book cover of Working It Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk About Their Lives and Work
Working It Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk About Their Lives and Work. Image from Amazon.com

Last week, I came across a really interesting book, Working It Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk About Their Lives and Work (edited by Sara Ruddick and Pamela Daniels). It was published in 1977, some 37 years ago. The edition that we have at George Mason University Libraries was a gift, and on the inside, someone had written “Dear Claudia, I loved this book and thought you would too. Happy 40th Birthday! Love, Carol.” These kinds of inscriptions in gift books always feel a little weird to me, like I’m intruding on something that’s too private, but in a way, it seems oddly fitting for this particular book.

Working It Out is a collection of 23 essays by women scientists, scholars, artists, and writers; most of whom were in their 40s at the time. Most of these essays are memoirs, discussing problems or issues that the authors had with their own career endeavors and “women’s work” in general. The personal nature of these essays is emphasized by the fact that each includes a photograph of its author, as well as their signature at the end. Many of the authors started their careers in the 1950s and 1960s and, in some ways, their experiences seem very foreign to me. For instance, Evelyn Fox Keller writes about her Harvard professors telling her that she couldn’t do theoretical physics because she was a woman (one of her professors even decided that she didn’t know how to dress properly and assigned one of his male students to show her how). In turn, Sara Ruddick and Marilyn Young both write about their respective experiences as “faculty wives” at Dartmouth College, which only admitted male students at the time. In reading their accounts, I’m heartened by how much has changed in the decades since.

At the same time, many of the issues that the writers discuss are still quite relevant. For instance, there is the problem of finishing one’s dissertation. Sara Ruddick describes feeling “paralyzed” and writes that she “was unable to read or talk about anything relating to my thesis, let alone to write about it” (Working, 129). Virginia Valian described a process that she developed to combat her own “work problem” – by breaking her dissertation down into short periods of timed work, she was able to get past her fears and anxieties long enough to finish it (I actually found out about Working It Out via a reference to Valian’s essay in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece (Joli Jensen’s “From Predator to Pet: Three Techniques for Taming Your Writing Project“)). There are still relatively few women in science (theoretical physics or otherwise), and balancing family, work responsibilities, and our own expectations continues to be a challenge for many women.

Perhaps one indication of the power of this book is that I found myself Googling many of the authors to see how they were currently doing. Many of them went on to do some really interesting things in their careers, including becoming bestselling fiction authors (Alice Walker), winning MacArthur Fellowships (Evelyn Fox Keller), and having scholarships named after them (Pamela Daniels). The book itself appears to have been well received — over 1,000 OCLC libraries have it in their collections and it was reviewed in several venues, including the New York Times, Ms. Magazine, Newsweek, and CHOICE.

I would recommend acquiring it if your library doesn’t already have it (and if it does, Working It Out is well worth a browse). Unfortunately, it is not available as an e-book, but is available used on Amazon and other used-book retailers.

Working It Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk About Their Lives and Work. Edited by Sara Ruddick and Pamela Daniels, with a forward by Adrienne Rich. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977. ISBN: 0394735579 (paperback; a hardback edition was also published).