The Men Behind Great Women

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.



25 thoughts on “The Men Behind Great Women”

  1. My husband and I met when I was 15 and he was 24. We had on and off relationship and got married at appropriate age. We have been together for 36 years now… That just the context, but what I wanted to say is that when we first met he said something that I found incredibly boring at 15: “we have to constantly work on ourselves, strive to be better…” That’s the rule he lives by every day and in the process it became the rule I started to live by. I’m not famous or specially talented, but I have mastered things I’ve never imagined I would be able to. My husband often says that he is proud of me and I know it to be true. But I think I would never become that person he is proud of if it wasn’t for him. No pushing, no teaching, just believing in me always, encouraging me always, and loving me always…
    I subscribed to this rule of his, and in fact can’t think of a better goal in life than making yourself, your soul better…
    Thank you Susan, for touching our souls with your musings!

    1. What a lovely way to live your life, Luda. Your husband must have seen something very special in you at fifteen to wait until you were older.

  2. Clara Wieck Schumann was a German pianist, composer and the wife of the famous composer, Robert Schumann. She had come to my mind. There are many wives and daughters of inspirational men!

    It’s tough to recall them all, especially since my mind is on this road to recovery from Harveycane (as my husband put it.) We certainly feel for most of the folks in nature’s stormy paths at this time. I’m taking a five minute break to write! 🙂

    1. Always glad to hear from you! I wonder if Mrs. Schumann was a pianist and composer before marriage or whether her talents developed once she married.

      1. She was a trained pianist from an early age, and I recall that she was passionate when she played and that she liked to perform. However, her compositions weren’t well circulated. I think her compositions were more finely developed after marriage; the couple had eight children and one died early (maybe in childbirth?) Can you tell I’m responding from my faint memory about the famous duo? Her husband, Robert ended up disabled, depressed or something and was put into a home and then, I think that Johannes Brahms (a student of Robert’s, I think) helped her out a lot.

  3. Could a 27-year-old teacher marry a 15-year-old student in this day and age without being persecuted both socially and legally?
    Just think what a brilliant legacy would wind up being ruined and unrecognized by the dogmas of today’s social climate.

    1. To be fair, Tal, the maturity level of individuals was different going back almost 100 years ago. The Durants did have her mother’s permission and I think parents (and society) would be correct to hesitate before condoning such a marriage today. But even then, it was an outlier.

  4. Dear Susan,
    I appreciate your position on Christian bibles and will try to be more sensitive in the future. However would love to read a thought tool on the meaning of the word meet as used in Gen: 5-8. I also realize that you and the rabbi cannot answer each and every request that you receive. Rest assured that if you cannot do the thought tool it will in no way diminish my respect or my following of you and Rabbi Lapin.

    Sincerely, Brian

    1. Brian, you showed no lack of sensitivity at all. We simply only have knowledge of the Hebrew, not why or how English translations were chosen. But any question put politely is perfectly fine. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your last sentence. We often think we are going to write something and then it just doesn’t work out that way.

  5. Thank you for this. Not only interesting and thought provoking, but you’re pointing out something important that seldom if ever anyone writes about today.

    1. Thank you, Mark. I was captivated by the book and it did get me thinking of other marriages that had somewhat similar dynamics.

  6. In my KJV, Genisus 2:8 God says “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make him an help meet for him”.
    I’ve heard it said that the word “meet” is not a mistranslation of “mate” but rather a word the means suitable. Perhaps you can clarify it for me. Thus we are not to choose our mates on their looks or intelegence or wealth. Weather a man or woman we need to also think about what each of can bring to mariage. Doe’s he or she have interests that are compatable, have the right temperament? Religious and/or political views. In other words “be ye not unequally yoked”. Ladies he is not your lord and master. Men she is not your maid servant or char woman. She is your help meet.
    Thank you

    1. Brian, I wouldn’t begin to comment on the King James or other translation. I do believe we have discussed the Hebrew phrase in a number of places though perhaps we should pull things together and do a Thought Tool on the Hebrew.

  7. As always, very keen insight and a well thought out piece. It leads me to find out more about the people mentioned. I like how you gave multiple examples to support your position!

    1. George, I admit to hoping that people will follow up on these fascinating men and women. Unless something else intervenes my plan is to write more about Will Durant next week.

  8. Hello Susan , in an era of individualism we have forgotten how more strong we as human beings are when we are in partnership, and a good marriage is the best partnership of all. In my culture we think that marriage can elevate you and get you to heaven or down you and get you to hell, though this saying is trying to be funny in its extreme view, and it’s used as a warning so you think well before to choose a partner, it has some good reasoning within. My theory of why the world is in such bad shape it is because the relationships between women and men have been broken, the balance have been broken, so the relationships with the children also are damaged and from broken homes, comes broken individuals who will be influential in society with an unique sense of despair, sadness and hopelessness about the human condition. That said, I also believe that there are people that are not cut for marriage no many, but these shouldn’t get marry and ruins other people’s life. It’s significant that God created only a man first, but Adam was uneasy after a while, I guess Paradise was beautiful but the fact that he couldn’t share it with somebody as himself, another equal another human, had a big impact, so seeing that any another female of the animal kingdom suited him, Adam asked God for one and you know the story. That God created a creature that it is exactly a negative of Adam is very significant, He established this partnership from the beginning not only in nature but also psychologically. Anybody can see this, included the atheists that is because “gender ideology”is totally absurd, I would say diabolical. Everything has to do with everything and we aren’t pay attention.

    1. Adriana, I would love to hear your feedback on our audio CD, Madam, I’m Adam: Decoding the Marriage Secrets of Eden where we teach ancient Jewish wisdom on the first three chapters of Genesis.

  9. Thank you for this post. I found another book you might enjoy

    A homeopathic Love story

    Meliani and Samuel Hahaman amazing France in 1830 She was a great woman and helped and was helped by great men of medicine and arts

    Hope you enjoy I loved this book

    Deirdra Doan

    1. Bob, I know that I am definitely doing things I never imagined and that I would be living a completely different and much more private life had I not married my husband. Thanks for including me in exalted company.

  10. I am running a plumbing company started by my dad, and built up by my husband and I together. I am now divorced from him, (not to my liking) but must say that I would never ever have been doing this if it weren’t for him. I didn’t think I could do it alone but God has helped me every step of the way. I am blessed that I don’t have to drive to work everyday, I run it from my home. (old family property). Family men are doing the work. Men do make the world go around but it does take the woman to make it happen too. Often I hate this job (when the phone rings too much). But I totally appreciate it. I know the Lord put me here, because I would never ever ever be involved with plumbing on my own.

    1. Edie, we very often don’t see the path we are on when we take the first steps and then discover what we are doing once we’re on the road.

    1. Christopher, I had written and then deleted a few sentences about Hillary Clinton and some other political wives who went on to run for office after their husbands’ terms. I didn’t want to lost my message in current political emotion, but these do fit the pattern.

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