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Archive for Tuesday, December 21, 1999

December 21, 1999

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— It's list time again. The December imperative to name the man -- excuse me, the person -- of the year that sometimes segues into the task of picking the person of the decade or even the century has entered the ultimate phase. We are asked to choose the person of the millennium.

Readers of this space will not be surprised to discover that I've been being looking for a person of the female persuasion to enter as my Super Bowl contestant. And that's no easy task.

There's no female Gutenberg, no female Darwin, Shakespeare, Einstein or, for that matter, Hitler. As Jane Knowles, the head of Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library, a repository of women's history, says ruefully, "It hasn't exactly been a level playing field."

We began this millennium in the truly dark ages. Women were chattel, even when they were the chattel of men who were themselves chattel. The order of the millennial day was forced marriage, purdah, wife-beating, footbinding, and early death by endless childbirth.

It wasn't until the last two centuries that we began to eschew some of these practices. And anybody who looks around today can see there's still some eschewing left to be done.

Under the circumstances, we still have some pretty interesting contenders. Consider Hildegarde of Bingen, the 12th-century abbess, musician and theologian -- a Renaissance woman before there was even a Renaissance. Or Lady Murasaki, the 11th-century Japanese author of the first modern novel, "The Tale of Genji," which is still in print.

We had Joan of Arc in France and Fa Mulan in China. We had Queen Elizabeth I in England and Harriet Tubman in America. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" in the late 18th century and Eleanor Roosevelt put forth the Universal Declaration of Rights in the mid-20th.

There were thousands of such heroines in the past thousand years from Madame Curie to Margaret Sanger -- and don't you dare count Princess Di. But most women never got a shot at "greatness." They were making the meals and having the babies.

I leave it to Virginia Woolf to describe their uncredited role on that uneven playing field. In 1929, in "A Room of One's Own," she wrote aggrievedly, "Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses, possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size."

Nevertheless, and with a bit more help from Woolf, I have come up with my candidate. I hereby anoint the Woman of the Millennium: Anonymous. Or if you prefer, Anonyma.

Woolf was first to give a byline to the anonymous woman. She wrote: "I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman."

She was trying to describe the paucity, even absence, of great women writers. Why no female Shakespeare? Woolf explained that "Shakespeare's sister" -- had he one -- never had a prayer. Refused education, banned from the stage, laughed at, unable to make a living, she was doomed to the historic dustbin.

True enough. But my Anonyma is more than the sum total of the unknown female creators of the millennium. She also represents the forgotten mass of women who took part in all the movements that literally moved women forward.

Call her the Zelig or the Zeitgeist, if you must go from A to Z. But Anomyna is also, as historian Louise Bernikow chimes in, "all the women who marched in every demonstration, in every parade, who wrote the leaflets for freeing the slaves and winning the vote. The women who staffed the (birth control) clinics and did the work of social change."

I also chose Anonyma because she reminds us that the entire Great Man or Great Woman view of history is cockeyed. There is an idea that one person stands alone, on his or her own feet -- The Great Person as individual without connections to the past.

But Galileo, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela did not spring full-born from the head of Zeus. As Woolf also wrote, "any great figure of the past ... is an inheritor as well as an originator."

What we have now, at a few minutes to midnight of the new millennium, are lives built on the sum total of the people who came before us. A lot of them were women standing on the shoulders of their predecessors just high enough to reach the next rung and pull a few more up. Most of them were anonymous.

As millenniums go, this one ends up better than it began. So, my hat goes off and my crown goes on to Anonyma.

-- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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