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OPINION

Women who refused to let gender roles get in their way

In her new book, a comedy writer shares stories about women who thrived when they pretended to be men.

This engraving, based on a photograph, shows Ellen Craft in her disguise as a white man, which she used to escape slavery with her husband.Boston African American National Historic Site/National Park Service/Boston African American National

In Hollywood, it’s colloquially known as the “Water Bottle Tour.” That’s when promising writers are summoned for hours of meet-and-greets with big-name producers and executives to pitch their ideas and their talents. With each meeting comes another bottle of water.

Making her well-hydrated rounds in 2013, Tracy Dawson, a Toronto comedy writer, hoped to land her first American gig. She was asked by a studio executive, a woman, which new TV shows piqued her interest. But Dawson was told that none of the programs she mentioned would be available to her.

The executive said the shows that appealed to Dawson had “no female needs,” Dawson recalled when we spoke last week. “She didn’t say the words ‘There are jobs open, but not open to you,’ but that’s what she was saying. That happened. Someone said that to me. I could not believe it.”

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That experience — plus the stubborn stench of the 2016 presidential election outcome — sparked Dawson’s first book, “Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men to Do Sh*t They Weren’t Supposed to Do,” which will be published this week.

An alum of the famed Second City improvisational comedy troupe, Dawson wrote a script about a woman who disguises herself as a man to get work as a comedy writer. She scrapped that project but didn’t abandon her idea to tell the stories of women who defied arbitrary gender rules, even when that required pretending to be men. To be clear, this isn’t a book about gender identity. Nor did Dawson want to write a traditional history book.

“My whole thing is I have to laugh so I don’t cry personally,” she said. “My background is comedy, and it’s a way to help the medicine go down. I wanted an entertaining book. I want people to read it and hopefully go, “Wow, holy [expletive], and be laughing, but also to feel anger.”

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Tracy Dawson, author of "Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men to Do Sh*t They Weren’t Supposed to Do.”Miles Schuster

Of the book’s 21 essays, the story of Ellen Craft is the most harrowing. Bearing the fair skin of the enslaver who raped her mother, Craft could pass for white. That aided an extraordinary plan she devised with her husband in 1848. Cutting her hair and donning men’s clothing, Craft disguised herself as a white plantation owner while her husband assumed the role of an enslaved valet. They traveled by train and ship from bondage in Georgia to freedom in Philadelphia.

Craft is “an absolute inspiration,” Dawson said. But she writes that while every woman in the book “may be a badass, not every woman is a hero.” Enter Christian Caddell. As fears about witches swept Europe in the 1600s, men known as witch prickers used gruesome methods to identify those suspected of witchcraft. Though many of those tortured or executed were women, Caddell assumed a new persona — John Dickson, a witch pricker in Scotland.

“That would have been a terrifying time in history to be a woman, so here she is passing as a man,” Dawson said. “Is it ambition? Is it money? Or is there part of this that’s like, ‘If I’m the witch pricker, I’m not going to be thought of as a witch and you can’t torture and kill me.’”

Not every woman in the book dressed like a man to reach an otherwise unobtainable goal. Sometimes all it took was a name change. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to officially run in the Boston Marathon by registering as “K.V. Switzer.” She finished the race despite a marathon official’s attempt to remove her number and push her off the course.

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In recent years, a Major League Baseball team executive told Rachel Balkovec that she wouldn’t be hired as a minor league coach “because you’re a woman.” When she changed her name on her resume to the gender-neutral “Rae,” the callbacks were immediate. In 2019, Balkovec was named hitting instructor for the Tampa Tarpons, the New York Yankees’ Single-A affiliate. This year, she became the team’s manager, the first woman to reach that level with a farm team.

Balkovec isn’t in Dawson’s book. But her actions match the dual threads that run throughout “Let Me Be Frank” — ingenuity and self-preservation against the odds.

I interviewed Dawson a day after the leak of a Supreme Court draft majority opinion overruling Roe v. Wade. Dawson was still trying to process what it would mean to have nearly 50 years of fundamental reproductive rights stripped away by the high court’s conservative justices, most of them men.

“Even though we all might have seen this coming, and we saw a lot of signs . . . it creates this craziness. It’s like gaslighting,” Dawson said. “They’re not only not getting how incredible [women] are, but they’re saying we’re less than fully human if we need to be controlled in this way by the big daddies of the world.”

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“Let Me Be Frank” reiterates that being female has often meant circumventing those self-appointed big daddies to become doctors, journalists, entrepreneurs, even pirates. Laws traditionally written by white men for white men leave few options for everyone else. Dawson’s book is a loving tribute to those who did whatever they could to show that women unbound by gender roles can survive and thrive.



Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.