#womenbywomen: Why we’re combing our archives for women’s stories (from women)
Think about it like a Bechdel test, almost. But for journalism.
For women’s history month, The Washington Post is opening up our archives to resurface profiles of interesting women — as written by interesting women.
For the final three days of Women’s History Month, we’re bringing you some of these stories. There’s Marjorie Williams tracing the path of Sandra Day O’Connor. Sally Quinn drinking tea with notoriously sassy First Daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Donna Britt in conversation with Alice Walker.
Explore more of these stories in the excerpts below; but keep in mind that this list is by no means comprehensive, and by no means definitive — in combing our own archives, we’re just skimming the surface of women’s stories.
And that’s why we need your help! Share your favorite #womenbywomen profiles using the hashtag on Twitter, annotate here or leave a suggestion in the comments.
The air around Walker seems rarefied, steeped in the magic she casually refers to in conversations with both friends and near-strangers. Certainly her three-story Victorian town house feels enchanted — sunlight wafts through tall windows, bouncing off blond wood floors, varicolored Mexican throws and Native American art; the fresh-cut irises on her redwood deck seem almost cartoonish in their perfection, the biggest, purplest flowers in creation.
In the midst of this peace sits Walker, 45, an amiable brown buddha whose pretty face moves as easily from girlishness to mature womanhood as her new book — which she describes as a “romance of the last 500,000 years” — spans centuries.
Alice Longworth is a survivor in a town where the word is an anachronism. She has been revered and feared adored and detested, but there has never been a time when she has not been talked about. Her outrageous utterances about people and events began when she was a child and she is still adding to the list of quotable quotes.
She would admit than when McKinley was assassinated and her father became President that her feeling was “utter rapture,” she was ecstatic,” a line that appalled people in its directness. But she’ll just as readily mock herself. When she had her second mastectomy several years ago, she remarked later that she was the “only topless octogenarian in Georgetown Hospital.”
She prays with the dancers before performances. (“Dear Lord, give me that something extra to show everybody that I did make something out of my life.”) In Canada she’s threatened with arrest for indecency. In Paris she goes shopping at Chanel with her male dancers, and they emerge wearing more jewelry than she does. All over the world, she marches around in white hotel robes issuing bratty orders like Shirley Temple playing the Little Colonel.
“I have a fascistic side,” she admits. “But somebody’s got to be in charge.”
Maya Angelou is 53, and tall as a tower; an earth mother with just enough prima donna about her to make it interesting. She has the confidence of a barnstormer, she knows how to wing it. Certainly the life she’s led has called for a wide variety of moves.
“Oh, I’ve lived a roller coaster life,” she says. “There has been this disappointment and that satisfaction, and then it begins all over again. Or maybe it’s one of those terrible rides that not only goes round and round, but also dips at the same time.”
To trace Steinem’s past two decades is to trace feminism from its rise to its backlash; through every battle and triumph she has been there: writer, lecturer, symbol.
She is one of the handful of people who can look around and see the sweeping social change she helped to cause, from day-care centers to abortion rights to women who stop her and say, “You changed my life.” Ms. magazine, however unsophisticated it may seem to those who complain of its victim mentality, has still helped millions of women get through the day. To them, Gloria Steinem has made the difference.
A lot of people are stuck in old-time thinking that the role of an African American woman is servitude, she suggests. Certainly not that she could be a forceful and sometimes wry critic of all kinds of status quos, an iconoclast and a prickly intellectual.
“I can be standing in Barneys with my coat and purse and my selections and some white woman will say, Can you get this in my size?’ ” she says sharply. “What she sees is a black woman and her service button goes off.”
She is against all typecasting, and intended to remind everyone of that when she borrowed her pen name from her maternal great-grandmother and chose the lowercase as a symbolic critique of contemporary personality worship. But her frustration is definitely uppercase.
She returns. A question is posed. Why is she still working?
“Why?” she gasps. “All right, now let me ask you a question. Why did you ask me why? You’re not talking about a level, you’re talking about age. And that’s the problem with this [expletive] country. Categories. The minute you reach an age, you’re supposed to disappear. It drives me insane. I really hate it a lot when people say to me, ‘Are you still working?’ Am I still walking? Breathing? Who decided that you’re supposed to stop at a certain point? Number one, I hope I have a contribution to make, and number two, I’ve worked all my life. Why would I stop now? What else would I do?”
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