It came to me in the middle of a restless night, not long after my mother died. I was sleeping in her bed when suddenly a light appeared. In the light was a book. I could see the title: The Quotable Woman. I could see the layout of the pages: It was a collection of women’s quotations, women from all over the world. The next day, I hopped on my bicycle and pedaled over to the UCLA Research Library to see if such a book existed: It did not. I began to look into the standard books of quotations, such as the Oxford Book of Quotations and, of course, Bartlett’s. I discovered that in the latter, only 2 percent of the contributors were women and only one-half of the quotations! Colette wasn’t there. Virginia Woolf—one quote: “A Room of One’s Own.” And Gertrude Stein was misquoted with “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” If you read her story, “Sacred Emily,” you’ll find out that Rose is a person, and the quotation is “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”
I kept thinking that someone ought to do something about it. It finally dawned on me: That someone was me. Two years later I had 500 manuscript pages. I looked in the Yellow Pages under publishers and found one called Wollstonecraft. By now, I had learned that Mary Wollstonecraft had, in 1792, written A Vindication of the Rights of Women (“Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison”). I figured this was either an incredible coincidence or they were going to love my book.
They loved it. Within two weeks I had a contract. Thirty-five years later, The Quotable Woman, The First 5,000 Years is still in print, now in its 6th edition.
From the get-go, I began to dream up ways I could utilize my training as an actor to dramatize some of these women, bring them to life so that others could get to know them in a more intimate way. In a few years, I began doing living history portraits of some of my favorite women, about 35 of them to date. I’ve presented these at hundreds of venues to thousands of people across the nation—even in Mexico, England and China.
Last year, during Women’s History Month, I began to think: Why not bring these living history portraits to the Internet, make them available to a wider audience, take them into classrooms all over the English-speaking world from mid-grade through university? They could spice up presentations for women’s studies programs, book groups and most any civic organization concerned with women’s rights and women’s history.
The plan has finally come together. In celebration of this year’s Women’s History Month, I’m launching The Quotable Woman, the web series. Starting with two series (I envision at least seven), “American Sheroes” and “Sheroes of Diversity,” I’ll be bringing to life such notables as:
- Eleanor Roosevelt (“It is very difficult to have a free, fair and honest press anywhere in the world…”)
- Bella Abzug (“We don’t so much want to see a female Einstein become an assistant professor. We want a woman schlemiel to get promoted as quickly as a male schlemiel.”)
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton (“I am at a boiling point! If I do not find someday the use of my tongue on this question I shall die of an intellectual repression, a woman’s rights convulsion.”)
- Flo Kennedy (“Don’t agonize; organize!”)
To make this series happen, I’m running a Kickstarter campaign. You can learn all the details, watch my video (with a sample clip from the Rachel Carson webisode), dig in and back me up. It’s such a daunting task; I feel much the same way I did when I started work on The Quotable Woman. But as one of my favorite quotable women, Robin Morgan, once said: “Only she who attempts the absurd can achieve the impossible.”
Elaine Bernstein Partnow is the author of 17 books, most notably The Quotable Woman, The First 5,000 Years. She’s also an actor actively engaged in film and television, as well as a freelance book editor. You can find out more about her at ElainePartnow-Actor.com and TheQuotableWoman.com.