Women Collaborate to Tell 'Her Story' As Women's History Month comes to a close, authors Charlotte Waisman and Jill Tietjan talk about their new book, Her Story: A Timeline of Women Who Changed America. The book — in stores on April 1st — highlights more than 900 women who left their mark on the nation's history.
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Women Collaborate to Tell 'Her Story'

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Women Collaborate to Tell 'Her Story'

Women Collaborate to Tell 'Her Story'

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News.

As March comes to a close, we thought what better way to wrap up Women's History Month than with a book dedicated to more than 900 women who helped shape this country's history. "Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America," is a compilation of stories about women who left their mark on our nation's history dating back to the 16th Century. The diverse group spreads racial, ethnic, professional and even fictional lives and features the inventor of the dishwasher, the first African-American U.S. Open tennis player, Wonder Woman, and NPR's own Susan Stamberg.

The two women who put it all together are Charlotte Waisman, director of human resources for the Women's Vision Foundation, and electrical engineer, Jill Tietjen. Thank you both for joining us.

Ms. CHARLOTTE WAISMAN (Co-Author, "Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America"): Thank you.

Ms. JILL TIETJEN (Co-Author, "Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America"): Thanks so much.

MARTIN: First, I have to say I was amazed by the range of women represented in the book. You are covering, you know, the arts, sports, science, government. How did you go about figuring out whom to include and whom to leave out? Charlotte?

Ms. WAISMAN: Well, at our very first meeting, Jill and I very carefully established this list of criteria. And as we researched every woman, we were going to place her against those criteria, and you can imagine what happened, of course. The minute that we said, oh, this would mean a person would be in, or this would mean a person would be out, we then started breaking our own rules.

MARTIN: Of course, you had to. Of course, of course. It's your book. That's why it's your book.

Ms. WAISMAN: Yes, and that's exactly what we decided. We decided that every book is idiosyncratic, based upon its authors and their point of view. And why should ours be any different?

MARTIN: Jill, I take it that one of the motivations for the book is the sense that so many important contributions by women are just not that well known.

Ms. TIETJEN: It's even worse than that, Michel. They're invisible. They're forgotten. So many of these women Charlotte and I did not know when we started working on the book. And they're almost lost to history, and that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to recover them and make them part of the history of this country.

MARTIN: I have to admit, though, that the title stopped me for a minute. You call it, "The Women Who Changed America" as opposed to just, "Women Who Changed America." And given, as you both pointed out, that the history books are so inadequate in many respects, how do you know that you guys - you ladies, that you got the right women?

Ms. TIETJEN: Well, this is Jill, and what we were trying to do was identify those women who really made their mark on history. I will tell you that people do come up to us and say to us, well, do you have - and then they give us a name. And of course, for about the first 10 or 15 names, or maybe 20 names that they give us, we do have all of those women in our book.

And then, of course, they get to a name and we don't have that one. And so, we're actually keeping a list of all the women that we don't have that we need to research, so that when there's a second edition of the book, that we'll be able to consider those women, as well.

MARTIN: That's right, or part two. Now, each of you has a specialty. I know, Jill, because you have a background with science and that's kind of your area, so I'd like to ask each of you to tell me about some of the less well-known people in your particular area of expertise that you'd like us to know about. Just give me one or two.

Ms. TIETJEN: When I came into the project, I knew and admired Admiral Grace Murray Hopper very well and, Michel, do you know who she is?

MARTIN: I'm sorry, who's asking the questions, here?

Ms. TIETJEN: This is Jill. Yeah. Admiral Grace Murray Hopper developed the first computer compiler. She's the reason why we have personal computers today. She is the one who found the first bug in the computer. I mean, a very significant woman that, in general, people don't know who she is.

Ms. WAISMAN: Well, we had a lot of fun with that because when we were first meeting, and I, of course, had been putting together names of women primarily who were actors, writers, poets. More women in the arts, and Jill had been women in the sciences. So we would tease each other about things like that. The story that Jill relates was the story she asked me, well, how about Admiral Grace Murray Hopper? And I'm like, well, who? And I had taught women's studies and I just had no idea who she was. I was embarrassed to admit.

MARTIN: Girls, come on. Stand up for the humanities side. Charlotte, come on. Did you have any stumpers for Jill? Well, come on now. Who were some...

Ms. WAISMAN: Oh, yes I did.

MARTIN: Who were the people in your area who are less well known that you want to tell us about?

Ms. TIETJEN: Well, this is Jill, and we got to a point, and she said Isadora Duncan has to be in. And I just looked at her and said, well, who is that? I had no idea.

Ms. WAISMAN: And so of course, I had to relate to Jill the story of Isadora Duncan, being this incredibly wonderful dancer who very tragically died wrapped up in her own scarf in her car. So she's remembered not only for her dance, but this kind of tragic, and some might say, comic death, you know. Very difficult, yeah.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. And we're speaking with Charlotte Waisman and Jill Tietjan, authors of "Her Story: A Timeline of the Women who changed America." Well, OK, who are some of the people who most fascinated you, Jill?

Ms. TIETJEN: Well, we got to another person, and Charlotte said well, we have to include Judy Chicago. And I just went, who is Judy Chicago? And so then Charlotte had to explain to me...

Ms. WAISMAN: Marvelous, marvelous artwork of Judy Chicago, and how she is such an incredible feminist artist and goes around the country doing these huge instillations of art and supporting art for other women. She's just a major figure, I feel, and I was so surprised that Jill didn't know. But I really tell you truly that there were as many scientists, mathematicians, engineers, inventors who I did not know. It's a great marriage between the two of us as we've gone creating this book together, because we've really taught each other so much.

MARTIN: Were there any women who caused you to butt heads? Anybody who you just couldn't agree on?

Ms. TIETJEN: Well, we had a rule in the beginning - this is Jill - that we needed to agree on the women - I mean, when we agreed, then she could be included in the book. And we got to a woman whose name is Nanny Helen Burrows, and I said, Charlotte, she needs to be in the book. And Charlotte said, no, I don't think so. And then there was Sofa Nitzpah Breckenridge(ph), and I think that was the same thing. I said to Charlotte, I think she needs to be in the book, and Charlotte said no.

But in the course of doing our research, we went through probably about a hundred different books. And when the same person kept coming up over and over and over, in different books with different focuses on historical women, then we agreed to put her in the book. We also had, and I wouldn't call it disagreements, it was just we started off with a philosophy that we wanted very positive role models for young girls. This is a book that we hope very many young girls will see, and there were a couple of women that you would consider maybe not the exact role models that you would want for your young women today.

MARTIN: Well, you know, I was going to ask you about that because there are some people in this book who you can't deny that they had an impact, but these aren't exactly people that I would want folks to emulate. I'll tell you the person that, you know, I would nominate is Belle Boyd, a confederate spy. I don't feel like history was better off because of her, but I understand that one of the people that caused you some debate was Victoria Woodholme. Why was she somebody? 1872, you describe her as an enterprising free thinker, a spiritualist, and later a publisher. She set up an equal rights party, and as its nominee, runs for president in 1872. Why did you debate her?

Ms. TIETJEN: Well, that's what's in the book. What's not in the book is that she was a very early advocate of free love, and she was very outside of the norm of the expected behavior for women at that time. And we did not have her in the book for quite a while, and we were encouraged by people - we've talked to many, many people over the five years that we've been working together on this book - and several of them said. well, how can you not have her in your book? Because she actually was a candidate for president at a very early period of time when women still could not vote in this country.

And so, this is one of those decisions. Another one is Emma Goldman who was an anarchist. And these people - the activities that they did, the actions that they took, were in fact important in the formation in total of the society that we have today.

MARTIN: I mean, I think it's a legitimate question, it's a legitimate debate, but you know if you're trying to make history more complete, you know for what it's worth, I don't know if the goal is to kind of fill out a more complete picture of human beings and women as total people, I don't know. I don't know how you can avoid including folks like that, even Belle Boyd who I feel like we could do without. On the other side of it, can I tell you a couple of my favorites?

Ms. WAISMAN: Oh, sure. We'd love to hear that.

Ms. TIETJEN: Please.

MARTIN: Well, Elizabeth Keckley, who bought her own freedom as a dressmaker in 1855. Of course, Nancy...

Ms. TIETJEN: And did you know of her before?

MARTIN: I did, actually I did, because we had a wonderful author on this program a couple of months ago who has written a history of women in design and fashion.

Ms. WAISMAN: Oh, how wonderful.

MARTIN: And who talked about Elizabeth Keckley. Of course, Nancy Dickerson Whitehead and Susan Stamberg, who are pioneering women broadcasters, of course. But here's a person I didn't know about is Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina astronaut, who joined the astronaut program in 1990, and I thought that was a great thing to find out.

Ms. TIETJEN: And she's an engineer.

MARTIN: I know. So what's left to do first? What's left? Maybe one thing, right?

Ms. TIETJEN: There's one thing left.

MARTIN: Yeah, one thing.

Ms. TIETJEN: At least one.

MARTIN: So do you think there's another book possible here?

Ms. WAISMAN: Oh, my heavens, yes. This is Charlotte. Jill mentioned earlier that people continually reference names for us to consider, and we have a spreadsheet now - I think almost 200 additional women for us to review, research, look into, and then make some decisions about. So we're hoping that this book will go to second edition with lots of additional women. We don't want women to forget - women and men. I mean, obviously, we hope men will read the book as well. We hope that people give it to their daughters. We believe, of course, that we are all doing the kinds of things we do because we're standing on those women's shoulders.

So we need to know who they are so we can celebrate them, honor them, remember them.

Ms. TIETJEN: I mean it's really amazing to us. There are so many women that we have not heard of, that other people tell us about. One of Charlotte's friends knew that this book was in process and said to us, well, of course you have Effa Manley in the book. And we just went, who is Effa Manley? Effa Manley was the first woman who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. She owned one of the early Negro baseball teams. A very important woman. The first woman in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

And then he said of course, you have Octavia Butler, too. And we went, well, who's Octavia Butler?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK, well, I'll lobby for Nanny Helen Burroughs for the next edition.

Ms. TIETJEN: She's in.

Ms. WAISMAN: No, no, no, she's in.

MARTIN: OK.

Ms. TIETJEN: Both Nanny Helen Burroughs and Sofa Nitzah Breckenridge made it in. I used them as examples of women who we didn't. But Octavia Butler is also in, and she was a science fiction writer.

MARTIN: OK, we have to leave it there. Charlotte Waisman and Jill Tietjan are authors of "Her Story: A Timeline of the Women who changed America." It comes out tomorrow, and the authors joined me from member station KUVO in Denver. Ladies, thank you so much, and happy Women's History Month.

Ms. WAISMAN: Thank you.

Ms. TIETJEN: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Remember, with Tell Me More, the conversation never ends. You heard author Charlotte Waisman and Jill Tietjen mention that they would like to write another book. So who are some of the women you think should be included? Are there some women, famous or otherwise, who you think have not gotten their due?

We'd like to hear your stories about women who've made a difference, and as we wrap up Women's History Month for the year, we'd like to know, did you learn anything new? Who or what should we focus on for next year? To tell us more, please go to our blog at npr.org/tellmemore. You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That's 202-842-3522.

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