Non-Fiction by Non-Men: Nancy Hewitt

Nancy Hewitt

In the ninth of her series of interviews with women who write nonfiction, E.B. Bartels speaks with historian and writer Nancy Hewitt.

Nancy Hewitt has authored, co-authored, and edited of many books on women’s history. She is the author of Women’s Activism and Social Change: Rochester, New York 1822-1872 and Southern Discomfort: Women’s Activism in Tampa, Florida, 1880s-1920s, which was the winner of the 2002 Julia Cherry Spruill Prize for best book in southern women’s history from the Southern Association for Women Historians. She is the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship (2000-2001) and was the Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Cambridge (2009-2010). Currently, Hewitt is an Emeritus Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers.

EB: How did you begin writing nonfiction?

NH: I didn’t really think about writing nonfiction as a choice. I read a ton of both nonfiction and fiction growing up, and my mother loved historical fiction. Then I became a history major in college, after changing both colleges and majors several times. When I finished college, I really wanted to become a feminist community organizer—I got my degree in 1974—but I was terrible at it. I was way too shy and not nearly self-confident enough to be an activist! But while I was doing that, I was still reading a lot of nonfiction, including Emma Goldman’s autobiography Living My Life, so I decided to apply to graduate school in women’s history… and I got into the University of Pennsylvania with a fellowship, and so I became a nonfiction writer.

EB: Do you see a difference in the nonfiction writing you do—between more academic writing and more narrative nonfiction? Or do you see it as one and the same?

NH: Only after I started working on my dissertation when I was reading a lot more nonfiction written by academics did I start to realize how broad the category was. I read work by Natalie Zemon Davis—such as The Return of Martin Guerre—and I thought it was so amazing that what she wrote was considered nonfiction because it was so beautifully written and really story-driven, with incredible imagery. I felt she could be a novelist, but I never felt I could be a novelist. I never thought I had the sort of writing skills to write fiction. I never even thought I had the writing skills to be a journalist.

[Reading a lot of academic and history writing] has made me so aware of the different levels of writing. Professors are always telling their grad students to make their writing more accessible, and younger grad students are always saying they want to write for a wider audience. But it takes enormous skill and effort to do that. You can’t just say I want to write for a wider audience, and then you do it. I’m now retired, but I continue to write, and I’m trying to write more accessible prose. I’ve written an American history textbook, co-authored with my husband, and there you have to write in an accessible style, but it’s not a style that comes easily to me. Nor is that a style that would necessarily appeal to a wider popular audience. So I know my writing will be limited to a mainly academic audience, but I hope it can inform journalists and other narrative non-fiction writers who reach that wider audience.

EB: Nonfiction is such a broad category, that’s really true. Everyone has a different idea of what nonfiction is, and it varies so much depending on who is writing it. So what do you feel that you personally bring to your nonfiction writing?

Women's Activism and Social ChangeNH: I think for me it’s a combination of a certain kind of feminist politics—I came up as an anti-war activist first, then an anarchist feminist, then a socialist feminist. I’ve always been very interested in issues of class. I was born into the working class, and by the time I went to college my parents had moved into the middle class, but I still thought of myself as a working class kid. Then I became a successful academic, and now I’m probably in the upper class in terms of income, housing, etc., but I never feel upper class.

Being a female from my particular background, I faced one set of challenges and I developed a certain kind of politics, but I wanted to study women from all kinds of backgrounds—and make their lives more vivid for students of history. I feel that my class background made me much more attentive to who gets to be an activist, or rather who gets to be recognized as a leader and who gets to speak for other people. I am far more interested in the differences and conflicts among women activists than the solidarity and sisterhood between women activists. You realize there are as many differences among women as there are similarities.

I started reading Tillie Olsen and Audre Lorde and others to try to get at all these different experiences and perspectives. Getting to know other women of all backgrounds, including other women academics and women historians, has made a huge difference in my life: both how I thought about being a woman and how I write about women. Fortunately I entered academic life just as academia was becoming more diverse, but also when you could still clearly see (and experience) the impact of the long tradition of white, male, affluent faculty and administrators.

EB: How does writing nonfiction affect your life?

NH: It allowed me to have a career that I absolutely loved. I loved teaching, I loved writing, I loved research. Growing up in the family and the community I did, I didn’t know anyone with a PhD, barely even anyone with a Masters. Even when I was in college I had no idea how people became professors! There were a couple of professors when I was an undergraduate who took me under their wing, and they told me I should go on to become a professor. I didn’t think of it as growing up to write nonfiction, but as growing up to be a professor, and as a professor you write nonfiction.

But I also think writing nonfiction and coming into the academy in the late ’70s and early ’80s really opened up whole new worlds to me in meeting people from incredibly diverse backgrounds. A lot of people think of universities as the ivory tower, but I taught mainly at public universities. I met incredibly diverse students and a diverse cohort of women historians—working-class backgrounds, African American, Latina, Asian American, Native American. I also taught diverse groups of undergraduate and graduate students—diverse in terms of age, race, nationality, sexuality, class, etc.

When I first taught PhD students at Duke, I was fortunate to work with a number of students of non-traditional age, a number of African American, Latino and Asian American students, and a few gay students as well as students from a range of class backgrounds. As I aged in the profession, I had more out lesbian students and transgender students and every combination of race/class/gender/sexuality. There was always a new group of people I was meeting, teaching, talking to, that in another profession I probably wouldn’t have met. Writing nonfiction in that academic environment opened up my world. It made me think more critically about my own assumptions. And every time I started to make a generalization about some women, I had to step back and think what if Deborah Gray White reads this or Joanne Meyerowitz or Vicki Ruiz… It really changed and enriched my life.

EB: What have been your biggest challenges when writing nonfiction?

NH: One of the problems for me, because I was an activist, and I still think of myself as an activist, and I write about activists—I sometimes find it hard to get enough distance from my subjects to make sure I am seeing them clearly. I’m writing a biography of this woman, Amy Kirby Post, who was a white Quaker woman who became an abolitionist, a spiritualist, a radical thinker, and a woman’s rights activist from the 1830s to the 1870s. She born in 1802 and died in 1889, so she covered almost a whole century. I’ve been reading about her on and off for decades—she was this largely unknown person, but I kept going back to her, and finally decided to do this biography of her. I sometimes find it hard not to turn her into the ideal.

Amy Post embraced interracial relations, thought deeply about class, was interested in world affairs, insisted on individual liberty and yet worked to build a diverse but politically progressive community. A mother of five and stepmother of two, she was active mainly in her local region in central and western New York State. But she became friends and coworkers with nationally known activists like Frederick Douglass, William Nell, Harriet Jacobs, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony. Obviously, like everyone, she had flaws: things she couldn’t see, or things she didn’t realize at the time, or things she realized but couldn’t overcome.

I want this book to be a story that persuades students and activists about the importance of knowing their history. I’m writing about her not just because I think she’s a fascinating person, but I want to use her to show how learning about past activism can contribute to activism today. So many of my students think that the early woman’s rights movement was only about suffrage and that suffragists were either pioneering radicals or racists and elitists. Women like Amy Post introduce us to early feminists who take race and class as seriously as sex and gender and who viewed suffrage as part of a larger battle for social justice, not an end in itself. I want to be honest about Amy, as best I can, to capture both her strengths and her flaws, but because of my politics and personal empathy with her, it’s hard to get the distance I need. Still, I try to leave the stories I tell open-ended enough to let people take what they need from them. Everyone doesn’t need to see things the way I do.

EB: How has being a woman affected your experience as a writer?

Southern DiscomfortNH: I don’t think my experience as a woman writer is unique, but I think it has been unusually positive. I know there are a lot of people of my generation, and people slightly older—I’m 64—who feel like it was just them beating their head against the wall the whole way and fighting for every inchthey have terrible stories about job interviews or tenure or promotions.

When I got my PhD, I thought I would be lucky if I found a full-time job, and that I would always have one foot out of the academy in activism and local community work. Instead I got my PhD in 1981, and I got a job immediately at the University of South Florida in Tampa. In the 1980s a lot of history departments were hiring their first women’s historians, and my colleagues there were all men, but they did everything they could to make sure I got through tenure and was supported. I published my first academic article in the journal Feminist Studies and my second in Radical History Review, and my colleagues didn’t blink an eye. I think because women’s history and women’s studies were taking off as fields in the 1980s, all of a sudden there were all these publishers who were contacting me about textbooks, monographs, and edited collections. I was doing workshops for teachers and professors.

If anything my experience was that I had less time to research and write. By 1986, when I got tenured and promoted to associate, I was so overwhelmed by people wanting me to do things on campus and off campus—such as writing the sexual harassment guidelines for South Florida—I was exhausted. But I was also exhilarated; I was riding a wave of demand. I know I was very fortunate—there were women in my generation who had colleagues who didn’t want them to succeed, colleagues who didn’t see being published in a feminist studies journal as a real publication. Somehow I lucked out and had a much more pleasant track through academia.

EB: That’s really nice to hear. Interviewing other women for this column, I’ve heard some horrendous stories.

NH: I feel bad, like I should have one!

EB: Why have you chosen to focus on women subjects?

NH: The biggest shift in my career in terms of thinking about women and gender was that, I didn’t ignore gender when I first started writing, but I focused on other factors. In my first book about activists in 19th-century Rochester, New York, I talked about the different economic strata the women came from and how that provided them with certain resources and made certain issues seem more important to them than others. But over time gender became as important to me as women.

I wrote a book on women activists in Tampa, Florida, including large numbers of immigrants from Italy, Spain, and Cuba, who all saw themselves as a part of a community because they were all part of the cigar industry. There gender was crucial—not that there weren’t differences between men and women in African American and Anglo communities in Tampa, but there was definitely a solidarity among immigrant workers that either overcame gender differences or muted them. If you look at specific racial or ethnic or class groups, the dynamics between men and women shaped the way women could be activists and the choices they made: they would become active alongside husbands in trade unions or active alongside other women in reform societies. You see women deciding which parts of their identities they’re going to emphasize, or can emphasize, in their activism.

When I first started writing, there was so much early work by feminist scholars about the differences between men and women, but I was more interested in differences and conflicts among women. If you’re focusing only or largely on differences among women, then the men too often drop out—become shadowy figures in the background who stand in as oppositional figures to highlight women’s commonalities. But when I started looking at the differences among women in Tampa, where there were also very powerful differences in race and class, I couldn’t look at differences among women without looking at differences among communities, including men. Of course, you can’t look at women versus men as homogenous categories, but you also can’t just look at women versus women, because all women are influenced by men in the world and their families. Some of my interest in differences among women and women’s relation to their families and communities developed in my undergraduate years. I started out at Smith College, I was in a house with freshmen to seniors, including women from several elite, political families, and I came from this working class, lower middle-class background, which made me feel like I had nothing in common with these other women. They are going to own the world even though they’re women, because they already have all these resources and connections, and I’m not. I felt sisterhood with fellow women activists, but not with women as a whole.

EB: I know what you mean. I went to Wellesley, and when the men drop out, other differences become much more apparent. On campus and in the alumnae community there have been some horrible incidents of racism and anti-Semitism. Since no one is focusing on sexism, everything else comes out really clearly.

NH: And then you can’t just blame it on the men when something horrible happens.

EB: That’s true. Finally, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?

No Permanent WavesNH: Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, who teaches at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, is one of the leading historians of Southern women and one of the leading organizers of oral history programs, especially in the South, and she’s also a labor historian, so she combines a lot of different fields and perspectives. And she writes beautifully, with an ability to find and relate that one piece of evidence that suddenly shifts your understanding as a reader. She wrote an essay in September 1986 called “Disorderly Women: Gender and Labor Militancy in the Appalachian South” in the Journal of American History—a wonderful article that forces us to think differently about Appalachian women and working-class women, and about women activists more generally.

This is a passage from near the end of that article:

What needs emphasis here is the dynamic quality of working-class women’s culture—a quality that is sometimes lost in static oppositions between modernism and traditionalism, individualism and family values, consumer and producer mentalities. This is especially important where regional history has been so thoroughly mythologized. Appalachian culture, like all living cultures, embraced continuity and discontinuity, indigenous and borrowed elements. As surely as Anna Weinstock—or Alabama’s Zelda Fitzgerald—or any city flapper, the Elizabethton strikers were “new women,” making their way in a world their mothers could not have known but carrying with them values handed down through the female line.

Three vignettes may serve to illustrate that process of grounded change…

[Two vignettes follow and then the third:]

Finally, there is visual evidence: a set of sixteen-millimeter films made by the company in order to identify—and to blacklist—workers who participated in the union. In those films groups of smiling women traipse along the picket line dressed in up-to-date clothes. Yet federal conciliator Anna Weinstock, speaking to an interviewer forty years later, pictured them in sunbonnets, and barefooted. ‘They were,’ she explained, ‘what we would normally call hillbillies’: women who ‘never get away from their shacks.’ This could be seen as the treachery of memory, a problem of retrospection. But it is also an illustration of the power of stereotypes, of how cultural difference is registered as backwardness, of how images of poverty and backwardness hide the realities of working-class women’s lives.

E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.

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