THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
David M. Hamlin
“I am very intrigued by the generations behind me who continue to push the envelope.”
Interviewed by Sydney Weisman, July & November, 2021
SW: This is author David M. Hamlin, author of the Emily Winters mystery series. David, tell us a little bit about your background, where you were born, and where you were educated.
DH: I was born and raised in suburban Washington, DC. I went to Montgomery County Public Schools from kindergarten through high school. I attended the University of Maryland for a couple of years. I left college to join VISTA, the Domestic Peace Corps, and after that I finally finished my college in southern Maine at Nasson College. I had a job there for one year and then for the next decade or so, I was the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New Hampshire and then in Illinois.
I then moved with my wife to Los Angeles, where we opened a public relations firm that specialized in social action and advocacy public relations for 30 odd years until I retired and we moved to Palm Springs, where I began to pursue my fictional writing career.
SW: In your involvement with the women’s movement, do you feel you’ve always been something of a unique guy?
DH: Less so as the years go by, because I think more and more society in general and then in particular, are seeing the wisdom of equality, and gender equality. Certainly, in the early ’70s, I was unique amongst my male friends for things like helping to do the dishes or doing the laundry or being involved in women’s issues. Lots of the men I knew were still very much in the Ward and June Cleaver frame of mind. And I do think that some of the legislators, certainly in New Hampshire, were surprised when they were holding hearings on various abortion bills, and a man walked in to say, “You’re doing this all wrong”.
So yes, I was a bit out of step, but there were also lots of men who had come to feminism long before I had who were speaking out and sharing their thoughts about gender equality. While I was unique in some ways, I wouldn’t characterize myself as a pioneer.
SW: What issues were of greatest concern to you?
DH: Right at the top of the list was the privacy rights embodied in the Roe vs Wade decision. It was paramount in ACLU’s work at the time, and I was very active in both New Hampshire and then later in Illinois in protecting the right to choose. Also, in that same period of time, the federal law, now known as Title IX, came into play, which demanded equality in educational athletic programs. So there was this explosion of change, particularly in the college and high school communities in which women and girls were suddenly thrust into athletic equality.
And schools had a lot of problems making that adjustment and frequently made decisions which were not terribly sound. I was very active with that. And beyond that, I think there was just this personal sense in society that we had to make it clear that what women were seeking was right and fair and just, even in areas as silly as who’s going to do the dishes and who’s going to do the laundry.
SW: Do you have any memorable experiences you’d like to share?
DH: I do know that there was a stretch of time, particularly in the immediate aftermath of Roe vs Wade, when the New Hampshire legislature put forth a whole series of bills which were designed to somehow curb or curtail the impact of that decision. And I was very active in opposing that legislation and going to committee hearings. And there came a time when the clerk of one of those committees would see me walk in the room and put me down on the speakers’ list before I had a chance to say I’m here for that.
But it was a kind of day-to-day grind doing all that work. I was happy with and proud of the work I was doing. And I do remember in the very last years of the fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, I ended up in Springfield, Illinois. Illinois was one of the last critical states to try and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and I arrived to find that the entire state house in Springfield was surrounded by double parked school buses. Every one of them was filled with church ladies who had been organized by Phyllis Schlafly, and they piled out of their buses with pies and cakes, which they were delivering to members of the Legislature. And my first thought was to kind of giggle about that. But my second thought was, we’re not going to win this fight, and we didn’t.
SW: Didn’t you have an interesting debate with Phyllis Schlafly at one point?
DH: There were times when Ms. Schlafly and I would clash over primarily the Equal Rights Amendment, and we did have a conversation once about the fact that she was terrified that if the Equal Rights Amendment passed, men and women would be using the same restrooms. I asked her if she’d ever been on an airplane.
SW: What were some of your major accomplishments?
DH: In both New Hampshire and Illinois, with help from a lot of other folks, we managed to beat back all of the restrictive legislation in the wake of Roe vs Wade. And particularly in the contemporary times, that effort laid the groundwork for the political framework which now exists to continue to support women’s right to choose and women’s right to privacy. While the fight continues, I do think that the movement is stronger and better equipped for the battles yet to come.
I also took considerable pride when I got to Illinois in making sure that the staff at the Illinois Office of the Civil Liberties, the American Civil Liberties Union was predominantly female. By the time I got done hiring folks there, we had three lawyers, four lawyers on staff and half of them were women.
All of the people who worked on our intake process were women. The staff was probably about 60% to 65% female by the time I got done, and I hope that trend continued after I left, but I thought it was a good and illustrative example of how staffing could and should be done.
SW: How are you currently supporting women’s equality?
DH: My spouse and I are certainly active in continuing the fight to support the Roe vs Wade decision. But my primary focus over the past several years has been to create fictional characters, in particular, a female reporter who solves mysteries, but who is also an ardent and subtle feminist. She is not a climb into the boss’s face or sitting in the office kind of gal, but she does maintain her dignity and continue to press strongly for equality in the workplace and equal pay and all the things that come with women entering and holding on to positions in the professions. I hope that contributes to people’s understanding of A) what sexism is like and B) how it can be overcome.
SW: What are some of the prominent themes in the Emily Winter series?
DH: There are two themes in all three of the Emily Winter mysteries. First, Emily, who is a reporter, is always investigating cases, typically murders, but cases which fundamentally involve basic civil liberties issues, Bill of Rights issues, like abuse of prosecution, police infiltration of political organizations, and women’s right to choose. And secondly, Emily is a professional breaking into a profession where typically women were not welcome. And she has a large collection of friends who are in exactly the same circumstances.
In the early to mid-1970’s, there were women cracking glass ceilings left and right, and running into all sorts of sexism as they tried to crack through the professions which had been predominantly male until that time. And Emily is one of those. So, in addition to working in civil liberties and civil rights issues, she’s also constantly confronting the battle for equality in the workplace.
SW: Why did you create Emily?
DH: I wanted to accomplish a couple of things. First, the notion of a reporter in this case, an electronic reporter who can move to critical issues of the day as a natural extension of the work she does. That opened the door to someone who could investigate virtually anything she wanted to or more properly, anything I wanted her to investigate. So that was a critical part of it. And through the ’70s myself, I was good friends with and party to the trials and tribulations of women who were breaking into all the professions in Chicago where Emily works, and I both greatly admired those women and was proud to be able to work with them.
And I wanted to celebrate that phase of the feminist movement in which women began to find their stride in professions, from medicine to education to the law and in particular in Emily’s case, to broadcast journalism.
SW: I believe you are that rare male author who writes from a purely feminist perspective. Where did your first recognition of feminism emerge? How do you think it became something of a passion of yours?
DH: First, being of a certain age, I am a child of the civil rights movement, the notion of equality and equity in American society was part of my political life from the time I was literally old enough to drive a car. The day after I got my license, I joined a civil rights demonstration in downtown Washington, DC. And then my work with ACLU put me in a position to be intimately involved in issues of equality and justice, and in particular, in that era, the courts were flooded with women’s equality issues, including Roe vs Wade, among others.
But there were a bunch of workplace rights lawsuits, many of them brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. It was part and parcel of my daily brief to stay on top of that. And it just seemed to me a natural extension of the work I’ve done in civil liberties and civil rights to both indulge in, encourage and celebrate the movement for women’s rights when the opportunity presented itself.
And also, in the wake of the Me Too movement, I thought it particularly important that younger women coming into the struggle for true and extended expanded equality should have some sense of the history that put them several strides ahead of where they might have otherwise been. I wanted to focus very specifically on that era in the ’70s, when women were both encountering and overcoming obstacles in the professional world.
SW: The underlying issues are very clear in the Emily Winters novels, but you also have some fun with her.
DH: There was a critical faction of the women’s rights movements in the ’70s, which was quite strident. I think all civil rights and civil liberties movements have always had a wing of the party, if you will, who were out on the fringes and who were angrier than the mainstream, more combative than the mainstream. And while I admire their work as much as those who are not quite so combative, I wanted Emily to be a somewhat less aggressive but extremely smart advocate for women’s rights.
There are occasions when Emily will outdo the men she is confronting with a smile and a smart move rather than with a confrontational attitude. There are times when she lets her work speak for itself, and it often does. What I was really after was a feminist that even men could root for and a feminist that people would eventually come to quite like and hopefully admire.
SW: What are the challenges you faced in this creation that have helped inform your writing?
DH: I’m not sure I would call them challenges. I love creating vibrant characters and sometimes being able to meld those characters into the basic plot line can be problematic. But as a general rule, I not only knew all those women in the ’70s and beyond who were feminists through and through, but I also greatly enjoyed their company, and I spent a lot of time befriending and listening to them.
A lot of what Emily embodies is what I heard from those women, not just about their struggles and their fights, but also about the joy and the satisfaction of being able to break through barriers, the enormous grace with which they typically confronted men who stood in their way and the strength with which they confronted men who were, frankly, either too stupid or too sexist to understand what it was they were trying to accomplish.
SW: I do know that one of the lines you’ve used throughout your adulthood about men is: there are an awful lot of men out there giving men a bad name.
DH: That’s true. I could point to half a dozen men currently holding national public office whose respect for women on a scale of one to ten, is about a minus three. I find that a lot of the men who argue against a woman’s right to choose are sexist to their core and disrespectful of women. And as a general rule, I have tried in the Winter mysteries to find ways to expose those fools, but also to try and help them learn along the way. In the first Emily Winter book, Winter in Chicago, she is hired into a newsroom of all men, none of whom can get along with one another.
At least two of them are barely speaking to one another. And over the course of the novel, one of the things that I wanted Emily to be able to do was to bring the sense of cooperation and togetherness that is part and parcel of the feminist movement into that environment. And by the end of the book, all the men in the newsroom where she works are happily working together as a team, as opposed to being in their individual silos and particularly unpleasant about her place in their boy’s club.
That’s the kind of feminism carried into the workplace, which is of enormous value. First off workplaces are better when women have a stronger voice in them. But also, I think it’s a way of educating men to grow beyond the sexist silos in which they were raised. And frankly, it’s not always a challenge to do that. It sometimes requires some thought and some careful choice of words, but it’s also a great deal of fun to bring that sensibility into the traditional American mystery novel.
SW: Do you have a favorite woman character besides Emily in the books that you’ve created?
DH: I did not in the first two because I was, frankly, so infatuated with Emily that I wanted her to stand alone and shine alone. She does have a lot of feminist friends with whom she drinks and gossips every Friday night, but by design, they are secondary characters. They’re very helpful, and they’re a lot of fun. But I wanted Emily to stand out in the first two books.
In the third, Emily has occasion to encounter one of the first women to wear a uniform with the Chicago Police Department, and I wanted her to be a little more aggressive, a little more combative, and to have confronted even more unpleasant circumstances than Emily herself had confronted, as the first woman to don a uniform in the ultimate Boys Club, a Police Department. KB Constantine is her name, and I’m intrigued by her. I’m still very much infatuated with Emily, but it’s possible that KB and I may work together again.
SW: Why do you like women? You have said in a very positive way if you were forced to be alone on an island, you’d rather be with a group of women than a group of men.
DH: For one thing, the gossip is so much better. I’d much prefer to gossip than to talk sports with almost anybody except my wife who is a great sports fan.
I like the personal approach that women take to most issues. I like the gentleness of the feminine approach to problems and to relationships. I very much like that women are, at least in my experience, far more open about their emotions and their feelings than men are. And through my life, whether by design or by just superior good luck, most of my really good friends have been women, and as I say, I do listen when women talk, so I get the rhythm of their speech right most of the time, and I certainly get the joy and the humor they bring to circumstances which are not always as pleasant as they might be.
SW: Moving a bit beyond the books, do you have any reaction to the fact that it’s taken us so long to get a woman in national prominence like Vice President Harris?
DH: Martin Luther King said the arc of justice bends, but bends exceedingly slow. I wish we had come to this moment sooner, and I still fervently hope that the circumstances in society lead us to a far more balanced representation of both sexes in all legislative bodies and in corporate boardrooms and senior management. I take some solace from the fact that there appears to be, even today in the face of some national leaders who would have it be otherwise, there appears to be slow and steady progress toward equality and justice for women.
I would dearly love it to move more rapidly, but I’m not sure that we, as a people, are comfortable with radical change of that kind. After all, it took the better part of a century to get women the vote. It’s probably going to take a few more years before there are 50% women in the Senate or the House of Representatives.
SW: In the third Emily Winter novel, Killer Cocktail, you choose a very difficult topic, which I think speaks to much of the lack of progress we’ve made, and that is over the issue of choice. I think it’s very brave of you to have picked abortion and choice as the subtext of an entertaining mystery novel. What led you to that?
DH: Well, a couple of things. First, the Roe vs Wade decision lies right in the heart of the time in which the Winter mysteries are set. It’s the 1970’s in the United States. And it seemed to me that if the arc, as I envisioned it, was going to cover that phase of the women’s rights movement, it simply had to at some point, address the Roe vs Wade decision. I was working with ACLU when that decision came down and I worked for ACLU for the better part of a decade after that decision came down.
I was intimately involved in litigation to protect the right to choose and to prevent legislatures and courts from impinging on that right to choose. And I also thought, quite frankly, then, as now, it was an issue, a debate fraught with drama. It’s a real clash of competing interests. The people who are opposed to the right to choose are every bit as vehement as those who support it. That makes for both tension and activity on both sides of the equation. And I tried very hard to be as balanced as I possibly could about portraying both sides, although I freely admit that I don’t carry that balance into my personal life at all.
SW: In summation, is there anything you’d like to add to all of this? Is there anything we may have left out?
DH: Well, I continue to believe that we have made, in a relatively short period of time, significant strides toward gender equality. There’s more balance in women’s pay. It’s not there yet, but we’re getting better about that. I think the women’s movement is exceedingly well organized and well-funded, and I think it’s easy in the day-to-day battles to lose track of the kind of progress that has been made. I would argue that while we’re not yet perfect, we have come a very long way since, for example, 1955, which was the Ward and June Cleaver era.
SW: Is there anything you’d like to ask women or do you have any other thoughts on women?
DH: I like the contemporary women in my life that I know, and I’m very intrigued by the generations behind me who continue to push the envelope in every way they can find, who continue to advance the causes of women’s rights and gender equality. I think that what we’ve seen over the past 25 to 35 to 40 years is probably nothing compared to what we’re likely to see over the next 10 or 20 years. And I find that very encouraging and cause for celebration.