Women Writing Women’s Lives

What’s Love Got to Do with It? A Passionate Biographer Talks about Getting to Know Her Subject

By Dona Munker, New York Correspondent

Janice P. Nimura, a BIO member, earned a Master’s Degree in East Asian studies at Columbia University.

Every serious biographer knows that only the most intense engagement with a subject can compel the writer to spend years in the archives and construct a narrative that has the energy it needs to carry both writer and reader across the finish line. Which is why, as Janice P. Nimura suggested to an audience at the City University of New York Graduate Center in October, biographers always long to “find a subject they can fall in love with.”

Speaking at the Fall 2019 Dorothy O. Helly Works-in-Progress Lecture, an event presented twice a year by the Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar, Nimura offered her first book as an illustration of her point. Daughters of the Samurai (Norton, 2015), the story of three 19th-century Japanese girls sent by their government to the United States to learn Western ways and bring them back to Japan—Nimura’s husband is Japanese and she speaks the language—remembers researching it and telling it as an “ecstatic experience.” When the book was finished, she said, “I wanted to do it all over again—immediately!”

For several years, however, nothing appeared on the horizon and Nimura, who considers herself an impatient reader (“I have the attention span of a gnat”) and likes biographies to have “lots of fast narrative and be crammed with interesting bits of information,” was frustrated and discouraged. Then she came across the story of Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910), the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, and her younger sister Emily (1826–1910), who was the third. In 1857, the two collaborated to found the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, a full-fledged hospital and the first to train and employ women doctors and nurses exclusively and be dedicated to serving the medical needs of women. (It is now New York University Downtown Hospital.)

Nimura had never heard of either, but she was drawn to stories of female partnerships and had always been interested in science and medicine. Moreover, the Blackwell sisters presented a golden opportunity, since Elizabeth had been written about only in incomplete, prettified accounts for adults and grade-schoolers and Emily was all but absent from the secondary literature.

Nimura was intrigued but also “terrified.” Here was no “bite-sized” story, like the subject of her first book. The Blackwell sisters came from a prominent abolitionist family of nine children; Antoinette Brown, the first American woman to be formally ordained as a minister by a major denomination, was their sister-in-law; another sister-in-law was the suffrage leader Lucy Stone; and their extended circle included many figures about whom volumes have been written. Since “they all wrote letters to each other,” the papers, all told, comprised hundreds of thousands of pages across multiple archives. Moreover, the sisters themselves weren’t exactly designed to warm the heart of a feminist biographer. Elizabeth was domineering and opinionated, and “didn’t like people and wasn’t interested in science,” but had been inspired by reading Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century to fight her way into medical school “in order to make a point”: if she graduated, “no one would be able to claim that she or any other woman couldn’t be a doctor.” She was also deeply conservative, didn’t approve of woman suffrage, and wanted medical schools to instruct all their students in Christian values, as well as medicine. Emily was more modest and self-effacing (and unlike her older sister, Nimura said, “she didn’t blow her own horn about her medical views”), as well as a more devoted medical practitioner, but there was also far less material about her, which made warming up to her difficult. Finally, in general, both dismissed most women as “a lot of ninnies.”

Fortunately, a passion for telling a life story doesn’t necessarily have to arise from a subject’s innate charms. As Nimura has pointed out elsewhere, “There’s the kind of love that overtakes you unexpectedly and the kind you cultivate, consciously.” With luck, if she drew a mental line around the territory she had to explore and “cultivated” it as though it were a plot of fertile soil in her research, she would come to know the sisters and their lives so intimately that she would have both the detailed information that propels a narrative forward and the enthusiasm that would make it the kind of biography she hoped to write.
For a while, as she “dug through piles of letters and watered the seeds of ideas,” she found herself fighting a persistent fear that the investment of so much time and toil wouldn’t pay off after all. Gradually, however, as scenes and events from letters and other research began to take shape, and as her subjects and their milieu took on greater life and immediacy from the increasingly detailed context that was forming in her mind, she felt more and more connected with “their moods, their doubts, their seven eccentric siblings.” Occasionally, to the annoyance of other researchers, she would even find herself “snorting out loud” over some characteristically sardonic remark, or “gasping” at a gruesome description of a medical procedure, or exulting in the discovery of an amusing anecdote about the indomitable Elizabeth’s storming of the male-only medical barricades. Now she craved opportunities to see what vivid details and scenes would emerge from her research and writing.

Asked if she consciously tries to retain a mental outline of the narrative she is working on, Nimura replied that in general she does not; rather, she prefers to let telling details determine the shape of the narrative. “I do less drawing back than honing in,” she said. “I prefer to focus more on the shiny things. When you do that, the story starts to emerge [by itself].” She has no doubt at all about that story’s importance. In a post-2016, post-#MeToo America, she told her listeners, the Blackwell sisters’ lives and achievements are more relevant than ever to both adult and YA readers. “Elizabeth,” she said, “chose medicine because she wanted to make the point that women could do anything they wanted if they had the talent for it. She believed that it was up to women to make civilization progress.”

Dona Munker is the writer and co-author of Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem through the Islamic Revolution. She is currently working on a book about the suffragist Sara Bard Field and her “free-love” affair with the lawyer C. E. S. Wood. Her blog, Stalking the Elephant, is about how biographers imagine and tell other people’s lives.

Women Writing Women’s Lives Celebrates 25 Years

By Dona Munker
Whose life is valuable enough to deserve a biography? According to the attendees of an all-day conference on October 2 at the City of New York Graduate Center the answer was, “Any life has the potential to be a biography.” The event celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar, an ongoing independent discussion group of about seventy women journalists, independent writers, and academic scholars.

The WWWL website says the seminar’s official mission is finding “new ways of looking at and presenting women’s stories” and, ultimately, to influence the way those stories are written. Keynote speaker and co-founder Deirdre Bair recalled that the group came into existence almost by accident. In October 1990, Bair, who had just published a landmark study of Simone de Beauvoir, and the late Carolyn Heilbrun, who was working on a biography of Gloria Steinem, invited a small number of feminist biographers to meet informally to talk about their projects. But instead of the ten or twelve friends they had invited, more than fifty people showed up. Stunned, the two organizers listened as one woman after another poured out her concerns about the obstacles involved in researching and writing the lives of women—including the need to find “the courage to think that women’s lives, on their own and without any attachment to men, were important and interesting enough to deserve being put into print.”

Changing Attitudes, Persistent Problems
Before the 1970s, publishers showed scant interest in serious biographies of women, unless the women were queens, female entertainers, or recognizable public or literary figures, such as Helen Keller or Emily Dickinson. By and large, it was felt that women who were not already well known belonged in the biographical limelight only as wives, mistresses, or muses of “great men.”

As the impact of the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s made itself felt, however, that situation slowly began to change, and in the decades that followed, market-conscious publishers recognized that there was an audience for books about little-known women who overcame obstacles and achieved remarkable things in their own right.

Biographers of women nevertheless face hurdles that biographers of male subjects are less likely to encounter. Carla Peterson, a historian who has written about the men and women of her prominent nineteenth-century New York African-American family, had to contend with the fact that women, far more often than men, have left little or no trace on the historical record because of their traditional reluctance to expose themselves, either by word or by deed, to public scrutiny.

A self-imposed silence can also be produced by a sense of educational inadequacy—even when the subject has led a exceptionally public life. Sallie Bingham began looking into the life of tobacco heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke and found that Duke, who was raised to be a fin-de-siècle socialite, considered herself so ignorant that she refused to write letters, forcing Bingham to reconstruct her personality from correspondence written to her rather than by her.

Women can also vanish into the historic ether when family members or heirs, either out of embarrassment or a conviction that their grandmother’s letters are of no interest or value to posterity, lose, discard, or sell off papers left by female relatives. Betty Boyd Caroli, whose biography of Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson was published last month, found herself forced to “work by hunches” about Lady Bird’s connection with her mother because of what she described as an “almost utter absence of information” about this critical relationship in her subject’s life. Still, sometimes a biographer gets lucky. Ruth Franklin, who is working on a biography of the writer Shirley Jackson, rescued a box of her subject’s letters from an old filing cabinet just before the cabinet was to be auctioned off in the estate sale.

Even when a woman’s papers end up in an archival collection that bears her name, they may remain uncatalogued, rendering them effectively useless to researchers. Furthermore, if the collection is named for a male relative, a woman subject’s documents may be subsumed to his and effectively “lost.” Franklin, for instance, discovered that many of Shirley Jackson’s letters had been catalogued under the name of her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, making them difficult to find.

Extending Biography’s Reach
The famous phrase “The personal is political” has its counterpart in feminist biography, where it is a given that the private and the public are inseparably connected. This emphasis on private lives and personal relationships has extended contemporary biographers’ ability to explore the complex interworkings of individuals, both with each other and with society. As an example, Diane Jacobs pointed out that her most recent book, Dear Abigail, a study of Abigail Adams and her two sisters, depicts “a private nation,” adding the personal to the political. “I didn’t want to write just another biography of John Adams,” she explained, noting that the psychological and social issues that emerge in the book—the nature of sisterhood, the meaning of women’s friendships in a male-dominated society—would not have emerged from a traditional biography of a man.

Do publishers still care if no one has heard of the subject? Well, yes. Even so, both Bair and Alix Kates Shulman agreed that the last twenty-five years have seen a significant shift of attitude toward women—and men—subjects who aren’t household names. “The subject,” said Shulman, a novelist as well as a biographer, “now counts less than the quality of the writing.” Bair said that by holding the biographer to a high standard of both writing and scholarship, feminist biography has succeeded in showing “that any life is an appropriate subject for exploration in the genres of biography, history, and memoir.”

It has also raised the bar for biographers as narrators. Nowadays, as Bair noted, “the biographer has to be able to write a page-turner and yet refuse to relinquish truth and authenticity.” Given the obstaclces to unearthing and depicting the complexities of women’s experience, that task can sometimes seem daunting. Nevertheless, said Bair, “We have an obligation to find the answers to our questions, and to never stop trying to find ‘the truth.’”

A video of the panel discussions will be available soon; the link will be posted on the Women Writing Women’s Lives Website and in a future issue of TBC.

Dona Munker is the writer and coauthor of Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem through the Islamic Revolution. She is working on a book about Sara Bard Field, a twentieth-century suffragist, poet, and “free-lover.” Her reflections, as well as an expanded version of this article, are available on her blog, “Stalking the Elephant.