- What motivated you to write your book, to force you from taking an idea or experience and turning it into this book? I was always curious about the women of my mother's generation who bucked convention, particularly those who worked in what were essentially "men's" jobs. Sex discrimination was perfectly legal in the 1940s, 50s and early 60s, and women were expected to stay home, or at least not take "men's" jobs. But some did. And even as a young girl, I wondered about them. As I grew up and went about my own life, I put that curiosity aside until, after nearly 30 years of legal practice, I felt that curiosity tug at me again. I decided it was time to find those women and ask them about their lives.
- What is it about and who is it for? The book is a collection of biographical portraits of women who succeeded in male-dominated professions such as law, medicine and science. They were similar in age (born before 1935) but came from a variety of backgrounds and were diverse in race and ethnicity. I interviewed them when they were in their 80s and 90s to talk about the source of their ambition and how they nurtured it. Often when we think of women in this mid-century period, examples such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks and Julia Child come to mind. Or we think of Rosie the Riveter, the fictional figure who symbolized women in industrial jobs during World War II. But the women I write about were very real and not particularly famous. Their stories are a natural fit for readers who like biography and women's history. Many readers will feel a personal resonance with the women. Readers who came of age during second wave feminism, as I did, will recognize some of the situations described in the book, or they will have heard their mothers' stories. Others may see their grandmothers reflected. Whether or not readers see a family connection, the book captures a slice of 20th century history that has been mostly overlooked.
- What takeaways might the reader will be left with after reading it? The last chapter is an epilogue where I pull together what I found about women and their professional ambitions. I'll give you two key takeaways. First is the importance of family. This is hardly surprising but worth talking about because it is so fundamental. The women's families had different structures, values and economic circumstances, but they invariably affected how a woman saw herself and understood her potential. A second thing I found, and this was surprising, was the prevalence of immigration. Out of seven women profiled in the book, three were immigrants and another three had at least one parent who was. When lining up interviews, I didn't think about immigration status so didn't anticipate the result. Upon reflection, I realize that immigration and family influence can be two sides of the same coin. I was so struck by what I saw that I wrote an article for MS Magazine about the achievements of immigrant women and their daughters. https://msmagazine.com/2021/11/11/immigrant-daughter-michelle-wu-mary-lou-akai-ferguson/
- How did you decide on your book’s title and cover design? The title comes straight from one of the women I interviewed. She is now a federal judge, a pinnacle in the legal profession, but when she graduated from law school in 1956, she could not get a job with a law firm. Firms were not hiring girls, she told me. "And we were not women. We were 'girls'. " That captured the way women were regarded, no matter their age, ambition or accomplishments. For the cover, I thought it should embody a mid-century aesthetic, and convey that this is a book about multiple women. I was lucky that my publisher, Cynren Press, had worked with artist Emma Hall in the past and she managed to achieve both objectives. The sketches are representative, not actual likenesses, but a few details, like hair style and earrings, were based on what the women actually wore. I had assembled photos of the women, many of which are in included in the book, and we could draw a few elements from their individual styles.
- What advice or words of wisdom do you have for fellow writers? Read a lot. Write, even if you don't know yet what you mean to say. When you ask others for feedback, listen for the nuggets that will really make a difference. Not every comment will deliver the message you need to hear at that moment, but a few will. Don't despair if you struggle to find an agent. Many good independent presses accept unagented submissions. One may be just the right place for you.
- What trends in the book world do you see -- and where do you think the book publishing industry is heading? I think e-books and audiobooks will continue to be important factors in the market. I can't see far enough into the future to know whether or when they might displace physical books. However, as someone who prefers actual books, I am heartened to see two new bookstores within walking distance of my house. One opened last year and the other is scheduled to open this spring. They are in addition to an independent bookstore and a chain bookstore also nearby. I would not have predicted this, but someone on the book selling side of industry must think books aren't yet obsolete. Over the last few years, we have seen more attention paid to writers of marginalized groups, and that's a good thing. I expect the follow-on will be that publishing houses add more diversity to their rosters, and this will spread to other segments of the industry including editors and book sellers. What I hope emerges from these changes is that all of us have the thrill of discovering good literature in new places.
- What challenges did you overcome to write this book? Years of legal writing! I say that somewhat facetiously. From writing as a lawyer, I knew how to construct a sentence and a build paragraph, but most of my writing was in the litigation context and read only by a judge or another lawyer. For a book that a reader would pick up for pleasure, I had to write differently – with greater freedom, expression and variety. That led to many drafts, and lots of soul-searching. The soul-searching was about the extent to which I wanted to make myself part of the story. The book's focus is on the other women, not on me, but I did ultimately decide to narrate my experience, taking the reader with me as I meet each woman and later reflect on what I heard.
- How would you describe your writing style? My style is fairly direct and succinct. As much as I enjoy the novels of Henry James, no one would ever confuse my work for his! Also, maybe because of my legal background, I really try to respect facts. That is particularly important when writing about other people. It's fine to imagine alternative scenarios for myself, but not when rendering someone else's life. At the same time, I'm intrigued by hybrid and experimental modes of nonfiction writing even though, for this book, I stayed with a traditional narrative style.
- If people can buy or read one book this week or month, why should it be yours? Although the book is about a small set of women in a particular period of time, it really grapples with a universal question – how to shape a fulfilling life. That's what we all try to do, in endless iterations and variations. The fundamental nature of that quest creates a human connection between the women in the book and readers. Also, Women's History Month in March sharpens the historical lens. Most books about women's history gloss over the type of women I write about. They weren't the fictionalized face of women's work during World War II. They weren't famous and did not come from privileged backgrounds. Instead, they began careers during a time – the half century from 1920 to 1970 – when the percentage of women in professional fields was static. In their work, they served others. Figuratively, sometimes literally, they have extended a hand to women who followed.
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