Get to Know Author Megan Marshall and Her Life's Work Studying Women's Stories

Author Megan Marshall is no stranger to unearthing the stories of women. Most recently, Marshall studied five women over the last three decades and plans to share her findings in an event on Tuesday at the New York University's Center for the Study of Transformative Lives.

Philip Kunhardt, the founding director for the Center, told MAKERS that while the subjects within the center range from many theaters of activity, there remains a common theme of human rights and "figures who have advanced human freedom and equality through political, artistic, intellectual, and activist commitments." 

"These men and women have been individuals who took on complex inner journeys, often overcoming great odds to become the agents for change they became," Kunhardt said. "They have been people who inspired others and worked courageously to effect positive change." 

Founded in 2012, the Center provides lectures on transformative themes and figures. 

"It is my belief that a serious study of people who have had a profound impact for good on the world can have a powerful influence on students and others today," Kundardt said. "My hope is that my students will never forget the lives we have studied together — and that memories of the figures will live inside them and help inspire them to more courageous and actualized lives of their own."

Kunhardt works to organize events with figures who will bring about "transformative evenings," which is exactly what's in store for the Center on Tuesday when Marshall speaks.

MAKERS caught up with Marshall ahead of the event to discuss her work, and how she's planning to help fulfill the Center's mission to, as Kunhardt says, "touch people at the level of heart and conscience."

For more information on Tuesday's event, visit the Center's site here.

Q: You wrote and researched five women over three decades, what made you pick these five women? What stood out to you about them?
A: I was drawn first to the three Peabody sisters — Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia — because they were strong, distinctive, and ambitious women who'd had the same upbringing in a down-at-the-heels New England family, and yet found different routes to self-expression and activism in the first half of the nineteenth-century, a time when educational and professional opportunities for women were extremely limited. The book was at heart a way of comparing different styles or strategies of nineteenth-century womanhood. How did the sisters educate themselves — in Sophia's case to become an accomplished artist, in Elizabeth’s to become a leading light of American Transcendentalism? How did they meet and marry the extraordinary men in their lives? Sophia married Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary married Horace Mann. What compromises or concessions were necessary, how did they bend their ambitions to the times, and yet still feel fulfilled and accomplished?  And how did sisterhood, their loyalty to each other as well as their stresses and strains, figure in all of this?

Margaret Fuller was the best-known woman of the Transcendentalist movement, and with good reason. She made no concessions. She originated a kind of Transcendentalist feminism, outlined in her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, that anticipated 20th century feminist ideas like those of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan.  “There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman,” she wrote in 1843, arguing that the qualities we think of as masculine or feminine are available to both sexes, and appear in most people in a mixture.  She argued for full realization of each individual’s capabilities. "Let every arbitrary barrier be set aside,” she urged, when it came to women’s participation in society and the professions.  And she broke barriers herself, as the first American female war correspondent.  How did she come to these ideas, and how did they play out in both her public and private lives? Fuller's story is worthy of an opera or a mini-series — the intense platonic relationships with men like Ralph Waldo Emerson and the exiled revolutionaries Giuseppi Mazzini and Adam Miskiewicz when she was in Europe during the 1848 uprisings, her affair with a young Roman revolutionary guard and their out-of-wedlock child, her tragic drowning in a shipwreck at age 40.  This is a life any biographer would be drawn to, but after writing about the Peabodys, who bent a little more to convention, I found Fuller’s life and writings breathtaking.

Writing about Elizabeth Bishop was a leap into the 20th century and to a full-blown literary biography of one of the century’s greatest poets. But I was still tracking an essentially self-educated woman, though Bishop had the advantage of a college education that didn’t exist for women one hundred years earlier. Bishop graduated from Vassar in 1934, but there were no creative writing classes then.  She’d been driven to write poetry from childhood, growing up as a virtual orphan in an extremely dysfunctional extended family, and her mastery of the form pretty much came to her as a matter of self-rescue and by her own efforts, through avid reading and determined practice of verse forms.  Bishop was a different kind of heroine, a more private person, but struggling to live a life counter to convention as well, as a lesbian (though she wasn't "out" and didn't use the term) and as a woman poet in a male-dominated literary scene.  She was born in Massachusetts, like my other subjects, but traveled extensively and lived for long periods of time in Key West and Brazil, often in New York City too, before spending her last years in Cambridge and Boston as a kind of homecoming. I was interested in expanding my horizons as a biographer to these other locations (though Fuller also had a few dramatic years in New York and in Europe), and to resurrect my own passion for poetry. I had studied poetry as a college student at Harvard, with Robert Lowell and with Miss Bishop, as we called her, so I was drawn to the subject for personal reasons too. I wanted to explore more directly what she’d meant to me as a young aspiring writer — the transformative effect her life had on mine, though we weren’t friends. This was biographical work at first hand, back then and while writing the book now.

Q: What audience do you hope to target and why?
A: I research my books with the highest scholarly standards of accuracy, but I write to satisfy both experts and general readers who may not know very much about the subject.  I try to bring something new to both the experts and those who are simply curious about these lives from the past.  I’m always happy to hear from readers that they don’t usually read much biography, but they liked mine; that they never understood Transcendentalism before, but my book explained it to them; that they didn't "get" poetry before, but reading my biography of Elizabeth Bishop made them love poetry and want to read more of it.  When scholars in these fields also appreciate the books, tell me that I’ve represented the subjects well and accurately, and they’ve learned new things — I feel I've really accomplished what I set out to do by reaching both audiences. And when people tell me my books make them cry at the end (both general readers and scholars have told me this), then I really feel I’ve done it. Identification with a subject can be very powerful, whether you’re reading a novel or a biography, and that’s what I hope to induce in the reader, a sense that you’re traveling through life with the subject, that you’re privy to their innermost thoughts, and you miss them when they’re gone.  Fortunately, I’ve had great materials to work with — diaries and letters and other writings that can be quoted to bring these women back into conversation with readers. 

Q: How do you hope your work, writing about the lives of others, has an impact on your audience?
A: I remember meeting someone in the grocery store shortly after The Peabody Sisters came out in 2005, just after George W. Bush’s re-election. It was a time when many people were discouraged by the course of American foreign and domestic policy in the years after 9/11 and the contentious2000 election when Bush won out over Gore. This person told me she’d been very engaged by my book, that learning about the idealism of the Transcendentalist era had revived her faith in America. Another reader, a journalist named Christina Asquith, was inspired by Margaret Fuller's pioneering work as a foreign correspondent to start a news bureau covering women's lives in the middle east called the Fuller Project for International Reporting. With Elizabeth Bishop, I’ve been hearing from poets and others who find inspiration and reassurance in reading about this great writer’s personal struggle. These "transformative" effects aren’t ones I could deliberately create, but when I hear about them they make me feel my work has value. 

Q: How is the Center of Transformative Lives important to you?
A: I love the way the center promotes what's essential about biography, its deeper meaning for readers. Of course, biography performs a function as historical narrative, by establishing a record of accomplishment and analyzing key events; or it may illuminate a great writer's work. But the best biographies achieve something more than that, something that people have looked for in story or history since the classical era — by providing examples of lives well (or poorly) lived, that move and inspire and educate us about how we might conduct our own lives. The center promotes that aspect of biography, which is both its fundamental basis and its highest achievement.

Q: As an author, what is the best piece of advice you have for aspiring female writers?
A: Don’t be afraid to write about what interests you, because the powerful interest you feel will charge the subject with life, no matter what it is — and don’t give up! 

Q: Who was the first woman who fascinated you, and what drew you to them?
A: When I was in grade school, I loved a series of biographies of women written for children that I found in the public library. I remember one about Amelia Earhart and the go-cart she built when she was a girl and tried to "fly" off the roof of a garden shed down a track she’d constructed. I tried to do it myself, though I only got as far as attaching some roller skates to a piece of plywood. I never got up on the roof, luckily. What stayed with me about those books was their emphasis on the childhoods of their subjects; the writers must have assumed children would care most about that. I love writing about the childhoods of my subjects, which always turn out to be key to understanding the whole life. 

In the fifth grade, my teacher was piloting a new reading method called SRA, with selections targeted to individual student’s reading levels.  It was color-coded and kind of mysterious, and you’d get up from your desk and go select a reading from a big box by whether it was in the purple or red or orange section you were assigned to, not really knowing what you’d come up with. I remember learning about Mary McLeod Bethune that way. She was an early civil rights activist and educator, born to former slaves. Her life was fascinating, and I’m sure I’d never have come across her without this experimental reading curriculum. Public libraries and public schools are so important — I would be nowhere without all I learned there.

Q: Do you consider yourself a feminist? Explain.
A: I am most certainly a feminist, and I give that a very expansive definition, as it should have, to include all those who believe in and support the dignity and personhood of women.  That sounds simple and basic, but women’s voices are silenced, their dignity and personhood denied all the time, all over the world, in both subtle and overt ways. I don't need to say this! Also, as a historian and biographer, I have an immense appreciation for all that women have fought for and accomplished over centuries, and to step away from the agenda, to shrink from labeling oneself a feminist because it might upset men or even some women, seems a slap in the face to all the striving women who have come before us. 

Q: How do you see the world changing and evolving for women? Expand on this.  
A: The essential set-up of men holding most of the power, defining the terms of debate, is extremely hard to change, and often change has come from brave individuals — both women and men — who are capable of seeing hypocrisy and unfairness, speaking out, and thinking up ways to work for improvement. Biography is a vital means of inspiring new acts of courage and innovation.   

It took nearly a century and a half after black men gained the vote for a black man to be elected president. Women have had the vote for less than a century, and maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that electing a woman president turned out to be impossible now. Progress is slow, and there are many setbacks.  But it has been proven over and over again that the status of women in a country is linked to the country’s success over all, and being pro-woman, or feminist, is the only sensible outlook, the best hope we’ve got.  Looking to women of the past for role models can also unite women of very different outlooks.  A reader once told me, "I'm not a feminist, but I just love the Peabody sisters." She was invigorated by their example, and because it was history and non-partisan, she didn't have to hide those feelings.  I hope she went on to change her mind about feminism!  

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Photo Credit: Facebook/ The Center for the Study of Transformative Lives.Megan Marshall on Writing Women's Lives

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