Working It Out

This winter the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers sent out a call for writings on the topic of “the labors of women” for a May reading at the Sandisfield Arts Center. I realized this would give me the opportunity to put into words a long overdue appreciation of the landmark book by Sally Ruddick and Pamela Daniels, Working It Out: 29 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk about Their Lives and Work (Pantheon, 1977).

Below is what I wrote, and read in May, thanks to the Berkshire Festival’s call, and especially thanks to its founder, Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez for conceiving of such a resonant theme (check out Jenny’s excellent blog, Transition Times: Writing to Right the World) and Susie Crofut for bringing the Festival to Sandisfield. The event was terrific, varied, powerful – hope to say more about it when the Festival posts on it.

Working It Out: 29 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk about Their Lives and Work

A poem for Sara (Sally) Ruddick, Feminist philosopher, 1935 – 2011

Twenty-three faces look out from the book’s cover,
young, earnest, marked with intelligence and hope.
Twenty-three women struggling with a simple thing:
To sit down at a desk, stand at an easel,
lean over a laboratory table, and surrender
to their own, original thought –
To the work.

Why was it so hard? Didn’t they have it all –
education, babies, husbands willing to “help” —
And still so hard to close the door, for an hour
or a day, close out the willing husbands,
the babies following with alert, expectant eyes,
the kind, bemused professors that had called them “bright”
but not quite known what to do with them.

And even more, why so hard, once the door closed,
once every obstacle was lifted, to lay claim
to the empty page, blank canvas, forbidden realms
of their teeming minds? Why the deep, inexplicable
paralysis, this “acute pain of worklessness”?

One by one, each of them worked through
that pain in these pages. Read them
and you will see a generation
coming to life in its work, coming to serious,
womanly work embedded in their lives,
work and pleasure not enemies,
but joined.

Sally ends her essay (“A Work of One’s Own”)
saying simply, elegantly, “I turned,
as I had learned to do,
to other women.
We put together this book.”


So this was how: twenty-three women facing the pain
with courage and fear, and making the claim together.

Thirty-seven years, Sally, Pamela, Adrienne, Evelyn,
Virginia, Alice, Catherine, Naomi, and the rest,
and we still need your book,
still need to hear those voices, still need
to see you working it out
for us, at any age,
and for the work still before us.


Here is the cover of the book, with all the wonderful faces:


You can find a dog-eared copy of the book on Abe Books for a few dollars, and you can read Sally’s essay, “A Work of One’s Own” at a site established by her family as a living memorial. (Much gratitude to them for the site, absolutely necessary.) Take a look, on that site, for example, at “New School Courses” if you want to see the range, daring, and sheer vitality of one of our era’s most original, generous minds.

Working It Out: 29 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk about Their Lives and Work
A collection of essays edited by Sara Ruddick and Pamela Daniels, published 1977, Pantheon.
Sara Ruddick (Editor), J. Green (Contributor), Alice Walker (Contributor), Tillie Olsen (Contributor), Pamela Daniels (Editor), M. Young (Contributor), Adrienne Rich (Contributor), M. Thornton (Contributor) , C. Sears (Contributor), N.V. Mengel (Contributor), Catherine.R. Stimpson (Contributor), Evelyn Fox. Keller (Contributor), M. Schapiro (Contributor), C. Gilbert (Contributor), M. Stevens (Contributor), D.G. Michener (Contributor), Virginia Valian (Contributor), C.Y. Yu (Contributor), A. Lasoff (Contributor), K.K. Hamod (Contributor), A. Rorty (Contributor), N. Weisstein (Contributor)

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