Back in March, I read a fascinating book about Clementine Churchill that led me to write a Musing about the aphorism, “Behind every great man stands a great woman.” I have just finished another completely absorbing book that leads me to ask a different question. How many women achieved public greatness because of their husbands?
The book I just finished, Will and Ariel Durant: A Dual Autobiography, was written in 1977, a few years before the famous historians, philosophers and authors died within weeks of each other. Brought to the United States from Russia as a toddler, Ethel (later renamed Ariel by her husband) grew up in a Jewish immigrant family that struggled economically, socially and religiously. Left much to her own devices, as a young teen she removed herself from public school joining a radical school named for an anarchist. Meanwhile, Will Durant, born to a fervently Catholic, stable family, made his own way to the school as a teacher after abandoning religious training in seminary and embracing atheism.
When the fifteen-year-old student and the twenty-seven year old teacher married, few objective observers would have greeted the incongruous couple’s commitment with optimism. As it was, their partnership of close to seventy years produced not only their daughter but their epic volumes, “The Story of Civilization,” along with numerous other writings. These garnered them not only a Pulitzer Prize but also Medals of Freedom from President Gerald Ford.
The last few volumes of “The Story of Civilization” bear both Will and Ariel’s names as authors. This reflects how her vocation moved from supporting spouse to research and editing assistant until she eventually occupied an equal platform as co-author. Her husband’s passion, training and skills became her own as the couple balanced marriage and craft.
Such was also the case for Lillian Gilbreth, most popularly known as the mother of the Cheaper By the Dozen clan. She too started as a research and editing assistant to her husband, Frank, as he developed the field of motion-study. After his untimely death, it became clear that she had absorbed his passion and talents as well as she continued the business with herself at the helm.
It would take a tremendous leap of faith to believe that Ariel Durant would have pursued a career in history or that Lillian Gilbreth would have chosen to work in her field had they not been married to and mentored by the men in their lives. Like Clementine Churchill, their intelligence and talents would, had they been developed at all in the public arena, been applied in other areas. There are, of course, countless other women who were able to accomplish what they did in their own spheres of interest only because of their husband’s resources. Jennie Butchart, for example, after studying chemistry so that she could assist in her husband’s business, turned his abandoned limestone quarry into the magnificent gardens located on the Saanich Inlet of British Columbia.
Neither Winston Churchill, Frank Gilbreth nor Will Durant would have been recognized by most women as Prince Charming. They were brilliant, driven, focused and passionate men fortunate to find and cultivate brilliant women who appreciated their drive, respected their focus and came to share in their passions. The women they chose allowed their own destinies to be molded by marriage, enriching their own lives and the lives of many others in the process.