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Sara Paretsky: Neither Vamp nor Victim

Sara Paretsky

Sara Paretsky

Sara Paretsky on the feminist awakening that led to her V.I. Warshaswski

I was ten when I read my first work of history: Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. True, it’s a romantic and sentimental version of the saint, but Twain did read all the original source material. His passion for Joan spoke to my own young experience and yearnings. Personal Recollections didn’t make me want to be a historian, but it did make me long for a vision as great as hers and the passion to see it through to the end, even— or especially—if the end were a pile of faggots in the old market of Rouen. Almost everything I’ve ever written has been part of this thirst for a vision, what the physicist Frank Wilczek calls “a longing for the harmonies.”1 It’s the feeling you get from looking at the night sky, if you’re lucky enough to see the stars hang down like living jewels, when you long to reach up and become part of that infinite jeweled space. The intensity of the feeling is part of adolescence, but the yearning has never completely left me, even in later age.

V.I. Warshawski, the detective I created in 1982 and who appears in seventeen of my novels, is a woman of action, but hers is an ardent spirit. Her passion for trying to right wrongs comes from a deeper thirst for creating a just world, a world of harmonies. In the novels, people mock her as “Doña Quixote,” or as Joan of Arc, but I don’t write about her mockingly.

51l4l5h605L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_She is the mirror of my own desires. My novels also reflect another aspect of my life: the struggle to find a voice of my own, and to help other women gain the power to speak and to take up public space. How the dissertation I wrote in the 1970s fits into the larger body of my postgraduate writing is a question that I’ve had to think hard about. I came to the liberal theologians at the Andover Theological Seminary (today the site of Phillips Andover Academy) for a number of reasons. In part, I was drawn to religious thinkers because the saints and ascetics of Christian history seemed to have the same longings that I did. As an undergraduate, I used to study in the underground stacks in my university’s library. In that cave- like, quasi- monastic atmosphere, I read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, the biographies of early Reformers like Thomas Cranmer, and the sermons of John Donne.

Still, why did I write a dissertation about men struggling with intellectual  challenges to their religious beliefs? Why not take on Teresa of Avila, for instance, or, in the secular world, someone like Elizabeth Barrett Browning?


I grew up in eastern Kansas in a family that valued the written word above almost any other good. We also were hearty eaters, so very often we read and ate at the same time.
I also grew up in a family that did not think the accomplishments or dreams of girls and women were worth attending to. I had four brothers whose education was important, but the expectations for me were limited to an old- fashioned model of circumscribed domesticity. I was expected to stay home to care for the house, the parents, the small brothers, and, despite winning a number of important scholarships, was essentially commanded to attend the University of Kansas.
I decided if I had to stay in Kansas for the academic year, I’d spend my summers elsewhere. I was as tired as Charlotte Brontë of a life “confined to making puddings and knitting stockings.”

51sbF+vy22L-horzThe summer of 1966, I came to Chicago to work for the Presbytery of Chicago as a volunteer in the Civil Rights Movement. That was the summer that Martin Luther King, Jr., and his family moved into a tenement on the South Side while they tried to pry the city of Chicago out of its entrenched racist housing, employment, and other policies (these included barring blacks from most of the city’s public beaches).
With two other college students, I was assigned to a mostly Polish and Lithuanian neighborhood only a few blocks from where Dr. King was living. We found ourselves with a front- row seat to some of the most violent confrontations of the Civil Rights Movement.
We were working with kids aged seven to eleven, and we took them all over the city by the train, to the museums, the beaches, the ballparks.
After hours, we were sent to meetings of the local white citizens council, the local alderman’s constituency meetings, Black Power meetings, and to schools and stock exchanges and slaughter yards.
Although it was a summer of violence, it was also a time of hope: the possibility of change seemed real and exciting. Our work that summer and our engagement with the city gave me a deep attachment to Chicago. When I finished my undergraduate degree in January 1968, I came back; Chicago has been my home now for almost fifty years.

Because of my experience of Chicago during the race riots of 1966, I wanted to earn a PhD in US history. I wanted to try to understand the background of the violent divisions in the country. I had applied to a number of universities, but in 1968 I had taken a job as a secretary in the Social Science Division at the University of Chicago. Thanks to Emma “Bickie”
Pitcher, with whom I worked, I received a Ford Foundation Fellowship and started graduate work at Chicago in the fall of 1968.

kansIn Kansas, as an undergraduate, I was becoming a feminist. I started school a few months after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. Our dean of women, Emily Taylor, was a strong feminist who made the best use of Title VII legislation to promote the position of women in Kansas. Later, as the director of the Office of Higher Education in the Department of Education, Dr. Taylor mentored women administrators, grooming them to become university presidents. Under Dr. Taylor, I chaired the first University of Kansas Commission on the Status of Women. Our research was cited by the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance as they established guidelines for universities.

When I began graduate school, it was without the support of the people and institutions that had helped me begin to find a voice. My choice of dissertation topic was inevitably guided by the faculty, and the faculty’s interests were largely intellectual and extremely misogynist: women played almost no role, either in their own scholarly work or in their vision of the history profession.
In a meeting of entering students, we were told that women could memorize and parrot things back, but that we were not capable of original work.
Fallout_Sara-Paretsky_coverLike the other women in the room, I sat meekly, not reacting. (The following spring, I wrote a play that my fellow students acted out for the faculty, satirizing their confused reaction to women students, so I can’t have been totally passive. As a result of that drama, the history graduate students elected me as their president, figuring I was reckless enough to speak up for all the students, men as well as women. Some years later, a member of the European field committee told me I frightened the faculty, but unfortunately their fear made them dig their heels in rather than change their attitude toward women.)

The misogyny was relentless. We women students formed a caucus that tried to persuade the faculty to consider women scholars for assistant professor openings. The department chairman told us the history department would not “dilute its standards” by adding women to the faculty. The search committees refused to read books or articles by potential women candidates, to attend lectures these women gave at meetings of the American Historical Association, or even to look at the vitae we Chicago students prepared.
Some of the junior faculty applauded the efforts of our graduate student women’s caucus, but, without tenure, there was little they could do beyond offer moral support.

Women’s history was in its infancy in the late sixties and early seventies; no one on the faculty wanted to supervise a dissertation in that area. When Hilda Smith boldly wrote about seventeenth- century English feminists, one department member actually went to her dissertation defense in order to harangue her committee into failing her. Her friends sat on the floor outside, waiting for the verdict. When she passed, we could hardly believe it.

At the end of my first year, the dozen or so other women who had started the American Field Committee program with me dropped out. I persevered not because I was better or more dedicated, but because I didn’t have a default plan for my life—I wanted to be a scholar and a university teacher.


51QEoozSKJL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The path from a personal passion or interest to a finished dissertation is seldom direct, and in the case of this work, it was even less so. Calvin and his followers continued to interest me, and I spent part of my coursework on the Calvinists who settled New England in the early seventeenth century. I was also reading about the abolitionist movement. I wrote my master’s thesis on the radical abolitionists, many of whom had connections to Andover Theological Seminary.

At the same time, I was studying Victorian science. I began to see that Darwin, who I had assumed upended millennia of Bible-centered interpretations of nature, was actually a link in a longer chain of research. New scholarship in geology and philology, centered chiefly in Edinburgh and in German universities, had started raising difficult questions for Christian scholars as early as the eighteenth century.
As a person who was both a social activist and a contemplative thinker, I was drawn to the struggle Calvinist scholars faced in trying to reconcile their internal conflict between faith and science.

In 1970, I submitted a dissertation proposal. I wanted to tie together the intellectual work taking place at Andover and the Calvinist scholars’ influence on social justice movements, including abolition and suffrage, and at the same time, look at the way American intellectuals were affected by the new learning in Europe.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that my proposal was for a project that a mature scholar would have covered in six or seven books. However, my committee chair, George Stocking, accepted it without commenting on it or questioning me very deeply.
Stocking told me he didn’t want to see work in progress, only a finished dissertation. I went away and happily began reading and writing, and after a year, I turned in a draft. Stocking then explained to me that my proposal was unworkable and that the draft barely dented the surface of the topic.

When I asked why he had accepted the proposal, he said he never expected me to do any work on it. I asked for more direction, but Stocking said I needed to figure out how to make the topic manageable on my own. I asked the department for a new committee but they were adamant against making a change.
I repeated the process two more times. Each time, Stocking refused to look at work in progress and then rejected the finished draft. My fellowship had ended. I began working part- time in publicity and marketing.

Finally, with help from my third reader, Don Scott—who had been denied tenure and had moved to the East Coast—I was able to shape the topic into a manageable piece of work. Neil Harris kindly read portions of the work. His critique of my writing improved not only the finished dissertation, but all my subsequent writing.
I completed the final draft in 1976. Stocking took eighteen months to read and approve it, and I was finally able to submit it to the department for a degree in 1977.


It was while I was working on this last draft that I stumbled on some exciting family papers. These belonged to the Park family in Nashville, Tennessee, descendants of one of the founders of Andover, Edwards Amasa Park. When the Park family moved from New England to Tennessee, they brought with them four trunks of letters and journals belonging not just to Park but to other faculty members.
I read letters between faculty wives; the Andover faculty would often travel to Germany and Edinburgh for study and the women corresponded across the Atlantic. I learned that many of the wives were significant scholars in their own right, and that translations of Hebrew or Greek documents I had read were actually created by Andover women, but published under their husbands’ names. One woman, daughter of the first Andover professor of theology, was a novelist. The women also wrote in touchingly matterof- fact language about disease and death in their midst: “A mild winter in Boston,” one wrote. “Only three children have died.”
One of the key figures in this dissertation, Edward Hitchcock—who taught geology at Amherst and lectured at Andover—was committed to women’s education. His most notable student was Emily Dickinson. Although Amherst didn’t allow women in the classroom, Hitchcock made it possible for Dickinson to study geology with him privately.

By the time I saw the Park family papers, I didn’t have the energy to undertake a new study of the world of the Andover Calvinists. I hope that  other scholars will study the archive and show the wide role that women played in the intellectual ferment of the nineteenth century.
413YmxnSnoLWhile I was completing my dissertation, I was also looking for jobs. The department provided no help in the job search. I arranged only one interview on my own, which didn’t pan out. After graduation, I worked in the corporate world for ten years.
My reading- eating family all had a passion for crime fiction, which I shared. While I was selling computers to insurance agents, I kept reading crime fiction. I grew weary of the depiction of women in most English language mysteries as either vamps or victims, and I began to dream of a detective who would reflect the experience of my generation: women doing jobs that only recently had opened for us. Women who could have a sex life without it defining them as wicked. Women who could solve their own problems. Five years after I got my PhD, I published my first detective novel, Indemnity Only.

V. I. Warshawski brings together the many different strands of my life— the struggle for justice, the struggle for a voice, the struggle to have my work and other women’s work treated with respect. At the same time, the process of thinking and writing about her allows me to go into what Melville called “the silent grass- growing” space where creativity thrives. In that space, he added, you can “spread and expand yourself, and bring to yourself the tinglings of life that are felt . . . in the planets . . . and the Fixed Stars.”

Despite the difficulties I experienced as a graduate student, I am proud of my University of Chicago PhD, and I am proud of this piece of work. I had many experiences at the university which were deeply meaningful. I also acquired skills which still stand me in good stead.

Paretsky new book 9780226337746The university’s librarians, first at the Divinity School and later, when it opened, at Regenstein, were an engaged, knowledgeable resource for all history students. It was they who guided me to the collections and figures that were central to my research.
I had the privilege of studying with John Hope Franklin, Daniel Boorstin, and Neil Harris, all significant scholars, creative thinkers, and fine writers. As president of the history graduate students, I represented students from the Social Science Division in seminars with President Edward Levi, who was meeting with students and faculty to discuss the future of the university. Levi, who went on to serve as Gerald Ford’s attorney general, was a deep and provocative thinker; it was exciting to sit in those seminars.
My years of research and reading gave me the skills to understand the context and shape of historical events. I have a better understanding of contemporary American problems—religious, social, and political—because of my studies.

Finally, through my time in graduate school, I became wedded to the need for thorough and unbiased research. It’s considered a hallmark of my fiction, and whenever my books are praised for it, I credit the University of Chicago for teaching me to value it.

This is from the foreword of  Words, Works, and Ways of Knowing, by Sara Paretsky, courtesy University of Chicago Press.

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