Talks, Essays & Articles

Why I Write Women’s History | Hooked On Nonfiction | On Research | Dancing with Birds | Why Didn’t I? | Nonfiction is Literature Too | Women in the Workplace | Where are the Women?: Road Trips in Search of Landmarks to Literary Women | Women in the American Poets’ Corner

Links to more of Penny’s writing

A New Way to Look at Literature: A Visual Model for Analyzing Fiction and Nonfiction Text” (Language Arts, January, 2007)

“Point of Departure,” in Wolf, Shelby A. et al., (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Children’s and Young Adult Literature, 2011.

“Selected Writings on Writing Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World” –

Booktv-C-SPAN2, Where the Action Was; Women War Correspondents in World War II
Glen Rock Middle School, Glen Rock, New Jersey.

Where are the Women?: Road Trips in Search of Landmarks to Literary Women

Article by Penny Colman
Originally published: BookWomen, October-November 2012

In more than twenty years of road trips in search of women’s history landmarks, I have photographed stunning statues, moving memorials, gorgeous gardens, important buildings, revelatory plaques, unexpected street signs, and fascinating displays to historic women – – pioneers, reformers, educators, entertainers, entrepreneurs, explorers, soldiers, scientists, workers, politicians, gardeners and environmentalists, physicians and nurses, artists and sculptors.  And writers, several of whom will be familiar to BookWomen readers, others may surprise you, as they did me.

In writing this piece for BookWomen, first I had to decide which writers to include. My criteria were: variety of landmarks and geographical locations; mix of familiar and unfamiliar writers; broad definition of literary; and personal diversity. Next, I pondered how to present them: Alphabetically? Chronologically? In order from familiar to unfamiliar, or vice versa?  According to who had the most landmarks?  Grouped by type of landmark, for example, statues, houses, plaques?  But all those seemed too prosaic; instead I decided to write about how I find landmarks to historic women, in particular literary women.

I have two processes: one a planned search, the other a serendipitous search.

The tools of my planned search process are a stack of guide books, maps, and the Internet.  Two key books, which are now out-of-print but available at used book Internet sites, are Susan B. Anthony Slept Here: A Guide to American Women’s Landmarks by Lynn Sherr and Jurate Kazick (paperback and inexpensive); Women Remembered: A Guide to Landmarks of Women’s History in the United States by Marion Tinling (hardcover and expensive).  My map collection includes maps on which I have highlighted the location of women’s history sites that I have identified.

Although my search for women’s history landmarks predated the Internet, it is now part of my planned search process because it offers a plethora of information. The Boston Women’s Heritage Trail web site offers descriptions and maps of multiple trails through four centuries of women’s history in Boston, Massachusetts.  A downloadable  map of Maryland with one hundred and fifty women’s history sites is on the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center web site Brochures of walking and driving women’s history trails in Arizona are at Arizona Women’s Heritage Trail,  A user-generated map is at, the Jewish Women’s Archive: On the Map, an innovative project to celebrate women in Jewish history.  I keep abreast of efforts aimed at  “achieving gender parity in the symbols and icons of the United States” at EVE: Equal Visibility Everywhere,

Here is how my planned search process works:  Before I travel anywhere, whether for research, speaking, pleasure, I check my guide books, maps and the Internet with the hope of locating women’s history landmarks in the vicinity.  If I find something, I figure out how to see it.

To date, my most energetic effort was managing to get from Rochester, Michigan, where I was speaking at a two-day conference, to Big Rapids, one hundred and eighty miles away, where there is a statue to Anna Howard Shaw, a prominent suffragist and author of her autobiography The Story of a Pioneer and many speeches (one of which was ranked number twenty-seven on a list of “Top 100 American Speeches of the 20th Century,” which was compiled by leading scholars of American political addresses). I had planned to rent a car but none were available; perhaps sensing my disappointment, the conference organizer loaned me her car.  It was seven hours there and back, but well worth it.  The six-foot, bronze statue of a purposeful, energetic Shaw is in a lovely setting next to the Big Rapids Community Library. This quote by Shaw is on the plaque:   “Nothing bigger can come to a human being than to love a great cause more than life itself.”

Several years ago, my planned search process determined the route my partner Linda Hickson and I drove from our home in New Jersey to attend a conference in St. Paul, Minnesota.  We stopped in Pepin, Wisconsin, a village near where Laura Ingalls Wilder,  iconic author of the Little House books, was born.  Pepin is home to a museum and park to Wilder. It is also the starting point of The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, which connects sites to her in Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota.  Seven miles northwest on Route 183 is “Little House Wayside,” a rest area with a large marker and a replica of the “Little House,” built on the site where Wilder was born.

Arriving at “Little House Wayside,” in the late afternoon on Mothers’ Day,  I was astonished at the steady stream of visitors – – a woman from Australia quoting lines from Little House on the Prairie; a family with rambunctious children who climbed on the sturdy marker, an elderly wife and husband, and an English professor.  With memorials and namesakes in at least eight states, Laura Ingalls Wilder is arguably the literary woman with the most landmarks.

On another trip, my planned search process lead us to Willa Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska and the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie along Highway 281. (Linda and I alternated driving and reading aloud Song of the Lark on our way from Nebraska to New Jersey.)  Cather’s grave in Jaffrey, New Hampshire is inscribed with these lines from My Antonia – – “that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” Next to Cather’s grave is a small, flat-to-the ground plaque to Edith Lewis, Cather’s longtime companion.

In 2003, I went to the dedication of the Boston Women’s Memorial on Commonwealth Mall in Boston, Massachusetts to see three statues were unveiled: Phillis Wheatley, a slave whose Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Morals was published in 1773, is depicted in a semi-seated pose, her right forearm and left elbow resting on a block of granite, her chin resting in her left hand ; Lucy Stone, a fighter for women’s rights, is shown leaning forward on a block of granite, her upper body held upright by both arms, her legs descending to rest on another block of granite. Abigail Adams, a prolific writer of literary letters is standing leaning against a block of granite with her arms crossed.  Adam’s letters are the focus of another landmark the Abigail Adams State Park in Weymouth, Massachusetts, where a path winds around small boulder with bronze plaques with quotes from her letters.

My other process for finding landmarks to historic women is a serendipitous search, This is when a reference to a landmark pops up while I am doing something else – reading an article, essay, book; talking, listening, browsing, walking, driving.  Whenever that happens I am off and running!

Once it happened while I was reading a newspaper article about the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a Beaux-Arts Colannade, at what is now Bronx Community College of The City University of New York, in New York City.  Photographs of three busts of men accompanied the article. Where are the women, I wondered, a question that is always forefront in my mind.

Since I live close to New York City, it was easy for me to go see for myself.  As I walked along the elegant semi-circular corridor, I counted ninety-seven bronze busts, ten of which were of women — four educators: Frances Willard, Mary Lyon, Alice Freeman Palmer, Emma Willard; three reformers: Susan B. Anthony, Lillian D. Wald, Jane Addams; an astronomer: Maria Mitchell; an actor: Charlotte Saunders Cushman; and a literary woman: Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I also noted the names of the sculptors. Most were male sculptors, including Augustus Saint-Gaudens, (who also had a bust).  But surprisingly, I counted the names of ten women sculptors who had created both male and female busts, including Anna Hyatt Huntington, Helen Farnsworth Mears, Malvina Hoffman,  and  Brenda Putnam (creator of Beecher’s bust).

On a recent trip to Nova Scotia, I was browsing in a bookstore in Halifax when I was surprised to see an illustrated biography, Elizabeth Bishop: Nova Scotia’s “Home-made” Poet by Sandra Barry;  I had forgotten that Bishop, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet had deep roots in Nova Scotia. Linda, who had just finished attending a conference readily agreed (she loves the adventure of the searches) to revise our itinerary to include Great Village where Bishop had spent her early years at her grandparents’ house.

Arriving in Great Village, we drove down a curvy road and just past  a small bridge there was a triangle of sights: immediately to our right was an elaborate roadside display, down the road on the left at a wide bend in the road stood a small white house,  straight ahead was a white church with a tall steeple.

We explored everything.  The display, (called the Heritage Pergola), has sixteen nicely designed panels of information about the history of the area, maps, photographs, including two panels about Elizabeth Bishop. The house, now called the Elizabeth Bishop House, is an artists’ retreat.  A bronze plaque to Bishop on the church, (originally Presbyterian, now St. James United Church) has Bishop’s line “Home-mad, home-made! But aren’t we all?”  (On the gate to Bishop’s home in Key West, Florida, which I photographed years ago, is a plaque with her words: “Should we have stayed at home,/wherever that may be.”  Her words on her headstone in Hope Cemetery, Worcester, Massachusetts, are: “All the untidy activity continues,/awful but cheerful.)

Alice Walker’s essay “In Search of Zora” about her successful quest to place a headstone at Zora Neale Hurston’s previously unmarked grave in Garden of the Heavenly Rest, a segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce, Florida, set me off on another serendipitous search.  Unlike Walker who was worried about snakes lurking in the overgrown cemetery, I found a groomed cemetery. The headstone had a photograph of Hurston striking a jaunty pose; the phrase, “A GENIUS OF THE SOUTH, from a poem by Jean Toomer; and the tribute: NOVELIST, FOLKORIST, ANTHROPOLOGIST.   Other landmarks to Hurston include her house in Fort Pierce and the Zora Neale Hurston Memorial Park in Eatonville, Florida, her hometown.

When a serendipitous search happens, I am elated, even ecstatic. Such as when I was walking down a corridor in the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas, and bumped into, (literally because I was scanning a conference schedule) a life-size statue  of a woman in motion, wearing a hat, and clutching a book.         Wow, I exclaimed aloud. Backing up to read the plaque, I said “hello” to Katherine Anne Porter, essayist, short story writer, novelist, who won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her Collected Stories.

Nearby was a statue of Barbara Jordan, writer, lawyer, and politician, standing behind a lectern with her right arm raised and her fingers in a making-a-point gesture. (Jordan’s keynote speech at the 1976 Democratic convention is ranked number five on the list of “Top 100 American Speeches of the 20th Century.”  Her 1974 televised speech supporting the impeachment of Richard Nixon is number thirteen.)

To date my most memorable serendipitous search was the day Linda and I drove into Littleton, New Hampshire, a small town northeast of White Mountain National Forest.  More focused on finding food and a bathroom, we were startled to see a life-size statue on a grassy knoll in front of the Littleton Public Library of a girl in an exuberant pose, head thrown back and her arms thrust wide.  Large yellow letters on the front of a large round pedestal spelled out – – POLLYANNA.  The text circling around the back of the pedestal declared that the statue was a memorial to “Author Eleanor Hodgman Porter” who was born and lived in Littleton and who “created the cheerful Pollyanna, a world famous character whose very name inspires an understanding of gladness and optimism.”

My interest in literary women is reflected in my books, in particular in my book about women journalists Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II. There is a chapter about Dickey Chapelle, a fearless photojournalist who continued covering wars until she was killed in 1965 by a landmine while on patrol with the Marines in Vietnam. At the time, Dickey, who was born Georgette Louise Meyer, had a small white flower in her helmet and was wearing her trademark tiny pearl earrings.

A year later, the Marines dedicated a plaque near the spot where she died that has the words:  “She was one of us and we will miss her.”  Another landmark, of sorts, is a song, “Pearl’s Eye View (The Life of Dickey Chapelle)” written by Nanci Griffith. You can hear it at:

Many literary women appear in my other books. In Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America readers will learn about Zitkala-Sa, also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, writer and librettist; Helen Keller, writer and essayist; Sarah Winnemucca, author of Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims; Sharlot Hall, historian and poet laureate of Arizona, and novelist Sarah Orne Jewett.  In Thanksgiving: The True Story, I highlighted Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and the “Mother” of Thanksgiving. One of my essays in Adventurous Women: Eight True Stories About Women Who Made a Difference is about Mary McLeod Bethune, an adviser to presidents and educator who wrote many articles and speeches.  In Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World I give visibility to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s literary works, including two iconic documents: “Declaration of Sentiments” and “The Solitude of Self.”

There are landmarks to all of these women:  statues of Sarah Winnemucca and Helen Keller in the United States Capitol Visitor Center, Washington, DC; Sharlot Hall Museum and grave, Prescott, Arizona; Sarah Orne Jewett House, South Berwick, Maine ; Sarah Josepha Hale Memorial Historical Marker,  Newport, New Hampshire;  Mary McLeod Bethune Park, Mayesville, South Carolina and a memorial in Washington, DC (one of my favorites); the Water Wall at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, Seneca Falls, New York, which is inscribed with the Declaration of Sentiments written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton; and a crater on Venus  named “Bonnin,” in honor of  Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, aka Zitkala-Sa. (Other literary namesakes of Venusian craters include playwright Lorraine Hansberry, novelist Selma Lagerlof,  mystery writer Agatha Christie, and haiku poet Fukuda Chiyo-ni.)

Although I have already visited many landmarks to literary women, there are more  on my “To Visit” list such as the Sandra Cisneros Academy, a K-8 grade school in Echo Lake, California that was named in her honor in 2011.  I also have a list of literary women whom I would love to see honored with a landmark.  How about you?  Who is on your “To Visit” list? How about your wish list of new landmarks to literary women, not just in America, but around the world?

Click on the images to see them full size
Display about Elizabeth Bishop, Great Village, Nova Scotia.Replica of the Little House, Pepin, WI.Bust of Harriet Beecher Stowe, New York, NYZora Neale Hurston's headstone, Fort Piece, FloridaPollyanna for Eleanor Hodgman Porter, Littleton, New Hampshire

Women in the American Poets’ Corner

Excerpt from an article by Penny Colman
Originally published in BookWomen, Aug.-Sept. 2011

As part of my ongoing project to document landmarks to women, I visited the American Poets’ Corner (on the left side near the front door), the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York City. It was established in 1984 with the induction of three poets–Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Washington Irving–and now commemorates 43 American poets and novelists, of whom only 10 are women. Here are the women poets who have their names, dates, and a quote from their work inscribed on a commemorative stone slab: Anne Bradstreet/1612-1672/Nor wit nor gold nor buildings ‘scape time’s rust./But he whose name is graved in the white stone/Shall last and shine when all of these are gone. Louise Bogan/1897-1950/Visions of earth/Heal and receive me.; Willa Cather/1873-1947/Thy will be done in art,/ as it is in heaven.; Emily Dickinson/1830-1886/Captivity is Consciousness–/So’s Liberty.; Emma Lazarus/1849-1887/Born from blank darkness to this blaze of beauty,/Where is they faith,/and where are thy thanksgiving?; Sylvia Plath/1932-1963/This is the light of the mind/cold and planetary; Edna St. Vincent Millay/1892-1950/ Take up the song;/forget the epitaph.; Gertrude Stein/1874-1946/Let me recite what history teaches./History teaches.; Edith Wharton/1862-1937/There is no end to life/in its mercy as in its pain.; Phillis Wheatley/ca. 1753-1784/Enlarge the close contracted mind,/And fill it with thy fire.

Click on the images to see them full size

Why I Write Women’s History

Essay by Penny Colman
Feminist Writer of the Month, February 2011
Veteran Feminists of America Website

In about twenty years I have written “a pile of books” (my partner’s phrase) about women and their lives, including Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World. Why? Personally I was undoubtedly making up for years of deprivation, but when I realized that the deprivation was widespread I became mission-driven to fill the void, despite being told by editors and publishers that “women’s history doesn’t sell.”

I was born Penelope Granger Morgan in 1944 in Denver, Colorado, and grew up in North Warren, Pennsylvania, in a time when women’s history was an unheard-of concept, especially in my male-centered family, what with my three brothers, Freudian psychiatrist father, and immigrant mother, an artist who took on the trappings of a post-war homemaker. And, women’s history remained an unheard-of-concept throughout my college and graduate school years in the 1960s, despite the fact that I earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master of arts in teaching social studies.

So, it’s no wonder that for many years, I believed that men’s words, needs, and deeds were what mattered most. After all, men are featured in history books.  Statues of men dominate our public spaces. In everyday life, men are the majority of politicians, preachers, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, mechanics, and the experts on everything from money to child rearing. Men make the laws and enforce them. Their stories dominate the movie screen. Their voices monopolize the radio waves. Men’s pictures and activities appear most frequently on television and in magazines and newspapers—even on the obituary page. Men’s feats are the focus of public holidays and celebrations. So, no wonder I believed that men’s words, needs, and deeds were what mattered most in life.

That belief was upended by the Second Wave of the women’s movement, although not immediately because in the mid-1960’s I was preoccupied with coping with the unexpected death of my beloved brother Jon and my father’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, which had prompted him to pressure me to accept a marriage proposal in order to provide a family for my soon-to-be-widowed mother and fatherless sister (Cam was born in 1962, the year I graduated from high school).  Dutifully in 1966 I married a Presbyterian minister, and had three children: Jonathan in 1969, (the year my father died), and David and Stephen in 1970.

Given my minimally religious upbringing and skeptical mindset, I wasn’t prepared, or even suited, for life as a minister’s wife, but like my mother I took on the trappings of the role and threw myself into it.

We spent five years in Buffalo, New York, where some of the older members of the congregation dubbed me a “women’s libber,” although I never quite understood why since all I remember is changing diapers, diapers, and more diapers. The next church was in Oklahoma City and we arrived there in 1973, a year after Oklahoma became the first state to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment.

In the summer of 1975, we spent a week at Ghost Ranch, a retreat and educational center run by the Presbyterian Church, where I heard Letty Russell, a feminist theologian, talk about liberation theology.  Inspired, I returned home and wrote Knowing Me and You, a multi-week course on understanding gender role socialization that I taught in various adult education venues. I also formed The New Image Players, an all-women drama group, which gave many performances of a one-act play I wrote, Dare To Seek, which focused on Jesus’ interactions with women.

The play opened with two actors who alternated between calling out the names of Biblical women and reciting religious strictures against women.   Rose, an African American woman, typically played Jesus, and K.C., who was pregnant, played Mary. The cast included a musician, medical student, retired teacher, and two mothers and their teenage daughters.  Mostly we were well received, although at a performance in Stillwater, women wearing aprons showed up to launch a protest, which included harassing my sons who were passing out programs.

In 1978, we moved back to the East Coast where I held a series of jobs, including one as a program manager of a national project to deal with racism and sexism in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and another as the executive director of an anti-poverty agency. Then in 1987, as my sons were graduating from high school and leaving for college, I embarked on a career as a full-time freelance writer. I wrote personal essays and research-based articles on a variety of subjects for popular magazines. (Having noticed that women experts were rarely cited or quoted in articles, I made sure I used only women experts.)

In 1990, I started my first biography of a woman, Breaking the Chains: The Crusade of Dorothea Lynde Dix. Dix, the 19th century social reformer who led a forty-year crusade for humane treatment of people with mental illness, had come to my attention during my earlier stint as a history teacher in an all-boys Roman Catholic high school when a number of my students chose Dix for their paper on a 19th century social reformer. The fact that I later found out that her popularity was due to the existence of a paper written by one of their older brothers, didn’t dissuade me from selecting her because I was curious about her and her crusade, having growing up on the grounds of a mental hospital where my father worked.

That same year was the premier of Ken Burns’s five-part television series, “The Civil War.”  Since Dix had served as the Superintendent of the Female Nurses of the Army during the Civil War, I decided to watch it.

I was outraged; Burns’s presentation made it seem as if all the women in America had been relocated to a far-off island for the duration, and his brief mention of Dix was misogynistic.  Coincidentally, I happened to know a woman who had worked on the series with Burns, so I asked her, “Did anyone ask Ken about including women in the film?”

“Yes,” she replied. “But he said ‘Women didn’t do anything during the war.’”

That prompted me to write my next book, Spies: Women in the Civil War.

At the same time, I was writing fiction and nonfiction for children’s magazines, which was really fun. In 1993, I wrote a cover story “Girls and Sports” for Sports Illustrated for Kids. Shortly before publication, the executive editor, who was worried about alienating male readers by featuring girls on the cover, proposed replacing the cover photograph of two young female athletes with a male football player.  Outrageous, I told him; my sons would be insulted by his assumption, plus, I pointed out, Title IX was passed in 1972—get a grip!  I not only won that argument, but also I won the Miller Lite Women’s Sports Journalism Award for the cover story.

Immersing myself in women’s words, needs, and deeds inspired me to adopt the practice of evoking a woman’s name to identify a contemporary situation or behavior. For example, if I labeled something as “a Fannie Lou Hamer,” that meant standing up for what was right despite the danger; “doing a Frances Perkins” referred to being strategic; “a Mother Jones,” signified resilience; Madam C. J. Walker, was a prompt for financial solvency and generosity, and the Rosies evoked a can-do-anything attitude. I gleaned life lessons and inspiration, which I’ve incorporated into my multimedia presentation, “Celebrating Women” that features photographs I’ve taken during twenty years of road trips in search of landmarks to women, including statutes, street signs, gravestones, and historic sites.

I decided to write Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America when those words suddenly popped up in my brain. I had just given a presentation about Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II to students at Nontraditional Employment for Women, an agency in New York City that trains women to do hard hat jobs.  Standing at the corner of Broadway and Twentieth Street, I was thinking about the young woman who had vociferously interrupted me. “So,” she said waving her arm toward the screen with images of women workers, “you’re saying women have done these jobs before, right?”

“Right,” I replied.

“Then why do we keep having to prove ourselves on the job?” interjected another woman.

“ That’s her point,” replied the first woman with a nod of her head in my direction. “We don’t! Women already have. It’s here in this book.”  In retrospect, I think, that incident precipitated the phrase—girls, a history of growing up female in America– because it underscored the crucial connection between women’s history and activism.  Women’s history is an antidote against taking hard won gains for granted and against being duped into thinking that we have to keep proving ourselves.

With the exception of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Fight for the Vote, I’ve done the picture research and taken photographs for my books, which are replete with images, including many of girls and women.  Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II is particularly stunning with photographs by legendary photo-journalists such as Lee Miller, Margaret Bourke-White, and Dickey Chapelle.  Recently I narrated a documentary, “Pioneering Women War Correspondents,” based on my book and produced by Milena Jovanovitch for the Newswomen’s Club of New York, which can be seen at.

During these years, my sons completed college and graduate school and got married and I got divorced.  I am now happily living with my partner Linda Hickson.

My first grandchild—Sophie—was born in 2003 and it was to her that I dedicated Adventurous Women: Eight True Stories About Women Who Made a Difference, which she proudly calls “her” book.  She was three years old when I started my forthcoming book, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World and six-years old when I finished. Together we crafted the dedication:

To everyone who has fought
and who is fighting and who will fight
for the rights of women everywhere.


Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II, Crown, 1995.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World
, Henry Holt, 2011.
Knowing Me and You,
Granger Publications, 1976.
Dare To Seek,
Granger Publications, 1976, Contemporary Drama Service, 1990.
Breaking the Chains: The Crusade of Dorothea Lynde Dix
, Shoe Tree Press/Betterway Books, 1992, iUniverse, 2007.
Spies: Women in the Civil War,
Betterway Books, 1992.
Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America
, Scholastic, 2000.
Fannie Lou Hamer and the Fight for the Vote,
The Millbrook Press, 1993.
Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II
, Crown, 2002
Adventurous Women: Eight True Stories About Women Who Made a Difference
, Henry Holt, 2006.

Hooked on Nonfiction: How About You?

Speech by Penny Colman
The Ohio State University’s Children’s Literature Conference 2004
Columbus, Ohio

It was in early October of 1953 when my mother took me with her to look for the gypsies. She was a photojournalist for a local newspaper in Warren, Pennsylvania. I was nine years old. She had heard a rumor that the gypsies were camping at Lake Erie State Park, a park on the eastern shore of Lake Erie about an hour’s drive from North Warren, Pennsylvania, where we lived.

Off we went in our baby blue Ford station wagon. Upon entering the park, we drove around until suddenly we spotted the gypsies coming out of a wooded area and “down the hillside in a graceful line”—women with “touselheaded babies” and men and boys and girls, especially, I remember, a girl my age named Eda who had my same dark brown eyes and dark hair and darkish complexion that had made me feel different from most of the people in my family and in the town where we lived (M. Morgan, 1953).

I am not one of those people who is full of growing-up memories. But that experience is one I have never forgotten. Were they really gypsies? To the nine-year old me, yes. To the fifty-nine year old me, I am not sure. But I am sure that that adventure of going off with my mother with her notepad and pencil and camera in search of real people doing real things in a real place helped hook me on nonfiction.

My father’s writing activities also sparked my interest in nonfiction. He was a psychiatrist and a few months before I had my gypsy adventure with my mother, my father had started writing a newspaper column, “Everyday Psychology.” Occasionally, Dad wrote about our family, as evidenced by this excerpt from his column that appeared the day before Christmas in 1953. “A few days before Christmas my whole family went out to the woods to cut our tree. The snow was deep, the path long, and the wind very cold. Before we had fetched our Christmas tree back to the car, I heard grumbling complaints about cold feet and frost-nipped ears. Someone even mumbled phrases that sounded very much like, ‘next year I hope we buy our tree.’ A warm house and hot soup brought a glow to our faces. One of the boys looked up showing a broad smile. He said, ‘That was real fun, Daddy. Are you going to write about it for the paper?’” (N. Morgan, 1953).

The fact that he did reinforced the idea in me that real people doing real things in real places are interesting and worth writing about. His columns also showed me that nonfiction was a valuable vehicle for sharing stories and discussing issues and ideas.

I also learned through other articles Dad wrote, that writing nonfiction was a way to bring about change, or at least to try, a big value in my family. In particular I remember an article Dad wrote in which he exposed poor conditions and shoddy treatment of patients in mental institutions in Pennsylvania. With this nonfiction lineage, no wonder I got hooked on nonfiction. That does not mean, however, that I inhabited a fictionless world. As a kid and teenager, I remember reading the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and then Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931) and all the historical fiction of Thomas Costain. My mother wrote and illustrated fiction stories that I read, including “A Tale for Hallowe’en that appeared in the newspaper several weeks after her “Gypsies,” piece appeared. (M. Morgan, 1953). As an adult the first thing I wrote for children was fiction—a picture booklet, titled I Know What To Do!” illustrated by my mother that I self-published under the name P.G. Morgan (1978). I later expanded it and Paulist Press published it with the title, Dark Closets and Noises in the Dark (1991). I also wrote the fiction picture book, I Never Do Anything Bad (1988) and numerous fiction stories for children’s magazines (1989-1991).

If you are wondering why I included this discussion about me and fiction, the answer is: in order to dispel any notions that the fact that I am hooked on nonfiction means that I am anti-fiction, unlike people in American history who have been. For example, listen to the warning that appeared in the 1860s in “Godey’s Lady’s Book” that reading fiction meant that “the mind is frittered away, and all strength of reasoning and seriousness of reflection gradually deserts the unfortunate student.” Or like Frances Willard, the legendary 19th social reformer, who devoted a whole chapter warning against “Novel-Reading” in her bestselling book, How to Win (103). “The young people who read the greatest quantity of novels know the least, are the dullest in aspect, and the most vapid in conversations. The flavor of individuality has been burned out of them. Always imagining themselves in an artificial relation to life…they become as common place as pawns upon a chess-board.”

No, I am not anti-fiction, however, I am gravely concerned that anti-nonfictionism, to coin a new word, is all too common in classrooms and curricula across America.

That anti-nonfictionism manifests itself in multiple ways. Here are four ways that I have observed through my experiences as a professional writer, a veteran of author’s visits to schools, and a faculty member in teacher education programs. 1) When I go to schools I am often told that I am the first ever nonfiction author to visit. This has happened all across the country, including southern New Jersey, Iowa, and California.2) When I survey publishers’ catalogues listing their children’s book, I typically count far more fiction books than nonfiction books. The reason I was recently told by a publisher is that nonfiction is typically more expensive to publish than fiction. 3) When I ask teachers who are taking my classes to do an inventory of the books in their classrooms, they overwhelmingly report that fiction books greatly outnumber nonfiction books, and, the nonfiction books they do have are typically limited to a particular topic, e.g. dinosaurs, and most have copyright dates from the 1980s and early 1990s. 4) When I read the professional literature about children’s nonfiction, I encounter a plethora of myths and misconceptions. Even well-intentioned people repeat the notion that nonfiction is boring and difficult to read. Based on what, I ask? Says, who, I ask? Certainly not my parents or the teachers who tell me that their students love nonfiction.

Or the cartoonist Lynda Barry who produced a cartoon titled “Nonfictional” in which she placed her young character Arna Arneson in a library and had her declare that nonfiction is her favorite section (2002). Or, my three sons, especially my son Jonathan who from an early age relished reading the various volumes of the World Books, so much so that, before too long, I plan to give his newly born first child, my first grandchild, a set of her very own. Another example from my list of myths and misconceptions is the set of equations: nonfiction=information and fiction=pleasure. These equations are evoked in various ways, including to teach children about writers’ motives, as in, “Writers write nonfiction to convey information.” and “Writers write fiction to convey pleasure.” Oh, really, I say, and I dive into my fat file of quotations about why real writers say they really write. George Orwell, who wrote both nonfiction and fiction, listed “four great motives” in his 1946 essay titled “Why I Write” -“sheer egoism, esthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose” (p. 312). Terry Tempest Williams, a nonfiction writer, listed 74 reasons in an essay she wrote in 2001 with the same title “Why I Write,” including “I write to make peace with the things I cannot control… I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to meet my ghosts…I write because I believe in words…I write as a witness to what I have seen…I write because I am not employable…I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love” (pp. 6-7).

And here are what more writers say: Maya Angelou— “I write because I love language” (Smith, p. 43). Louise Erdrich—“I can’t help it” (Smith, p. 187). Cynthia Voigt-“to impose a little order on a world that looks pretty chaotic” (Smith, p. 200). Katherine Paterson-“Because I loved to read.” (Paterson, 1988) Paula Gunn Allen-“Beats me. I don’t know” (Smith, p. 129). Barbara Ehrenreich, “There are two motivations: one is to make a change…The other is sheer curiosity” (Ehrenreich, 2003). Money is also a motive, as it was for Louisa May Alcott and Mary Mapes Dodge who needed to support their families. In his new book about Dr. Seuss, Philip Nel, examines Dr. Seuss’s motives, “As a liberal Democrat,” Nel writes, “Seuss cared deeply about the environment. That led him to write ‘The Lorax.…The Butter Battle Book is a critique of the arms race…” (2004).

As for me, I have multiple motives: adventure motivated me to write “Running the Rapids,” for Sports Illustrated for Kids, about a white water raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon (1992), curiosity motivated me to write Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks, and Sewers: A History of the Bathroom (1994). A sense of responsibility and community motivated me to write and take many photographs, including the cover image, for Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial (1997), and to weave my experiences into the book. Because, I decided, it was not fair to ask readers to deal with such a difficult and intimate subject and leave myself out. As for my magazine articles, including a cover story on “Girls and Sports” for Sports Illustrated for Kids (1993), and 10 books women’s history, including Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II (1995), Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II (2002), and Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America (2000), my motive is passion, pure unadulterated passion and the hope that my passion is contagious! To that end, I included a picture of myself in Girls as an invitation for readers to insert their pictures and stories in the book making it expand like an accordion because—We are all History-Makers!

The nonfiction=information/fiction=pleasure equations are not only evoked to teach kids about writer’s motives, but also to teach children what to expect from nonfiction and fiction books. Goodness, I am certainly glad, no one ever limited my expectations of books like that and left me free to discover in both nonfiction and fiction— escape, adventure, insights, inspiration, stimulation, solace, solutions, life lessons, belly laughs, powerful feelings, personal growth and on and on. I was also free to discover the fact that information can be found in varying amounts in both nonfiction and fiction books, as can pleasure! There are so many information-rich fiction books by, for example, James Mitchener, Richard North Patterson, Bharati Mukherjee, Isabel Allende, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Barbara Kingsolver. John Jakes, the author of the bestselling series The Kent Family Chronicles, prides himself on the historical accuracy of his novels: “I might be the only instructor a given reader has about a particular bit of history,” he says, “so it ought to be right…We get enough misinformation in the world as it is. I’d rather not contribute any more” (p. 28). As for finding pleasure in nonfiction books, if you doubt this, take the time to read Rachel Carson’s nonfiction books about the sea or Dervla Murphy’s travel books.

I could go on, as I am sure many of you could, and talk about more manifestations of “anti-nonfictionism” in, for example, the areas of reviews and awards and research and recommended reading lists, and the choices of read alouds. What are the consequences of anti-nonfictionism? First, anti-nonfictionism drastically limits students’ choices of reading materials. Second, anti-nonfictionism prevents students from gaining the knowledge and skills to be successful test-takers and thinkers and writers in school. Third, anti-nonfictionism prevents kids from gaining the knowledge and abilities they need to function in the world as adults, and, as citizens of a democracy. Although anti-nonfictionism pervades the world of children’s literature, I do see signs of growing recognition of the importance of children’s nonfiction literature-more articles and books on the subject, more awards, the attention of this conference. But there is so much more to do. To that end, I offer the following ten suggestions:

1. Conduct a nonfiction inventory of libraries for children – home, classrooms, school and public, and, if necessary, expand and update the nonfiction materials, including what I call ephemeral nonfiction, e.g. descriptive materials available at museums and parks; playbills and program notes; magazines and newspapers; stamps; postcards, maps, etc.

2. Assess the use of nonfiction books as read-alouds, reading assignments, on reading lists, and throughout the curriculum, and, if necessary, expand and update the nonfiction materials. Note: I have included activities across the curriculum for a number of my books on my web site:

3. Turn everyday nonfiction events and objects into springboards for lessons across the curriculum, e.g. a quarter from the 50-state quarter program, especially Alabama’s quarter that features Helen Keller and is the only coin in the world with Braille; a personal excursion such as a blueberry picking experience that I used as a springboard for lessons in science, history, math, health, movement, language arts, music, geography, and writing; a public event such as the New York City Marathon that one of my students who ran in it used as a springboard for lessons across the curriculum etc.

4. Think deeply, at least twice, about everything you write or hear and read about children’s nonfiction literature.

5. Disentangle the terms “information and “informational” from nonfiction.

6. Adopt the following basic definitions: Nonfiction Literature-writing about reality in which nothing is made up. Fiction Literature—writing in which anything can be made up. Hybrid Literature-writing that mixes nonfiction and fiction

7. Scrutinize Author’s Notes and Acknowledgments and teach students to scrutinize them as a basis for classifying books and as a source of information about specifically what is and is not made up and the extent of the author’s research.

8. Engage in discussions that flourish in the world of adult nonfiction, e.g. the issue of blurring the boundaries, the use of composite characters and scenes, fiddling with facts, filling in gaps, aesthetics, etc.

9. Consider what it means to respond “Yes” instead of “No” when a kid asks, “Is this story real? Did this really happen?”

10. Use quality nonfiction-essays, books, articles-to teach writing. Study the craft and art of writing nonfiction-talk about topics, think about themes, explore structures, identify literary devices, understand voice and tone and style, analyze opening and endings and scenes and transitions.

With a concentrated effort, we can end anti-nonfictionism. We can close the gap, the mismatch between what is currently considered literature for kids and the realities of the demands of school and of the adult world. Nonfiction is the language of authorities-teachers, preachers, doctors, lawyers, judges, generals, CEOs, politicians and presidents. Nonfiction is the language of everyday things—news, instructions, reports, presentations, letters, email, records, documents, court decisions and extraordinary things such as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments. Nonfiction is the language of all the debates of policies and issues-social, economic, political and environmental-that affect everyone’s life throughout the world. Nonfiction is the currency with which public policies and legislation are enacted societal needs are discussed, cultural aesthetics are defined, life lessons are conveyed, historical narratives are transmitted. The currency with which matters of war and peace are decided. Nonfiction is everywhere. It is the stuff of everyday life-the infinite list of activities and duties and decisions and desires and feelings and fears and happiness. It is birthdays and festivals and funerals. It is winning and losing and bouncing back. It is the WOW experiences of life-reveling in nature, witnessing an athletic achievement, marveling at an artistic creation or theatrical or musical, fulfilling a dream, falling in love. Nonfiction is there and here and everywhere. That is why I’m hooked on nonfiction. How about you?


Barry, L. (2002, Feb.). Nonfictional.
Buck, P. (1931). The good earth. New York: John Day.
Colman, P. (1989, Oct.) Boulder house scare. U*S*Kids A Weekly Reader Magazine, 29-31.

(1990, April). But not ms. anderson. U*S*Kids A Weekly Reader Magazine, 36-37.
(1997). Corpses, coffins, and crypts: a history of burial. New York: Henry Holt.
(1991). Dark closets and noises in the night. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
(1989, Dec.). Don’t touch. U*S*Kids A Weekly Reader Magazine, 6-8.
(2000). Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America. New York: Scholastic.
(1993, Sept.). Girls in sports. Sports Illustrated for Kids, 50-59.
(1989, May). I like it when kids laugh. U*S*Kids A Weekly Reader Magazine, 8-10.
(1988). I never do anything bad. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
(1991, July). Really red hair. U*S*Kids A Weekly Reader Magazine, 14-16.
(1995). Rosie the riveter: women working on the home front in world war II. New York: Crown.
(1990, Sept). Storm. Cricket, 62-67.
(1994). Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks, and Sewers: A History of the Bathroom. New York: Atheneum.
(2002). Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II. New York: Crown.

Hollaway, B. (2003, April). Voices on writing: Barbara Ehrenreich. ASJA Monthly, 5.
Jakes, J. (1998, Feb.). Writer’s Digest. P. 28.
Morgan, M. (1953, October 15). Gypsies. The Warren Observer, 14.
(1953, October 29). A Tale for Hallowe’en. The Warren Observer, 12.
Morgan, N. (1953, December 23). Everyday Psychology. The Warren Observer, 3.
Morgan, P. (1978). I know what to do!
Nels, Philip. (2004). Dr. seuss: american icon. New York: Continuum.
On novel-reading for women (1867). Godey’s Lady’s Book.
Orwell, G. (1946). Why I write. In G. Orwell, A collection of essays. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Inc.
Paterson, K. (1988). Gates of Excellence. New York: E.P. Dutton.
Smith, Lucinda Irwin. (1994). Women who write, vol II. New York: Julian Messner.
Willard, F. (1886). How to win. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
Williams, T. (2001). Why I write. In C. Forche & P. Gerard, Writing creative nonfiction, 6-7. Cincinnati, OH: Story Press.

A Selected Bibliography

Clark, R.P. (2000). The line between fact and fiction. Creative Nonfiction, 16, 4-15.
Colman, P. (2002) Adventures in nonfiction. Journal of Children’s Literature, 28(2), 58-61.
—- (1999) Nonfiction is literature too. The New Advocate, 12: 215-223.
Duke, N. K., Bennett-Armistead, S. & Roberts, E. M. (2003). Filling the great void. Why we should bring nonfiction into the early-grade classroom. American Educator.
Fryxell, D. (1998). The “non’ in “nonfiction.” Writer’s Digest, 63-4.
Moss, B. & Hendershot, J. (2002). Exploring sixth graders’ selection of nonfiction trade books.

The Reading Teacher, 56, 6-17.
Bamford, R & J. Kristo, eds, (2001). Making facts come alive: Choosing quality nonfiction
literature K-8
(2nd ed.). Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Inc.
(2000) Checking out nonfiction K-8. good choices for best learning. Norwood, MA:Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Inc.
Cooley, Thomas. (1997). The norton sampler, 5th ed. New York: W.W. Norton.
Freeman, Evelyn B. and Diane Goetz Person. (1992). Using nonfiction trade books in the
elementary classroom
. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Franklin, Jon. (1986). Writing for story. New York: Plume, Penguin Group
Gerard, P. (1996). Creative nonfiction: Researching and crafting stories of real life
Cincinnati: Story Press.
Harvey, S. (1998). Nonfiction matters: Reading, writing and research in grades 3-8. York,
ME: Stenhouse.
Kerrane, Kevin and Ben Yagoda, eds (1997). The art of fact: A historical anthology of literary journalism. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Mallett, Margaret. (1992) Marking Facts Matter: Reading Nonfiction 5-11, London: Paul Chapman.
Moss, Barbara. (2002) Exploring the Literature of Fact: Children’s Nonfiction Trade Books in the Elementary Classroom. Guilford.
Tuchman, B. (1985). Practicing history. New York: Knopf.
Zinsser, William, (2001). On writing well: An informal guide to writing nonfiction (6th ed.).
New York: HarperCollins, 1994.


Creative Nonfiction, 5501 Walnut Street, Suite 202, Pittsburgh, PA 15232, tele (412) 688-0304; fax (412) 683-9173; e-mail:
Fourth Genre, Michigan State University Press, 1405 S. Harrison Road, 25 Manly Miles
Building, East Lansing, MI 48823-5202; tele. (517)355-9543; fax: (517)432-2611.
River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, River Teeth, Department of English, Ashland
University, Ashland, OH 44805.

Web Sites
Activities for Readers and Teachers:
Speeches on Research and Writing:
Creative Nonfiction:

On Reseach

Bathtubs, Biographies, and Burials:
A Guide to Doing Ordinary and Extraordinary Historical Research

Speech by Penny Colman
Pacific Northwest Library Association Conference (PNLA), Sun Valley, Idaho, 1998
Reported by Nancy Spaulding
Published in PNLA Quarterly,
vol. 63, no. 1, fall 1998

Colman’s nothing-can-stop-us attitude toward research, writing and life was obvious when a widespread power failure occurred at the beginning of her presentation. Despite her plans to use 2 audio pieces, 3 video clips, 9 overheads and multiple slides, she launched into a lively description of what it takes to be a happy (and successful) researcher.

“Are you feeling visual?” she laughed as she described her first “slide” in front of the black screen. “Driving on a remote country road you spot a ramshackle building with weedy flower beds and a sign reading Raven’s Books. Would you go in?”

“Yes? Then you are researcher!” she announced.

Young people doing homework research or investigating personal interests need the same traits and skills as a writer of non-fiction. Using examples from her work, Colman illustrated the necessary characteristics.

Be Inquisitive is the first attribute of a happy researcher. Look, be curious, pay attention to everything that catches your fancy or makes you say “wow!”

Research materials arranged into boxes of hanging files and carefully labeled file folders demonstrated — Be Organized.

Be Patient, Persistent, and Observant was third. Ask for a picture of Rosie the Riveter and many people will describe the World War II poster of a young woman flexing her bicep. While researching a book Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II, Colman noticed the word Westinghouse on that familiar image. Her observation raised questions and through persistent delving, she untangled a popular myth from reality (hint—that is not Rosie).

Be Energetic and Willing to do primary research. A whitewater trip on the Colorado River supplies more wet, scary information than a room full of travelogues.

Be Eclectic. Research is not just found in old books and documents. Information is carried through time by material objects: tombstones, tools, toys, all the physical evidence of past lives.

Build Connections since answers often come bundled together with more questions. Looking at the headstone of Harriet Tubman Davis, Colman found herself wondering “who’s Davis?”

Be Skeptical. A writer once stated that if he read something three times, he knew it was true. “I suspect it is not!” Colman maintained, and then proved by example.

The return of electricity allowed everyone to share the experience of analyzing a primary source. We listened to and discussed two versions of the song “Rosie the Riveter” made popular during World War II. Released years apart, the tone, singer, and orchestration showed how the song was used to entice very different segments of the female population into the work force.

Colman described her research process from brainstorming lists of questions through information gathering to finding the narrative hook that pulls things together and grabs the reader. Finally, there is checking facts and re-checking to ensure accuracy and authenticity.

Even after a book is published the discovery process does not end. There is often another twist or ‘aha” in the non-linear, messy, rewarding world of historical research. Colman gave us an entertaining, informative glimpse into that world.

Dancing with the Birds
Essay by Penny Colman
Originally published: Sunshine, October 1988

Any wind was enough for my father. Slight or strong, it didn’t matter, it was kite-flying time. He bought kites like gardeners ordered seeds, skiers purchased wax, and folks who fish collected lures—something for every condition. It was an all-day affair when Dad and I went kite flying. We would drive to a huge meadow that stretched along both sides of a country road.

“Which way is the wind coming from? Dad always asked as we got out of the car. I’d moisten my index finger in my mouth, hold it up and wait to see which side of my finger dried first. If the wind was strong like a hair drier on high, it was easy to tell, but a light or gusty breeze was trickier and sometimes I had to wet my finger several times.

Then I would grab the kite and walk with the wind against my back while Dad stood still and unrolled the string as I walked farther away from him. “Okay,” he would finally shout. “That’s far enough!” And I would turn around and sprint back into the wind toward Dad holding the kite over my shoulder.

“That’s it! That’s it!” he would yell as I ran and the wind lifted the kite. “It’s up!” he would exclaim as the string rose up beyond my reach. Higher and higher the kite would fly, soaring over the trees and sailing with the clouds as Dad played out the string.

We always experimented—flying two kites at one time, one in each hand, or lying down and tying the string around one of our feet. Years later, when I was a college student, I devised a way to fly a kite from my second story dormitory window, but that’s another story.

My favorite time was when we flew our red, yellow, green, and purple cloth box kite with wings (heavy wind). As Dad slowly let the box kite rise, I would quickly get a paper kite in the air and tie its string to the box kite’s string. Again and again I would get a paper kite in the air and tie its string to the box kite’s string, until the box kite was at the end of its string. On one particularly bright, blue, breezy day we had five paper kites soaring at intervals off the box kite’s main string—a record to this day.

Dad and I would spend hours together decorating the sky, sharing the wind, dancing with the birds and touching the clouds. And we ended every kite flying excursion with the same ritual. In the mellow light of late afternoon, I sent up a paper kite and held the string with both hands.

“Are you ready?” Dad asked.


“O.K., up, up and away!”

As Dad said “away,” I opened my hands. The string flicked my fingers with a saucy farewell. Standing together, Dad and I watched until the kite’s color and shape became a blur, then a speck and then out-of-sight.

As it disappeared, we speculated about its destination. Some days we doubted it would clear the surrounding mountains, other days it was headed for France or Australia or China. And then there were days that we knew our kite was on its way to make another constellation in the night sky.

Why Didn’t I?
Essay by Penny Colman
Originally published: Ladies’ Home Journal, March, 1990

I was engrossed in crocheting an afghan when my son Stephen wandered into the room.
“That’s beautiful,” he said, and sat down on the arm of my chair.

“Thanks,” I replied.

“Is it hard to do?” he asked, peering intently at my work.

“No,” I said and asked him about his plans for the day. After exchanging information he got up to leave. But before he did, he looked down at the afghan again.

“Sure looks complicated to me,” he commented with a shake of his head.

“It’s just a series of double-crochet stitches,” I said. “Easy to do.”

Stephen left, and I quickly forgot his interest in my crocheting. But that night as I was drifting off to sleep my mind suddenly flashed back to our conversation. In the quiet dark it finally dawned on me that when Stephen had asked if crocheting was hard, I had just said no. I hadn’t offered to show him how to do it. I hadn’t handed him the crochet hook. I hadn’t asked him if he wanted to learn. I had just said that double-crochet stitches were easy to do. Period.

Why did I do that, I wondered as I lay there?

As a mother I’m an inveterate teacher, always looking for another skill or lesson to pass on to my children, always viewing every situation as a potential opportunity for learning, particularly when one of my children shows even a glimmer of interest. Yet, I had missed this one.

It wasn’t that Stephen wasn’t old enough, or coordinated enough. Recently we had installed a tile floor together. Prior to that he had helped me hang wallpaper, put up Sheetrock, and paint several ceilings—always staying patient, even when I wasn’t. Besides, I reminded myself, any kid as athletic as Stephen could certainly manipulate a crochet hook and yarn.

So why did I do that? Just then a vivid mental picture of Stephen soaring up to slam dunk a basketball flashed through my mind, and I knew why I hadn’t offered to teach him how to crochet. I hadn’t because he is a son, not a daughter.

The next morning I gathered up the afghan—the yarn and crochet hook stuck in its unfinished border—and went looking for Stephen. I found him sitting on the couch reading the newspaper.

“Stephen,” I said, “it occurred to me last night that I discriminated against you.”

He cocked his head and raised an eyebrow.

“Yesterday, when you asked about crocheting I didn’t offer to teach you. And last night I realized that I didn’t because you’re a boy instead of a girl.”

He grinned and put down the newspaper. I sat down beside him, handed him the afghan and hook, and guided his hands through a double crochet stitch.

“It’s a cinch!” he said as he added one stitch after another to the border.

Five inches later he stopped.

“Looks good,” he said with a very pleased smile.

“It sure does!” I said, marveling at the fact that I couldn’t tell where my stitches ended and his began.

Nonfiction Is Literature, Too
Article by Penny Colman
Originally published in The New Advocate, Vol. 12, No. 3, Summer 1999, 215-223.

As a nonfiction writer, I have gone from innocence to disbelief to indignation as it has dawned on me that many librarians, teachers, editors, and parents believe that nonfiction for children and young adults is not literature. Reading nonfiction, I am told, is not “real reading.” When I ask why, I am told that nonfiction does not have a plot, character development, suspense, conflict, style, an author’s voice, depth of meaning, universality, or any other characteristics that are ascribed to literature.

So what does nonfiction have, I ask? Information, I am told, just information. This equation-nonfiction equals information-is so pervasive in the world of books for children and young adults that the phrase “information or informational books” is used interchangeably with nonfiction or instead of nonfiction. For example, if you check for nonfiction in the index in children’s literature textbooks you will soon discover: “Nonfiction-see Informational books.” Or if you visit children’s rooms in libraries, you will undoubtedly find nonfiction books on shelves that are labeled with a big sign with the words: “INFORMATION BOOKS.”

This narrow definition of nonfiction had never occurred to me, perhaps because I grew up in a nonfiction-loving home and I raised three nonfiction-loving children. In addition, since I have written both fiction and nonfiction, I am acutely aware that in order to write good fiction and good nonfiction it is necessary to employ many of the same literary techniques and to pay close attention to the narrative, structure, point of view, language, syntax, sequence, pace, tone, and voice.

My encounters with people who do not view nonfiction as literature, however, have moved me to indignation. Not immediately, but slowly, because it took me awhile to put the pieces together that included hearing from editors that nonfiction books were not trade books, just school and library books; noticing that nonfiction books were reviewed less often and given awards much less often than fiction; having teachers and parents whisper to me during my school visits that they loved nonfiction, but that I was the first nonfiction author who had ever been invited to their school; and asking graduate students in children’s literature classes to list the types of books they consider to be literature for kids and getting all kinds of fiction but no nonfiction books.

Then there was the time I made a presentation on the “Myths About Nonfiction” at a state librarians’ convention and listed the following five myths about nonfiction: nonfiction is boring; nonfiction will not hook kids on reading; nonfiction is more appealing and appropriate for boys than for girls; nonfiction is for skimming or dipping in and out of, not for reading from begin-fling to end; and nonfiction books are not “real” books. Although I had hoped that people would disagree with me, everyone in the audience agreed that most people believe that all five myths are in fact true.

Negative Perceptions of Nonfiction

How did nonfiction for children and young adults get such a bad reputation? After all, the first Newbery Award in 1922 was awarded to a nonfiction book, The Story of Mankind, by Hendrik van Loon (1921), a sweeping survey of world history that van Loon illustrated with sketches that he drew with burnt matchsticks. There are at least three reasons.

First, in the world of literature for children and young adults there have been powerful editors, educators, reviewers, and librarians whose strong personal preference for fiction affected which authors were featured and what types of books were published, promoted, and selected for everything from awards to booktalks, storytimes, and book lists. The profiction forces still dominate the scene, although there are signs of change. In recent years, The National Council of Teachers of English established an award for nonfiction books, articles and books that highlight the importance of nonfiction in classrooms have appeared more frequently, and high quality nonfiction books have been published in record numbers.

Second, many adults have a romanticized image of fiction for children and young adults that assumes fiction is the genre of choice for all readers. Although this assumption has been refuted by several scholars, it guides the behavior of many parents, librarians, and teachers, as reflected by the fact that they typically select fiction to give to or read aloud to children (Doiron, 1994; Pappas, 1991). This assumption is particularly perplexing because nonfiction is highly valued and readily available for adult readers. Each week The New York Times Book Review covers far more nonfiction than fiction books. There are Pulitzer Prizes for nonfiction for adults. Bookstores have prominent displays of all types of nonfiction books in the adult section.

The third reason dates back to the early 1970s when Zena Sutherland (1972) coined the term informational books as another term for nonfiction books for children and young adults, and Margery Fisher (1972) coined the term information books. Neither Sutherland nor Fisher intended that their terms would limit people’s understanding of the complexity, richness, and literary nature of nonfiction. However, in time that is what happened as the terms got carried forth without the context and content of Sutherland’s and Fisher’s understandings. Now, the typical semantic association people make when they hear the term “information book” is encyclopedias or textbooks. The term-information books—does not readily trigger associations with the variety of nonfiction books-biographies, history, true adventures, science, sports, photographic essays, memoirs, etc.-that are available and accessible for children and young adults and that can be just as compelling, engaging, and beautifully written as good fiction.

Sutherland and Fisher were not the only people who questioned the word nonfiction. Writing in the 1960s, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman (1985) called nonfiction a “despicable term” (p. 46). Tuchman (1967) proposed alternative terms such as “books of reality” and “literature of actuality” (p. 52). According to Philip Gerard (1996), who directs the Professional and Creative Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, “No other genre suffers under this metaphysical definition by negation” (p. 4).

Gerard, however, pointed out that the value of the word nonfiction is that by definition it is “an explicit disclaimer that assures the reader we didn’t make it up. . .“ (p. 5). And that is important, becauseWe lie a lot. We don’t mean to-not always, at any rate-but no matter how clear-cut or simple the events we’re trying to relate. . . . We embellish. We misremember. We inadvertently change what somebody actually said. . . we limit our point of view. . . we tell it all out of order… . So when we label a piece of writing nonfiction, we are announcing our determination to rein in our impulse to lie. (p. 5)

Needless to say, I reject the trend in recent years in which some writers add fiction to their nonfiction books in order to move the story along or to make it more dramatic or to introduce facts. In children’s nonfiction, this practice of mixing fiction and nonfiction in a nonfiction book is known as “edutainment” or “blended books.” As one editor told me, these are books in which “there is a seamless flow between fiction and nonfiction.” While this practice has been questioned and criticized in the world of adult literature, it has been widely accepted in the world of children’s literature, perhaps, I suspect, because of the emphasis on the informational aspect of nonfiction books instead of on the assurance that nothing is made-up.

The fact that books which blend fact and fiction typically include some kind of note explaining what is and is not made-up does not justify labeling them nonfiction. It would be more appropriate to call them informational fiction or to make up a new category. According to Carol Avery (1998), who used Letting Swift River Go by Jane Yolen (1992), a fictionalized account of building a dam on the Swift River in Massachusetts, with primary school students, “Though the book is told from the perspective of a fictional character, the information about the process of creating a reservoir is so detailed that the book qualifies as nonfiction in our classrooms. Faction is the word the children and I often use for books such as this” (p. 199).

Many adults have a romantized image of non-fiction for children and young adults that assumes fiction is the genre of choice for all readers. As I explored the issue of nonfiction for children and young adults, I was heartened to discover a history of advocacy in the midst of the myths. In 1974, John Donovan, who was the executive director of the Children’s Book Council, wrote, “Children’s books in America are not like children’s books elsewhere. One of our special strengths is in nonfiction” (p. 174). In 1976, award-winning author Milton Meltzer gave a speech in which he pointed out how few nonfiction books had been awarded the Newbery Medal.

In 1982, in her book, Beyond Fact: Nonfiction for Children and Young People, Jo Carr wrote, “There are at least two characteristics common to fine nonfiction writers that can be measured by their effect on the reader: first, like the best teachers, they make us think deeply. And second, like the best teachers, they make us feel deeply” (p.4). Christine Pappas (1991) published an article in which she tackled the myth that only boys like nonfiction. According to Pappas, new evidence indicated that kindergartners of both genders like both genres- fiction and nonfiction-equally. In 1998, Amy A. McClure wrote, You can tell it’s a good book when children listen spellbound as it’s read aloud, when they ask questions, argue about the ideas, then rush to read it on their own. And, later, when they incorporate its language and structures into their own work responses, it’s evident that the book’s effect goes deep. Does this only happen with fiction? No! Well-written nonfiction which goes beyond facts to present an eloquent, informed, and well-crafted discussion of those facts can generate these same involved enthusiastic responses. (p. 39)

In advocating for nonfiction, I am not proposing that all nonfiction is literature any more than I would say that all fiction is literature. Nonfiction for children and young adults is as heterogeneous a genre as is fiction. There are good, bad, mediocre, and classic books. There are also many different styles and techniques for writing nonfiction.

Creative Nonfiction

In terms of my nonfiction books for children and young adults, I write in the tradition of creative nonfiction; I adhere to the basic tenets~ of nonfiction writing as well as use stylistic and narrative strategies traditionally found in fiction. This method or process of applying literary techniques to nonfiction has been popularized in books for adults by nonfiction writers such as Frank Conroy, John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Ntozake Shange, and Joan Didion. As this genre has emerged, variations of it have been labeled literary journalism, dramatic nonfiction, the nonfiction novel, the literature of fact, and literary nonfiction. Today the label creative nonfiction is commonly used.

According to Lee Gutkind (1996), editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction, there are “5 Rs of Creative Nonfiction”-real life, reflection, research, reading, and ‘riting (pp. 2-14). The following examples from my books illustrate these points.

First, real life: My immersion in my own and other people’s real-life experiences is obvious throughout Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial (1997). I used real-life experiences at the beginning of and throughout each chapter. For example, Chapter 1 opens with my experience of spending a day with my great-uncle’s dead body. Chapter 3 begins with Ann Sparanese’s story about her trip to the morgue to identify the body of her friend’s son. In the middle of Chapter 7, I relate the experiences of six international graduate students who describe ways of dealing with death in their cultures.

Second, reflection: Gutkind explains, “A writer’s feelings and responses about a subject are permitted and encouraged, as long as what they think is written to embrace the reader in a variety of ways” (p. 6). In Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial (1997), one of the ways I used my feelings and responses was as a transition between a real-life experience and an expository section. For example, in Chapter Eight, after describing a painting of my dead father that my mother completed after he died, I wrote, “. . . The painting was undeniably powerful, although it was painful to see my father’s dead body so vividly portrayed. But I understood that my mother had done what people have done in all times and all places-she had joined death and art. Neolithic people created wall paintings of burial rituals. The ancient Egyptians painted mummy cases and tombs with hieroglyphs, religious images, magic symbols, and scenes of everyday life with people working, eating, playing, and attending ceremonies. In Japan, from the third to the seventh century, people made clay funerary sculptures to place in the burial mounds. . .“ (pp. 142-43). I continue with other examples, discuss why people have joined death and art, and then I move into photography, literature, music, and death in everyday life.

Third, research: All of my books are based on extensive research. My process is eclectic and never ending. I find material everywhere, including archives, attics, libraries, used bookstores, museums, historic sites, and conversations with all sorts of people, including scholars and people with first-hand experience. I immerse myself in words, artifacts, and visual images. I build a bibliography, compile a chronology, and take seemingly endless notes. Every project gets its own black file box or file drawer, and eventually its own room, especially when I am doing photo research or taking photographs.

When I am feeling totally immersed, I shift my time and energy from researching to writing, although I continue to be on the lookout for one more irresistible piece of material. For me, doing research is an adventure and, for Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial (1997), my adventures included interviewing a forensic anthropologist and traveling from Key West, Florida, to Julian, California, to Barre, Vermont, and many places in between in order to explore cemeteries, take photographs, and listen to people’s personal experiences.

Gutkind’s fourth R is reading, which has to do with the process of reading other writers and studying how they do what they do. Although it is easy to forget to find time to do this, it is an invaluable process. When I visit schools, I encourage students to figure out how a particular writer writes, in the same way they know how a particular basketball player plays basketball or how a singer interprets a song. Dissect a writer’s work and ask yourself-how does this writer establish a point of view, voice, create a sense of time, use adjectives, adverbs, metaphors, or varied sentence lengths? I have spent hours reading endings in order to assess different styles. I also pay particular attention to how other writers craft transitions as I strive to perfect my own techniques.

Fifth, ‘riting, or writing-Gutkind calls it an art and a craft, and I agree. Writing is also a completely absorbing, complex, challenging, messy, painful, exhilarating, and emotional process. I got goosebumps when I wrote the last three words in the last chapter of Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II (1995). I cheered for Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothea Dix, Frances Perkins, Mother Jones, and Madam C.J. Walker when I wrote their biographies. I stopped breathing when I wrote the section in Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial (1997) about my brother’s death. Every story I write leaves its mark on me as I engage with the material.

The initial writing task I undertake is discovering the structure, which is to nonfiction what plot is to fiction. Just as good fiction has a plot and subplots, good nonfiction has structure and substructures, or macro- and microstructures. This is a very visual process for me, and as I consider various structures and substructures, I write them on pieces of paper or note cards and literally lay them side-by-side on a table or on the floor. By the time I structured Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II (1995), the papers stretched into two rooms. For that particular book, I created a layered structure and wove together five interrelated aspects of the story-information about the industrial mobilization, details about the propaganda campaign to recruit women workers, news from the battlefronts, illustrations of life on the home front, and the collective voices and experiences of women workers.

As I shape the structure, I also search for the essence of the story, the emotional insight, the cognitive concept that I want to illuminate. My search is driven by the sound of my voice in my head repeating, “What’s the point, Penny? What’s the point? Why are you compiling these facts and true stories?” One of my major points in Madam C.J. Walker: Building a Business Empire (1994) was “Madam Walker did much more than make a lot of money” (p. 7).


This is just a glimpse of what I do when I write nonfiction for children and young adults. Clearly I approach my writing from the conviction that nonfiction is literature, as do many other writers who write nonfiction books for children and young adults. All of us write nonfiction for a variety of reasons, including the one William Zinsser (1994) gives in his bestselling book, On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction: “I like being a nonfiction writer. I like having the real world in all its richness and surprise and diversity to deal with” (p. 62).

Creating a high quality nonfiction book is not for the faint-hearted because it is a challenging, complex, time-consuming, and intense experience. Many of us do extensive research, including finding illustrative material that has to be carefully coordinated with the text. We spend countless hours thinking about structure and discovering the narrative. We glue ourselves to our chairs for endless days as we craft our writing in a way that will keep readers turning the page. According to award-winning author James Cross Giblin (1994),

I’ve written my share of fiction and in many ways found that writing nonfiction is a greater challenge; you have to absorb and present huge amounts of information in a clear, accurate, and entertaining manner. Like a writer of fiction, you must find a way to write freely and spontaneously. But at the same time. . . you always have to be on guard to make sure you’re not omitting or distorting any necessary facts. (p. 20). As youngsters learn to function in the real world and figure out who and what they will be as adults, nonfiction books offer so much-adventure, role models, knowledge, insights, inspiration, career possibilities, real-life examples of how to cope and solve problems. Nonfiction books can also be used as models for readers’ own writing. As Zinsser points out, “For most people learning to write, that path is nonfiction. . . . This is especially true of young people and students. They will write far more willingly about situations that have reality-experiences that touch their own lives-or subjects they have an aptitude for” (p. 61).

The time is long overdue for people who believe the myths about nonfiction to take a good, long look at what is available. It is time for people who say they do not believe the myths to honestly assess how they actually incorporate nonfiction books in their work with children and young adults. It is time for advocates of nonfiction to join together to work toward a consensus on criteria for evaluating specific works of nonfiction as literature. Nonfiction is too important and too wonderful to remain shrouded in myths and misconceptions that can prevent children and young adults from doing “real reading” about the real world.


Avery, C. (1998). Nonfiction books: Naturals for the primary level. In R. Bamford & J. Kristo (Eds.), Making facts come alive: Choosing quality nonfiction literature K-8. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.
Carr, J. (1982). Beyond fact: Nonfiction for children and young people. Chicago: American Library Association.
Colman, P. (1997). Corpses, coffins, and crypts: A history of burial. New York: Henry Holt.
Colman, P. (1995). Rosie the riveter: Women working on the home front in World War II. New York: Crown.
Doiron, R. (1994). Using nonfiction in a read-aloud program: Letting the facts speak for themselves. The Reading Teacher, 47(8), 616-624.
Donovan, J. (1974). Aspects of children’s informational books. Wilson Library Bulletin, p. 174.
Fisher, M. (1972). Matters of fact: Aspects of non-fiction for children. New York: Crowell.
Gerard, P. (1996). Creative nonfiction: Researching and crafting stories of real life. Cincinnati: Story Press.
Giblin, J. C. (1994, April). Writing nonfiction for children: Questions and answers. The Writer, 18-20.
Gutkind, L. (1996). From the editor: The 5 Rs of creative nonfiction. In Creative Nonfiction, 6, 1-14.
McClure, A. (1998). Choosing quality nonfiction literature: Examining aspects of writing style. In R. Bamford & J. Kristo (Eds.), Making facts come alive: Choosing quality nonfiction literature K-8. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.
Meltzer, M. (1976). Where do all the prizes go? The case for nonfiction. The Horn Book Magazine, 52, 17-23.
Pappas, C. (1991). Fostering full access to literacy by including information books. Language Arts, 68, 449-462.
Sutherland, Z. (1972). Children and books. Chicago: Scott Foresman.
Tuchman, B. (1985). Practicing history. New York: Knopf.
van Loon, H. (1921). The story of mankind. New York: Boni & Liveright.
Zinsser, W. (1994). On writing well: An informal guide to writing nonfiction. New York: HarperCollins.

Nonfiction Books for Children and Young Adults
Written by Penny Colman
Colman, P. (2000) Girls! A history of growing up female in America. New York: Scholastic.
Colman, P. (1997). Corpses, coffins, and crypts: A history of burial. New York: Henry Holt.
Colman, P. (1995). Rosie the riveter: Women working on the home front in World War II. New York: Crown.
Colman, P. (1995). Strike! The bitter struggle of American workers from colonial times to the present. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press.
Colman, P. (1994). Toilets, bathtubs, sinks, and sewers: A history of the bathroom. New York: Atheneum.
Colman, P. (1994). Women in society: United States of America. New York:
Marshall Cavendish, and Singapore: Times International.
Colman, P. (1994). Mother Jones and the march of the mill children. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press.
Colman, P. (1994). Madam C.J. Walker: Building a business empire. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press.
Colman, P. (1993). A woman unafraid: The achievements of Frances Perkins. New York: Atheneum.
Colman, P. (1993). Fannie Lou Hamer and the fight for the vote. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press.
Colman, P. (1993). 101 ways to do better in school. Mahwah, NJ: Troll.
Colman, P. (1992). Spies! Women in the Civil War. Cincinnati: Betterway Books.
Colman, P. (1992). Breaking the chains: The crusade of Dorothea Lynde Dix. Cincinnati: Betterway Books.

Adult Articles on Writing Nonfiction

Colman, P. (1998, Summer). On writing Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II. Social Science Record: The Journal of the New York State Council for the Social Studies, 35 (1), 15-19.
Colman, P. (1997, Winter). On writing labor history.” Organization of American Historians Magazine of History, 11(2), 17-19.
Note: Giblin (1994) used with permission from The Writer Magazine. Copyright © 1994 by The Writer, Inc.
Gerard (1996) used with permission of Story Press, a division of F & W Publications, Inc. Copyright © Philip Gerard.

Women in the Workplace
Article by Penny Colman Originally published in Mount Holyoke Quarterly, Summer 2001

In March, I was the keynote speaker at a conference for girls titled, “It’s Great to Be a Girl!” Before I spoke, Barbara Chadwick, a county government official, gave a welcome. Suddenly she stopped, furrowed her brow, and blurted, “You know, it hasn’t always been great to be a girl. When I was a girl many years ago, I had a choice of only three jobs until I got married: secretary, teacher, and nurse.” She became a nurse because her father said there was not enough money for her to become a teacher and she could not imagine herself as a secretary sitting at a desk all day. Chadwick was born in 1921, the decade when many characteristics of modern America were established. After a long fight, women finally won the right to vote. New mass media devices—radio and the movies—were creating a mass culture by transmitting images, messages, and experiences to huge numbers of people anywhere in America. Consumer goods galore were being produced and widely advertised as never before. Almost one-fourth of all women aged twenty to sixty-four were in the labor force. The leading occupations for women were servants, schoolteachers, farm laborers (home farm), stenographers, typists, and clerks (except clerks in stores). The number of women professionals rose to 14.2 percent. Most professional women were teachers, but women began making inroads as lawyers, scientists, engineers, and social workers.

Whatever they did, women were paid less than men. And if they were not, they risked making the newspapers, which is what happened to 1902 Mount Holyoke graduate Frances Perkins. When she was appointed the first woman commissioner to the New York State Industrial Commission, one 1919 headline read: “Fanny Perkins, Former Worcester Girl, Gets $8,000 Job and Starts a Rumpus.” Thinking about when Barbara Chadwick was born made me think about when I was born?, three years after the United States entered World War II. As millions of men entered the military and the demand for war materials soared, a new word was coined—”womanpower.” Stereotypes about what women could and could not do were suspended, and government and industry launched massive propaganda campaigns to recruit women. More than six million women responded and the proportion of women in the workforce increased from 25 percent to 35 percent, the majority of whom, for the first time in history, were married.

In late 1944, government and industry shifted the propaganda campaign from recruiting women into the labor force to luring them back to the home. By 1946, three and a half million women had voluntarily or involuntarily left the labor force. However, there were still more women working than before the war started, and by 1948, the number of wage-earning women started to increase again.

Progress and Setbacks

Still, the media bombarded women with the message that a “normal” woman fulfilled herself by baking, cleaning, and tending to the needs of her husband and children. That is the message I was given when I was growing up. In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a blistering critique of that message. She urged women to “stop giving lip service to the idea that there are no battles left to be fought for women in America.” By the time Barbara Chadwick and I met in 2001, there had been undeniably dramatic changes in the workplace for women. Discrimination on the basis of sex (or race, color, religion, or national origin) was banned by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1972, Congress passed the Educational Amendments Act; its Title IX prohibited educational institutions that received federal aid from discriminating against girls and women. Throughout the 1970s, a groundswell of women activists pushed for changes in the courts, the culture, personal consciousness, and social attitudes. Although the impact of the changes varied greatly depending on a woman’s class, race, ethnicity, marital status, sexual orientation, and whether she was disabled, these were exhilarating times for many women.

Consciousness-raising groups proliferated. New organizations were formed. Classified advertisements in newspapers no longer appeared separated into “Help Wanted, Women” and “Help Wanted, Men.” Throughout the country, women filed and won some sex discrimination suits against federal agencies, businesses, and universities. Women’s applications to law and medical schools soared 500 percent. As had been true throughout American history, gains for women were hotly debated. By the mid-1970s, groups such as the Eagle Forum and Moral Majority zeroed in on stopping the women’s movement, which they saw as a threat to the traditional family. In particular, they targeted the pending Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which read, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Congress had passed the ERA, but before it could become the law of the land, thirty-eight states needed to ratify it by June 30, 1982. The opposition launched a fierce attack that included telling people the ERA meant unisex toilets and women in military combat. When the deadline arrived, the ERA was defeated, three states short. Throughout the 1980s, these critics were effective in slowing down and even setting back progress in some areas, including affirmative action programs that forced businesses and government agencies to actively work to correct discriminatory situations. These programs had been particularly beneficial to women of color who had to deal with discrimination based on both race and sex. In 1984, the Civil Rights Commission, under the leadership of newly appointed Linda Chavez, started to shift away from its historic support of affirmative action.

Chavez also dismissed the concept of “comparable worth” that sought to deal with the fact that stereotypically women’s jobs pay lower wages even when those jobs require training and skills that are comparable to or even greater than jobs in which men are paid much more. In a case brought by 15,000 female employees in Washington, D.C., an independent study revealed that mechanics (mostly men) earned almost twice as much as medical records analysts (mostly women) and the average monthly salary of carpenters (mostly men) was $1,654, while social workers (mostly women) averaged $961. In ruling for the female employees, a federal judge noted that the jobs the women did were at least comparable to what the men did.

‘Women’s Work’ Diversifies

Today, 60 percent of women work for wages and constitute 46 percent of the labor force. Almost four million women hold more than one job; half of these hold a full-time job and a part-time job or hold two or more full-time jobs. Another three million women are contingent workers, including independent contractors; on-call workers; and temporary help agency workers. Some women have nontraditional occupations, or ones where women are 25 percent or less of the total employed. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau’s list of nontraditional occupations for women in 2000 shows that women account for 19 percent of funeral directors; 18.7 percent of dentists; 16.5 percent of police and detectives; 12 percent of physicists and astronomers; 9.9 percent of engineers; 4.7 percent of truck drivers; 3.9 percent of airplane pilots and navigators; 3.7 percent of garbage collectors, and 1 percent of motion-picture projectionists.

Historically nontraditional professions such as medicine, law, business, and public relations are undergoing tremendous changes. In 1998, women earned 38 percent of MBAs awarded, and about half of accounting graduates are women. In 2000, about 46 percent of first-year medical students and 49.4 percent of first-year law students are women. Currently women, most of whom are white, account for 24.5 percent of physicians, 28.8 percent of lawyers, 12.5 percent of Fortune 500 corporate officers, and 70 percent of public relations people.

While these increases are significant, women in these professions face many challenges. In particular, men maintain a tight grip on the top positions. Currently 86 percent of law firm partners are still men, and only 4 percent of Fortune 500 top earners are women. In 1997, women-owned businesses accounted for only 4.4 percent of all business revenue. A recent study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that nationwide, women working full-time earn an average of 73.5 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

Women also have to deal with entrenched stereotypes such as the belief based on “difference theories” that women think or function differently than their male counterparts or that the presence of too many women will “feminize” a profession. Harold Burson, chairman of Burson-Marsteller and PR Week’s choice as the most influential public relations figure of the last century, said in a speech last fall, “Unless more men are attracted to public relations, it runs the risk of being regarded as a ‘woman’s job.'” Echoing Burson’s concern, industry newsletter O’Dwyer’s PR Services Report noted, “There is a growing sentiment the business has become too female. The question on everyone’s mind is how to get more men to enter the PR field.”

Women’s Pay Still Lags

Despite their gains in nontraditional jobs, most women work in just 5 percent of all job types, including secretary; nursery and kindergarten teacher; day-care worker; registered nurse; nursing aide, orderly, and attendant; bookkeeper, accounting, and auditing clerk; elementary-school teacher; bank teller; waitress; sales worker in retail and personal services; and manager and administrator.

These are not high-paying jobs, although when men do them the pay is higher. For example, the ratio of a woman’s earnings to a man’s earnings as a registered nurse is 94.4 percent; as a sales worker in retail and personal services it is 70 percent; as a manager and administrator it is 64.6 percent. “There are still definite obstacles and glaring inequalities in the workplace, but things are starting to change—meaning that I see moreand more women making it.”

A recent study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that nationwide, women working full-time earn an average of 73.5 cents for every dollar earned by a man. On a state-by-state basis, the District of Columbia topped the list with women earning 85.7 cents for every dollar a man earns. In Wyoming, at the bottom of the list, women earned only 62.8 cents for every man’s dollar. Earnings also differ among women, with white women earning more than women of color, especially African Americans and Latinas.

In a 1998 study, the institute reported that the average twenty-five-year-old woman who works full-time, year-round until she retires at sixty-five will earn $523,000 less than the average working man. Many of the women who work in jobs with low wages and no benefits are the sole provider for families with children under eighteen years old; no wonder 3.5 million (27 percent) of all families maintained by women were below the poverty line in 1998. A whole vocabulary has developed around the issue of working women—wage gap, equal pay for equal work, comparable worth, living wage, feminization, sex-segregated jobs, pink-collar job, affirmative action, glass ceiling, sticky floor, mommy track, two-career families, second shift, sexual harassment, mentor, old-boy and old-girl-network.

Equal pay, a safe working environment, promotion, paid family leave, health care, and retirement security are at the top of working women’s agenda, according to the findings of the Ask a Working Woman Survey, a national representative random survey conducted by the AFL-CIO. When asked what personally they most want to improve on their job, 78 percent of women surveyed, especially women earning less than $25,000, responded: respect and recognition. Recently I asked Katrin de Haen, my daughter-in-law and a 32-year-old account executive for a clothing company, about the status of working women. “There are still definite obstacles and glaring inequalities in the workplace, but things are starting to change—meaning that I see more and more women making it,” she replied. “I see women getting more aggressive and getting what they want, although there is still an awareness that the guy they bring in after you is going to get a lot more money. There is still a glass ceiling, but it might be changing to a sieve.”

Demanding a Better Future

The status of working women at the beginning of the twenty-first century can best be characterized as problematic. Tough issues continue to affect all working women—child care, balancing the demands of work and family, discrimination in hiring and promotion, sexual harassment, and economic justice and fairness.

Will the girls who Barbara Chadwick and I addressed at the “It’s Great to Be a Girl!” conference face these issues? Undoubtedly. And so will succeeding generations, unless Barbara in her eightieth year, I in my fifty-seventh year, and all women in and out of the workforce join together across all our divides—culture, race, ethnicity, religion, and education—flex our muscles, speak our minds, and use our votes to demand that politicians, government officials, and business leaders seriously address the issues that affect working women at all levels of the economic ladder.