Unbecoming a Lady: The Forgotten Sluts and Shrews Who Shaped America

Image of Unbecoming a Lady: The Forgotten Sluts and Shrews Who Shaped America
Release Date: 
March 5, 2024
Simon Element
Reviewed by: 

“a quick read, an often sarcastic and easily relatable tome for anyone who appreciates a woman with cojones.”

Hear ye feminists and friends thereof: At last we have a well-researched, naughty, bold, and bawdy look at little-known, outstanding female heroines of the past.

From the get-go just the chapter titles alone let the reader know they are in for a crazy ride: “Ballbusters; That’s Sissy Stuff; Running Her Mouth”—this book is a must read for feminists, female or male. To quote the author early on, “the way you’re tilting your head . . . makes you look like an absolute whore.”

The author also feels it necessary to make the (perhaps unenlightened) reader know that they are in for a ride by stating that there are archaic terms used that may, nowadays be offensive. Good warning!

What was expected of women years ago (shiny hair, smooth skin, modesty) fortunately, no longer applies. Don’t talk too much and stop aging (“a degrading habit.”)

The intro explains that the book is dedicated to women, who at the turn of the 20th century, knew how they should behave but ignored it. They were just “plain cranky, selfish sluts . . .” And quiet women never made history. Look at Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The 18 women’s stories show how they were “unbecoming” according to archaic tradition.

An example mentions the Cherry Sisters at the turn of the 19th century. They were a four-sister act who performed bad vaudeville. They called themselves the “Worst Vaudeville Act in the World,” yet their revenge was that people came to see them. These rough-edged sisters from Iowa, ahead of their time for the 1890s, sang risqué songs, changed (terrible) costumes, and read poetry with “an astounding disregard for personal dignity.” Yet these women went against the times, were deemed grotesque, and yet, they made money. The author equates their act to a “successful 1890s GoFundMe campaign.”

Hetty Green, in the 1890s through early 20th century, might have been deemed a contradiction to both be a financial genius and to have a vagina. Green, who was deemed “The Witch of Wall Street,” became the (then-) richest self-made woman in the world, by then-male-only contrarian investing.

But she was notoriously cheap, frequently moved apartments to avoid a month’s rent, took grotesque measures to avoid hernia surgery, and worse. Then she tried to amend her late aunt’s will to leave everything to Hetty (instead of to charity)—which, alas, was an unsuccessful move.

Upon her death, Green left her fortune to one of her children, her son whose infected leg she refused to treat years back, who ended up a wealthy amputee who married a prostitute during the roaring ’20s.

There’s a chapter on being a “businesswoman in the old days.” Oneill comically states that “women didn’t become actual people until sometime in the late 1970s.”  

Lena Himmelstein Bryant Malsin, a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant in New York City in the 1900s, became widowed at 20 with a young baby and sewing skills. Left with pawning her wedding diamond earrings, she created a trendy dressmaking business. She basically was the inventor of maternity clothes for “confined” wealthy women. Eventually she took the brand name of Lane Bryant, a business for full figures still thriving more than 100 years later. “Fat chicks were punk before it was cool.”

Lillian Gilbreth, Ph.D., was an educated woman professor and engineer who designed the efficient “modern . . . Kitchen Practical” in 1929, saving “housewives” from walking about 6,000 miles extra during their lifetimes of running their kitchens. She also birthed 12 children. (The source of Cheaper by the Dozen.) Her husband, Frank, ran their business but died young, and she was blackballed from her industry because dealing with women was unacceptable in the 1920s. Eventually Gilbreth redesigned the menstrual pad in 1927 and studied middle-aged women in the workplace.

Carrie Nation, in the late 1860s, gave birth to a daughter with “mental deficiencies,” who, as Carrie claimed, was the result of her (then deceased) drunk doctor (second) husband. This made Nation an extreme teetotaler.

Her daughter bore the brunt of many outdated and torturous experiments. Carrie blamed the father’s alcoholism and became a crusader for abstention. She was also known to “take a sack of rocks for smashing” as many (then-) illegal booze joints as she could. She also did “hatchetations,” which she thought were divine intervention, and was arrested many times for destroying properties. She also created battered women’s shelters and was a pioneer for women’s rights.

Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in 1862. She became a crusader against lynching and racism by inventing herself as a journalist who wrote about inaccurate statistics of rape, miscegenation, and other “evils.” She questioned those statistics and fought by joining the NAACP. She spoke in England in 1892 and was admired by the populace. She was a suffragist who lived to see women vote and died in 1931.

With comical (“. . .This hot desert flower needs some sweet tending to, sailor”), fascinating insets within many chapters, and both actual antique photos in addition to well-imagined sketches of these ballsy women from the Victorian era and beyond, Unbecoming a Lady: The Forgotten Sluts and Shrews who Shaped America is a quick read, an often sarcastic and easily relatable tome for anyone who appreciates a woman with cojones.