Hidden in Plain Sight: Rewriting Women into History

Audio Description

Taking the leap towards your authentic path can be scary. But Marie Benedict—who left a lucrative legal career to become a bestselling The New York Times author—shared some words of encouragement on International Women’s Day.


This transcript has been generated by an AI tool.

00:06 - 01:00

Welcome to Women and Wealth. I'm Beata Kirr Co-Head Investment Strategies at Bernstein, and this podcast aims to educate and inspire women to make the right choices for their wealth. Hello everyone. I'm so excited to share excerpts from a fantastic that we held on International Women's Day featuring Marie Benedict. Maria is a three time New York Times best selling author of historical fiction novels that profiled fascinating women whose moving stories and contributions to history have often been buried in the past. International Women's Day is really a day to celebrate everything that women have achieved and to raise awareness against bias. So we spoke to Marie about the women she's profiled as well as her own interesting career journey. It was a terrific and really uplifting conversation. So we wanted to give our listeners a chance to hear it in person here.

01:00 - 01:28

So to start off, Marie shared her own personal transition story. Despite all of her success, she did not start out as an author. In fact, she began her career as a corporate attorney and spent ten years at two of the country's premier law firms before pursuing a career in writing. In fact, growing up, she didn't even dream of becoming a writer, although her beloved aunt did light the spark by giving her Marion Zimmer Bradley's book, The Mists of Avalon.

01:30 - 02:11

It's kind of an unlikely book to start this journey in some ways because it's fantasy. But it was a groundbreaking book for its time. It was a retelling of the Arthurian legend from the perspective of the women. So instead of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, we had one of beer and Morgan would say same facts, totally different story. When we saw the same events through the lens of the women, the story changed right before my eyes, and it completely opened up my eyes to the fact that there were women's stories out there women's voices, women's history. It really changed the way I perceived the past.

02:11 - 02:59

So when I headed off to college, I went to Boston College undergrad. I followed that passion. I became a history major. I thought I'd become an archaeologist or a historian. But if you have any history majors in your lives, they always get asked the same question What are you going to do with that? And at the time I was graduating from Boston College, there was a big movement afoot to really encourage women to go to law school and enter the legal field for the first time and in large numbers. And I kind of got swept up in that wave. History, major friends of mine, women, we were all sort of swept off to law school. And I got detoured along the way, you know, listening to those societal voices telling me that that's what I should do, that I was fortunate to have the opportunity, which I was.

02:59 - 03:47

And so I was good at law school. I was good at being a lawyer, and I ended up becoming a commercial litigator in New York City for over a decade. I think the country's really the biggest law firms, places like Skadden Arps and working in-house for Fortune 500 companies. But I knew from the beginning it wasn't really what I was meant to do. I was still fascinated with history, still fascinated with untold pieces of the past, hidden voices of women. And so I would sneak out of my incredibly long work days. I mean, you can imagine I worked 18 plus hour days most of the time, and I would take graduate classes at NYU or Columbia. I would go to the various cultural institutions in the city, really just trying to envision a different path and maybe consider returning and becoming a history professor.

03:47 - 04:28

And then one day, out of the clear blue, I had an idea for a story. It was related to the very first few cases in which families of Holocaust victims were seeking restitution of artwork that had been stolen during World War Two. No one was aware really of this sort of area at the time, and this whole story idea appeared to be fully formed. So I started writing it over a long eight year period. And then finally, after I went through all these machinations, I did get it published and I started walking down the riskier but much more authentic path of writing fiction about unknown historical women who've left us really critical legacies.

04:28 - 05:01

As our regular listeners. Now, we've spent a lot of time on the podcast talking about women in transitions, whether that means starting a new venture, unfortunately becoming a widow or staying vibrant and engaged in retirement. One of the common themes that has come out is this idea of being scared to make the leap. In Marie's case, she faced a lack of financial security, leaving a high paid job as a litigator to a more uncertain path. So we wanted to talk about how she tackled that fear. What gave her the confidence to do it and what advice she had for others considering similar transition.

05:02 - 05:43

Well, given that it took me eight years to write my first book and then get on that authentic path, it's a really good indicator of my own hesitation over making that transition, and I can certainly understand the feelings of a lot of the women who are in those situations, particularly because many of them, like myself, may have been lured off a path that felt more authentic because of the security and the financial sort of lock step world that they might enter into as a as a lawyer or in some financial role. If I had doubts about making that transition, you know, leaving behind a very lucrative, very successful career, really at the pinnacle of the law.

05:43 - 06:13

But as I began to hone in on what my calling looked like, I sort of jettisoned the idea of becoming an academic. And that notion of maybe taking my fascination and using it in a historical fiction context really took hold. I became more certain that that was the path I was meant to be on and were certain that that was the destination that I needed to be moving towards, even though I knew, of course, that writing fiction is a notoriously mercurial career. Right?

06:13 - 07:02

So I didn't plunge headlong, right? I didn't have this idea for a book or feel more certain about this very different, very sort of murky career path without preparation, planning and a safety net. That was sort of my approach as my first step. I did everything I could to ensure that I wrote the very best first novel that I could. I knew that entering into this space was going to be extremely competitive. So few books actually get published every year, let alone achieve a certain level of success. So I entered competitive writing programs at NYU for people who had finished manuscripts and were selected for that. I worked with a freelance editor for a period of time to really hone that book, make it the best that I could be.

07:03 - 07:30

And then once I completed that facet of it, I researched the business of publishing that was completely new to me for all the huge corporate clients I had, I never had a publishing client, and I really got a sense of how it worked, both from a being published standpoint and staying published, which was another goal, of course, and the necessity of having a literary agent to advocate for you and find that perfect fit of a publisher.

07:31 - 08:06

As I worked my way through these necessary business elements of establishing a writing career. My husband and I made some personal changes as well. We moved from New York City to Pittsburgh, where I'm from, where I live now, and where my husband had a really excellent career opportunity. Pittsburgh was a place where I could embark on this new career without the same sorts of financial pressures that I might feel working and living in New York City. I just couldn't see a path where we'd be able to maintain the same sort of life without me continuing to work at one of these premier law firms.

08:06 - 08:32

So there were definitely hesitations and risks, but I did my best to plan for those as I built a career, knowing that at some point in the future I could always pivot back and reenter the law, perhaps differently than I had before, bringing sort of some of the new insights that I had. But I felt very comfortable that I was creating a proper safety net as I embarked on this new stage in my life.

08:32 - 08:53

Those are some great tips. It's amazing how meticulous she was in her planning. Then we pivoted to talk about some of her books. So she's really prolific as an author, and we naturally couldn't talk about them all, but we did want to know how she narrows down her list. So we asked, How do you decide which women to profile given the long arc of history available?

08:53 - 09:34

Oh, my gosh, it's a tough one. And, you know, through this process, I've created this incredibly long list of astonishing women who really do deserve to have their stories told. I think it kind of goes back to my mission. Right. You know, unlike a lot of authors, I'm on a really specific mission. I'm like an archaeologist. Like you mentioned. I kind of excavate into the past and I dig out these important, complex women from really from the detritus where they've been lost or buried or or sometimes intentionally placed in that detritus. And I really try to bring out their stories, their histories, into the light of present day, where we can hear their moving stories.

09:34 - 10:04

Of course, appreciate the breadth of their contributions. It's really critical for me. Learn how they came to be these astonishing women and also derive lessons from the insights that they may have learned about issues that are very timely. So, you know, it's really a rubric, right? I'm looking for women who left behind an enormous legacy to which we are beholden, but about which we are likely unaware. And I'm looking for women who are. Grappling with some of the same issues that we do today.

10:05 - 10:19

As an example, Marie talked about her most recent book, Her Hidden Genius, which tells the story of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin was an overlooked leader in discovering the technology that was ultimately used to create the COVID vaccine.

10:20 - 11:03

So that book is the story of this brilliant British scientist, Rosalind Franklin, who utilized this incredibly challenging scientific technique called X-ray crystallography to discover the double helix structure of DNA. Now, during this time period, scientists only have the most rudimentary understanding of where DNA or genetics really was. But they knew that this was crucial. One of Rosalind colleagues took all this research that she did on the structure and images and shared it with two scientists who are better known, James Watson and Francis Crick. And they used it without her knowledge or permission to build a model and write a paper for which they won a Nobel Prize. But she didn't.

11:03 - 11:31

So we are beholden, actually, to Rosalind Franklin for unlocking the structure of DNA and with it unlocking the secrets of genetics. It was really the cornerstone of our understanding. And so that legacy is one that we utilize in so many ways throughout all different aspects of science and medicine. But most people don't really know the really important role that she played with each of the women I write about. They have different legacies, different impacts on different fields.

11:31 - 12:07

But there's a second quality that's really important to me, and that is that the women are struggling with modern day issues. We often think about women from the past as leading very different lives than us, but the reality is that time hasn't changed that much, and women are often dealing with similar issues. For example, Rosalind Franklin in her Hidden Genius, dealt with the issue of women scientists being marginalized, which is still, unfortunately, very much an issue today. And with each of my women that I write about, they each kind of have different topics that they're tussling with, which I really hope would resonate with readers.

12:08 - 12:16

We wondered, where do you draw the line between fiction and history and how do you make those decisions? These are real historical figures that she's bringing to life.

12:17 - 13:05

The way I kind of look at bringing to life a woman who was a real woman, who left us a really significant contribution that we're really beholden to, is to use the facts and history of her life as the architecture of her story, that the timeline of her world, the events going on in the world around her, that becomes the foundation, the pillars, the root of her story. But it's in those gaps in between the pillars in the grayer places where we don't actually know the answers. That's where the fiction comes in now. It's not willy nilly fiction that I've just pulled out of the air. It's fiction that's both kind of derived from the facts and extrapolated from my version, my character, my fictional depiction of a woman that really existed.

13:05 - 13:53

Now, to get to that point of extrapolating, I do have to spend an enormous amount of time in the research. So I'm looking for every piece of original source material I can find letters, journals, things like that. But I'm also looking for things that are happening in the world around her, much like you all do with your work. Looking at political, cultural, social things that might be happening in her world that would also impact her. So that's sort of the line between fact and fiction. There's always going to be unanswered pieces of her life, and there certainly are going to be times when I'm going to have to make a leap of logic to explain some of her decisions in her world. But that's where that legal training, that that 11 years of logic and building arguments and stories really comes in handy.

13:53 - 14:00

We pushed a little further on this point. How do you draw boundaries or where do you take liberties when you're building the narrative?

14:01 - 14:23

Yeah, it's a really fine line because my mission is to honor these women. My mission, I feel incredibly responsible to these women. You know, these were real people who led extraordinary lives and they've been forgotten. You know, when I'm in those gray areas that I mentioned before where we don't know the answers, I try always to make choices that would honor the woman and her legacy.

14:23 - 15:13

Now, that doesn't mean I'm going to portray the women as perfect without flaws because they were human and they had flaws. And sometimes it's the flaws that make us who we are, that make us extraordinary. And I do think that's the case in each and every one of these women. They each had a core flaw that really was the kernel around which their strengths grew. And so I always do want to shine the light on that and their origin stories in that way. But I think too, with these women, I think I'm always keeping in mind too, that they do have families, that they do have, you know, not in every case, not. Every not every one of these these people do have ancestors, but some do. And I want to make sure it would be something that they would feel proud of and that they would feel honored their ancestors. As one case in point.

15:14 - 16:00

Her hidden genius about Rosalind Franklin. Rosalind is probably the most modern day woman I've written about. She lived in the 1950s, certainly the most close in time that I've written about. Her family has been so incredibly welcoming of this book and this story. Her namesake niece, Rosalind Franklin, and I have actually become quite friendly and we actually are doing an event tomorrow and it's been so rewarding for me to see how much they have embraced this. The fact that their aunts who made these incredible discoveries was either forgotten or portrayed in a very two dimensional way. The fact that I brought her to life in a way that really honors her as a full person has meant the world to them. And in turn, that that has meant the world to me.

16:00 - 16:14

From there, we moved on to talk about one of Marie's other books that is appropriately called The Only Woman in the Room. Why is this appropriate? Well, because it's a phrase we've heard from a lot of women, including myself, especially on Wall Street.

16:14 - 16:39

So the only woman in the room came to my attention from an anthropologist friend who collects little nuggets of information about about women. And we were at lunch one day, and she mentioned that there was a golden age of Hollywood actress who was also sort of a secret scientist and inventor. And I added the woman to my list. I keep this long, long list of women. And I recognized her name. It was Hetty Lamarr.

16:40 - 17:15

Now, how do you Lamarr? What I knew about her was that she was this beautiful, exotic actress in the 1930s, forties and fifties, primarily. So I decided to go down the rabbit hole of research where you can see I spent a lot of my time to learn a little bit more about Hattie Lamarr. And what I learned was that Hetty was not just this bombshell actress. She was actually a brilliant woman who grew up as a Jewish girl in Austria, was not even though she was a budding scientist, she was not encouraged to pursue that field. And instead she became an actress.

17:15 - 17:45

She ended up marrying a man who was an arms dealer to the Nazis and Mussolini. In that role, she was privy to so many secrets about the rise of World War Two military and weaponry, and, of course, the plans for the Jewish people. She escaped from him under circumstances that sometimes didn't seem like they could be facts that they were fiction, but that they were factual as she reestablished herself in the United States. But she was always desirous of striking back against Hitler.

17:45 - 18:37

So using her sort of self-taught scientific skills, she was really a gifted inventor and probably would have been an engineer in modern times. She built something she called the secret communication system, which was a way to make torpedoes more effective at sea, overhearing all of those Nazi scientists. She knew that the golden ticket was wireless torpedo warfare, and she created the system that would allow that to happen. She patented it. She gave it to the Nazi as a gift to use to be used in World War Two. And they declined to use her system, despite the fact that their own torpedo systems were very inadequate at the time. And of course, you can't help but think perhaps it's because not only was she a woman, but she was a beautiful woman. And you can't be both brilliant and beautiful, at least not in the 1930s. So her story really her story was amazing.

18:37 - 19:09

But of course, I'm always looking for that legacy. I'm always looking for those modern day issues that my characters are grappling with. And when I learned that that secret communication system that Hetty Lamarr built and patented over the decades ultimately became wi fi that we're using now and use every day. And it's really the cornerstone of our of modern technology in many ways in our lives. I knew hers was a story that had to be told. Her legacy is so vast and wide. It's really it's really hard to actually put a number or get your arms around it.

19:09 - 19:20

This year, the hashtag for International Women's Day was Break the Bias. So we asked Marie to share what traits the women she profiled had that were groundbreaking at the time in this regard.

19:21 - 19:57

Oh, gosh, there's so many inspirational particulars. But if I had to boil it down, I kind of look at the women across time and across continents and across fields. They really do have a lot of the same qualities, and a lot of it boils down to the hurdles that they had to overcome. You know, historical women and to some extent it's true today as well. They really had a lot of roles that they were expected to fulfill. Wife and mother, chief among them. If they had careers, they had very sort of limited, siloed areas that were acceptable for them.

19:57 - 20:28

Each of the women that I've chosen to write about wanted to. Do and be something very different than what they had been told that they could do or be. And in order to actually achieve those goals, these women had to overcome hurdle after hurdle higher and higher over and over. So in order to actually achieve the things that each of them did, they had to have the same qualities. Obviously, they had to be extremely bright. They had to be unbelievably tenacious.

20:28 - 21:03

Right. And they had to be resilient because time and time again, they were going to be denied only to have to pick themselves up again, not only to sort of fight or go against what society, governmental entities, etc., tell them what their own families would set forth for them, whether it was parents, peers, friends, sometimes husbands or children. You know, all of these things, all of these entities and individuals were telling them that they couldn't fulfill the dreams that they had for themselves. But with that that brilliance and tenacity and resilience, that's what they were able to do.

21:03 - 21:25

And that's such great perspective. I think about the hurdles that some of these women had to overcome to achieve what people didn't think they could do. Makes it hard to complain sitting in our modern seats, given the opportunities women have today. We made a lot of progress, but we definitely have to keep on going. That prompted us to ask Marie what gives her hope about the future.

21:25 - 21:51

I definitely do have hope. I mean, there are definitely times when I'm deeply immersed in a woman's world and I'm looking at that the then and then now and there, a little too close for comfort. There are too many parallels, particularly with women scientists, that that is a tough field that is historically a very male dominated field. And we have made strides. And yet women who scientists who read my books, the scientifically focused ones, often find a lot of similarities.

21:51 - 22:49

But I do have hope, right? I mean, I do see when I look at what these the opportunities that were available to these women, whether it was in education or in career opportunities, they were very, very slim. And those opportunities are much more fruitful now, I would definitely say. And there's one other thing that I think that really does give me a lot of hope, and that is that we have other women to turn to. There are other women doing what we might want to do, other women who might be able to encourage us and mentor us as we pursue a path that may not be the one that we thought we were going to start out with or the one that somebody society told us that we should or shouldn't have. And a lot of the women that I write about didn't have those examples, didn't have those role models. And that mentoring, that ability to see someone who looks like you doing a job that you didn't think you could do is hugely important. And I think in that area in particular is where we're seeing enormous strides.

22:49 - 23:35

For me personally, what I see, which again is very different than it was for these women, is the encouragement towards a path of authenticity. You know, I think we moved from a time period in which women were encouraged to very narrow roles. And then we moved into a time period when there were certain roles that were acceptable. And I think we're finally at a place where there's encouragement for whatever feels authentic and appropriate for us as individuals. And that is something new, and that is something that wasn't available for these women. But I'm very heartened. It's certainly something I would have benefited from. You know, when I was a lawyer, I might have gotten to leave behind those ten years as a commercial litigator. But it's certainly something that each of my women who are carving out, carving out and forging new paths really would have benefited from as well.

23:36 - 24:01

Despite making it sound easy, it took Marie eight years to transition to her authentic path and have the safety net in place to back her up. But what about people who don't feel like they're in the right place but are also doubting their next move? Maybe they have family members that don't support that transition because it doesn't fit their more traditional role or view of success. Maria offered some great words of wisdom on that front as well.

24:01 - 24:48

It's a tough place to be. I've been there myself. Certainly there were lots of people in my life who couldn't believe I was going to leave behind my very lucrative legal career to try to become a fiction writer. Right. That wasn't a highly applauded choice, but I would say two things. First, I think we know when we're not in the right place. I think we know intuitively when the career or the particular job situation or even a personal situation does not feel right to us. And I think we need to listen to that voice. But more importantly, I think a lot of people, men and women, when they reach that point like myself, don't know what direction to turn, don't know what it is they're being pulled towards. They know that they're being pulled away from where they are, but they don't necessarily know where they're being pulled towards.

24:48 - 25:43

And the advice that I would give anyone is the advice I would have given my younger self. It's the advice I do give when I talk to schools, which is a lot, which is to ask yourself. What you loved when you were a young teenager and a young person when you were in middle school. That sounds arbitrary, but it's actually not. It's a time period in our lives when we're old enough to have developed interests and passions, but not quite old enough for society to tell us who we should be. And if you look back to who you were at that moment in time, what interests you, what skills you had that you loved, that you loved utilising, what sorts of people you liked to be around, who you were before society came in and started to share a version of yourself with you. When we return to that moment in time, it's often a really good starting place to find out where we want to go.

25:44 - 26:00

What a great note to end on. That's all we have time for today. But if you've enjoyed this episode, I'd encourage you to view the entire replay on our Women and Wealth Institute microsite at WW dot Bernstein dot com. We'll include a link in the podcast description. See you soon.

26:02 - 26:16

If you enjoyed the podcast and haven't subscribed to our show, please go to Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you listen to subscribe and write us. You can also find us on Twitter at Bernstein or find me Beata Kirr on LinkedIn.

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