I’m inspired, literally inspired, today to write about a Zoom celebration that took place on Monday: the thirtieth anniversary of a seminar I’ve belonged to almost from its beginning: Women Writing Women’s Lives, or, more casually, WWWL.
I was still living in New York when I went to those first meetings; I remember how delighted, and even surprised, I was to be included. At that point, I hadn’t written a biography of a woman although all of my fiction focuses on women and most of my narrators are women, but the fuss and feathers surrounding my memoir, Passion and Prejudice, had created a great deal of fellow feeling among women writing what were, and will always be, radical reassessments of our society, through the lens of feminism.
This celebration of our thirty years together, ably hosted by Sydney Stern and introduced by my old friends, Alix Kates Shulman and Honor Moore, consisted of four panels, each one with several women talking about their work—briefly—with a moderator.
First came “Running Without Voting: 19th Century Women Political Candidates”—women whose names I had never heard, and in fact I’d believed that before Suffrage, there were no women political candidates. As always when we delve into our history, what is revealed is astonishing: “as early as 1853, thousands of women in the U.S. ran for—and won—elections at the local elections,” Jill Norgen explained. Having written and published Stories from Trailblazing Women Lawyers, she is now working on a study of these office-seekers; her project is HerHatWasintheRing.org.
Next, Linda Grasso presented “Gender, Race and Radicalism Reconsidered in The Crisis and The Masses,” the first the magazine of the NAACP in the early twentieth century, the second “an outlet for leftwing political activism.” As always, the connection between feminist goals and left-wing politics, as well as the struggles of dark-skinned women, is both strong and complicated. Among many books Linda has written, I’m particularly anxious to read Equal Under The Skies: Georgia O’Keeffe and Twentieth Century Feminism—a topic that always stirs complex feelings, as it did for O’Keeffe herself, and, it seems, for the museum named for her here in Santa Fe.
Louise Bernikow examined “New York City Was the Torch,” describing how the city’s passage of a pro-suffrage amendment led to the passing of the 19th Amendment. Louise has also written many books and is “a tornado on social media.”
Finally, Betty Boyd Carroll described her hesitation when asked to write a biography of First Ladies. She felt that they may not have contributed much to the feminist cause, and that turned out to be true in a number of cases as she explored in First Ladies: The Ever-Changing Role From Martha Washington to Melania Trump. But there were also examples of activism.
This list can’t possibly convey the excitement and dynamism of the gathering. It continued with “Pushing Boundaries in their Chosen Fields” and “Challenges in Researching, Writing and Publishing Biographies of Women”—because the prejudices are still there, as I discovered with The Silver Swan: In Search of Doris Duke.
I felt, not for the first time, what I lost when I left New York thirty years ago. There is nothing at all like “Women Writing Women’s Lives,” as far as I’ve been able to discover, outside of that difficult city. But, far more important, the conference reminded me that we women offer each other extraordinary support and encouragement in all walks of life, essential to our achievement and even to our survival.
The support of my sisters in WWWL is always present to me, if at times intangible, and that support has caused wide-spread changes in the way women’s histories are written.
One small example: the first biography of the Grimke Sisters, who fought for women’s rights and abolition in the early 19th century, by Catherine H. Birney was published in Boston in 1885.
Many pages at the outset are devoted to the sisters’ father and his prominence in Charleston, South Carolina. He gave his daughter a little African girl to wait on her”—a slave—”to whom she became much attached, treating her as an equal and sharing all her privileges with her…” An untenable statement today.
By contrast, Gerda Lerner’s The Grimke Sisters From South Carolina, published in New York in 1967, begins with Angelina Grimke’s 1838 statement, “We Abolition Women are turning the world upside down” and describes her addressing a committee of the Legislature of the State of Massachusetts: “Until this day, no woman had ever spoken to a legislative body.” The prominence of the Grimke family in South Carolina is treated in due course but much later in the biography.
So it seems to me that the energy and dedication of the members of Women Writing Women’s Lives has penetrated far beyond New York, and the title of this conference gives hope and legitimacy to all of us:
AND STILL SHE PERSISTED.
The full program of the event:
NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED: 30 YEARS OF WOMEN WRITING WOMEN’S LIVES
Monday, October 5, 2020
NEVERTHELESS, THEY PERSISTED: Writing Women’s History from Second Wave Feminism and Beyond
Welcome: Sydney Stern
Among the members celebrating Women Writing Women’s Lives’ thirtieth anniversary are Alix Kates Shulman and Honor Moore, two of our founders. Over the last few years – and in addition to their individual projects – they have co-edited WOMEN’S LIBERATION! Feminist Writings That Inspired a Revolution—& Still Can, a 600-page collection of essays important to the history of second wave of feminism (Library of America, 2021). By selecting, including and arranging 90 pieces, and writing a headnote for each, Alix and Honor carried on the work of Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who chronicled women’s lives in their germinal multi-volume History of Woman Suffrage.
Women Writing Women’s Lives began in 1990 at the end of the period covered in Alix and Honor’s book, as a direct response to second wave feminism. Members work within the genres of biography and memoir to shape and write their subjects’ lives. Informed by the movement’s thinking, WWWL biographers and memoirists have gathered monthly for thirty years working to identify, understand, and convey the complex realities our subjects (and our authors) have faced in their roles, status, opportunities, and interests. At the same time, we have sought to develop new ways of looking at and presenting these stories, ultimately hoping to influence the way they are perceived and read.
Honor and Alix will describe the powerful and influential ideas that shaped their compendium of second wave American feminism and the way they see WWWL’s work as part of that story.
Alix Kates Shulman has written fourteen books – including five novels, three memoirs – and her essays have appeared The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Nation, The Guardian, n+1 and others. Drinking the Rain was named an LA Times Book Prize finalist and her biography of Emma Goldman was a NY Times Notable book. Her debut novel, the million-copy Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, has been newly reissued as a “feminist classic.” In 2018 she received a Clara Lemlich Award for a lifetime of social activism.
Honor Moore’s latest memoir is Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury. An earlier memoir about her father, The Bishop’s Daughter, was a National Book Critics Circle finalist, and, in addition to publishing a biography, three volumes of poetry, and a Broadway play, her work has appeared widely in magazines and journals, including The New Yorker. She was an off-Broadway theatre critic for The New York Times and is presently the nonfiction coordinator of the graduate writing program at The New School.
NEVERTHELESS, OUR FOREMOTHERS PERSISTED: Reflections on the 100th Anniversary of U.S. Women’s Suffrage
Jill Norgren, Moderator
Members of this panel use biography and history to curate a more nuanced picture of the actual participants in the fight for women’s political rights. Louise Bernikow and Jill Norgren examine women’s activism at the local level, in New York City and New York State respectively, while Jill Norgren explores women’s political involvement in grass roots America. Linda Grasso presents a reconsideration of race, radicalism, and feminism in the suffrage era by comparing special issues on suffrage published in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine with the left-wing Masses. Betty Boyd Caroli looks at women in the White House to see what help—or harm—they offered.
Jill Norgren: RUNNING WITHOUT VOTING: 19TH CENTURY WOMEN POLITICAL CANDIDATES
As early as 1853, thousands of women in the U.S. ran for—and won—elections at the local level in the U.S. long before the 1920 ratification of the woman suffrage amendment. Who were these women and what made it possible for them to run? An examination of their political involvement shows how women seized the opportunity to join in partisan politics, with and without local suffrage rights.
Jill Norgren is professor emerita of political science at John Jay College/The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She has written three biographical books, most recently Stories from Trailblazing Women Lawyers (2018). She is currently co-authoring a study of U.S. women who ran for elective office between 1853 and 1920 that draws on the data of her co-founded project, HerHatWasintheRing.org.
Linda Grasso: GENDER, RACE AND RADICALISM RECONSIDERED IN THE CRISIS AND THE MASSES
In 1915, The Crisis, the NAACP magazine, and The Masses, an irreverent outlet for left-wing political eclecticism, dedicated special issues to advocating woman’s suffrage. What does a comparison of these two issues reveal about race, radicalism, and feminism in the suffrage era?
Linda M. Grasso is Professor of English at York College, and of Liberal Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY. She has published widely on nineteenth and twentieth-century US women’s literature, history, and culture. Her most recent article, “Differently Radical: Suffrage Issues and Feminist Ideas in The Crisis and The Masses” is included in Front Pages, Front Lines: Media and The Fight for Women’s Suffrage (U of Illinois Press). Grasso is the author of The Artistry of Anger: Black and White Women’s Literature in America, 1820-1860 (2003) and Equal Under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe and Twentieth-Century Feminism (2017).
Louise Bernikow: NEW YORK CITY WAS THE TORCH
The trajectory of the suffrage movement toward the ultimate passage of the Nineteenth Amendment took a sharp turn in 1917, when New York State, led by the city, passed a pro-suffrage referendum. A closer look at that campaign foregrounds Jewish, radical and working class participation and teases broader understanding of political forces at work, including the civil disobedience of Alice Paul and the anti-war resistance of many New York women.
Louise Bernikow is the author of nine books, a founder of several Women’s Studies programs and seminars, a frequent speaker at colleges, communities and on television, and a tornado on social media.
Betty Boyd Caroli: A WORD FROM THE WHITE HOUSE
After Seneca Falls, and especially after the suffrage movement focused on a national amendment, an endorsement from the White House proved to be a substantive act of support. This talk explores the actions of Presidents’ wives, daughters, and sisters that helped in the fight to enfranchise women.
Betty Boyd Caroli has written extensively on the White House and the women who lived there. Her most recent book, First Ladies: The Ever-Changing Role, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump (2019) followed Lady Bird and Lyndon (2015), The Roosevelt Women (1998), Inside the White House (1992), and others.
NEVERTHELESS OUR SUBJECTS PERSISTED: Pushing Boundaries in their Chosen Fields
Carla L. Peterson, Moderator
This panel focuses on women who pushed boundaries in their chosen fields across time (1815 to 1941), space (Europe, the U.S., and Japan), and class (aristocrat to immigrant). Emily McCully begins with a portrait of the aristocratic, yet scientifically inclined, Ada Lovelace who helped develop computer technology. Eve Kahn details the life of American globetrotting artist, Mary Rogers Williams, whose proto-modernist sensibility placed her well ahead of her times, while Terese Svoboda reconstructs the career of Irish immigrant Lola Ridge whose radical politics informed her avant-garde aesthetics. The panel concludes with Janice Nimura’s depiction of three “accidental” activists from Japan who, even though chosen by their government to push boundaries, succeeded beyond expectations. The panelists ask why and how these women pushed boundaries, and why they were subsequently written out of history.
Emily Arnold McCully: THE CONTESTED LEGACY OF ADA LOVELACE
It is impossible to imagine our modern world without the technology facilitated by the nascent breakthrough contributions of Ada Lovelace. How did an early nineteenth-century aristocratic girl come to participate in the development of the computer? Why and how has persistent sexism called her legacy into question?
Emily McCully has published two adult novels and an O’Henry short story. She is the author/illustrator of more than 150 picture books, including biographies of important, often forgotten, women and the fictional Mirette on the High Wire, a Caldecott winner. Her Y/A biographies are SHE DID IT!: 21 Women Who Changed the Way We Think (2018), and Ida M. Tarbell (2014), finalist for the YALSA Award for best Y/A biography. DREAMING IN CODE, Ada Byron Lovelace, Computer Pioneer, was published last year.
Eve M. Kahn: ARTIST MARY ROGERS WILLIAMS, GLOBETROTTER AND RULE-BENDER, AND HOW SHE FOUND ME
A 19th-century woman painter, Williams biked and hiked across Europe and New England while navigating art-world politics, dodging misogyny, and forging an avant-garde aesthetic. Known during her lifetime, but forgotten after her death, she nevertheless left behind vivid documentation that surfaced in 2012 in a boathouse.
Eve Kahn is an independent scholar who wrote the weekly Antiques column (2008-2016) for The New York Times, for which she still regularly contributes, in addition to Apollo and The Magazine Antiques. Her first book, Forever Seeing New Beauties: The Forgotten Impressionist Mary Rogers Williams, 1857-1907 (2019), won a Sarton Women’s Book Award and the Connecticut League of History Organization’s book prize. She is currently writing a biography of the journalist Zoe Anderson Norris (1860-1914).
Terese Svoboda: RADICAL MODERNIST POET LOLA RIDGE WAS NOT NICE
“Nice is the one adjective in the world that is laughably applied to any single thing I have ever written.” Why? What was not nice about the writings of immigrant, working class, radical, feminist poet, Lola Ridge?
Terese Svoboda is a Guggenheim fellow and author of 19 books of poetry, fiction, memoir, biography, and translation. Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet appeared in paper in 2018, Great American Desert, a book of stories in 2019 and Theatrix: Play Poems in 2021. “Terese Svoboda is one of those writers you would be tempted to read regardless of the setting or the period or the plot or even the genre.”—Bloomsbury Review.
Janice P. Nimura: THE ACCIDENTAL ACTIVISTS: HOW THREE SAMURAI DAUGHTERS GREW UP AMERICAN AND CHANGED WOMEN’S EDUCATION IN JAPAN
In 1871, the Japanese government shipped three little girls, ages 6, 10, and 11, to the United States; a decade later, three young bicultural intellectuals returned to help in the cause of Japan’s Meiji-era struggle toward modernization. What enabled them to succeed as cultural ambassadors and educational innovators well beyond the expectations of the men who sent them?
Janice Nimura is the author of Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back, a 2015 New York Times Notable Book. She received a 2017 Public Scholar Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities in support of her new book, The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women—and Women to Medicine, forthcoming from W.W. Norton (2021).
Carla L. Peterson is Professor Emerita in the Department of English at the University of Maryland. She specializes in nineteenth-century African American literature, culture, and history and has published numerous essays in this field. She is the author of Doers of the Word: African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880) and Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City (Yale UP, 2011). She is currently working on a new project, Urbanity and Taste: The Making of African American Modernity in Antebellum Philadelphia and New York, 1820-1865.
NEVERTHELESS, WE PERSISTED: Challenges in Researching, Writing and Publishing Biographies of Women
Barbara Fisher, Moderator
Members of this panel will discuss the wide-ranging difficulties they faced in writing their biographies. Sheila Weller describes the perils and pleasures of writing an honest, compassionate and definitive biography without the participation or authorization of the family. Victoria Phillips recounts the difficulties of gaining access to government documents for a biography of a subject who claimed her work was not political—while touring the globe for the State Department. Kathy Chamberlain describes the challenges of writing a first biography and finding a publisher for a biography of a woman, better known as the wife of a more famous man.
Sheila Weller: Writing the “Respectfully Unauthorized” Biography
Sheila Weller has written biographies of famous living songwriters, newscasters, and actresses, without the official, whole hearted or active cooperation of their families and friends. “Authorized” biographies, which may provide access to private papers and personal interviews, have advantages, but family cooperation, participation, and approval come with their own disadvantages.
Sheila Weller is the author of Beloved Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon – and the Journey of a Generation, (2008), The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christine Amanpour – and the Triumph of Women in TV News (2014) and most recently Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge (2019).
Victoria Phillips: Hidden in Plain Sight: Martha Graham and the Cold War While writing Martha Graham’s Cold War: The Dance of American Diplomacy, significant barriers were encountered while attempting to gain access to crucial government and personal documents. This talk describes how the challenges of working with the State Department, other government agencies, and international archives, as well as oral histories, affected the telling of the story of the political life of modern dancer Martha Graham as she toured for the US government during the Cold War, while defiantly proclaiming, “My work is not political.”
Victoria Phillips is a Visiting Scholar at the London School of Economics in the Department of International History where she teaches courses on Cold war culture and diplomacy. She also directs the Cold War Archival Research project (CWAR). During the COVID crisis, she chaired a Task force for the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations on on-line primary source research, and has conducted international virtual conferences with archivists and researchers from students to professionals. Her next project is a biography of Eleanor Lansing Dulles.
Kathy Chamberlain: Staying the Course: Jane Welsh Carlyle, Wife of a Famous Man
Researching, writing, and finding a publisher for a biography of the wife of the renowned British historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle each posed formidable challenges to Kathy Chamberlain. First she had to determined that Jane Welsh Carlyle was herself a worthy subject. Then she had to convince others, especially an agent who would believe in the project and an editor willing to publish it. To do so, she had to uncover information about a figure traditionally viewed almost totally in relation to her husband and use whatever material she could assemble to bring her subject to life. Her success – and the enthusiasm with which her book was received – surprised even Kathy. Kathy credits WWWL with helping her through the years of solitary work, with stimulation and inspiration.
Kathy Chamberlain taught English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York for thirty-four years. A past chair of the Women Writing Women’s Lives seminar, she served on the Steering Committee for over two decades. In 2017 her biography Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World: A Story of Love, Work, Friendship, and Marriage was published simultaneously by Overlook Press in New York and Duckworth in London.
Barbara Fisher taught 18th and 19th Century English Literature at Eugene Lang College of the New School for more than twenty years. While regularly reviewing books for The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, she also wrote a biography of Trix Kipling, Rudyard Kipling’s sister, and is presently looking for a publisher.
The Women Writing Women’s Lives seminar includes approximately seventy members who are writing book-length biographies and memoirs. Organized in 1990, the group represents a wide range of feminist perspectives and a variety of professional backgrounds. Our members include academics, independent scholars, and journalists. WWWL is under the aegis of the Center for the Study of Women and Society and the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The seminar meets in New York City monthly, from October to May, to present work for discussion and the sharing of ideas and suggestions. In addition, outside presenters visit regularly to talk about their work. WWWL yearly offers two works-in-progress talks that are open to the public.