Author Julie Scelfo discusses the cultural and economic diversity of New York City and the women who deserve the credit for it.
This is an anxious but important time for women throughout the United States of America. Nearly 100 years after women got the right to vote, the country came within a throwing distance to having a female president. President-Elect Donald Trump has repeatedly demeaned women and has been accused of assaulting several women. Many wonder how and why he was elected.
Scelfo thinks it’s the perfect time to reflect on the pioneering, often little-known women who have worked ceaselessly to make the city in which we live. Her book might just inspire young women, and young men too, to write the next chapter in our city’s history. It certainly inscribes these driven women into previously male-dominated history.
In a recent email conversation, LagMag asked Scelfo about her inspiration for the book, the recent election and why it’s more important than ever to be aware of the power and importance of pioneering women and their allies in 2016 and beyond.
Gertie-Pearl Zwick-Schachter: Some of the women you profile, like Gloria Steinem and Tina Fey are well known. But others, like Jane Grant, a feminist New York Times writer, and Julie Richman, a rare 17th century female high school graduate and a dedicated educator, are names I’d never seen before. Why haven’t I learned about these women in school or read about them?
Juie Scelfo: For centuries, human history was recorded primarily by males, and it primarily reflected their perspective.
GZ: How did the recent presidential election influence your book?
JS: The outcome of the recent presidential election did not influence my book as the book went to press back in June. However, Hillary Clinton's historic candidacy did cause me to think more about all the social shifts that came before. Just 100 years ago, American women were denied the right to vote! Decades of work by women – and some men – to achieve suffrage. Several other women have run for national office prior to Hillary Clinton's candidacy – including Victoria Woodhull, Shirley Chisholm and Gerladine Ferraro--and all of them were from New York.
GZ: What was your goal in writing this book? What would you like to inspire in a reader?
JS: I hope the book inspires readers to want to learn more about the women who helped shape history, and I also hope it helps them realize historical narratives are imperfect: meaning no one history can possibly tell the whole story of all the human and social complexities.
GZ: In the book, you quote Elizabeth Blackwell, saying: "I understand now why this life has never been lived before. It is hard, with no support but a high purpose, to love against every species of social opposition." What do you believe gave these women the strength and courage to be the first of their kind in whatever field they chose? What do you think helped them to continue on their course despite the difficulties?
JS: Most of these women were driven to serve others. Either they were artists with a gift that had to come out, or they were big-hearted souls who really wanted to make the world a better place in some way. So no matter how hard things got--and they sure got hard for Susan B. Anthony, Nellie Bly, Dr. Blackwell, etc.--they kept focused on their goal of helping others.
GZ: Why do you believe it has been so difficult, and has taken so long, to have our first female president? Why do you think we didn’t elect our first female president this year, when we came so close, and why did our country instead choose to elect a president who has made sexist and misogynistic statements?
JS: I think that a primary reason for misogyny, and racism, and most other forms of hate is...fear. I think that one way that humans give themselves an identity is by defining what they are NOT. So while it can be difficult to define masculinity, there's centuries of describing men as not-female; not-feminine. Think also of the language of race: white people used to call African-Americans "colored" (which means not-white). For men who had built their identity on being in control and dominating decisions, it can be very difficult to accept that women are equal. However, there are indigenous societies where this is not the norm, suggesting that these beliefs are not inherent but acquired.
GZ: In your section about Gloria Steinem, you describe her as having an “awakening of her feminist consciousness.” Do you believe we’ve seen any modern day figures have similar awakenings, specifically in light of the recent election?
JS: Many. In a strange way I think Donald Trump has been very helpful for feminism, as he took sexism and misogyny (which is often hidden and unseen) and made it public in a very startling way. I think he has made many, many more people aware of the existence of these feelings and behaviors.
GZ: Why did you include a section about female crooks? People do not view crooks as inspiring, because they have an extremely negative connotation in our society, and I believe rightly so. Why did you choose to include this chapter?
JS: While I don't think the CROOKS are inspiring, I do think that crime is a real part of NYC's history, and also a real part of how disenfranchised people cope with their circumstance. Several of the criminals were driven to their deeds out of a need for work; and the smuggling of immigrants by Sister Ping continues to be seen by many as heroic, as she helped Fujianese escape desperate poverty. Another goal of the book is (hopefully) to help readers reconsider how they define things, or what labels they give to people and behaviors. The chapter on CROOKS raises precisely the question of whose perspective matters most.
GZ: What was your inspiration for this book?
JS: The idea for the book originated with the executive editor of Seal Press, which is a small publishing house in Berkeley California that publishes only women authors. She noticed an appetite among readers for more information about important women, and had seen the work of illustrator Hallie Heald, and decided that a pairing of portraits and biographies could make a beautiful and inspiring book.
GZ: I'm sure there are many more important women who didn't quite make the cut for your book. What criteria did you use to choose the women that you featured?
JS: This was one of the most challenging parts for me. My selections reflect my idea of what New York City is. All of the women featured in the book played a role in making an important part of NYC. In other words, if these women and had not done what they did, NYC would not be the same place.
The Women Who Made New York is available at independent bookstores and on Amazon. If you purchase it on Amazon using this link, a portion of the sales will benefit LaGuardia Arts https://smile.amazon.com/Women-Who-Made-New-York/dp/1580056539/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1479680827&sr=8-1&keywords=women+who+made+new+york