A review of They Called Us Girls by Kathleen Courtenay Stone

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

They Called Us Girls:
Stories of Female Ambition from Suffrage to Mad Men
by Kathleen Courtenay Stone
Cynren Press
March 2022, Hardcover, 236 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1947976245

They Called Us Girls: Stories of Female Ambition from Suffrage to Mad Men is a well written, expertly researched nonfiction collection of biographical essays about exceptional women who should be household names—but sadly are not. Seven women are featured in this book, which also contains numerous photographs and is carefully footnoted for those who wish to learn more. The theme is reflected in the title—these are essays about women who made unorthodox journeys on their career paths despite often being denigrated as just “girls.” With a release date in March’s Women’s History Month, it is a timely, relevant addition to a body of literature about women who transcended society’s gender limitations to become outstanding in their varied fields. Please don’t think this is just a dry litany of brief bios of high achieving women. Rather, the materials are personal, fascinating, inspiring, and made compellingly warm by the author’s adept use of telling details and often intimate revelations.

The seven women featured in They Called Us Girls succeeded in a broad range of careers—two physicians, an artist, a physicist, a nonprofit executive director/community activist, a federal judge, and an intelligence officer active in Europe during WWII. Ethnic and racial diversity are well represented among these women, a few of whom are immigrants. The time frame spans a half-century, and all the featured women were born before 1935. The author—Kathleen Courtenay Stone—conducted personal interviews with each woman of such depth that another author, Sven Birkerts, calls her interviews “heedful and empathic.” Stone gently inserts herself into each chapter in a way that is at once compelling and personal, which adds interest to each segment without deflecting from the actual subject.

Stone, who grew up in the fifties and sixties, speaks in her introduction of looking through her father’s 1950 Yale law school yearbook when she was eight and noticing only a few women. Curious at that point in her childhood as to what motivates a woman to become a lawyer, she later grew up to become a lawyer in her own right. In fact, she became a remarkably successful lawyer, as well as an author. As such, she is an excellent choice to write this compelling book.

In chapter one, “The First Wave Recedes: Dahlov Zorach Ipcar, Artist,” Stone describes meeting the subject when the artist was ninety-six years old. With crystal clear prose, Stone examines not only her relationship with Ipcar, but the artist’s life and influences. In one scene, which highlights Stone’s talent at utilizing setting to show personality, the two women walk through Ipcar’s house. “[W]e passed through rooms where walls were gently out of plumb and wide floorboards, under their polished sheen, showed wear. She had been in this house nearly eighty years, first with her husband and two sons, and now alone.” 

Jumping from artist to physician, chapter two, “Walking the Color Line,” discusses the life and career of Muriel Petioni, born in 1914, beginning with the five-year-old Petioni arriving from Trinidad to Ellis Island to be met by her father. Growing up in Harlem, Petioni’s story is closely intertwined with her immigrant father’s quest to become a Black physician in the United States. She too decides to become a physician and is the only woman in the class of 1937 at Howard University College of Medicine. Stone observes: “As a Black woman, Muriel had mastered a very narrow path to get that far. No more than 5 percent of medical students in the country were women. Some schools did not admit women at all.” From Petioni’s medical school days on, her journey as told by Stone does not shy away from the impact of race. A vivid portrait of Muriel Petioni emerges from this well-crafted segment.

Once more, the book takes a decided leap in careers in chapter three, “A Unique Wartime Opportunity,” in which Cordelia Dodson Hood, an intelligence officer, is featured. Hood was a single woman of twenty-seven when the United States entered WWII after the attack on Pearl Harbor. She had a master’s degree in German and lived in Washington D.C. when the attack occurred and she decided to join the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the intelligence agency of the United States during World War II. But first she had to attend secretarial school and learn short-hand and how to type before OSS would have her. Men, of course, did not have to do this to join the OSS.

This particularly fascinating chapter often reads like a best-selling WWII novel and deals with Hood’s life in Europe and her experiences there during the war as well as post-war. During one dangerous WWII mission, she worked with Chuck Yeager, then a twenty-one-year-old American pilot “whose record for shooting down German planes had already made news, long before he’d broken the sound barrier.”

Another woman physician, Martha Lipson Lepow, dominates chapter four, “Peace and Polio.” Lepow worked in Cleveland in what was called the “virus lab” which was the epicenter of polio research during the polio menace. As her father was also a doctor, Lepow had a good idea of what a career in medicine involved. But for her—a young Jewish woman—the road to medicine would be more complicated. In Lepow’s medical class of eighty-seven students, she was one of only seven women. She was particularly interested in pediatrics and in polio, which led her to work in the polio research laboratory. She said of that experience, “I would characterize the work in the lab as one of the biggest advances in medicine in the second half of the twentieth century, up there with the development of penicillin.” The work there led to the Salk vaccine. A prolific author of scholarly papers, Lepow also had a distinguished career in academia.

In chapter five, readers are introduced to Mildred Spiewak Dresselhaus, a physicist in “The Age of Sputnik.” Of her, Stone writes:

On that day [that Sputnik was fired into space by the Russians], Mildred Spiewak was a student at the University of Chicago, a year away from getting her PhD in physics. Poised by virtue of her education to take advantage of the doors that would open because of Sputnik, she was a rare woman. Rarer still was the extraordinary success she later achieved when her work with carbon, then a little appreciated material, helped fire up the file of nanotechnology and earn her a place as a full tenured professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the first woman with that distinction. Her nickname became “Queen of Carbon.”

Next, Stone turns her attention to Frieda Garcia, a nonprofit leader showcased in chapter 6, “Time for Change.” Of Garcia, who immigrated as a child from Santo Domingo, Stone writes:

What sort of accomplishment earns the honor of having a park bear your name? For Frieda Garcia, it was her uncommon dedication to making city life better—leader of social service organizations; members of nonprofit boards, from the richly endowed to the struggling;…She swept aside the unspoken boundaries of a hide-bound and racially divided city.

In the final profile in this engaging book, Stone profiles Rya Weickert Zobel, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court of Boston—and a judge that Stone had litigated in front of some years before their interview for the book. Chapter seven, “The Second Wave,” highlights the journey of a female lawyer turned federal judge that was of particular interest to Stone. “I wanted to interview a lawyer,” Stone writes. “Imagining the lives of women lawyers had started me on this quest in the first place.” Stone then takes an in depth look at the history of women in the legal profession, observing: “Compared to medicine, law was far more restrictive.”

Zobal’s bio is a bit different than the other six as she tells Stone right off that she was not “ambitious.” Born in Zwickau, Germany, Zobal faced significant danger during Hitler’s reign because her mother was Jewish. Zobal’s mother was able to get falsified papers from Hungary that expunged Zobal’s Jewish heritage, but nonetheless the family and Zobal did suffer greatly under the Nazis. Her father was taken away upon allegations of spying, and she never saw him again. Her mother was later taken away too, and Zobal, who was thirteen, and her brother, ten, were left without parents.

As with chapter three’s materials on the missions of Cordelia Hood, the most riveting parts of the chapter on Zobal have strong elements of intense, dramatic WWII fiction, but the events were real and Zobal survived them to become a federal judge. Stone observed “As a federal judge, she occupied a top echelon of the profession. No one just walks into that job.”

All in all, They Called Us Girls is a fascinating, inspiring, and well-written collection of biographies of seven exceptional women, bios told with personality and insight which bring these women and their triumphs to life. A grand celebration of women, released during March’s Women’s History Month, this is a book for men and women both to relish.

About the reviewer: Claire Hamner Matturro has been a newspaper reporter, a lawyer, and has taught at Florida State University College of Law and University of Oregon School of Law. She was the first female associate, then first female partner, at a prestigious Sarasota, Florida law firm where she admits that initially she was often referred to as “the girl.” An author of seven prior mysteries and legal thrillers, she and her husband live on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Her newest book, Wayward Girls (Red Adept Publishing Aug. 2021), is with co-author Penny Koepsel. Claire remains active in writers’ and environmental groups and is an associate editor at Southern Literary Review. Visit her at www.clairematturro.com