Review: Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women: An Anthology, by Jill Ker Conway

Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women: An Anthology - Jill Ker Conway, Harriet Jacobs, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Margaret Mead, Lucy Larcom, Vida Dutton Scudder, Janet Scudder, Ellen Glasgow, Louise Bogan, Margaret Bourke-White, Maxine Hong Kingston, Anna Howard Shaw, Zora Neale Hurston, Jane Addams, Anne Walter Fearn, Mar
Read from August 03, 2012 to August 08, 2013 — I own a copy


This is a book I bought ages ago, and had dipped in and sampled parts of it over time. But that meant that I'd never actually finished the whole thing, cover to cover. So this time through I started from the beginning and went through it all - though if you look at the dates you'll notice I took my time. Which is more understandable if you know that some of these readings inspired me to immediately go read more of a particular author. Or had to at least pause to find the full text - some of them are available as free ebooks.

Since each section/autobiography stands alone quite nicely, this is still the perfect book to travel with, or read if you know you'll be busy and will have to put it down from time to time.

I'll say nothing more simply because if you read through the vast amount of quotes I've added you can easily tell how much I enjoyed myself.

(Note that these are not the entire work, just a potion of the whole. All links on author names are to wikipedia pages, except Anne Walter Fearn's. Links to ebooks are to free editions.)

I. My Story Ends With Freedom
Harriet Ann Jacobs - Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (ebook link)
Zora Neale Hurston - Dust Tracks on a Road
Marian Anderson - My Lord What A Morning
Maya Angelou - I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

II. Research Is A Passion With Me: Women Scientists and Physicians
Margaret Floy Washburn - A History of Psychology in Autobiography
Sara Josephine Baker - Fighting For Life
Dorothy Reed Mendenhall - Unpublished Memoir
Margaret Morse Nice - Research is a Passion with Me
Hortense Powdermaker - Stranger and Friend
Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin - An Autobiography and Other Recollections
Margaret Mead - Blackberry Winter

III. Arts and Letters
Lucy Larcom - A New England Girlhood (ebook)
Vida Dutton Scudder - On Journey
Janet Scudder - Modeling My Life
Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow - The Woman Within
Louise Bogan - Journey Around My Room
Margaret Bourke-White - Portrait of Myself
Maxine Hong Kingston - The Woman Warrior

IV. Pioneers and Reformers
Anna Howard Shaw - The Story of a Pioneer (ebook)
Jane Addams - Twenty Years at Hull House (ebook)
Anne Walter Fearn - My Days of Strength
Margaret Sanger - Margaret Sanger
Anna Louise Strong - I Change Worlds
Mildred Ella (Babe) Didrikson Zaharias - This Life I've Led
Gloria Steinem - Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions

Quotes to ponder:

I really must read the full Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs - enough was cut to make this shorter, and though I get the idea of her experience I want the complete book.

....Zora Neale Hurston, p. 36
"In the classroom I got along splendidly. The only difficulty was that I was rated as sassy. I just had to talk back at established authority and that established authority hated backtalk worse than barbed-wire pie. My immediate teachers were enthusiastic about me. It was the guardians of study-hour and prayer meetings who felt that their burden was extra hard to bear."
Must now remember to use the phrase "worse than barbed-wire pie" somewhere; it's too good not to quote.

...Zora Neale Hurston, another example of why she is so wonderfully quotable, p. 43:
"...They did not know of the way an average Southern child, white or black, is raised on simile and invective. They know how to call names. It is an everyday affair to hear somebody called a mullet-headed, mule-eared, wall-eyed, hog-nosed, 'gator-faced, shad-mouthed, screw-necked, goat-belled, puzzle-gutted, camel-backed, butt-sprung, battle-hammed, knock-kneed, razor-legged, box-ankled, shovel-footed, unmated so and so! Eyes looking like skint-ginny nuts, and mouth looking like a dishpan full of broke-up crockery! They can tell you in simile exactly how you walk and smell. They can furnish a picture gallery of your ancestors, and a notion of what your children will be like. What ought to happen to you is full of images and flavor. Since that stratum of the Southern population is not given to book-reading, they take their comparisons right out of the barnyard and the woods. When they get through with you, you and your whole family look like an acre of totem-poles."
More quotes from Dust Tracks here.

...Marion Anderson, p. 83-4:
"...The lights on the stage carry well into the front rows, and you can make out the expressions on the faces of your listeners before you start and after each number. After many years of singing in public you develop a knack of finding the people who are with you, and you are able, you think, to pick out those who stand apart from you, determined to be shown. Often you choose an individual or a group, strangers all, to whom you sing. Of course you sing to and for all, but there may be one person who is unlike the other ninety-nine. This person, you sense, wants to be brought back into the fold and you can help bring him back. And so as you sing you have to be so deeply convinced of what you are doing that the person for whom you are singing will be convinced."

...Maya Angelou, p. 100:
"During these years in Stamps [Arkansas], I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare. He was my first white love. Although I enjoyed and respected Kipling, Poe, Butler, Thackeray and Henley, I saved my young and loyal passion for Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and W. E. B. DuBois' "Litany at Atlanta." But it was Shakespeare who said, "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes." It was a state with which I felt myself most familiar. I pacified myself about his whiteness by saying that after all he had been dead so long it could matter to anyone any more..."

...Maya Angelou, p 117:
"The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.
The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance."
...Sara Josephine Baker, p 148:
"...the one subject I failed in medical school was to be the foundation of my life-work. This was related to a course, during my sophmore year, on "The Normal Child," given by Dr. Annie Sturges Daniel, a pioneer woman physician who is loved and honored by every student who came under her influence. ...That was my first, and only, failure. ...I made up my mind that, stupid as it might seem, I intended to learn all there was to know about the normal child. I took voluminous notes on the lectures; I read everything I could find that had the slightest relation to the subject....

...As a result, that little pest, the normal child, made such a dent on my consciousness that it was he, rather than my lame knee [as a newspaper reporter told the story after an interview with her], who is undoubtedly responsible for the survival of those 90,000 babies the reporter mentioned. The whole procedure of preventative hygiene which I was later to install in modern child care certainly had its inspiration in that half-year of pique and hard work."

...Sara Josephine Baker, teaching at NYU Medical Center, but only after they finally allow her to take the Doctor of Public Health degree that her class would be required for. Note that this is after she's head of Bureau of Child Hygiene, and had been involved in child care program that resulted in 1200 fewer infant deaths during a summer than without the program. (Bold text below via me, not book) p 164-5:
"...The idea of letting me take the same course in which I eas lecturing was not what bothred him. It was the college regulations forbidding women in any courses whatever. ...Finally the college surrendered. Naturally they could not admit me and deny entrance to other women...

With that farcical beginning, I lectured to Bellevue students for fifteen years. They never allowed me to forget that I was the first woman ever to impose herself on the college. Their method of keeping me reminded derived directly from my first lecture, which was a nerve-wracking occasion. I stood down in a well with tiers of seats rising all around me, surgical-theater fashion, and the seats were filled with unruly, impatient, hardboiled young men. I looked them over and opened my mouth to begin the lecture. Instantly, before a syllable could be heard, they began to clap - thunderously, deafeningly, grinning and pounding their palms together. Then the only possible way of saving my face occurred to me. I threw back my head and roared with laughter, laughing at them and with them at the same time - and they stopped, as if somebody had turned a switch. I began to lecture like mad before they changed their minds, and they heard me in dead silence to the end. But, the moment I stopped speaking at the end of the hour, that horrible clapping began again. Frightened and tired as I was from talking a solid hour against a gloweringly hostile audience I fled at top speed. Every lecture I gave at Bellevue, from 1915 to 1930, was clapped in and clapped out that way; not the spontaneous burst of real applause that can sound so heart-warming, but instead the flat, contemptuous whacking rhythms with which the crowd at a baseball game walk an unpopular player in from the outfield."
If after reading that you are "hell yes, I now want to read this," after being out of print for years her book is now getting new print/ebook, due out September 17, 2013.

...Dorothy Reed Mendenhall, p 173
"The passing of the front hall, and the loss of beauty of stairways, landings, and railings have followed the trend to cities, to apartment life, and to economy of space. Family life was less dependent on halls than on fireplaces or porches for welding the lives of individual members together - but if "a room of ones' own" is necessary for individual development, I wonder if space of hallways and rooms were not necessary for the uncramped growth of large families."

...Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin, in an advanced physics class at Cambridge, p 262:
"I was the only woman student who attended them and the regulation required that women should sit by themselves in the front row. There had been a time when a chaperone was necessary but mercifully that day was past. At every lecture Rutherford [the professor] would gaze at me pointedly, as I sat by myself under his very nose, and would begin in his stentorian voice: "Ladies and Gentlemen." All the boys regularly greeted this witticism with thunderous applause, stamping with their feet in the traditional manner, and at every lecture I wished I could sink into the earth. To this day I instinctively take my place as far back as possible in a lecture room."
I immediately thought of Sara Josephine Baker and the applause-intimidation scenario (quoted previously).

...Margaret Mead, about her classmates and friends at Barnard, p 295-6:
"We belonged to a generation of young women who felt extraordinarily free - free from the demand to marry unless we chose to do so, free to postpone marriage while we did other things, free from the need to bargain and hedge that had burdened and restricted women of earlier generations. We laughed at the idea that a woman could be an old maid at the age of twenty-five, and we rejoiced at the new medical care that made it possible for a woman to have a child at forty.

...At the same time we firmly established a style of relationships to other women. "Never break a date with a girl for a man" was one of our mottoes in a period when women's loyalty to women usually was - as it usually still is - subordinate to their possible relationships to men."
...Margaret Mead, p 303:
"...when I wrote Male and Female, a book in which I dealt carefully with cultural and temperamental differences as these were reflected in the lives of men and women and then discussed characteristics that seemed to be related to primary sex differences between men and women, I was accused of anti-feminism by women, of rampant feminism by men, and of denying the full beauty of the experience of being a woman by individuals of both sexes."
...Lucy Larcom, p 319:
"In the old houses the garret was the children's castle. The rough rafters,—it was always ail unfinished room, otherwise not a true garret,—the music of the rain on the roof, the worn sea-chests with their miscellaneous treasures, the blue-roofed cradle that had sheltered ten blue-eyed babies, the tape-looms and reels and spinning wheels, the herby smells, and the delightful dream corners,—these could not be taken with us to the new home."
 ...Larcom, p 324:
"Home-life, when one always stays at home, is necessarily narrowing. That is one reason why so many women are petty and unthoughtful of any except their own family's interests. We have hardly begun to live until we can take in the idea of the whole human family as the one to which we truly belong. To me, it was an incalculable help to find myself among so many working-girls, all of us thrown upon our own resources, but thrown much more upon each others' sympathies."


...Larcon, p 326:


"Many of them were supporting themselves at schools like Bradford Academy or Ipswich Seminary half the year, by working in the mills the other half. Mount Holyoke Seminary broke upon the thoughts of many of them as a vision of hope,—I remember being dazzled by it myself for a while,—and Mary Lyon's name was honored nowhere more than among the Lowell mill-girls. Meanwhile they were improving themselves and preparing for their future in every possible way, by purchasing and reading standard books, by attending lectures, and evening classes of their own getting up, and by meeting each other for reading and conversation."


...Margaret Bourke-White, was with military on WWII invasion of North African Coast, p 446:


"...No one could tell what kind of resistance we would meet. I should be sent by sea in convoy - the nice safe way.

The upshot of that was that those who flew - and this included most of the brass - stepped out on the African continent with their feet dry. I had to row part of the way...

The torpedo came almost softly, penetrating the ship with a dull blunt thud. Yet I am sure everyone aboard said inwardly as I did, "This is it." We knew our ship was gravely wounded. We believed she would die. She had been a person to us - a friend who had protected us as long as she could. And now we were preparing to desert her as quickly as possible."


Note that the... in the middle is this book shortening the story. It has to do this a lot with Bourke-White because her life is that full and damn, do I want to read the rest of her book!

...Margaret Bourke-White, p 451:


"I was with General Patton's Third Army when we reached Buchenwald, on the outskirts of Weimar. Patton was so incensed at what he saw that he ordered his police to get a thousand citizens to make them see with their own eyes what their leaders had done. The MPs were so enraged that they brought back two thousand. This was the first I heard the words I was to hear repeated thousands of times: "We didn't know. We didn't know." But they did know.

I saw and photographed the piles of naked, lifeless bodies, the human skeletons in furnaces, the living skeletons who would die the next day because they had to wait too long for deliverance, the pieces of tattooed skin for lampshades. Using the camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me."

Margaret Sanger, p 572:


"Meanwhile, following the March issue the May and July numbers of the Woman Rebel had also been banned. In reply to each of the formal notices I inquired which particular article or articles had incurred disapproval, but could obtain no answer.

At the time I visualized the birth control movement as part of the fight for freedom of speech. How much would the postal authorities suppress? What were they really after? I was determined to prod and goad until some definite knowledge was obtained as tow hat was "obscene, lewd, and lascivious."