A Conversation with Kathleen Courtenay Stone, author of the collective biography, THEY CALLED US GIRLS: STORIES OF FEMALE AMBITION FROM SUFFRAGE TO MAD MEN
Cynren Press, 222 pages
Interview by Jean Hey
I met Kathleen Stone during a residency at Bennington College while we were working toward our MFA degrees. We were both from Boston, and Kathleen invited me to attend BookLab, a vibrant literary salon that she runs. But our friendship really took off in coffee shops. Once a month we met — and would still, if it weren’t for Covid — to discuss our projects, share writing advice and cheer each other on. Kathleen was working on a collective biography about women in male-oriented jobs in the mid-twentieth century, when prejudice and gender discrimination were the order of the day. She told me she was struggling with certain aspects of it, such as whether or not to insert herself into the narrative. She didn’t ask me to read any of it, and it seemed simpler to us both not to share work. As her project neared publication, though, I welcomed the chance to interview her about it. After reading an advance copy, I was struck by how skillfully she’d woven her own story into the biographies, and how it offered echoes and contrast to the women’s experiences from a generation older.
—Jean Hey, March 2022
Jean Hey: Tell us how you decided on the title for the book, which contains a diverse collection of oral histories that span several decades.
Kathleen Stone: The title comes from something one of the women featured in the book told me. When Rya Zobel graduated from law school in 1956, she couldn’t get a job with a law firm. Firms were not hiring women and, as she said, “We were not called women; we were called girls.” This turned out to be pretty typical of the era. Women, no matter how talented and accomplished, were thought of as ‘girls,’ and incapable of succeeding in certain fields where men were dominant. As it turned out, Rya Zobel was the first woman to serve on the federal court in Massachusetts. She has been a judge for forty years, proving just how wrong men were to underestimate her.
Similar to Judge Zobel, the other women I write about were successful in their own fields, including medicine, science and executive leadership, to give a few examples. The women are pretty much contemporaries – all born before 1935 – and they came of age in the middle of the 20th century when women were expected to stay home, or at least not to take “men’s” jobs. But these women had ambitions that exceeded such expectations. My goal in writing the book was to find out where their ambition came from and how it flowered despite an adverse environment.
JH: Female ambition is the most obvious theme in this biography, and many of the women in this book are remarkably single-minded in their pursuit of their career. Did you enter Bennington’s MFA program with the same focused determination, in your case to write this book?
KS: Yes, I arrived at Bennington with my book project in hand. I had already interviewed some of the women who appear in the book and written a few early drafts of chapters, but things were in a very preliminary state. I had doubts whether this could really turn into a book. The slogan of the MFA program was “Read 100 Books, Write One.” As I struggled to figure out what I might accomplish, that became my holy grail.
JH: What made you want to write this particular book and to focus on female ambition?
KS: When I was young, I fantasized about women of my parents’ generation who had what were then considered “men’s” jobs. After working for almost 30 years as a lawyer, I found myself still wondering about women like that. Where had their ambition come from and how did they pursue it, particularly when the hurdles they faced were so much higher than those I faced? Being at a stage in my own career when I wanted a new challenge, I decided to find out. From there, the book took shape.
JH: This book took ten years to write. How did your vision for it change along the way?
KS: I should confess that ten years is a modest estimate. In reality, it took longer. The biggest change in my work was how personal my writing became. At the start, I was writing in a very impersonal way, entirely in the third person. Also, I stuck strictly to what was said in the interviews, without even minor edits. That was a product of my legal background: when you quote testimony, you don’t change even a comma. But writing a book is obviously different. I had to become comfortable with editing for clarity. The real breakthrough, though, was putting myself in the book. All my teachers and classmates at Bennington could see this is what I needed to do, but it took me a while to see it for myself. I ended up adding mini-chapters I call intermezzos, where I describe some episodes in my own life. I use them to compare how things were for me, a baby boomer, to what an older generation of women experienced.
Women, no matter how talented and accomplished, were thought of as ‘girls,’ and incapable of succeeding in certain fields where men were dominant.
JH: The seven women here are inspiring, not only because of their achievements but for their humility, drive and continued engagement in the world. Why these women? How did you find them, and how did you decide who would make it into the final book?
KS: To find the women, I relied on a combination of strategy and serendipity. On the strategic side, I started by reading books on women’s history, mostly for general background but also to generate a list of notable women. I added to this list through Internet research, always keeping in mind that I wanted diversity of profession, race and ethnicity. In a few instances, I targeted a “dream” interview, but knew that a personal introduction would help open the door. Friends and colleagues were generous in that regard. Also, when friends heard what I was working on, they sometimes volunteered suggestions. Some terrific interviews came about because of those spontaneous conversations.
In the end, I had more good candidates than I could use, which meant I had to make some tough decisions. I wanted to illustrate what things were like in the 50-year period between 1920 and 1970 when, statistics show, the percentage of women in male-dominated professions did not increase for a full half-century. To make the final cut and decide the sequence of chapters, I thought a lot about the era they lived in and tried to illustrate how opportunities evolved even though, overall, women’s progress was static.
JH: Time has a strong presence in this book. Not only did their careers in some instances span fifty years, but you interviewed these women at the end of their lives. Did you find any common threads in how time played on their memories? Would they have done anything differently, as they looked back on their lives and careers?
KS: You’re right about time having a strong presence in the book. Sometimes when I was talking to a woman, it felt as though we were time-traveling together, all the way back to her childhood. She was my guide, but sometimes a question prompted her to reflect, or bring a heightened intensity to the memory. Mildred Dresselhaus, for instance, achieved tremendous things in science, but clearly had not forgotten her impoverished childhood.
As for doing something differently, I think Cordelia Hood, who had as much experience in intelligence as her husband, probably wished for an honest conversation with him about how both of them could fully realize their professional potential in the CIA, where they worked after the Second World War. But given the era’s narrow conceptions about the work women should do, they never did. Nor did the agency break from its circumscribed thinking and give her the kind of recognition that her husband enjoyed.
JH: One of the things I love about this book is the sense of your growing relationships with each of these women over the course of your interviews. There’s a sweet moment in your interview with the nonprofit activist Frieda Garcia, when she says, “Talking to you… I now realize, I should have asked my mother a hell of a lot of questions.” I get a sense that these women might have started out reluctant interviewees, but warmed to it with time, and ultimately found it gratifying. Can you comment on the trajectory of the interview process?
KS: Some were reluctant to start, others not at all. You mention Frieda Garcia. She was reluctant but only because she’s so modest. She didn’t think she fit the mold of what I was looking for, because she is not a doctor or a lawyer. But she held leadership positions in social service agencies, was on a boatload of nonprofit boards and spent her life as a community activist. We developed a rapport, which led her to reflect on what she might have asked her mother. That, in turn, triggered my own memories of missed opportunities with my own mother.
JH: I find it curious that at a time when society expected women to be housewives, so many of these women had fathers who encouraged them to seek fulfilling work. I wonder if this is tied to the fact that all but one of the women were from immigrant families.
KS: I do think immigration played a role. Several of the families came to this country with the hope they would find better opportunities than what they had left behind. The fathers of these women felt driven to succeed, and passed that on to their daughters as much as to their sons. That was definitely true for Dr. Muriel Petioni, whose family came to the United States to escape colonial oppression in Trinidad. Her father became a doctor and she followed in his footsteps, attending medical school at Howard University, his alma mater. On the other hand, fathers were not a factor in every woman’s life, at least after a certain point. Frieda Garcia came from the Dominican Republic when she was eight, when her parents’ marriage was on the rocks. Her mother, not her father, was the constant in her life. Rya Zobel, who became a federal judge, lost both parents at the end of World War II in Germany. She arrived in 1946 on one of the first ships to bring refugee children to this country. The best I can say is that lives are complex, and while immigration and fathers are two factors that played a role, neither explains everything.
JH: Each biography stands alone, but together they form a vibrant collage that shows that every path to professional success is a little different from the others. Near the end you write, “In my head is a Venn diagram of the women’s lives, with overlapping circles and clusters of experience.” What would you say were the most significant “overlapping circles”?
KS: Education was key for all the women. Without higher education, these women would not have had the careers they did. The one exception was Dahlov Ipcar. As an artist, she did not need a degree. Still, she had grown up in a house where art was made every day. That gave her an exposure that school learning could never match.
Families were also important in every case. That is how values are passed on, expectations set and encouragement given. It sounds so basic, even old-fashioned, but one way or another, families were the bedrock for these women.
I will add that the prevalence of immigration was, to me, a striking conclusion. Of seven women in the book, three were born outside the country and another three had at least one parent who was an immigrant. I think that probably was a factor in the values and expectations the families passed on.
JH: Racial prejudice was an obstacle that the Black doctor Muriel Petioni faced in addition to sexism. Yet it seems that she, like the other women, wanted to talk more about overcoming barriers than dwell on discrimination she suffered. Do you agree?
KS: You’re right about Dr. Muriel Petioni. She experienced not only discrimination but actual Jim Crow segregation in the South. In our conversation, she wanted to share how she used her perch as a Black woman doctor to affect change in the Harlem community and through national organizations. In the racial dimension of her life, she stood apart from other women in the book, but was similar in having a positive outlook, despite having faced steep barriers.
JH: You say at one point that you came to an interview with certain of your own perceptions and misperceptions. What assumptions did you have to rid yourself of during the course of all these interviews?
KS: My experience of the world is colored by having grown up in an affluent, predominately white suburb with good public schools. Given who my parents were, I had a clear path to college and encouragement to find interesting work after that. I also assumed, and my parents never contradicted me, that I would be financially self-sufficient. Not everyone grew up in similar circumstances, not by a long shot. I had to make sure that my assumptions about how life unfolds did not overtake the stories I was actually hearing, because these women came from a variety of backgrounds, and a different historical era.
Interview edited by Andrea Caswell
Kathleen Stone knows something about female ambition. As a lawyer, she was a law clerk to a federal judge, a litigation partner in a law firm, and senior counsel at a financial institution. She also taught seminars on American law in six foreign countries, including as a Fulbright Senior Specialist. Kathleen’s work has been published in Ploughshares, Arts Fuse, Los Angeles Review of Books, Timberline Review, and The Writer’s Chronicle. She holds graduate degrees from Boston University School of Law and the Bennington Writing Seminars and lives in Boston. To learn more about the author or They Called Us Girls, visit her website kathleencstone.com
Jean Hey’s essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Plain Dealer, The Chicago Tribune, Solstice Magazine, Los Angeles Review of Books, The MacGuffin and Arrowsmith Journal. She holds a dual-genre MFA in fiction and nonfiction from Bennington College, where she won the Sven Birkerts Award for nonfiction. She is at work on a collection of memoiristic essays about immigration and identity.