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Enlightened self-interest: On Her Own Terms: Annie Montague Alexander and the Rise of Science in the American West by Barbara R. Stein. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001, 435 pp., $35.00 hardcover.
Upper-class women, trivialized a century ago by Thorstein Veblen as examples of conspicuous consumption, typically, had, limited if any higher education; most were destined for semi-arranged marriages within their class and a life of privatized privilege. Barbara Stein's biography of Annie Montague Alexander (1867-1950) suggests that some of these women's stories are more complex and gives us a reason to look again at how, if sufficiently independent-minded, they might use their wealth to design a distinctive life. Alexander eluded marriage and set out to uncover some other purpose for her life, finding active field work and creative philanthropy that suited her temperament and skills.
Stein's biography concentrates on the aspects of Alexander's life that are well recorded, often quoting from diaries and correspondence while only hinting at the private motives and personal dimensions that this forceful but apparently closely guarded naturalist rarely revealed directly. Private yet with an unapologetic public presence, quiet but with steely resolve on issues that mattered to her, decisive even while undertaking political negotiations, and kind but with measured generosity, Alexander designed a highly individual life that had a substantial intellectual impact.
Alexander, born to a Hawaiian missionary-based family that became wealthy in the sugar trade, never adapted fully to urban …