A Letter To The Woman They Would Not Name
An explanation of the history behind my new contest piece in the category: A Letter To Your Inspiration hosted by Unsealed.com | Your read and votes are very appreciated.
Today I’m popping in to ask for your read on my tribute piece to my writing inspiration: Mildred Benson. If I win, I have pledged a large portion of the prize money to Free Women Writers, an organization that supports and backs journalist women in Afghan communities - where they are often tortured and killed for their investigative and honest work.
I’m going to give a historical summary of the role Mildred has played in my writing and reading career in this post to provide further background around my Unsealed contest piece linked below:
I met Mildred at a very young age, through the pages of her work. Immediately, I was enthralled. I had no knowledge that she was writing under a pseudonym or being forced to write inside of a plot already skeletoned out for her. Her most famous work, and the work I discovered her through, is The Nancy Drew Series.
In Mildred’s day, she was heavily discouraged from a college education as an unmarried woman. Especially a degree in journalism. Women in that time period were not allowed to write under their own names. This would make it near impossible to create a portfolio as a female writer: she couldn’t take credit for any of her published work. Mildred didn’t come from money and paid her own way through her education writing pieces under various pseudonyms for clients. She paid for all four years of her education this way, became the first person to graduate the journalism college, and went on to get a job for the Stratemeyer Syndicate working again as an unnamed writer. Her story skeletons were given to her and she was required to fill them, giving her little to no creative room. However, Mildred somehow worked the character of Nancy Drew into the icon she was for her day: adventurous, independent, and ballsy. Publishers and literary gatekeepers attempted to water down Mildred’s characters - critical of the “challenging women” Mildred created. And while they forced Nancy Drew into a more palatable character against her will, Nancy’s spirit lives forward.
While men were away at war in the 1940s, many newspapers reluctantly began to hire women. She was eager to keep her position at the journal, even despite criticism that all women would be fired once the war was over. Mildred worked hard at the Toledo Blade as a journalist, which she accounted to be her highest passion. It is safe to say that she was successful in keeping her career going as a journalist as we view this quote from Mildred towards the end of her life:
"Age shouldn't count. They always use age against you though. When I was hired they told me I would be the first one let go...Now I'm the only one left."
When Stratemeyer (Mildred’s Publisher) died, Mildred carried the Nancy Drew series forward until book sixty-four as the primary writer. However, the series went through heavy revisions that were intended to modernize the stories by removing any outdated language and stereotypes. Yet, this had a backhanded effect on the characters Mildred created.
“Original Nancy was a little more ‘rough and tumble’ … compared with cool, straight-laced Revised Nancy. She became an 18-year-old with a blue convertible instead of a 16-year-old with a blue roadster. Revised Nancy played by the rules.” (Boboltz).
“[Harriet] made her into a traditional sort of heroine. More of a house type … And in her day, that’s what I had specifically gotten away from. She was ahead of her time. She was not typical. She is what the girls were ready for and aspiring for, but had not achieved” (Visci).
These revisions tore Mildred from the series and dismayed her greatly. She then went on to produce independent work that she was more excited about. These works are known as the Penny Parker and Ruth Fielding sets. She even went on to say: “I’m so sick of Nancy Drew I could vomit.” This gives us the context into the negative memories of forced control that the publishing industry held over Benson’s creativity. The Nancy Drew Books carried painful reminders that she seemingly resented until the day she died. And while I adore all of Mildred’s work, It is my hope that one day, I will get my hands on one of these unrevised Nancy Drew novels that encapsulate the feminist and rebellious spirit of Mildred Benson so I can rediscover the series as it was intended to be.
Outside of writing, Mildred held an adventurous spirit. She got a commercial pilot’s license, sailed the Mayan Ruins by canoe, transversed jungles in a Jeep, and even found herself at archaeological dig sites. Up until her death at age 96, Mildred Benson was on the hunt for a new frontier: in and out of the literary world.
Her spirit has influenced me since my youngest years as a reader and grows stronger with every year I age. I find myself finding a reflection of her essence in the characters and stories I create: even at the adult thriller level. It was quite difficult to encapsulate Mildred’s amazing life under one-thousand words. I created the best tribute I could because I believe Mildred deserves a lifetime of more credit for her feminist characters and the spirit that she used to change the Mystery & Suspense industry forever.
Your read of this piece and support are very appreciated: A Letter To The Woman They Would Not Name