Let Her Be Frank: An Interview with Tracy Dawson
Women who had to, or chose to, dress as men to access masculine environments to follow their calling are often overlooked in history. Enter the book Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men to Do Shit They Weren’t Supposed to Do (HarperCollins, 2022), published last year by Tracy Dawson. Dawson is an award-winning actor, TV writer, comedian, and now author, whose first book impressed the likes of Samantha Bee, Amber Tamblyn, and Patton Oswalt.
Let Me Be Frank presents in-depth profiles of women throughout different eras, and of varied ethnicities, races, sexualities and cultural backgrounds, who both challenged the patriarchy and decided to play by their own rules. These women often ruptured societal structures when the cards were stacked against them. Many were laughed at, repudiated, or endured other forms of prejudice. Dawson brings them to the rightful spot they deserve, using sardonic, impassioned and respectful writing to tell their stories.
The women in Let Me Be Frank competed in marathons, published books, escaped enslavement, practiced medicine, tunneled deep in the earth as miners, boarded ships as pirates and served in the frontlines in the military. These are just some of their trailblazing deeds that would sometimes change the landscape for future generations.
We may already recognize some of these women, like Joan of Arc, but their stories are told in a fresh, new way. There are also some who we may never have heard of, like Jeanne Baret, Rena “Rusty” Kanokogi, Pili Hussein and others whose stories Dawson tells.
Scarleteen (ST): What inspired you to write ‘Let Me Be Frank’?
Tracy Dawson (TD): About a decade ago, when I was starting out as a TV writer here in Los Angeles, I took a meeting at a very big studio during a time called “staffing season.” Executives meet with new writers and the hope is that you will end up being hired as a writer on one of their new or existing shows. At this meeting, the exec asked me which of their new shows sounded like a good fit for me. When I answered, she responded flat out that none of the shows I had mentioned had any “female needs,” meaning there were writing jobs available on those shows but not for women because they had already hired what they thought was the appropriate number of women for that show.
Generally speaking, this would mean they hired one or two women out of ten writers and the quota had been filled. I felt ashamed, I felt stupid, I felt angry. I was being told it didn’t matter if I was a good fit for the job, if I wrote great jokes and dialogue. What mattered was that I was a Female Writer, not simply… a writer.
So, this sort of planted a seed all those years ago that stuck with me. And I began to think about all the women through history that may have taken on a male disguise, simply to do what they wanted to do with their lives. To be clear, my book is not one that is focused on stories of gender identity necessarily. It really is a book about defiant women. Women who would have been told no, you can’t do that or be that and them not accepting “no” for an answer.
Scarleteen (ST): In your book you tell the stories of several women who had to dress up as men to be able to achieve their potential. Which story touched you the most?
Tracy Dawson (TD): I was deeply moved by many of the stories, as you will be able to tell when you read the book. I don’t write about these women [while] holding them at arm’s length. I am truly invested in their stories and their defiance. I’m an Aries, which means I’m ruled by the planet Mars, the God of War… so, I tend to always be up for a fight, you know? You tell me I can’t do something; you better watch out.
I definitely love all of the women in my book and that they refused to be told “no”!
One of the people who moved me the most, however, was Dorothy Lawrence. Dorothy was a teenager in England. She wanted to be a journalist, and during the first World War she travelled all by herself, just her and her bicycle, on a ferry to France, hoping to get to the frontlines so she could report on the war. With the help of some fellow British servicemen, she wound up disguising herself as a soldier and did in fact make it to the front and was there for about ten days before being found out and taken prisoner by her own people. They were completely baffled by her and her motives. They weren’t sure if she was a spy or a sex worker! Well, she was neither, she was a woman who dreamed of being a journalist and who was trying to get a big scoop to help her make her name as a reporter. She told them all of this again and again, but women’s ambition of this kind, and the bold nature of what she did… well, barely one of these men could even comprehend it. I absolutely adored reading Dorothy’s account of her adventure in France (you can read her book online for free on google books: “Sapper Dorothy Lawrence”), she is funny and self-deprecating and tells a great story. The very unfortunate part, for me, is that Dorothy’s book was not a success. They made fun of her in the press, they painted her as a failure and called her a freak. Her story is so inspiring to me and for me, Dorothy is a success the moment she boards the ferry in England with her bicycle. She tried! She went after what she wanted! I adore her and she deserved so much better.
Scarleteen (ST): Considering the times we are living in — particularly with the precarious state of the rights of women and LGBTQIA+ people — why do you think it’s so important to look at the people presented in Let Me Be Frank?
Tracy Dawson (TD): Well, like many of us, I can’t believe we are still fighting for some of this shit. [For] basic human rights. The right to exist. The right to have autonomy over our own bodies. What I have heard from readers is how they run through the range of emotions as they read the book.
One minute they are inspired and fired up, the next they are laughing, and then another moment and they are furious. They are furious because of the injustices that were experienced by the women in my book but also, they feel how, in some instances, how little has changed.
My book is not a shallow one that skates along the surface of these women’s lives. I committed to deeply researching each of these women and my ridiculously large bibliography is proof! This was important to me because I want people to delve with me into these women’s lives. I want people to be moved by their stories and to relate to what they experienced, how they struggled and how they triumphed. I say in the introduction of the book that women and all those who have historically been othered, we get knocked down (A LOT!) but we always get up. We always get up!
This is a crucial moment we are in, where women’s rights are on the chopping block, and trans people are fighting for their literal right to exist. Our lives, our freedom, and our worth are minimized, where so many are seeking to control us; At the same, we are seeing our trans brothers and sisters’ lives and livelihoods threatened to the point that this is nothing short of a state of emergency. What I aim to do with my writing is to tell the truth, and to do it with humor. I tell stories of resiliency and heroism and histories that were left off the page. I try to do all of this while making you chuckle because we all need levity as we continue to fight for our rights to exist and to be free! I hope this book inspires [that].