Author Interview: Kathleen C. Stone on “They Called Us Girls: Stories of Female Ambition, From Suffrage to Crazy Men”

By Martha Wolfe

“Some women ignored what was expected and pursued careers in fields traditionally reserved for men. In other words, they had “men’s” jobs. I wanted to know where this ambition came from.

Kathleen C. Pierre“They called us girls” (Cynren Press) chronicles the inspiring experiences of seven women who, in mid-twentieth-century America, found success in professional jobs in male-dominated fields. . Topics artistic fuse Contributor Stone chose to write in her first book – via interviews and extensive historical research – including a social and physical scientist, an artist, a federal judge, two doctors and a spy.

All of the women featured in the book were born before 1935. They were in their 80s and 90s when Stone interviewed them. These go-getters “did not so much oppose cultural norms as ignore them.” None of these women wanted to change the world. They simply could not accept conventional religious, cultural and domestic expectations.

They called us girlThe focus is on how Stone’s subjects – Dahlov Ipcar, Muriel Petioni, Cordelia Hood, Martha Lepow, Mildred Dresselhaus, Frieda Garcia and Rya Zobel – coped with social pressures and gender expectations as they worked to achieve their goals. Notice is taken of the support given by political changes – the 1960 Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 – but the volume focuses on “individual achievement, woman by woman”. These are women whose professional struggles have helped to entrench the fragile equality we enjoy today.

I asked Stone what prompted her to write They called us girls and why she decided not to take a standard biographical approach.


The fuse of the arts: What question were you trying to answer when you set out to interview women for your book?

Kathleen C. Stone: I wanted to understand what drives some women to venture outside the accepted norms to live a fulfilled life. In the early and mid-twentieth century, when the women I write about came of age, women were seen as the keepers of the home. Only occasionally have they been encouraged to be or do something else. We must remember that discrimination on the basis of sex was legal and that for women entering the paid labor force, most were in jobs 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 this ambition came from.

As I write in the introduction to the book, my questioning about women like this started when I was a girl. At the time, I watched my dad go to work every morning and my mom stay home. It was typical of 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 a secret ingredient explained that they took a different direction from other women. Decades later, when I started working on this book, I had a more mature understanding. Nevertheless, I intended to discover the secret ingredient, so to speak.

A F: You focus on the 7 women, and each has its own chapter. You also include short chapters about yourself that you call “intermezzos”. Why include them?

Calculation: I spent a lot of time on the 7 women – interviewing in person, reviewing transcripts of our conversations, thinking about what was most salient, creating a master chart of their lives, reading the story in order to put their lives in context and, of course, by writing about them. As much as I looked at the details of their lives, I realized I was dealing with a universal theme – our need to understand the society we live in and how we will fit in and where we will adapt in order to develop interests personnel and talents. This, in turn, caused me to reflect on my own path.

Originally, I intended to write in the traditional mode of biography, entirely in the third person. But when I was at Bennington’s writing seminars and working on early drafts of chapters, my teachers and fellow students persuaded me to try a more personal approach. I’m a generation younger than the women in the book, but some of their experiences were familiar to me. Including material from my own life was a way of reflecting on what had changed for women, and what hadn’t, over the years.

A F: What did you learn about the nature of female ambition?

Author Kathleen Stone.

Calculation: In each woman’s young life, she was exposed to a counter-narrative that allowed her to see ways to circumvent norms that might otherwise have limited her opportunities. Often, the counter-narrative came from the family. Some of the fathers held professional roles that their daughters decided to emulate. Although mothers took on such roles less frequently, they were important sources of encouragement and support. Other times, a teacher stepped in as a guide to 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. This, to me, implies that any means can be justified to achieve this end. But the women of the book have adopted 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 sought the kind of personal satisfaction one gets from work. And in most cases, their work involved service to others. I don’t think women are always public-minded or service-oriented, but that was usually part of the motivation for these particular women.

A F: Did you study the art of writing a biography at Bennington? And how about interviewing – how did you prepare for this part of your project?

Calculation: I’ll answer about the interview first. For this, I mainly relied on my experience as a lawyer. For years I had interviewed witnesses, asked questions during trial and deposition, and re-enacted events in order to explain them to a judge or jury. The interviews for the book were different, of course. It was a friendly conversation, not a preparation for the trial. Still, sketching out questions ahead of time, talking to the person, responding to unanticipated responses, taking notes, and sparking a narrative were things I had done before.

Reading books is an important component of Bennington’s writing seminars, as you know. My reading list contained more fiction than non-fiction, including books that I felt were important in the evolution of the English-language literary tradition. But, since my book project was in its early stages, I made it a point to read a group biography. Favorites included that of Giorgio Vasari Lives of the best painters, sculptors and architectsby Lytton Strachey Prominent Victoriansand Roger Shattuck The banquet years. For my lecture, which is an integral part of the program, my subject was group biography. Later, I published an article in The Writer‘s Chronicle on the tendency of authors to weave personal material into group biographies. It was really a survey of the literary landscape I was entering with my own book.

A F: What did you read while you were writing They called us girls? I imagine you must have read a good part of 20and century of American history.

Calculation: Absolutely. I wanted to put each woman in her context, which meant I had to expand what I knew about 20and story of the century. For example, for the chapter on Dr. Muriel Petioni, I read about the history of Harlem, racial segregation in medical care, and life in the Jim Crow South where Muriel spent a few years before returning to New York. While 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 beginnings of the Central Intelligence Agency. Another example is the background reading I did on the legal profession. Women were particularly hard pressed to be accepted as lawyers, and I returned to 19and century to understand the discrimination that early lawyers faced. This set the stage for writing about Judge Rya Zobel, the first woman appointed to the federal court in Massachusetts. Judge Zobel became a judge a hundred years after the courts ruled that women shouldn’t be lawyers at all.

I found that reading narrative non-fiction while working on my book inspired me to find my own voice as a writer. No book was a model for me, but a combination of memoir, history, and general non-fiction lit a path. I was working on how to write a collective biography and came to see myself as a kind of navigator, helping the reader navigate the facts of a life to draw conclusions about what was significant.


Martha Wolfe conducted this interview. She is the author of the double biography The Great Hound Dog 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 published in The Boston Globe, Science News, Science Digest, and The Bennington Review. His essay “The Reluctant Sexton” won an honorable mention in Bellevue Literary ReviewLiterary Competition 2018. She is working on a biography of author Mary Lee Settle for West Virginia University Press.

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