What It's Like To Write A Woman's Life

Women's History Month starts on Thursday. All through March, Tell Me More will dig into inspiring, bold and sometimes disturbing stories of notable women — from Cleopatra to Coco Channel. To launch the biography series, host Michel Martin talks with two essayists about why it's important to tell women's stories, and how that storytelling has evolved.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, raise your hand if you too have Linsanity, a love affair with breakout New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin. Later in the program, we will have a guest who will tell us about the actually very well established Asian-American basketball leagues that she says paved the way for Lin.

But first, we wanted to kick off Women's History Month, which starts today, by taking a closer look at the stories by and about women. As women around the world are rethinking and rewriting their roles in society, we decided to take a look at how the biographies of notable women reflect those changes.

In the coming weeks, we are going to dig into biographies of divas and dancers, leaders of nations and queens of fashion, but before we hear from these authors, we have called upon two scholars to help us get started by talking about how women's lives have been written about and why that matters.

With us now is Katha Pollitt. She's an award-winning essayist, author and poet. Among many books, she is the author of "Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism," and she's a columnist for the magazine The Nation. Welcome, Katha Pollitt. Thank you so much for joining us.

KATHA POLLITT: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Also here with us once again, Dana Williams. She is the chair of the department of English at Howard University and a professor of African-American literature. Welcome back to you. Thank you for joining us once again.

DANA WILLIAMS: Hello, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: So Katha Pollitt, I'm going to start with you because your 1995 book "Reasonable Creatures" is titled after a quote by the author Mary Wollstonecraft, who said that women are, quote, "neither heroines nor brutes, but reasonable creatures," which leads me to wonder whether - is that kind of a defensive title in that women - have women traditionally been just depicted as either heroines or brutes and not reasonable?

POLLITT: Well, it's interesting. What Mary Wollstonecraft actually said was, I wish to see women neither heroines nor brutes but reasonable creatures. And she was talking about everything from the - you know, the virgin/whore dichotomy, to putting women on a pedestal, but also condemning them as prostitutes and sluts. These are things we still see today.

And you can really see that in the way women's biography has developed, including biographies of her, because after her death she was demonized as - you know, she'd had a child out of wedlock, she led this riotous life, she did things women weren't supposed to do.

And it was only much, much later in our own time that you begin to see biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft that take her very seriously as a philosopher, which she was, as a major political figure in her time, as part - a big part of the Romantic movement and so on.

So one thing that women's biography has done in our time is to put women back in history as historical actors, not just the wife of, the girlfriend of, someone who died a dramatic death and wrote a book no one reads anymore, that kind of thing.

MARTIN: Well, couldn't you make an argument, though, that sacred books have always, in fact, had in a way a biography of women? Or maybe that kind of just reinforces the existing point that they exist to tell a point as opposed to be people on themselves. I'm just thinking about, like, in Hebrew and the Hebrew Scriptures, like the book of Ruth. You could argue that's a biography, in a way.

POLLITT: Well, it's - I guess it sort of is a story about a woman. Yes.

MARTIN: OK. You don't have to agree with my theory, but that's...

POLLITT: Yeah. But, you know, on your point, it's very interesting, if you read the New Testament, how little there is about the Virgin Mary. You know, she really doesn't have a lot - have a big speaking part, and yet, you know, there is such a need for women as heroes, as important actors in history, that a whole - you know, a whole myth and scholarship and folklore about the Virgin Mary has grown up that is part of religion now, but a lot of it is - comes after the New Testament or is extracted from tiny little hints in the New Testament.

MARTIN: Professor Dana Williams, you specialize in African-American literature and you were part of our conversation last month where we kicked off our investigation of black memoirs. And you noted that formerly enslaved Americans set down memoirs and that African-American women were certainly a part of that. But what about biography?

WILLIAMS: We see black women's lives written about a lot and especially, as of late, just in the last two or three years we see three different biographies on Michelle Obama, for instance. So we see books about literary figures. There are several biographies of Zora Neale Hurston, and as we were talking a little bit earlier, there are several biographies of Ida B. Wells, for instance. And those are all very good and interesting.

MARTIN: Is this new, though? Is this presence of African-American women in biography a pretty new phenomenon?

WILLIAMS: I don't think so. I think there's a long kind of genealogy or history of black women being written about. The newer aspect may be having black women tell the stories of other black women.

MARTIN: Have you noticed a shift in the way these women are written about? Because one of the things I'm interested in digging into further is - can people really tell the truth of their lives or is it always through a lens of whatever the politics are of the time? For example, noting those biographies of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, we reported on, you know, a major work by Professor Paula Giddings when it was published. And one of the things that I was noting was how she grappled with the question of how much of a public role she should play - of course the great anti-lynching activist, a newspaper publisher, very significant figure, and also a wife and a mother.

So we're thinking - is she the original work/life balanced person, kind of angst-ing about that? Or is it that she felt she had to - she couldn't own her own interests in being a public figure because she felt like she had to pretend to be reluctant? I mean, and you don't really know. So Dana, what do you think?

WILLIAMS: In that regard, we do see a shift, indeed, particularly because now there are limitations of privacy. With the kind of multimedia age, the things that Ida B. Wells would have been able to keep to herself or to keep private just aren't an option anymore, so you have everything from the Internet to women writing journals that they're making public or allowing other people to read, to a letter.

So one of the biographies of Zora Neale Hurston, for instance, is actually a life in letters, where we begin to try to figure out who she is based on the letters that she wrote. Hurston is a good example, also, of women not telling everything about themselves. Hurston lied about her age, everything from when she was born to what she was interested in and what moved her. So now that we have these letters that are collected, we can begin to recreate her life and so in that regard too we see as much about the person who's writing the biography as about the person that the biography is about.

How are they choosing to frame the story? What are they imagining to be true about the person? What are they choosing to focus on?

MARTIN: But just briefly, why did she lie about her age, by the way?

WILLIAMS: I think it was just vogue for women to not tell their ages and so, you know, it's still taboo now in most communities where you ask a woman her age and she'll say, well, I can't tell you that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Katha Pollitt, what do you think? Do you think that there is a - have you observed a difference in the way that women's stories are told? And it's been said that the biographies say as much about the biographer as they do about the subject.

POLLITT: Well, I think we need to see women's biographies now in the context of the revitalization of feminism and the effect it had on the teaching of history and our sense of what is history and also the tentative remaking or opening up of the literary canon.

And Zora Neale Hurston is a really good example of that because she was incredibly famous during the Harlem Renaissance. She was a big deal, both as an anthropologist and as a folklorist and as a writer of fiction. But by the time she died, which I think was in the '60s, she was completely forgotten. She was working as a cleaning woman, and it was left to Alice Walker and other black writers that came up in the '60s and '70s to rediscover her.

And then we started getting this intense interest in her, where she had been seen by, for example, Richard Wright, you know, a very left-wing political black writer, as she was seen as - well, she's telling stories we don't want told. This is all making black people look primitive.

When Zora Neale Hurston came back into favor at a different historical moment, she was seen as a very important figure, partly because she wasn't so time-bound to, you know, the struggles of the Communist Party in the '30s, and I think that, you know, now we're getting this wealth of information and interest in her that would never have happened if it hadn't been for the political developments of the '60s, '70s, '80s and ongoing to now.

MARTIN: You're right, by the way. Zora Neale Hurston died in 1960, according to our information. That's essayist and columnist for The Nation, Katha Pollitt. Also with us, Professor Dana Williams of Howard University. We're talking about women's biographies. And just briefly, to tie a bow on that, Professor Dana Williams, do you think that the - I'll just say the word lies or fibs - let's say fibs that women have been moved to tell about their lives - are they really any different from the ones that men have told to shape their narratives - to shape the narratives around men? Because I was just thinking, if you were sort of a male political leader, would you really want it known that you might have been, like, afraid to do something? Like, you know, that you didn't really want to go into the service or something, that you were scared or something like that?

Or a latter-day... I just wondered if you think that there is just more shading. Do you think that - and I'm asking for your opinion - more shading around the story of women than the stories of men?

WILLIAMS: I don't think so.

MARTIN: More of a dissonance?

WILLIAMS: I don't think so. I think if we look at the stories that men tell or stories that are told about men, we see the same kind of dissonance that we see with women's stories. One kind of interesting distinction, to go back a little bit on something that Katha was suggesting, might be in looking at the lives of black women and their biographies and the way that they tend to focus more on an institution or an organization or the community as opposed to the individual life.

So we do see that shift from a kind of traditional biography, and even with the resurgence of feminism in, say, the last 10 or 15 years or so, we still see a distinct difference between the biography of Ella Baker, for instance, where even the title tells us it's the black freedom movement, so it's Baker's lens through which we're looking at the black freedom movement.

"For Freedom's Sake," again, with Fannie Lou Hamer, the idea is to look at a particular type of movement or a way of being that impacts the community, and one of the - I know you'll talk to the author of "Joan Myers Brown and the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina." So again, we're talking about Philadanco and what it meant to try to assert a place for black ballerinas in a civil rights kind of environment that wasn't as friendly to black ballerinas, everything from color to body type.

So it's interesting to see how black women's lives focus probably a little bit more on a communal kind of aspect, much more so than the kind of traditional white male story that takes on a different framework completely.

MARTIN: Interesting. To that end, here's a - I just want to play a short clip from a conversation with author Rebecca Skloot, whose book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" has been a huge bestseller about an African-American woman whose cells, cancer cells were used in medical research, had a profound effect on medical research. And this is Skloot speaking to NPR's Neal Conan in 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REBECCA SKLOOT: I just sort of became obsessed with this question of who was she and did she have any kids and what did they think about all this stuff that was done with her cells. You know, I spent many years trying to sort of uncover the story of both the science and the person behind it all.

MARTIN: I'll ask each of you. Katha Pollitt, I'll start with you. What do you think it means that a woman like Henrietta Lacks has now been given voice in this time? What do you think it means?

POLLITT: Well, I think it's fascinating. I think it shows that - a kind of democratization of the notion of history and, even in this case, maybe the notion of science, and that all these people that were considered to be completely unimportant, like the person whose cells are used for medical discoveries, turn out to be absolutely fascinating and turn out to be part of the story.

For example, you might find that the model for a great painting is an interesting person and that that model then, through that lens, you could see, well, you know, models played a more important role in the development of art than we might think, and I think that's happening all over and it's really great. I'm really happy that we live in this time of biography, when we find out so much that was hidden before.

MARTIN: Professor Dana Williams, what do you think it means?

WILLIAMS: I think it, again, raises that conversation that we were talking about, in terms of the distinction or the way that biography teaches us something about the biographer as much as it teaches us about the person. So I think we come to know more about the person and the choice of framing the story of Henrietta Lacks, probably - I wouldn't say more than we learn about Henrietta Lacks, because indeed we do.

But the tension that was present between the family and the biographer is an interesting conversation that even reminds me a little bit of the tension around "The Help," for instance, where - what do you do when the person whose story it is is not necessarily excited about the story being told in this particular way?

Or, in some instances, the lawsuit that happens, where the woman based on the story is saying, this isn't what I agreed to. So what do you do with that tension in terms of the person who's telling the story versus the family?

MARTIN: But wouldn't you rather know?

WILLIAMS: Sure.

MARTIN: Wouldn't you rather know than not know?

WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: I was fascinated when, in "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," the author, Rebecca Skloot, spent 12 years researching and writing this. She first discovered the cell line and that there was even a person's name that was known behind it when she was in high school or something crazy like that, and then the tension emerged well along in the story. And it is - would you rather know or not know or would you rather she'd kept that business out of it?

WILLIAMS: No. I think you certainly would rather know, I think. But what also has to happen is you have to understand how complicated the coming to knowing is about.

MARTIN: Before we let each of you go, we have to ask if you have a biography that you have read lately that you would like to recommend. This being Women's History Month, we'd prefer that it be of a woman, but we're not going to place restrictions on you. I know I'm springing this on you, but Professor Dana Williams, do you have a biography you'd like to recommend?

WILLIAMS: Yes. I'm actually thankful for the conversation with your producer, Anita(ph), and for your raising my attention to Joan Myers Brown and "The Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina." I'm fascinated with Philadanco and I had known a little bit about Joan Myers Brown, so I'm looking forward to getting into that one.

MARTIN: All right. Katha Pollitt, what about you?

POLLITT: Well, I think you've got Stacy Schiff's "Cleopatra" on your list, which I was going to recommend. So let's see. I would say, since you have one biography of Margaret Sanger on your list, I would also recommend the earlier book by Ellen Chesler, which is really long and very magisterial and a very full and quite - you know, just exemplar of what a biography should be. Her book, her biography of Margaret Sanger.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you. Katha Pollitt is an award-winning essayist, author and poet. She is the author of "Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism," among other works. She is a columnist for the progressive magazine The Nation, and she was kind enough to join us from the studios at Radio Foundation in New York.

Here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, Dana Williams, chair of the department of English at Howard University and a specialist in contemporary African-American literature.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

POLLITT: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: And we hope you will tune in throughout the month as we talk about women's biographies, from fashion icon Coco Chanel to health activist Margaret Sanger, as you heard. Next week, we will hear from the author of "Joan Myers Brown and the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina."

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