Book Review: “Unbecoming a Lady,” by Therese Oneill 

Unbecoming a Lady book review

By Kathy A. Megyeri 

Book: “Unbecoming a Lady, the Forgotten Sluts and Shrews Who Shaped America,” by Therese Oneill 

Don’t let the title of this new, entertaining and fascinating book with historical illustrations fool you. It’s the perfect gift to celebrate both May 7 (National Teachers’ Day) and May 12 (Mothers’ Day). During the early 19th and 20th centuries when these women lived, they were called “sluts, shrews [and] scolds” or just plan “sinful.” They refused to fit the mold and conform to society’s standards; instead, they blazed their own paths.  

New York Times bestselling author Therese Oneill has done her homework. After writing “Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners” and then “The Ungovernable: The Victorian Parents’ Guide to Raising Flawless Children,” she turned her attention to profiling 18 formidable women. One such is Hetty Green – the “Witch of Wall Street” – who lived so frugally and invested everything in stocks that she became a billionaire at a time when women needed their husbands’ permission to open a savings account. 

Related: Book Review: “Women Of Interest, The Ultimate Book of Women’s Trivia,” by Alicia Alvrez

Lithuanian immigrant Lena Himmelstein patented the first commercial maternity dress, founded the store Lane Bryant that catered to plus-size women, and in 1916, founded the first multi-floor luxury department store in New York City. 

In 1920, Lillian Gilbreth was the first female engineering professor. She held 23 honorary academic degrees, was the only psychologist to have her face on a stamp, she designed women’s work shoes, and promoted hiring middle-aged women as consultants for Macy’s. 

Aimee Semple McPherson founded the FourSquare sect of Pentecostalism (the first mega church), was a world-famous evangelist and established the first woman-owned Christian radio station in the 1920’s.  She was then the most famous woman in America and our nation’s first real celebrity. 

And there’s more: Carrie Nation, who started women shelters; Dr. Mary Edward Walker, the only woman ever awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (and who insisted on wearing pants in public); Elizabeth Packard, who fought for the rights of those declared insane; union organizer Mary “Mother” Jones; journalist Ida B. Wells, who fought racism; and Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President, who did so 50 years before women could even vote.  

If this collection about fellow sisters you never knew or have forgotten doesn’t make you proud of all your fair sex has accomplished, then, as the author states, “There’s much to be learned from those who were so unbecoming as women that they forever changed what women can become.”