Really excited about this interview and to finally be stocking this awesome and beautiful book!
Who is Tracy Dawson, the author of Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men to Do Shit They Weren't Supposed to Do?
Hello! I am an actor, humorist, TV writer and author. I was born in Ottawa, Canada and I've lived in Los Angeles the past 15 years. I began in comedy and theatre in Toronto and I acted for many years on stage and screen in Canada. About a decade ago I started to focus more on writing. Let Me Be Frank is my first book, one of many, I hope.
Why did you decide to write it? What is the story behind it?
Let Me Be Frank actually began as an idea for a TV show. I had this idea for an anthology TV series where each episode focussed on the story of one of these women from history who circumvented the patriarchal status quo to live the life she wanted to lead and do what she wanted to do - by disguising herself as a man or taking on a male pseudonym etc. I wasn't able to sell that show and I had all this research, I had learned so much about so many incredible women, I couldn't let the idea just fade away. I knew I HAD to tell these stories and it also all felt very timely. As I explain in the book's introduction, something happened almost ten years ago when I was starting out as a TV writer here in LA. I had a meeting with a studio executive and she asked me which of their TV shows I could see myself writing on. When I listed off a few of their shows, she replied that none of the shows I had mentioned had any "female needs" - meaning they had hired their quota of women writers and they wouldn't consider any others. In other words, there were jobs available, but not for me, because I had boobs. It was shocking and I felt ashamed and embarrassed. That experience stayed with me for years and helped inspire this book - because I couldn't help but wonder back then...ok so if I disguised myself as a man, would there be jobs available for me? Would I then be allowed to write some jokes.
What is the biggest impact of it?
I did a tremendous amount of research for the book, the bibliography is comically large! Doing all this research, all this reading and digging and unearthing had a huge impact on me. It was very heavy at times, realizing what brilliant, fiery, genius women had to do just to survive or thrive in a way they wanted to. It can be crazy-making when you see just what has been up against you and your community for so long. I had to take breaks and lie down sometimes - the chapter about witch hunting, for instance. It got very dark. The writing of this book also made me realize I love writing books and I loved bringing these incredible stories to light in my own unique, comedic voice. This book IS me...it's me lovingly (but urgently) grabbing the hands of the reader, as if I am sitting across from them at a cafe, and saying "Listen to this!!"
In terms of the impact the book has had since it was released, I have been so moved by readers reaching out to me to share how the book has inspired them or sharing that they are reading it with their children. When women readers in particular reach out to say they alternated between laughing and crying and being enraged...that has been so gratifying! More than a few male readers have reached out to me to express gratitude, thanking me for opening their eyes and introducing them to these women and the bigger picture of systemic sexism and gender bias. It has all had a huge impact on me because I am so passionate about equality, telling stories, and making comedy...and here I have combined all of those and written a book in my authentic voice and while pushing my feminist agenda...it has been so gratifying!
What are the biggest things you have learned while writing the book?
There were many things I was shocked to learn about as I researched and wrote this book. I was shocked and upset that I had never heard of Ellen Craft before I wrote her. Ellen Craft was a light skinned, mixed race woman who was born into slavery. She escaped from enslavement by disguising herself as a white, male plantation owner and traveling from Georgia to free Philadelphia with her husband William posing as her enslaved valet. It is a jaw-dropping piece of American history and too few people were ever taught about The Crafts in school. It's shameful that not all Americans know her story. In fact, more people may know about the Crafts in the UK because once they landed in Philadelphia they soon discovered that they were not entirely safe from harm and capture. It was perfectly legal in the United States to hire a bounty hunter to go capture those who had escaped and return them to the people who believed they owned them, and so the Crafts made their way to England where they lived for almost twenty years before returning to America.
Another big revelation was learning about Tarpé Mills. Mills was an American comic book writer and illustrator in the 1940s and she created the very first female superhero, Miss Fury (who predated Wonder Woman by a full eight months.) Tarpé Mills was born June Tarpé Mills but wanted to de-feminize her name so that little kids who were reading her adventurous comic strips would not be turned off by a comic written by "a girl". Miss Fury became a massive success and eventually it was revealed that Mills was in fact a woman and she too became a sensation in the 40s. I was shocked to discover as I researched that there is not a single biography book written about Mills and very little has been preserved from her Miss Fury strips and comic books. It's actually quite upsetting. Mills was groundbreaking in her creation of a female superhero and one who was rather brilliant but who didn't have superpowers. Miss Fury was sexy and alluring but another radical quality was that she never pined over men, it was the men who pined in Miss Fury.
What is the goal? The big vision of what you would like to achieve?
I would love as many people as possible to read my book, honestly, because I want to shout about these incredible humans from the rooftops. I want as many people as possible to know them, to be inspired by them. I love to hear about people sharing the book with their kids because I want young people to know that history is not always kind or fair to women, queer people, and people of color. That a lot gets left off the pages of history and we have to work hard to ensure that certain stories are documented and shared. I am excited about my next book which I am working on now. It is a natural companion piece to Let Me Be Frank, but with a different "hook" - I have discovered that I very much enjoy unearthing stories and people that I feel others should know about, stories and people whose achievements and innovations were perhaps buried by time and the patriarchy.
And now our feminist questionnaire!
What is Feminism for you?
Feminism is a movement, a practice to eradicate sexism, misogyny, gender discrimination. It is something to commit to in all areas of your life. It is not passive. It is active. Feminism is working for gender equality both in law and in practice. Finally and importantly, my feminism is intersectional. As Kimberlé Crenshaw says about the term, which she coined in 1989, intersectional feminism is “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.”
Which “everyday sexism” really bothers you?
Still being told to smile by strange men on the street. It. is. infuriating. I remember walking on my way to work one day and I had a lot of stress and my mind was full of problems that needed solving. I was deep in thought. A middle aged man walked past me and jocularly told me to smile. I almost lost it. I thought about one of my male colleagues walking along in the same way, deep in thought, thinking about work. This strange man would have likely thought, look at that guy, deep in thought, he looks stressed! Or he wouldn't have thought anything because he wouldn't even take my male coworker IN because other men are not there to serve and please you. The idea is any woman is there to serve and please. Telling a woman to smile is SO FUCKED UP: Look pleasant, make me feel good, serve me, you exist to make me feel better and look pleasant. Well, fuck that.
Do you remember when you started identifying as a Feminist and why?
I don't remember exactly but it has been for a very long time since I was young. I'm not sure I was ever one of those young people who was turned off by the term "feminist" and therefore tried to distance myself from identifying that way. I will say, being a feminist has been a journey. There is internalized misogyny that I sometimes still find myself dismantling. The patriarchy is a brainwashing that we have all been exposed to for so long. There have been layers upon layers of unlearning and uncovering and realizing one's own internal sexism and biases and it's brave to acknowledge it and face it so that you can eradicate it. It is brave and vulnerable to understand that there is much to learn and unlearn regarding sexism, racism, trans inclusivity...and that just because you identify as a feminist doesn't mean you are not capable of bias and ignorance in some areas. We are all works in progress!
Who is your biggest feminist role model?
I have so many! One of the subjects in my book is Dr. Mary Edwards Walker who is the only woman ever awarded the Medal of Honor. Walker was born in 1832 and was lucky to have progressive parents who believed in racial equality and in educating girls and boys equally. Walker was the second woman to graduate from Syracuse medical college and when the Civil War broke out she attempted to enlist in the Union Army as a surgeon. The men laughed her out of the enlistment office. Undeterred, Dr. Walker signed up to volunteer instead since they would not give her an official placement. Eventually the press shamed the Army into giving Dr. Walker an official position and she became the first woman surgeon in the US Army during the Civil War. I love Dr. Walker because she was fiery and determined and did not care what anyone thought of her. She was proud to be a woman breaking barriers and wrote about the thrill of growing out her curly hair so people would SEE that she was clearly a female surgeon serving in the army! For much of her life after the war she dressed in men's clothes (which she adamantly stated were NOT men's clothes but rather HER clothes) and she was arrested numerous times for impersonating a man. She believed that the clothing on a woman's back was at the center of their freedom. Wearing pants was more hygienic and allowed for freedom of movement. She believed this freedom was even more important than women obtaining the right to vote! I love everything about Dr. Walker because she did not suffer fools, she did not back down, she was opinionated and loud...at a time when that would have been truly abnormal for women. When they tried to take back her medal of honor (stating that only those who actually took part in combat should receive one) she refused. She wore it proudly on her lapel every day until she died.
What is your favourite Feminist quote?
"Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Whatever may be their use in civilized societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism; how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism." - Virginia Woolf
What is your proud feminist victory?
I believe in always asking. Ask for the raise, ask for the recommendation, ask for the better hotel room if they try to stick you with something sub par. Be prepared for a no, be okay with that, but always ask. I have been a vocal advocate for myself for a long time and I want that for all women. I believe in a healthy mixture of putting yourself first and being of service. Both things can be true on your own terms. I have always gone after what I wanted and I am proud of that, proud that I have walked towards things that scare me rather than away from them.
What is your feminist recommendation?
- Book:Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own
- TV show:The Great on Hulu
- Film:Portrait of a Lady on Fire and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
What is your feminist call of action to whoever is reading?
The personal is the political. What we do and choices we make on a personal level are political, they can be activism. For women, choosing our own joy is activism. Taking a trip across the world by yourself, leaving friends, spouse, children at home...this is vitally important. It is vitally important to spend time with yourself, and to develop an unconditional love relationship with yourself. I am a fan of therapy and taking trips by yourself. Do it!
Tracy's Webiste is: tracydawson.net,
You can find her in twitter AND instagram under @dawsontracy