Oklahoman Mary Leader, after years as a lawyer, published her first book of poems at age forty-nine. That was Red Signature, which — having been selected by Deborah Digges for the National Poetry Series — was published by Graywolf Press. Besides the red signature "Mary Leader" on the title page, the book made way for signatures of other Oklahomans, such as Clara C. Hake, a woman imagined within a list of lowly items and homely documents, inventoried in the law-inspired poem "Probate." Twenty-five years on, Leader's fifth collection, The Distaff Side, resumes the work of making present signatures of persons often missing from the record, particularly women and, among those, particularly women who, time out of mind, have made their marks using a distaff and a spindle: to spin yarn, and knit it up; to spin thread, and sew it up. The book discusses needlework, which is one thing, but moreover, the book depicts needlework in lines and pages that resemble it. The phrase "the distaff side" also refers to the maternal branch in genealogy, and Mary Leader's personal heritage is traced here, especially in the most direct link, to her mother, Katharine H. Privett, an Oklahoman and, very much in her own right, a poet.
"Needlework, as this brilliant book makes plain, has been trivialized and dismissed as mere “women’s work.” The poems here, however, present the powerful counterpoint that work with the needle, from the flame-stitch to embroidery, is both a skill and a foundation for female artistic expression. It is a hands-on art, passed from woman to woman through the generations. Such passage also entails the vital connections to selfhood, history, meaning, and wisdom. This is a book that syllable by syllable as if stitch by stitch, creates patterns that exceed the confines of artistic form by reclaiming form and redefining it, with a total effect that is affirming and transcendent. What a joy it is to inhabit this world in which the needle and the pen share the labors of love. After all, love is a most subversive expression. This book is proof." —Maurice Manning