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~ Writing a Biography ~
A Blog About Writing Biography and Imagining a Life

Still Persisting: WWWL Celebrates Its Thirtieth Anniversary (Part One)


(This is the first installment of a two-part report. A shorter version appeared in The Biographer's Craft, Nov. 2020. For more of my reports to TBC, the monthly newsletter of the Biographers International Organization, click on "TBC Reports" in the right sidebar.)


On October 5, 2020, the Women Writing Women's Lives Seminar (WWWL), an ongoing discussion group of more than seventy women biographers and memoirists, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary by holding an online conference. The theme of the conference was "Nevertheless, She Persisted: 30 Years of Women Writing Women's Lives." Just in case you're wondering, "Nevertheless, she persisted" was said by Senator Mitch McConnell's in 2017 about Senator Elizabeth Warren. She had been filibustering the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General. (Hey, until I looked it up, I thought she said it.)  McConnell's wisecrack immediately went viral on social media and was gleefully appropriated as a feminist battle cry.

In non-pandemic times, WWWL convenes monthly during the academic year under the aegis of the Study of Women in Society and the Center for the Humanities at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Sponsored by the Graduate Center's Leon Levy Center for Biography, by the university's degree programs in women's and gender studies, and by the Feminist Press, the event was attended by more than 150 viewers in the U.S. and abroad, many of whom submitted questions to the enthusiastic panelists. In practice and spirit, it strongly resembled one of the group's regular in-person sessions.




Sydney Stern, the organization's chair, introduced the program by explaining WWWL's mission: to explore societal changes in women's lives, roles, and status and promote "new ways of looking at and presenting women's stories," with the ultimate aim of "influencing the way women's stories are perceived and written." The two keynote speakers were Alix Kates Shulman and Honor Moore, editors of the forthcoming Library of America anthology, Women's Liberation!: Feminist Writings that Inspired a Revolution & Still Can, a documentary "biography" of Second Wave feminism.


Shulman said that the seminar, which was founded in October, 1990 by Deirdre Bair and Carolyn Heilbrun, was originally inspired not only by the feminism of the 1960s and 70s but by the growing awareness that opportunities afforded male writers were unavailable to women. At the time, Bair belonged to a discussion group for male and female biographers. But the special issues inherent in writing about a woman never came up in its discussions, and the social, cultural, and economic constraints that women have historically had to grapple with were routinely ignored.


Bair, then at New York University's Institute for the Humanities, was starting work on a biography of Anais Nin, while Heilbrun was writing a biography of Gloria Steinem. Bair approached Heilbrun about starting a hands-on manuscript group with others who were similarly engaged. Accordingly, a letter was sent out to a small number of women biographers and memoirists inviting them to start a group whose meetings would focus exclusively on the particular issues and technical challenges of researching and writing a woman's life; sessions would take place at Bair's institute. At the first meeting, to the astonishment and no little consternation of the founders, sixty eager women writers packed the room, and within a few years the number of applicants threatened to exceed the amount of space available.


WWWL now meets at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, with its papers and oral histories housed in the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at NYU's Tamiment Library. Sessions are normally attended by anywhere from fifteen to thirty members. But although the organization's scope and structure have expanded beyond Bair's original vision, its sessions remain robust, lively, and warmly supportive.




Panel One: "Nevertheless, Our Foremothers Persisted: Reflections on the 100th Anniversary of Women's Suffrage."


The opening panel epitomized the scholarly energy and wealth of information that has gone into uncovering the history of women's voting rights in recent decades. Moderator Jill Norgren, a legal historian whose many books include Rebels at the Bar: The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America's First Women Lawyers (2016), talked about Her Hat Was in the Ring! U.S. Women Who Ran for Office before 1920, a website she and two colleagues, Wendy E. Chmielewski and Kristen Gwinn-Becker, created to provide capsule biographies and information on women who entered politics before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.


When they first started the website, Norgren said, she and her associates expected to discover "at most, three to four hundred women" who ran for local, state, and national office between the 1860s and 1920. Instead, within a few years they found more than 3,300 women who waged over 4,600 political campaigns, and the database is still growing. Norgren observed that, as might be expected, all but a tiny few were white Northern European Protestants. That said, all ran for office to demonstrate to an all-male American electorate "that women could be interested in politics." The entry of thousands of women into the  local, state, and even national political scene played an important role in getting Americans of both sexes used to the idea that women could be trusted with the vote.




Art historian Linda Grasso (Equal under the Sky: Georgia O'Keefe and Twentieth-Century Feminism, 2017) used photographs and magazine covers from the 1910s to illustrate the "racialization" of modern suffrage: the white radicals who produced magazines like The Masses portrayed the political liberation of (white) women as ushering in a future of freedom and democratic principles; on the other hand, The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, while it emphasized that women of every race would benefit from suffrage, depicted the struggle for Black women's voting rights as, above all, an aspect of African-Americans' long, arduous struggle for racial justice and equality. Novelist, journalist, and activist Louise Bernikow, author of Among Women (1981), a landmark book of feminist essays, talked about researching the decisive New York State suffrage campaign of 1917 and her immersion in the physical details of the lives led by New York City working women. Bernikow, too, reminded her viewers that suffrage was by no means the sole property of the middle-class white women who marched in white dresses; nor was it mainly an idealistic effort to make America more democratic, but a pragmatic necessity. "Suffrage wasn't an end in itself," said Bernikow. "It was going to get working women something—equal pay for equal work, better wages."


The last speaker, Betty Boyd Caroli, whose latest book on presidents' wives and other politically influential women is First Ladies: The Ever-Changing Role, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump (2019),discussed the role of presidents' wives in the voting rights movement. Caroli shared with her audience the unexpected and rather startling information that, to her knowledge, not a single first lady before 1920 ever recognized the existence of the crusade for women's voting rights, at least not openly. (In fairness, until 1914 women's suffrage was strictly a state-by-state affair. It also remained a hot-button issue for many Americans, male and female alike, before and even after 1920.) Not until Mrs. Warren G. Harding cast a vote for her husband in the first presidential election open to women, said Caroli, would a first lady implicitly endorse suffrage. But then, Florence Harding was a canny publicist who knew a first-rate photo op when she saw one.


I'll be posting a report on the second and third panels shortly. Meanwhile, to watch videos of the entire conference, click here.

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Honor Moore and Alix Kates Shulman are using women’s voices to tell the history of a revolutionary era in women's history (Photo: CUNY Center for the Humanities)

  This fall I heard two well known writer-activists, Honor Moore and Alix Kates Shulman, talk about working on an anthology, Writing the Women’s Movement, 1963-1991. While their book isn’t biography per se, their talk touched on something I think a lot about as a biographer: the potential of life-writing for portraying history intimately—as it took place on the ground, so to speak, and in its own time—by having it unfold through the voices, and the viewpoints, of those witnessed it.

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Biographers Cathy Curtis and Will Swift present Tim Duggan with BIO's 2018 Editorial Excellence Award (Photo: Biographer’s International)
   Celebrating the contribution editors make to the work biographers do has become a joyful highlight of the year for Biographers International. On November 7, in a ceremony at New York’s landmark Fabbri mansion, BIO presented its fifth annual Editorial Excellence Award to the noted trade editor Tim Duggan, publisher of Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Crown at Penguin Random House.

      Board member Will Swift explained in his introduction that Duggan devotes about 25 percent of his small, carefully nurtured list to biography, an unusually high percentage for a trade publisher. The lively observations of three ardent Duggan fans that followed suggested some of the reasons why he is regarded as a biographer's editor par excellence.

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      David Michaelis, author of Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, which received rave reviews when it was published it in 2007 by Harper, told the audience that after the book lost its first editor, he was dispirited. Fortunately, he said, Tim Duggan turned out to be not a wicked editorial stepmother but “a mentor” who possessed “a level of sympathy you don’t usually find in an editor. That sympathy, Michaelis said, "reunited me with my book.” Read More 
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An editor at work (Wikipedia)
   What Makes for a Good Biography Proposal? BIO’s 2018 Conference in May included a panel that provided a few helpful insights into what that is, as well as tips on what to avoid.

      Moderator Will Swift (Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage) presided over a panel entitled “What Four Top Editors Look for in a Book Proposal.” All of the four—Amy Cherry of W. W. Norton; Tim Duggan of Tim Duggan Books at Crown (part of Penguin Random House); Michael Flamini, Executive Editor of St. Martin’s Press; and Kristine Puopolo of Doubleday agreed that right now, publishers are most interested in lives that “speak to the current moment” (Puopolo), especially the lives of people of color, gay and transgender people, and “women who have done remarkable things” (Flamini). They also noted a special hunger among readers for books that can help explain the current political situation. Read More 
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(UConn Humanities Institute)
   Deirdre Bair, who has written six biographies, is currently working on a memoir about her experiences in researching and writing Beckett (1978) and Simone de Beauvoir (1990). At the fall, 2017 Dorothy O. Helly Work in Progress Lecture, presented by New York’s Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar, she talked about her reasons for undertaking a memoir and the challenges for a seasoned biographer who decides to become part of the story.

   Bair originally planned “a short book” about all her biographies but was unable to find a framework that would encompass all six,  Read More 
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  How long does it take a biographer to commit to a subject?

  At the April, 2017 meeting of the New York University Biography Seminar, four noted biographers talked about their current projects and how they came to them. Turns out that even for experienced biographers, the process of deciding on a subject can be long, circuitous, and complicated.

      About a decade ago, journalist and former book editor Amanda Vaill  Read More 
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Carla Kaplan: "This book has to be funny."
    Carla Kaplan's previous biographies, Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (2002) and Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (2013) made it clear that she likes women rebels.

   Her current project, Something to Offend Everyone: The Muckraking Life and Times of Jessica Mitford, which she discussed at the Spring, 2017 Works in Progress Lecture of New York City's Women Writing Women's Lives Seminar, made it clear that she especially likes them when they’re combative, empathetic, and have a talent for being "laugh-out-loud funny"—qualities Jessica Mitford employed to breathe new life into the venerable Gilded Age tradition of muckraking.  Read More 
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   At a recent session of the New York University Biography Seminar, members Gayle Feldman and James Atlas invited four well-known trade editors to come and discuss whether biography has changed, what the editor contributes, and the hopes and expectations they entertain for the biographies they acquire.

      Tim Duggan, publisher of Tim Duggan Books at the Crown Publishing Group, doesn’t think writing biography or editing it has actually changed much from twenty years ago. Above all, he said, it remains “a huge undertaking” that can take years to complete. The glacial speed at which biography is produced, he observed, makes it "impossible to justify publishing only biography."

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       However, an editor's reason for taking on a serious biography is in any case less likely to be driven by visions of bestsellerdom than by the subject's perceived value, the quality of the writing, or both.

      Doubleday vice-president and executive editor Gerald Howard said that while biographies aren't regarded as money-makers, in respected critical venues biography remains the most frequently reviewed nonfiction genre. “In our world," he said, "success is being reviewed in the New York Times"—if possible, he added jokingly, by Dwight Garner. This personal and professional investment in a biography’s critical success has practical ramifications for authors, who look to their editors not only for encouragement and moral support over a long period but also for the enthusiasm that can translate into persuading other departments to support the book when it is published.  Read More 
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Ruth Franklin
   For fans of Shirley Jackson ("The Lottery"), an intriguing report by Women Writing Women's Lives member Evelyn Barish (The Double Life of Paul De Man) on a talk given by another member, Ruth Franklin, on her upcoming biography of Jackson (to be published September, 2016).

   Barish's report appeared in the April, 2016 newsletter of the Biographers International Organization, which is dedicated to fostering the community of biographers worldwide. For more reports, click on "TBC reports" in the sidebar.
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BIOGRAPHERS EXPLORE POINTS OF VIEW: A Report by Deirdre David (TBC: April, 2016)

"Other Point of View," by Beryl Owl (Deviant Art)
   If you're writing a biography (or a memoir), or you're thinking about writing one, the following report by Deirdre David (Olivia Manning: A Woman at War) on the proceedings of the annual 2016 Leon Levy Conference on Biography may offer some food for thought.

   David's report appeared in the April, 2016 newsletter of the Biographers International Organization, which is dedicated to fostering the community of biographers worldwide. For more reports, click on "TBC reports" in the sidebar.  Read More 
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