Q&A with Sue Macy | Author of Breaking Through: How Female Athletes Shattered Stereotypes in the Roaring 20’s
Posted on May 28 2020
Sue Macy is an author of 18 books (and counting) for kids and young adults, most of which focus on women’s history and women in sports. Her newest book, Breaking Through, looks at how female athletes shattered stereotypes—and then faced a backlash—in the Roaring Twenties.
Tell us about yourself.
When I was a rising high school senior, I attended the High School Journalism Institute at Northwestern University, and it changed the course of my life. In five weeks I learned how to write under pressure and report on stories in an engaging way. I still thought I wanted to become a lawyer, but while studying history at Princeton University I realized that writing excited me more. After college I got a job working on an American history textbook for high school students at Scholastic. A few years later I moved into the classroom magazine division and spent the next 15 years editing magazines for kids.
What led you to your line of work?
Early in my career at Scholastic I became aware of colleagues who had written history trade books for young adults. The idea of throwing myself into a long-term project was appealing, but I knew the topic had to be really compelling if I was going to give up my nights and weekends to work on it. In the early 1980s I came upon a book that mentioned women had played professional baseball during World War II. I was astonished. I’d been a baseball fan all my life, but had never heard of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). This was a decade before the league became famous in the film, A League of Their Own. I attended the league’s first national reunion, in 1982, and spent years interviewing players. When my book finally came out, in 1993, I knew there were other topics in women’s sports history I wanted to write about. I finally quit my job in 1999 and started a second career writing books and speaking about them to students and other audiences.
Where do you get creative inspiration?
I am inspired by athletes who are great at what they do and leverage that to promote change, like the members of the US Women’s National Soccer team and the gymnasts who brought down Dr. Larry Nassar. I believe that participating in sports is a feminist act, so it doesn’t surprise me when athletes are the catalysts for change in society at large. By becoming leaders in the fight for equity on the job and against sexual assault, these women are demonstrating the emotional strength that is an inherent part of an athlete’s character.
When writing Breaking Through how did you go from idea to execution?
Breaking Through was the culmination of all my years writing about women in sports. I kept hitting upon defining moments in sports history that took place in the 1920s. Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Helen Wills and Suzanne Lenglen played a massively-publicized tennis match. Female track stars finally got to compete at the 1928 Olympics, only to face a worldwide outcry after false reports of them collapsing at the end of a race. I wanted to focus on the importance of this decade, so I decided to take a chronological approach, looking at the highs and lows two years at a time and also filling in some of the other events in politics, science, and popular culture that had an impact on people’s lives. I did a deep dive into the newspapers and magazines of the era —including the black press—and read lots of academic papers on women’s and sports history.
Who do you look up to in your girl gang or industry?
I look up to the female sports journalists who staked out a place in a male-dominated field, from Mary Garber, who started as a sports reporter during World War II, to Robin Roberts, who spent 15 years at ESPN, to Christine Brennan, who continues to report on sports at USA Today. And I look up to my first mentor, my college thesis advisor Estelle Freedman, who still gives me advice on my work after all these years.
Best advice you’ve received?
Strange to say, but my career writing books owes a lot to Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. I was 35 when that film came out, editing a monthly magazine and not much closer to producing a book of my own. His mantra of “Carpe diem” (“Seize the day”), really hit home with me. Soon after seeing that film I took an editor friend to lunch at the Union Square Café—a great publishing hangout back then—to talk about book ideas. She couldn’t help but notice my excitement about the AAGPBL and was sold! I wrote the proposal, it was accepted, and I started working on the book. A Whole New Ballgame came out in 1993 and is still in print!
What does Support Your Local Girl Gang mean to you?
It makes me think of WISE: Women in Sports and Events (www.wiseworks.org), a nonprofit that was the brainchild of my friend Sue Rodin. Sue was working in sports marketing at a time when the industry was overwhelmingly male. In 1993, she and four friends used their Rolodexes to invite other women in the industry to a networking meeting. The 60 who showed up were the core members of what has become a force in the sports business. I met Sue a few years later and joined. It’s a very supportive atmosphere and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to advise some younger writers on book publishing and other next steps in their careers. I’ve also scored Peggy Fleming and Bob Costas to write forewords for my books through contacts I met at WISE.
Books: I love Louise Penny’s Gamache mystery series. I want to move to Three Pines and visit Myrna’s New and Used Bookstore, meet Ruth’s duck, and drink hot chocolate at the Bistro.
Podcast: It’s technically a radio show, but I really enjoy NPR’s Only a Game, which explores “the human side of sports” and has covered some terrific stories about women.
Apps: Do Panera Bread and Dunkin’ Donuts count? I need my iced tea and that’s where I usually get it.
Instagram Page: My friend, Maria Chang’s thesceneinnyc. Maria takes the most amazing photographs of my favorite city. I keep telling her she should do a book.