Cathy Alter loves women. Really, she does.
Sure, she wrote a story seven years ago for the Washington City Paper headlined “Bitch Hunt,” with a thesis that single professional women in Washington verbally skewer potential suitors for sport. For weeks afterward, women wrote letters to City Paper noting how much they loathed the piece. (And quite a few men mailed Alter pictures of themselves.)
“It didn’t bother me that they called me a misogynist,” says Alter. “Because I knew nothing could be farther from the truth.”
But now Alter’s got a comeback in print for all those “Bitch Hunt” haters: her new paperback, Virgin Territory: Stories From the Road to Womanhood. She’s previously published young-adult biographies of such male celebrities as the Backstreet Boys and Ricky Martin, but in Virgin Territory, Alter relates anecdotes she compiled from women all over the country about their firsts. Like first bra. First kiss. First time having sex. First job.
“It’s about smaller milestones, rather than having a baby or deciding you’re a lesbian,” Alter says. “I don’t think that’s as interesting as the first time you dye your hair or realize that your parents lie to you.”
Still, Virgin Territory is in some rarified literary real estate—sharing space on women’s-history-month tables and in the women’s studies section at Books-A-Million with feminist classics such as Susan Faludi’s Backlash. It’s a placement Alter herself can hardly believe. “I don’t normally shop in that section,” she notes. “When I saw it, I said, ‘Wow.’ It made me feel like a professor.”
Alter says she’s always been a repository of “period stories,” as she likes to call them, among the women in her immediate family and her friends. “When girls get together, they tend to talk about bodily functions,” she notes. For Virgin Territory, she spent a year interviewing more than 100 subjects. “I let them tell me whatever they wanted to tell me,” she says. But when she occasionally hit an impasse during an interview, Alter says she resorted to her standard icebreaker: “Do you remember the first time you saw a naked man?”
Alter didn’t hold back, either. While she was writing the book, she divorced her husband, and she says the intimate conversation with her subjects “was like therapy….I had to give myself a ‘Stop Talking to Women’ deadline.”
Virgin Territory’s stories are grouped by themes, which progress chronologically from puberty to death. In a chapter titled “First Fallacy: Lies, All Lies,” Sarah, a 26-year-old attorney and a picky eater as a child, recounts how she finally realized in college that all of bread’s vitamins aren’t in the crust, as her mother had told her. In another chapter, called “First Flowering: Blood, Breasts, and (Pap) Smears,” Grace, a 31-year-old press secretary, describes how during her first visit to the gynecologist, she put her elbows in the stirrups.
“I related to every single story,” says Alter, 38, who grew up in West Hartford, Conn., and now lives off Embassy Row. “Growing up is very painful and beautiful. And that was the point with the book.”
“Bitch Hunt” fans, though, will have to wait for a male version of Virgin Territory: Alter doubts men would open up to her enough to make it work. Besides, she wants to draw on her own experiences for the next book.
“I want to put myself in a subculture that I’m uncomfortable in,” Alter says flatly. “I want to join a renaissance festival for a year and work as a beer wench. Or apprentice myself to a tailor or a glass blower….Investigative personal stuff like that.” —Annys Shin