A History of Sisters in Crime
Compiled by Lora Roberts
Past Presidents of Sisters in Crime
Sisters in Crime Breakfast at Malice Domestic - Spring 2007
Top Left: Nancy Pickard, Kate Flora, Eve Sandstrom (aka Joanna Carl),
Rochelle Krich, Patricia Sprinkle, Sue Henry
Bottom Left: Kate Grilley, Margaret Maron, Barb D'Amato,
Susan Dunlap, Carolyn Hart
It gestated at the first-ever conference on Women in the Mystery, put together by BJ Rahn at Hunter College in March 1986. Sara Paretsky spoke on the growing use of graphic sadism against women in mysteries. "Remarks I made at the conference set off a firestorm around the mystery world," founding mother Sara recalls. "Women began calling me from all over the country with their personal histories of treatment/mistreatment."
The rising tide of activism among women mystery writers was boosted by Phyllis Whitney's famous letter to Mystery Writers of America, pointing out that women authors weren't being nominated for awards. By the time Bouchercon rolled around in October, the ball was rolling. "I convened the initial meeting of interested women at the Baltimore Bouchercon in October 1986," Sara says. At that meeting, she noted that books by woman mystery writers also weren't being reviewed at a percentage equal to their participation in the field.
At the annual Edgars Week in 1987, interested women writers were invited to Sandra Scoppettone's SoHo loft for breakfast, to meet each other and discuss the situation. At that meeting, Sisters in Crime was formed.
Initial steering committee members were Charlotte MacLeod, Kate Mattes, Betty Francis, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Sara Paretsky, Nancy Pickard and Susan Dunlap. A newsletter was in the works. Information on publicizing books was being put together. The review project was under consideration. And the mission statement had been formalized: "Sisters in Crime is committed to helping women who write, review, buy, or sell crime fiction. Our ultimate goal is to become a service organization to address issues of concern to everyone involved in the mystery field."
"The first two years of Sisters I ran everything out of my eight by ten office, with stamps sent by Margaret Maron and a generous contribution from Jane Langton," Sara says. "Dorothy Salisbury Davis' support proved crucial—she was so respected by MWA members that she persuaded women like Mary Higgins Clark to join and she damped down some of the hostile fire we were getting from the mystery press (Nancy Pickard and I used to be routinely attacked in the 'zines for crimes too numerous to iterate.)"
"I remember being scared at the start," Nancy Pickard says. "Our very first organizing meeting, I remember Sara at the front of the room, how brave she was, and how smart. It was exciting, fun, a little frightening. I remember thinking, 'In our funny little world of mystery writers, we have come late to the woman's movement, but here we are, at last.'"
Although all Sisters consider Sara their founding mother, Nancy was the first elected president. "I had to work up my nerve to call Margaret Maron to ask her to be my vice president—she said yes, and boy, was I ever the luckiest president ever! Besides being a wonderful writer, Margaret is the world's best organizer, correspondent, and paper-keeper; she deserves all the credit for keeping the organizational part of SinC alive and functioning that year. That was the beginning of one of my most treasured friendships. Thanks for saying yes, Margaret! I was delighted to hand her the gavel at the end of my year. I have felt proud, ever since, to be able to add to my resume, 'Founding member and former president, Sisters In Crime.'"
Margaret Maron recalls, "After Phyllis Whitney's letter to MWA and what many considered their dismissive response, Sara Paretsky sent a letter to every mystery writing woman she could find, asking if we were interested in forming a networking group. I thought it was great for someone of her caliber to take this on for all women; and although she hadn't asked for money, I sent her a roll of stamps to help with mailing costs."
Why SinC instead of SIC? "Several women wanted SIC, as in 'Let's sic 'em!'" Margaret says, "but I knew we were less about hostility than about working together in sync, so I used SinC in all my correspondence and official letters. By the end of my term, SinC had become the standard abbreviation."
According to Margaret, in the early days, everyone on the board worked hard to bring things to life. "Linda Grant laid out the first Shameless Promotion for Brazen Hussies on her dining room table. During those early days, whenever someone called or wrote with a 'Why doesn't someone—?' the steering committee would say, 'Why don't YOU?' Linda's inspired booklet embodied that philosophy."
Starting Sisters' famous mailing list was Carolyn Hart's early mission. "She collected and collated the names and addresses of almost every bookstore and library in the country and put them into a database that became our first mailing list for our SinC on the Shelf," Margaret says. "Sharyn McCrumb introduced us to Gavin Faulkner, who was responsible for the layout and mailing of our first newsletters. Together, they designed many of the early bookmarks and postcards and other pieces of publicity material. Some of my best memories are of the true support that grew from nothing to a nationwide network."
Margaret, who became the third president, tells the story of the mystery of the Official Seal of Office. "In the summer before I was to turn over our presidential seal to Susan Dunlap at the London Bouchercon in 1990, I found a large white stuffed seal pup on sale at a Raleigh toy store. I thought it would be fun to tie the embossing seal around its neck with a red ribbon and, taking liberties with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, I included a note that read 'The Sisters in Crime Official Seal of Office. Accept no substitutes.' I had planned to take it to London and give the two seals to Sue there, but at the last minute took pity on her suitcase space and mailed them to her instead. That's the last time anyone remembers seeing the metal seal...It amuses me no end that the stuffed seal is still being passed along at each Bouchercon while the real seal has disappeared into the mists of memory."
Mary Lou Wright, long-time treasurer, recalls, "When Sue Dunlap was president, she asked for volunteers at an annual SinC meeting. There was no show of hands for treasurer and I thought: I can do this, it's just like my daytime job (then a business manager). My first task was renting a post office box in Lawrence, KS, where I lived. As we know, this has now become our permanent address. The treasury had very little money. When Carolyn Hart became president, she thought she was going to have to pay the printing bill out of her pocket. I realized that we weren't charging dues annually, and once we got that process in place, the organization could operate somewhat smoothly, pay our bills and fund the new exciting projects that came along. Following a suggestion from Sara Paretsky, I presented the idea of hiring an executive secretary to the board and even suggested Beth Wasson, a neighbor who had recently quit a very time-consuming job in retail." Sisters has been blessed by Beth's calm good sense and attention ever since. "With all due modesty," Mary Lou says, "my suggestion of Beth Wasson was brilliant."
Linda Grant became president during 1993-1994. "I can't resist reflecting on how much things have changed in the ten years that have passed," she says. "In December of 1993, I wrote, 'We are hot. We are a trend.' I don't think that most of us feel 'hot' anymore. In 1993-94, we were still worried about garnering equal review space in newspapers and combating gender bias. The death of the midlist was not on our radar." Linda goes on to say, "Most of our best projects were initiated by members who had a good idea and were willing to contribute the time and effort to bring it to fruition. When I think of the many, many hours of time that members contributed to creating and managing various projects, I am awed by the creativity and dedication of our members."
"One of the things I loved the most about serving as an officer in Sisters," she continues, "was the sense of mutual support and community. We were friends as well as colleagues, and whenever there was a problem, there were people anxious to help. Whenever I faced a difficult problem or an important decision, I talked to Barb D'Amato, my veep, and Pat Carlson, the former president. In effect, the leadership of the organization was a kind of triumvirate consisting of the past, present and future presidents."
The hard work of the officers is a constant theme when former board members talk about Sisters in Crime. "One of our great strengths is that the office of president is not honorary, but is worked up to through service to the organization," Barb D'Amato says. "As a result, the president comes into office knowing a lot about the organization."
In 1996, a large SinC project was undertaken by then-president Elaine Raco Chase: to hold a writing retreat in Houston. "It did a great deal to make SinC more visible than it had been before," Barb says, "and added to the impression that we weren't going to go away."
Elaine mentions, "Sisters in Crime was called 'ubiquitous' by Publishers Weekly that year. I had to look that one up and found it wasn't a shooting offense but 'that we were everywhere'—and we were—and we were being imitated."
During Annette Meyers' year of being president, she undertook to get the same benefit for Sisters that other organizations of writers were enjoying: contributions from the Authors Coalition. "Participation depends on the number of published authors in the organizations that belong, so there was no reason for us to be denied membership. I enlisted the aid of Paul Aiken, Executive Director of the Authors Guild, and within a few months, we were on board. The income that has come in steadily from our membership in the Authors Coalition has kept Sisters in Crime well in the black." As an alumnus of Douglass College (class of '55), Annette also arranged to create a Sisters in Crime archive for our considerable stash of printed material at the Mabel Smith Douglass Library.
Medora Sale's presidency focused on the health of the many SinC chapters springing up all over the country. "By then, many chapters not only had bylaws," she says, "but were facing or had survived minor constitutional crises, as well as organizing and carrying out some extraordinary events and long-term projects, and we at National were occupied in fine-tuning a role to assist without smothering—although when I say National, I really ought to say Beth Wasson, who knew everything that was being planned, what it needed and how to help in the most clear-headed, useful way."
The late Barbara Burnett Smith, who is sorely missed, served as president in 1999-2000 and accomplished something that author members of SinC had long wanted: she sponsored a survey that asked our writers frank questions about money, publicity, and other arcane details. "I believed then and still do that we need information in order to improve our lot as writers," she said. "We have to know what authors are being paid, what publishers are providing in the way of support, etc. At the time, no one except agents and publishers knew what a 'typical' mystery might bring in advance money—I actually got some flack from members who didn't think this project was a good idea, but I had many more supporters. People like Joan Lowry Nixon and Joan Hess and Margaret Maron felt we could make a difference. If nothing else, we know the odds for making a good living with our writing."
"On looking back at 2001-2002," Eve Sandstrom says, "the first thing that popped into my mind was 'Publishers Weekly ad.' That was the year the board decided to take the cover and first four pages of Publishers Weekly's mystery emphasis edition. It was a tremendous amount of money. We celebrated SinC's 15th anniversary at both our membership meetings that year."
Kate Flora remembers, "As part of our 15th anniversary celebration, we began to take a closer look at statistics such as those coming back from the review project. One thing we realized was that we still weren't getting good solid information for a lot of publications that we could use when we went back to them to inform them about their track records and suggest reform. Under Taylor Smith's brilliant guidance, the review project is getting four quarters of data for nearly 35 different publications.
"As long as I've been involved with Sisters in Crime," Kate says, "I've felt that we needed a national press kit to present our message in a unified way, so that everyone who did an event under the Sisters in Crime banner was on the same page about who we are and what we're here for. I began working on our public profile to find a way to speak in a bigger voice."
Any organization where the leadership turns over every year has the right to be proud when it survives and thrives for so long. Sisters in Crime is blessed with the kind of talented membership it takes to produce leaders of this quality. As Mary Lou Wright noted, "What a fantastic group of creative, giving people."
"Most of all," Margaret Maron says, "I remember the excitement and pride of being so involved with something important—the feeling we all had that we could make a difference, that we could make things better for our sister writers and strengthen the field for our sister readers."
The SinC archives are at home at the Mabel Smith Douglass Library of Douglass College, Rutgers University, New Brunswick NJ.
Sisters in Crime capped off its 20th anniversary celebrations with a song written by Parnell Hall. Read the lyrics and find the link to the recording here.