Author Kathleen Courtenay Stone: The Shrinking and Expanding of a Writer

I’ve spent the last decade creating a book about women who decided they wanted to work in jobs that were, by the standards of their day, “manly” jobs. I interviewed the women when they were in their 80s and 90s and asked them to tell me about their lives and what fueled their unconventional ambition.

In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, when these women started their careers, sex discrimination was legal. The same goes for discrimination based on race, color, religion and national origin. That was a decade or two before major civil rights legislation passed Congress. Women were meant to be the keepers of the home, where their supposed feminine qualities would flourish. But the women in my book knew it wouldn’t be a fulfilling life for them. They wanted to work outside the home, in professions dominated by men from the start.

Today, we do not find it strange that a woman excels in medicine, law, science or other similar fields. But when I was a girl, it was remarkable. I felt amazed and amazed to know such women existed, and writing the book meant rediscovering those feelings.

Fast forward to the late 1950s. Sputnik was a Soviet satellite, not the name of a Russian vaccine, and its launch raised the temperature of the Cold War. The phones were black and bulky and fixed in one place. Color television had not yet arrived in American homes. My family had a black and white set where I watched shows like leave it to the beaver. The show’s mother, June Cleaver, in her pearls and high heels, was over the top, but not impossible, given what I saw in my neighborhood. Yet I knew that some women, somewhere, were different. My father was a lawyer and a handful of women had been his law school classmates. These real women intrigued me, even more than the fictional characters on TV.

Fifty years later, when I started the book, I was a lawyer. I started law school in the 1970s, when women entered higher education in unprecedented numbers. Even with all my experience with other lawyers and judges, I had met very few women from the older generation, the ones I had been curious about as a child. Fueled by the wonder of my childhood, I decided to meet them while I could.

Growing up meant leaving childhood behind, but now I wanted to be in touch with my younger self. To remind myself of how I was when I was a girl, I used some of the techniques that my fiction writer friends use when they imagine a character in a novel. I closed my eyes and pretended to be an eight-year-old girl, both naive and questioning. In my head, I pieced together some of the things I used to do: the hula hoop, the dodgeball, my first blue bike. I dug up conversations with my parents a long time ago. I became a character in the stories I told about women’s lives, both as I was then and as I had become in the years that followed.

Of course, the world is bigger and more complex than what I knew when I was eight years old. I wanted to capture this complexity in the life stories I told. One woman grew up in deep poverty, others in families that aspired to be part of the middle class. Some women grew up with two parents, others just one, while one woman lost both parents in the aftermath of World War II. Many were immigrants, or their parents were. Some families were religious, others were not. Race was also a factor. A black woman went south early in her career, where Jim Crow laws were strictly enforced. A Latina faced more subtle discrimination in the North. These women were diverse in their work and personal experience, but they shared an unconventional ambition. To find where this ambition came from and how it played out for them, I had to both restrict myself to thinking of an eight-year-old girl and expand to write about the diversity of experiences women.

They called us girls

They Called Us Girls: Stories of Female Ambition from Suffrage to Crazy Men, author Kathleen Courtenay Stone.  Image: Cynren Press.

In mid-twentieth-century America, women faced a paradox. Thanks to their efforts, World War II production had been robust, and in the ensuing peace more women were working outdoors than ever before, even dominating some occupations. Yet culture, from politicians to businesses to television shows, portrays the ideal woman as a housewife. Many women happily took on this role, but a small segment bucked the trend – women who wanted to use their talents differently, in jobs that had always been reserved for men.

In They called us girls: stories of feminine ambition, of the right to vote to mad men, author Kathleen Courtenay Stone meets seven of these unconventional women. In insightful, personalized portraits that span half a century, Kathleen weaves stories of female ambition, revealing the families, teachers, mentors, and historical events that led to unexpected paths. What inspired these women and what can they teach women and girls today?

They called us girls released on March 1.

(photo: Cynren Press and Alyssa Shotwell)

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