I was unlucky when I started researching many of the people I wrote about in The Girls Who Stepped Out of Line. It was February 1st, 2020 and the world was on the verge of a massive change.
Just days after signing the contract to write the book for my amazing publisher, Sourcebooks, society began to close down. COVID had taken over. Offices were shuttered. Movie theaters emptied. Schools went from in-person learning to virtual. No one was prepared. The virus threatened and people were dying by the thousands. Hospitals were filled. Businesses began to fail. Teachers struggled; kids felt lost. Administrators didn’t have the resources to keep up. Restaurants laid off workers.
Museums, libraries, university archives, in fact, The National Archives, The Holocaust Museum, and more – all set their answering machines to ‘out of office’ and sent employees home. They closed, then locked the doors.
I had counted on being able to call or write the Texas Woman’s University to inquire about their WASP holdings, to learn more about the training Millie Rexroat would have gone through. I wanted to see Alice Marble’s trophies at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, visit the Military Women’s Memorial to see the registrations for many of the women I was planning to write about, to watch the video of Stephanie Czech Rader’s oral interview.
It wasn’t possible.
I was lucky when I started researching many of the people I wrote about in The Girls Who Stepped Out of Line. I needed access to information, and the simplest way to find it was to go directly to the source.
I started writing to those family members I could track down, and in two cases, spoke directly to the women themselves. I found that some offices did respond to me, and that some research assistants and librarians wanted to help, but they couldn’t access their own files. I did return to them later, much later.
But I had to keep searching.
Friends sent me references they had, articles, leads, and even introductions to potential sources. I was scrambling for just bits of information as the deadlines closed in. I had two full months to complete the first draft of the manuscript, and I needed more time.
Slowly, I began to realize that many of the women I was writing about had written autobiographies, some immediately following World War II, others somewhat later. There were additional books too—about women in the OSS, nurses, resistance fighters, and codebreakers.
I started hunting books online—on Amazon, Etsy, eBay, and more.
It was a blessing in disguise. I found Charity Adams Early’s autobiography (One Woman’s Army) and learned first-hand from her what she experienced during her wartime service in the Women’s Army Corps. Then I found autobiographies for Diet Eman (Things We Couldn’t Say), Betty McIntosh (Undercover Girl), and Mary Taylor Previte (Hungry Ghosts).
I bought them all, some still with library cards inside, after having been discarded or auctioned off by high schools or universities with too many books and not enough space.
Alice Marble wrote about her journey to tennis greatness (The Road to Wimbledon), Ruth Gruber detailed her adventures in journalism across the globe (Haven and Witness); her books were packed with photos of her amazing journeys. Ida Cook’s story about how she and her sister rescued twenty-six families from the Nazis was detailed in her book, Safe Passage. The copy I picked up had once belonged to the Public Library in Davenport, Iowa.
I found many other sources too, books not just about the women I was researching, but their contemporaries, and sometimes even their legacies and influences. But it was through hearing them speak to me first-hand via their own words that truly set the tone for me in discovering their hopes, their dreams, their plans, and how they saw the world. They led the way in helping me tell their stories.
This time, I’m writing about a very different set of women, those intrepid souls who joined the New York Police Department (N.Y.P.D.) in the early 20th century.
I’ve started with the story of Mary (Mae) Foley, who served with the Police Auxiliary during WWI. She later became a sworn officer, and she and her contemporaries were a part of many of the major events of the twentieth century in New York.
I’ve been unlucky when conducting this research. The New York City Police Museum closed during COVID and has not reopened. The N.Y.P.D. does not have a historian. All of the Department’s files before 1930 were destroyed.
I’ve found bits and pieces of information through the services of the New York Public Library and the Municipal Library too. But in-person sources and access to archives and photographs have again eluded me. I’m still looking for entry and advice within the N.Y.P.D. And I’m still not getting past the closed door. But I’m still knocking.
Again, it’s not enough. But this time, I found myself driven to the news of the day, through the auspices of New York’s myriad of newspapers.
By the mid-1800s, 54 of 373 newspapers published in the U.S. were in New York. From the 1920s through the end of WWII, where much of my research took place, I found hundreds of daily papers to search through, published morning, noon, and evening.
After all, it’s often said that the newspaper is ‘the first rough draft of history.’
I’ve found some stories that are surprising in their tone—political, sometimes highly opinionated, and sometimes just plain wrong. I’ve also found early news ‘cartoons,’ or maybe it would be more accurate to call them memes. These are interesting for their slant, if not amusing due to their exaggeration.
But I’ve been lucky as I started to search out relevant books.
Thus far, I’ve found only one autobiography, My Double Life, by Mary Sullivan, a policewoman who published her story in 1938 when she led the Policewomen’s Bureau.
Mary Sullivan joined the N.Y.P.D. in 1911. I’ve found names of many other women who served in those early days as matrons and later as policewomen, but there is little written about them.
Many of the books I’ve found on the history of policing either do not mention women officers at all or mention just a few and then just in passing.
I want to know more about these policewomen. Many came to the force from a background in social work and sought to protect the innocent and the vulnerable.
I’m still searching out their stories in every way I can.
The Girls Who Stepped Out of Line was published in August 2021. As restrictions due to the pandemic began to ease, I was able to find new sources and references, learning more about many of the women I’d written about. I’m certain this will happen again.
I hope to hear from many people who will tell me, “My mother, aunt, or grandmother made a difference. She was a police officer…”
I can’t wait to meet them.
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