Leave it to Nancy Kennedy to turn an offhand remark into a book.
In late 2017, the Hopewell-based author was talking with a colleague, who mentioned that 2020 would mark the centennial of women’s suffrage. The cogs in her mind started turning.
Now, just over two years later, Kennedy is set to release her latest book, Women Win the Vote! 19 for the 19th Amendment, on Feb. 11—two days prior to the release is the 100-year anniversary of New Jersey ratifying the constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote.
Women Win the Vote is Kennedy’s seventh book, following two children’s science activity books and a four-work series of stories told by military chaplains. Each of her ideas spawned from a conversation or observation.
Kennedy said her son couldn’t get into arts and crafts as a child, until her brother-in-law helped him with a science activity. Kennedy searched for others and couldn’t find them, so she created her own. Her military chaplain series had a similar genesis—a friend, a former Air Force chaplain, told her a few stories over dinner. She was captivated, and her friend mentioned that other chaplains across all branches have hundreds of compelling stories. So she got to work.
“My kind of trajectory is that I find something and think, ‘Oh, has anybody ever done this? They haven’t? I’ll do it,’” Kennedy said.
Kennedy has been writing books for 15 years—she started when her son, Evan was in preschool. He’s now in his last year of college.
By trade, she is a journalist. Kennedy started in daily newspapers as an editor and then moved on to work for Dow Jones as an editor when the company launched its first electronic news product, News/Retrieval, based out of South Brunswick.
“They hired us all out of daily newspapers and decided, ‘Well, let’s see who wants all this information,’ and I remember thinking, ‘Who wants all this stuff? Who wants all these stock reports?’” she said. “It turns out everyone did.”
She spent about seven years at Dow Jones but missed writing regularly, which she didn’t get many opportunities to do as an editor. Kennedy quit and ended up freelancing for two decades, working in financial journalism and writing for New Jersey-based monthly magazines, the Wall Street Journal’s online arm and the New York Times’ New Jersey section.
When she had her son at 41, though, Kennedy decided it was time for something new.
“All of a sudden, the daily journalism, the deadlines just didn’t work,” she said. “For a couple of years I thought about what I was going to do. I did some copy editing. And then I had the [science] book idea.”
She’s been writing books ever since.
Kennedy said there are some similarities when it comes to journalism and writing nonfiction.
“I’m a nonfiction writer, so everything I write requires research,” she said. “In that way, it’s similar. Anything I do requires a lot of research. The books of true stories required a lot of interviewing, and I love that part.”
It’s no wonder that Kennedy’s first thought during that conversation with her colleague was, “That sounds like a news story.”
Kennedy knew she wanted to write something about women’s suffrage, but it took a couple of months before she narrowed down her specific topic. She eventually settled on profiles of 19 women in honor of the 19th Amendment—in other words, 19 feature stories.
“It mirrored perfectly what I had been doing in the books of true stories, because I had this idea of writing profiles,” she said.
Once she settled on a format, Kennedy browsed the market to see what was already out there. She found lots of picture books and historical works geared towards adults, but she only found one piece written for middle-grade students (ages 9 to 13).
The book she found was about the history of women’s suffrage with sidebars about notable women who were involved with the movement. She decided to flip it and focus on the women, with facts about the larger historical context sprinkled throughout.
“I didn’t see anything that talked about these women,” she said. “Where were they born? Where did they grow up? What was their family life like? What was it in their history that made them gravitate to the suffrage movement? I thought, ‘That’s where I fit in.’”
She wrote up her proposal—a table of contents, chapter summaries, a few full chapters—and presented it, including at a writers’ conference in Somerset in June of 2018. Kennedy remembers thinking that she had to sell the book then and there, or else she would miss the ideal 2020 release.
And that’s exactly what she did. Kennedy was one of 20 out of 200 authors who won the chance to present their proposals in front of a panel at the conference’s Pitch-A-Palooza contest. Participants were allowed one minute to pitch their books. And one minute meant one minute, she said—contestants who went even one second over the time limit were buzzed off the stage.
“I don’t remember a lot of it,” she said. “I was so terrified.”
It went well, though, about as well as it could have. Kennedy won the contest and went to a one-on-one meeting with an agent immediately after. Kennedy mentioned her contest win, and the agency was eager to get started.
After some revisions, Kennedy and her agent, Jacqueline Flynn, shopped the manuscript. They heard from publishers like Little Brown, Simon and Schuster and Scholastic, but once she spoke with an editor from Norton’s Young Reader imprint, she knew who she wanted to pursue.
“I knew from the minute I talked to him that I wanted to work with him,” she said. “Norton? The king of nonfiction.”
It turns out her proposal contained a trifecta of ideal material—a women’s biography set to be released for an anniversary and geared toward middle-grade readers.
The book contains profiles of 19 different women involved with the suffrage movement, plus back matter featuring an index, timeline, references, a list of relevant historical sites to visit and other resources.
A few factors helped Kennedy decide which historical figures to feature—one of the most prominent, though, was the frequent whitewashing of the movement.
Kennedy noted that she visited suffrage exhibitions at a number of museums, and many were open and forthright about racism and bias in the movement. She mentioned Carrie Chapman Catt, who wrote to a Southern senator urging him to back the 19th Amendment because “that way, he could ensure white supremacy honorably and constitutionally.”
“Unfortunately, there was a lot of racism in the movement, and a lot of women’s contributions were overlooked because they were African American or Hispanic or Native American, so we wanted to make sure we righted that imbalance as much as we could,” she said. “It’s hard because not only do women’s voices not show up in history, for women of color, their voices are even quieter. That helped me choose who to put in there.”
One woman she was eager to include was Matilda Joslyn Gage, a white suffragist who was also a prominent Native American rights activist.
“She thought that Native American communites were perfection itself,” Kennedy said. “When they governed, men and women were equal. Women were able to choose the chief of the tribe, they could declare war. It gave me an avenue to write about some other cultures.”
Kennedy’s research also brought her back to her hometown of Rochester, New York, also the hometown of Susan B. Anthony. Rochester is also not far from Seneca Falls, where the first women’s rights convention was held in the United States in 1948. Kennedy was able to explore a number of historical sites that she didn’t get to see as a child.
“I was brought up in a very strict, religious household,” she said. “We discussed nothing in the house other than church matters. I knew nothing of the wide world, about Susan B. Anthony. I’m a boomer—I knew nothing about Vietnam. Our house was totally isolated.”
Going back to upstate New York, though, gave Kennedy a lot of opportunities to study firsthand accounts of suffragists.
She also used some local resources. Kennedy viewed issues of the Hopewell Herald dating back 100 to 150 years to learn about what the climate was like in the Hopewell Valley during the movement. While the information she gathered locally wasn’t included in Women Win the Vote, she plans to use it for programs later in the year.
So far, she has a Wednesday Night Out lecture planned for May 6 at the Hopewell Theater, as well as a talk during Hopewell Heritage Weekend at the end of May. She also hopes to visit classrooms and present to students using the book’s accompanying Teacher’s Guide (and wearing the suffragette dress she’s getting custom-made).
Kennedy will also speak at a festival in Philadelphia, which will also feature children’s and young adult icon Laurie Halse Anderson, later this year. Additionally, Women Win the Vote will be available for purchase at the Library of Congress to accompany its suffrage exhibit, “Shall Not Be Denied.” It will also be sold at the Smithsonian Museum.
Also on the docket for Kennedy are a children’s book about Patricia O’Connor, the first woman zoo veterinarian in the United States. She said she has an idea for another book, too.
For now, though, Kennedy is enjoying the success of Women Win the Vote and celebrating the centennial.
“The women’s own words, that’s what really got me excited, because they became people to me, distinct people,” she said. “What powers these profiles are the women’s own quotes and words or things people said about them. That’s what gives them life.”
Women Win the Vote! 19 for the 19th Amendment is available for preorder through various retailers.