mother 19.3 6
Birth 19.3 24
Sovereign 18.9 40
Marriage 18.8 62

Of the eminent women, 520 are known to have married once, 89 married twice, 21 married three times, and Catherine Parr, Joan I. of Naples, Jacqueline of Holland, Lola Montez and Zoe II. were each married four times. Though the numbers are small, it is of interest to note that 42 per cent, of the group of women who became eminent because of political influence or ability were married more than once. Of the total group of musicians, 30.6 per cent, had more than one husband.

Eminent women have not, on the whole, made particularly successful wives, since 11.6 per cent, of the 781 unions of which we have record have ended in separation or divorce. 36 of the 91 cases of dissolution occurred in families where both husband and wife were famous.

Divorces have been most frequent among distinguished women of German birth. It is barely posible that we have found these results, not because of actual conditions, but because the German encyclopedias are more inclined to give details of domestic life than are those of other nations. The German divorce rate, however, is known to be high. Though much is said about the alarming increase of the rate of divorce in America, it does not hold in the case of eminent women (3 cases).

I have tried to discover whether divorce has been more or less frequent when the husband and wife have been engaged in the same occupation than when their interests were more or less diverse. I hoped to learn whether a singer has been more apt to run into matrimonial shipwreck if she married a composer than if she chose a lawyer for a husband. Has it been safer for a literary woman to marry a scholar or a banker? My figures are not very conclusive, owing to the small number of cases in each occupation, but where a conclusion is warranted, our table tends to show that artists and musicians are safer matrimonially when married to men whose interests are in fields different from their own. In other words, it is better when the husband and wife are not both engaged in an activity which is controlled by temperament and inspiration rather than by reason. In the case of actresses, the percentage of divorce is just the same when the husband is an actor as when he is engaged in some other occupation. With writers, the divorce rate is slightly smaller when the husband is a literary man.

Royal divorces are recorded as remote as the fourth century before Christ. Eminent women not of aristocratic birth have obtained divorces only in the last three centuries.

It has been impossible to discover at what age these women became eminent, but in 670 cases I have been able to ascertain the age at death. Curve IV. represents the age distribution graphically. Both ends of the curve are interesting. Nine women died before they were twenty; nineteen lived to be over ninety. The average length of life is 60.8 years. The slight rise in the curve for eminent women in the twenties, and again in the forties, tends to confirm Galton's conclusion that "among the gifted men there is a small class who have weak and excitable constitutions, who are destined to early death, but that the remainder consists of men likely to enjoy a vigorous old age."[5] Our cases are so few that we can not lay stress on these periods as being particularly precarious in the case of eminent women.

PSM V82 D612 Distribution of ages of eminent women at death.png
Curve IV. Distribution of Ages of Eminent Women at Death.

In spite of the fact that in a number of instances the data are too meager to be reliable, it seemed worth while to compute the average age of the eminent women for the different centuries. For the first two centuries after Christ I have only three cases each, but these tend to show that in this remote period, eminent women died early. The martyr's block has left its record in the third century, the average, based on seven cases, being only 28.2 years. Saint Helena escaped a violent death and lived to be 77. If her case were excluded, the average age for the century would be 20.1 years. During the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries the average length of life seems to have been longer. For the remainder of the Middle Ages the figures are so meager as to render them valueless, but from the fourteenth century the numbers are sufficiently large to at least represent a tendency. The average age at death in the case of eminent women of the fourteenth century was 48.7 years; in the fifteenth century, 49.3 years; in the sixteenth century, 49.8 years; in the seventeenth century the average was increased to 60.6 years; in the eighteenth century it was 64.1 years; in the nineteenth century, 62.7 years. This, however, is not a final figure for those of this century who are to be the longest lived and who will tend to increase this average arc yet living. It is probable that these ages have no special relation to eminent women, but they seem to show that the advancement of civilization with the increased knowledge of hygiene and the art of living, together with the modern development of medicine and surgery, have cooperated to make it more probable that the days of woman will be prolonged to three score years and ten.

It is of interest to note that the women who have been engaged in social service, the reformers and philanthropists, were the longest lived. The average age of the artists is 66.7 years, and of the actresses 64.5 years. In addition to these, the writers, scholars, politicians and mothers all lived to an average age exceeding that for the entire group. The musicians average 58.4 years; those famous by birth, as sovereigns, mistresses, in religion and by marriage all average less than the group average.

American women of ability are noticeably longer lived than those of any other nation. While this average results in part from the fact that we are a young nation and hence our figures are not affected by early deaths in remoter centuries, it also speaks well for the physical vigor of American women, for our respect for sanitation, and for the skill of American physicians and surgeons. In addition to the American women of eminence, those of Scotland, Germany, Austria and England have lived to more than 60.8 years, the average for the entire group. The women of the Byzantine Empire, of France, Sweden, Holland, Italy, Ireland, Spain, Russia and Borne have failed to attain this average.

Sixty-two, or 7 per cent., of the eminent women of history are known to have suffered violent or unnatural deaths. This bloody chapter began with the tragic death of the Roman girl, Lucretia, in the sixth century before Christ and nineteen centuries are represented in the record. Nineteen of these sixty-two women were Romans; France contributed eight, leading the modern nations in this respect. Sovereigns, or the wives of sovereigns, have been the most frequent victims.

Seventy-two, or 33.1 per cent., of the 217 fathers of the eminent women regarding whom we have been able to collect information, belonged to the so-called learned professions—medicine, teaching, law and the ministry. Our figures tend to show that an eminent daughter has been more apt than not to become distinguished in a line of work similar to that of her father. For example, in the case of sixteen fathers who were musicians, nine of their daughters who achieved fame were also musicians, and two were in the closely related field of acting. Of fifteen fathers who were literary men, fourteen of their eminent daughters were also writers. In considering the similarity of occupation between eminent daughter and father, women of aristocratic extraction have been excluded.

Regarding the cases of relationship that were found to exist between the eminent women not of noble birth, eighteen of the thirty-eight instances are in the first generation between sister and sister. Fifteen cases occur in the second generation, eight between mother and daughter, and seven between aunt and niece. In the third generation, there are four cases, and in the fifth generation, one case. The figures show a marked tendency for the woman in the younger generation to become eminent in the same, or closely allied line of activity as that in which her eminent relative won distinction.

An interesting and suggestive group for consideration is that of the contemporary eminent women. Of these there are 107. The first item of interest is that this group is so large. 12.3 per cent, of the eminent women of history are living at the time this study is made. It required over twenty-five hundred years to produce the remaining 87.7 per cent. This group represents nineteen nationalities, and twelve lines of activity. England, with twenty-two cases, leads in the number of distinguished women of the present generation; Germany and America each claim eighteen; France has twelve, and Italy seven. Austria has six; Sweden, four; Holland, Spain and Hungary, three each; Russia and Poland, two each; and Denmark, Canada, Venezuela, Belgium, Roumania, Scotland and Norway, one each. Canada and Venezuela are represented for the first time in history in the present generation.

In the Old World it is probable that woman will always be able to acquire fame with the wedding ring, and to reign as a sovereign, thus being assured a place in history. If we eliminate those two groups, the fields in which contemporary women are acquiring eminence are, in spite of greater social and educational advantages, and freedom from restriction in many lines, practically limited to three. Fifty-five are writers, twenty are musicians and fourteen are actresses. We wish that we might not have found Jane Addams working alone in the great field of social reform, and that Madame Curie might not have been the only scientist of her generation. In America, where women enjoy greater freedom than in any other part of the globe, there is little evidence of any special results of these advantages. The nation and generation are proud of the achievements of Helen Keller, but one expects that our great educational institutions would produce feminine scholars and teachers of great ability. Possibly, they are in our midst, but like the prophets of old, are without honor in their own generation as well as in their own country.

In order to do justice to this group of eminent women a number of lines of inquiry not yet touched upon deserve to be investigated. Perhaps the most important of these is a study of their children. A knowledge of the number of children born to or reared to maturity by these 634 wives will determine whether in attaining eminence they sacrificed the function universally accepted as the noblest. It may, perhaps, be shown that whatever they did to perpetuate themselves in history was not at the expense of, but rather in addition to the duties of motherhood. Some correlation, either positive or negative, may be revealed between the size of family and the degree of eminence attained. The number of children who became famous is also of great importance from the standpoint of heredity, and it will at least be interesting to know whether more of them were sons or daughters, and how their fields of life activity agreed with or differed from that of their mothers. A study of the state of health and cause of death may reveal much needed information as to whether female genius differs physically or physiologically from others of her sex. The relative variability of the sexes is a matter of prime importance in a study of female ability, as is also the question of psychical sex differences. Thorough examination of the social and educational environment of this group of eminent women is not only desirable, but essential in understanding them as the historical representatives of their time. The relative productivity of the aristocracy, and a careful social classification ought to be made. Women have not always had the advantages they now enjoy. It is not probable that the female voice has varied in sweetness through the ages, yet it was not until the eighteenth century that we have record of a noted songstress. Have we any reason to believe that when women have gained all the rights and privileges for which they now clamor that any significant results will follow? Is there a biological limitation which says to the female, "Thus far shalt thou go and no farther"? While we may never be able to settle these questions definitely, a just and thorough consideration of all the points of approach will, we trust, enable us to answer with some degree of certainty the question which we propounded at the beginning of our study, and which has haunted us throughout the research, namely, has innate inferiority been the reason for the small number of eminent women, or has civilization never yet allowed them an opportunity to develop their innate powers and possibilities?

  1. "Hereditary Genius," p. 10, 1869.
  2. "A Statistical Study of Eminent Men," Pop. Sci. Mo., Vol. 62, p. 359, 1903.
  3. The complete list of the 868 eminent women together with detailed and technical discussion of the data will be found in a thesis accepted for the degree of doctor of philosophy by the department of psychology, Columbia University, to be published in Archives of Psychology (The Science Press, New York).
  4. "Dictionary of Statistics," 4th edition, 1898, p. 441.
  5. "Hereditary Genius," p. 332, 1869.