Lauren Silberman’s book Wild Women of Maryland, which showcases fearless females who bucked the status quo, arrived just in time for Women’s History Month. Silberman, who in addition to being an author is deputy director for Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater, talked about the inspiration for the book and a few of her daunting dames.
What made you decide to write the book?
I have written a couple of other books, among them Wicked Baltimore: Charm City Sin and Scandal, and it was a really enjoyable experience. I really got a kick out of digging into those lesser-known stories and tales, and we have so many in this state. But it took some time to try and figure out what I wanted to do next . . . I was at Kensington’s book festival that’s in April each year and I met [another author] who had done a book called Wild Women of Washington, D.C. and I stopped in my tracks . . . I said [to the author], ‘Are you planning on doing one on Maryland? I can think of just off the top of my head some amazing, cool stories of women, and I’m sure there are so many I don’t even know exist yet’ . . . That very afternoon, I contacted my editor, and said ‘We have to do one. And it can’t just be a Baltimore book, there’s so many more women in this state.”
How did you pick whom to include?
I really was struck by the idea that it had to be someone who was not just trailblazing, and she certainly didn’t have to be someone whom we would revere today. The most important thing was that she had to be willing to go against societal expectations, and she had to have a really good story. There are some really fantastic women in our state’s history who are so many other superlatives, and there have been books about them . . . But to be a wild woman of Maryland, you had to be a bit of a daredevil. You had to have this quality that you were willing to risk something important. You couldn’t just be the first person to have done a new surgical procedure, for example, which is still notable, courageous, and important. But it’s not necessarily wild.
You broke down the characters, by categories—“So-Called Witches,” for example, and “Postmasters and Pencil Pushers.” How did you decide to take that approach?
I wasn’t sure who all would make it into the book. Wicked Baltimore had been chronological, and it didn’t take long to learn that chronological wasn’t going to work here. As I started to find women . . . themes began to emerge—women who were doing crazy things for their work, or being a part of war time, which brings out some of the most dangerous and daring stories. As I started to figure out who would be in the book, and make connections between the women, that’s when the categories really started to emerge. The hardest one was the very last chapter [Defying Expectation: Ladies Beyond Categorization]. These are women who aren’t bad women, or evil women, but they’re not exactly women we look up to as traditional role models, perhaps, like Wallis Simpson.
One of the women in that category was Divine. Was she someone you knew you wanted to include from the beginning?
I debated. The thought had occurred to me from the beginning. In the story, I mention the sculpture of Divine at the American Visionary Art Museum, which was my entry in learning about Divine. My very first trip to Baltimore 15 years ago was to AVAM, and there she stood. You couldn’t escape her, and she was amazing and fantastic. Ever since then, I was quite entranced. But I went back and forth, because she is a character because actor didn’t personally identify as a woman, though he was exploring sexuality and gender identity through the role.
You mentioned that you had some ideas of who would be included in the book. But what was your research process like for finding other women?
I am very fortunate that I have spent my entire career in museums because it’s given me a lot of great people to talk to. And we have a number of fantastic libraries in this state—the Maryland Room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, they also have a great African-American history room there, the Maryland Historical Society. They also have librarians that specialize in these areas, so they are wonderful resources. Even occasionally I’d just Google some words, like ‘I wonder if there were any Maryland women who were involved with World War I?’ Once you start reading about some of them, there are breadcrumb trails you can follow.
It also seemed like you had a good range of stories. While some showcase significant trials and tribulations, others are about adventure, like Edith “Jackie” Ronne, who explored the Arctic in the 1940s.
I had some pretty strict criteria, like I wanted to make sure I had women from across the state and that I had women from a variety of time periods, so it wasn’t too heavy on any particular era. I wanted diversity, so it wasn’t just a story of one particular privilege. I would have liked to have some more, and I think if I would have focused more on the modern period I would have had more diversity.
It seems like this book is showcasing characters that aren’t always included in the history books, but perhaps should be.
Growing up in Tennessee, we spent a year on state history. And looking back, all the people I remember hearing about were male. I don’t remember hearing any female stories. One of the reasons I did want to do this book was to bring women’s stories to light, especially a lot of lesser-known women. Finding out about women like Virginia Hall, the fact that she became a spy during World War II is in itself cool enough, but the fact that she did it as a woman, and with only one leg is extraordinary, and you would never believe it unless you can see that it’s true. There’s so many stories like that I really wanted to make sure got told. The only one of these woman I would have known of growing up would have been Harriet Tubman. But I didn’t know the rest of her story. The fact that she rescued so many people would have been enough, but then, during the Civil War, she served as a spy, she served as a nurse, she launches a military campaign. Her story becomes more and more extraordinary as you come along and we don’t necessarily know about the rest of it.
Did you find any one particular story that surprised you, that had one of the most amazing stories you’d ever heard?
I’d have to go back to Virginia Hall again . . . but also Sarah Wilson, who was one of the colonial women who came here as a servant, and then ran away and pretended to be the sister of a queen and got away with it for a while. It’s so remarkable, and it makes you think about that as people, we often hear what we want to hear some times, and that someone could get away with that.