Author Interview: Kathleen C. Stone on “They Called Us Girls: Stories of Female Ambition from Suffrage to Mad Men””
By Martha Wolfe
“Some women ignored what was expected and forged careers in fields traditionally reserved for men. In other words, they had “men’s” jobs. I wanted to know where that ambition came from.”
Kathleen C. Stone‘s They Called Us Girls (Cynren Press) chronicles the inspiring experiences of seven women who, in mid-twentieth century America, succeeded at professional jobs in male dominated fields.The accomplishments of this racially and ethnically diverse group of females helped create the possibilities for women in the twenty-first. The subjects Arts Fuse contributor Stone chose to write about in her first book — via interviews and extensive historical research — include a social and a physical scientist, an artist, a federal judge, two physicians, and a spy.
All the women profiled in the book were born before 1935. They were in their 80s and 90s when Stone interviewed them. These go-getters did “not oppose cultural norms so much as ignore them.” None of these women set out to change the world. They simply could not accept conventional religious, cultural, and domestic expectations.
They Called Us Girl‘s focus is on how Stone’s subjects — Dahlov Ipcar, Muriel Petioni, Cordelia Hood, Martha Lepow, Mildred Dresselhaus, Frieda Garcia, and Rya Zobel — grappled with social pressures and gender expectations as they worked to reach their goals. Notice is taken of the support supplied by political changes — the 1960 Presidential Commission of the Status of Women, the 1963 Equal Pay Act, ’64 Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act of ’65, and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 — but the volume concentrates on “individual accomplishments, woman by woman.” These are women whose professional struggles helped establish the fragile equality we now enjoy.
I asked Stone what drove her to write They Called Us Girls and why she decided not to take a standard biographical approach.
The Arts Fuse: What question were you trying to answer as you set out to interview women for your book?
Kathleen C. Stone: I wanted to understand what propelled some women to venture outside the prevailing norms in order to live a fully realized life. In the early and mid-twentieth century, when the women I write about came of age, women were perceived as keepers of the home. Only occasionally were they encouraged to be or do anything else. We have to remember that sex discrimination was legal, and for women who joined the paid work force, most had jobs that were considered “appropriate” for the “weaker” sex. But others ignored what was expected and forged careers in fields traditionally reserved for men. In other words, they had “men’s” jobs. I wanted to know where that ambition came from.
As I write in the book’s introduction, my wondering about women like this began when I was a girl. Back then, I saw my father go off to work every morning and my mother stay home. This was typical for my neighborhood, but I knew a few women led different lives. My father had graduated from law school in 1950 and a handful of his classmates were women. I saw their pictures in his yearbook and was intrigued by them. I even fantasized that some secret ingredient accounted for them taking a different direction from other women. Decades later, when I began working on this book, I had a more mature understanding. Nevertheless, I intended to discover the secret ingredient, so to speak.
AF: Your focus is on the 7 women, and each gets her own chapter. You also include short chapters about yourself which you call “intermezzos.” Why include them?
Stone: I spent a lot of time on the 7 women – in-person interviews, reviewing transcripts of our conversations, thinking about what was most salient, creating a master chart of their lives, reading history in order to put their lives in context and, of course, writing about them. As much as I looked at the particulars of their lives, I realized I was dealing with a universal theme – our need to understand the society in which we live and how we will fit in and where we will adapt in order to develop personal interests and talents. That, in turn, led me to think about my own path.
Originally, I intended to write in the mode that is traditional for biography, entirely in the third person. But when I was at the Bennington Writing Seminars and working on early chapter drafts, my teachers and fellow students persuaded me to try a more personal approach. I am a generation younger than the women in the book, but some of their experiences were familiar to me. Including some material from my own life was a way to reflect on what had changed for women, and what had not, over the years.
AF: What did you learn about the nature of female ambition?
Stone: In each woman’s young life, she was exposed to a counter-narrative that allowed her to see ways around the norms that otherwise might have limited her opportunities. Often the counter-narrative came from family. Some of the fathers were in professional roles that their daughters decided to emulate. Although mothers were less frequently in such roles, they were important sources of encouragement and support. Other times, a teacher stepped in as a guide toward more education and ambitious career goals.
The word “ambition” can have a negative connotation. The dictionary defines it as a strong desire to achieve fame or fortune. That, to me, implies that any means can be justified in achieving that end. But the women in the book embraced a different definition. They had a sense of self that allowed them to follow their interests and use their talents in unconventional roles. Instead of fame or fortune, they were after the kind of personal satisfaction one gets from doing the work. And in most cases, their work involved service to others. I don’t think women are always public-spirited or service oriented, but that was generally part of the motivation for these particular women.
AF: Did you study the craft of writing biography while at Bennington? And how about interviewing – how did you prepare for that part of your project?
Stone: I’ll answer about interviewing first. For that, I mostly relied on my experience as a lawyer. For years I had interviewed witnesses, asked questions at trial and in deposition, and reconstructed events in order to explain them to a judge or jury. Interviews for the book were different, of course. These were about friendly conversation, not trial preparation. Still, outlining questions in advance, talking to the person, responding to unanticipated answers, taking notes and eliciting a narrative were things I had done before.
Reading books is a big component of the Bennington Writing Seminars, as you know. My reading list contained more fiction than nonfiction, including books that seemed to me were important in the evolution of the English language literary tradition. But, given that my book project was in its early stages, I made a point of reading some group biography. Favorites included Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, and Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years. For my graduate lecture, which is a required part of the curriculum, my topic was group biography. Later, I published an article in The Writer’s Chronicle about the trend of authors weaving personal material into group biographies. It was really a study of the literary landscape I was entering with my own book.
AF: What did you read while you were writing They Called Us Girls? I imagine you had to read a good deal of 20th century American history.
Stone: Absolutely. I wanted to situate each woman in context, which meant I had to expand what I knew about 20th century history. For instance, for the chapter on Dr. Muriel Petioni, I read about the history of Harlem, racially segregated medical care, and life in the Jim Crow South where Muriel spent some years before she returned to New York. In writing about Cordelia Hood, I read about the beginnings of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and some of its accomplishments, and then the early days of the Central Intelligence Agency. Another example is the background reading I did about the legal profession. Women had a particularly hard time being accepted as lawyers and I went back to the 19th century to understand the discrimination the earliest lawyers had faced. That set the stage for writing about Judge Rya Zobel, the first woman named to the federal court in Massachusetts. Judge Zobel went on the bench a hundred years after courts were taking the position that women shouldn’t be lawyers at all.
I found that reading narrative nonfiction while I worked on my book inspired me to find my own voice as a writer. No single book was a model for me, but a combination of memoir, history and general nonfiction illuminated a path. I was working out how to write a collective biography and I came to see myself as sort of a navigator, helping the reader wade through the facts of a life to reach conclusions about what was significant.
Martha Wolfe conducted this interview. She is the author of the dual biography The Great Hound Match of 1905; Alexander Henry Higginson, Harry Worcester Smith and the Rise of Virginia Hunt Country (Lyons Press, 2015), nominated for the Library of Virginia’s 2016 People’s Choice Literary Award. Ms. Wolfe has published in The Boston Globe, Science News, Science Digest, and The Bennington Review. Her essay “The Reluctant Sexton” won Honorable Mention in The Bellevue Literary Review’s 2018 Literary Contest. She is working on a biography of author Mary Lee Settle for West Virginia University Press.