“My Mother, My Daughter, and Me”
My family is full of women. I have three sisters, one daughter, three nieces. Yes, there are men around — a nephew, a few husbands — but we’re a pretty female bunch. My mom was an older sister to two brothers, but her greatest influences were her mother and “the aunts” (two real and one honorary). Strong women populate many branches of our family tree, and my current creative nonfiction project is a book of essays telling the stories of three of these women — my mother, my daughter, and me.
My mother, Margaret Hyde, was born in 1922, a child of the Great Depression and a member of the Greatest Generation. After college, she was hired at the Associated Press, one of many “Rosie the Reporters” who gained a foothold in journalism during WWII. She left her career in 1953, determined to have the family she yearned for. She returned to work when her fourth daughter started school in 1966 and spent 17 years reporting on the changing lives of women as Women’s Editor for a chain of suburban newspapers. I was Margaret’s third daughter, born in 1959 at the tail end of the baby boom and the beginning of second wave feminism. I paid little attention to the women’s movement I grew up in, but reaped its benefits in terms of higher education, reproductive choice, and the expectation of equality in the workplace and home. My daughter, Kalena, was born in 1993, a millennial who barely remembers a time before cell phones, social media, and the threats of climate change and global terrorism. Proud feminists all, our lives reflect the complicated choices and emotional struggles of women over the last century.
In My Mother, My Daughter, and Me, the complexity of women’s lives is explored through a series of independent, yet linked, essays that recount pivotal experiences and choice points in our lives. The essays consider choices about marriage and divorce; the messiness of equality; birth, miscarriage, and abortion; mental health and the myth of perfection; elderly caregiving and the end of life; and the changing meaning of growing up in three different eras of feminism. In each essay – and across the trajectory of the book – the history and headlines of American women’s lives are put into personal and poignant focus.
I’ve written a lot in my life — journal articles, textbooks, a book about my dad, blog posts galore — but all of it has been nonfiction. I’m an incessant reader of novels, but I never thought I was the type of writer who could tackle such a thing. My daughter — who can’t imagine writing anything but fiction — tried for months to convince me that I should give it a try, and an article in Smithsonian Magazine led me to finally take the leap. This article, written by Kim Todd, tells the stories of “Girl Stunt Reporters” at the end of the 19th century. These women — Nelly Bly is the most famous of them — pioneered investigative reporting, often going undercover to report on pressing social problems. Their newspaper accounts, typically published with pseudonyms, were sensational accounts of their dives into the rough underbelly of late Victorian society.
I was particularly fascinated with one woman — a “girl reporter” who investigated abortion providers in 1888 Chicago by posing as an unfortunate who had “loved well but not wisely” and wanted to save her family from shame. Her accounts of visits to physicians and midwives were published as “The Girl Reporter’s Story” in the Chicago Times in December 1888. In her Smithsonian article, Todd tried to track down this woman’s identity, diving deep into court records and newspapers of the day, but to no avail.
Who was the girl reporter? This unanswered question was just the spur I needed to start writing historical fiction. Three things I love most in the world are history, journalism, and feminist issues, and here they were all gathered in a vibrant city at a tumultuous time – Chicago in 1888. In Girl Reporter, I tell the story of Maggie Webster, the woman I imagine as the intrepid reporter assigned to investigate “infanticide” for the Chicago Times. The world of this novel is grounded clearly in historical fact — the newspaper, the stories, the city, attitudes about women and abortion in the late 19th century. But I have invented Maggie, her family, and some fellow reporters in weaving a tale about how a young career woman investigates a great moral issue of the day and finds that none of it is as black and white as the newspaper would have you think.