As I’ve mentioned before, lots of people doing interesting things related to women’s history hang out on Twitter. In the case of @OnThisDayShe, Twitter is literally where the discussion happens. The feed’s bio reads “Putting women back into history, one day at a time.” It is a daily delight.
I am pleased to introduce you to the women behind the Twitter handle:
Ailsa Holland is Manchester Cathedral Poet of the Year 2019. Her first pamphlet, Twenty-Four Miles Up, was published in 2017 with support from Arts Council England. Ailsa also likes to create word art and installations; she has collaborated with artists’ studio twentysevenb on several exhibitions including How Did It Get So Dark? (2018 & 2019). Ailsa is the Director of Moormaid Press (moormaidpress.co.uk) and co-creator of Twitter project @OnThisDayShe. In a former, pre-motherhood life she wrote about medieval women and did a PhD about British writers in 1930s Vienna.
Tania Hershman‘s poetry pamphlet, How High Did She Fly, is joint winner of Live Canon’s 2019 Poetry Pamphlet Competition and was published in Nov 2019. Her hybrid pamphlet is forthcoming from Guillemot Press in March 2020. Tania’s debut poetry collection, Terms & Conditions, is published by Nine Arches Press and her third short story collection, Some Of Us Glow More Than Others, is published by Unthank Books. Tania is also the co-author of Writing Short Stories: A Writers’ & Artists’ Companion (Bloomsbury, 2014). She is co-creator of @OnThisDayShe, curator of short story hub ShortStops (www.shortstops.info) and has a PhD in creative writing inspired by particle physics.
Jo Bell is a former archaeologist who has worked on Byzantine sites in Cappadocia first surveyed by Gertrude Bell. She is now an award-winning poet—prizes include the Charles Causley Prize—and broadcaster. Her latest poetry collection Kith, and her ‘how to’ books 52: Write a Poem a Week and How To Be A Poet (with Jane Commane), are available from Nine Arches Press. She is co-creator of @OnThisDayShe.
Take it away, ladies:
What inspired you to start @OnThisDayShe?
The inspiration, if you can call it that, came from rage. Proof that Soraya Chemaly is right when she says that ‘there is creativity in anger’!
It started with a Christmas present in 2016: an ‘On This Day in History’ calendar, with a tear-off sheet for each day. I love tear-off calendars — we’ve had them before, with artworks from the Met, weird obsolete words, Snoopy cartoons. So I was looking forward to this one too. On 1 January 2017 I stood it on top of the microwave, ready to remind me what day it was (and therefore what I was doing, what the kids would be doing) and also give me a little nugget of knowledge. What’s not to like?
But as the weeks went on I realised that there was something not to like — namely that ALL the events mentioned only involved men. The first reference to a woman came at the end of February. I started to collect the days that mentioned women, as a little experiment. By the end of July I had 20. Out of 212. That’s less than 10%. At that point my rage reached the required intensity for me to give up on the experiment and throw the sheets away.
The calendar continued in the same vein, but it was too useful and I was too stingy to get rid of it entirely. In the autumn when I told Tania and Jo about it, they instantly shared my rage. We all wanted to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT, preferably a counter-calendar, or even better a book, but of course we all have limited time and energy to devote to extra projects. In the end we decided to start a Twitter account — we were all on Twitter already — and call it @OnThisDayShe. And the rest, I suppose, is history.
Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing.
One of my heroines is Sophie Scholl, the Munich student, who—with her brother Hans and friends including Christoph Probst—was part of the White Rose resistance group who printed and distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in the 1940s. Sophie and some of the others were arrested, and executed on 22 February 1943 for their ‘crimes’. She inspired me to write a poem, trying to imagine the thoughts and the sensibility of a young woman who would come to such a brave decision. It’s in a poetry anthology about dissenters: https://beautifuldragons.net/dissent
More generally, the women I’ve learnt about through doing @OnThisDayShe have given me a new level of self-belief and a feeling of entitlement I didn’t have before. It seems that the saying ‘You have to see it to be it’ is really true. Seeing these women—the range of their activities and the sheer numbers of them—has really helped me to be more myself, to have confidence in myself as a writer. I spoke about this in more detail in my TEDx talk about @OnThisDayShe:
[Pamela here: If you are reading this in an email, you need to click through to your browser to see the video. (Just click the headline.) It is well worth it.]
Do you think Women’s History Month is important and why? How do you define women’s history?
I think of Women’s History Month like I think of food banks: it’s vitally important, but I fervently wish it wasn’t necessary. I think it’s great to have a time where people focus on women’s ‘forgotten’ stories or women’s perspectives, but of course there’s always the danger that this will be seen to be enough, that we can go back to ‘Default (Male) History’ for the rest of the year.
We try not to talk about @OnThisDayShe as ‘women’s history’, but rather as ‘putting women back into history’, a history that they are rightfully part of. Having said that, I’m becoming more and more aware, as I read about more women, how women have to some extent formed a parallel history because they been excluded from mainstream society and educational and professional networks: they’ve formed their own liberation movements; they’ve mentored and taught each other; they’ve supported and employed one another.
So I think we need to claim women’s place and importance in History while also acknowledging that, like any oppressed group, they’ve worked within society and outside it. In my TEDx talk I refer to women ‘who engaged with the world in such a way as to change it’; and whether that was by discovering a new element or inventing a life raft or by increasing women’s and others’ rights and opportunities, it’s important that we know about them, to make our knowledge of history more complete and to show our daughters that they shouldn’t limit their ambitions.
One thing ‘women’s history’ isn’t: it isn’t only for women to read and educate themselves about. If men want to have a more complete understanding of history and therefore of the world, they need to engage with these stories too.
Are there special challenges in writing history within the constraints of Twitter? (Of course there are. What I really want to know is: How do you manage to create such rich bites of history within the constraints of Twitter?)
Well, let’s first say that we’re pretty grateful that Twitter doubled its character limit a few years ago or it would be an even greater challenge! What we try and do – each of us in our own way, we do a week of tweets each – is tell a story within that tiny space, not trying to cover an entire life or delve deeply into some scientific breakthrough, say, artistic achievement or geopolitical event, but to spark the reader’s interest. It has been important to us from the very beginning that we use the #otd or #onthisday hashtag to highlight a day that was important to the woman herself, not the day she was born or died, but a day on which she did something. We try, too, to include some words in her own voice, if available, either in the tweet or in the accompanying image, a quote which gives us a flavour of her and makes her a real human being. And we always include a link in the tweet in the hopes that we’ve inspired people to want to know more. We often get questions about the daily tweet which seem to assume we are experts in this particular topic or time period and we politely respond (from our own accounts, not from OTDS, which we decided would only feature one tweet a day) that we don’t know everything, we do what research we are able in the time we have for this, a voluntary side-project in our busy lives, and suggest people follow the link we’ve provided to find out more. It’s wonderful when people chime in to tell us more about our women, we love that! And yes, occasionally we have made mistakes, and are happy to be corrected – sometimes we have repeated mistakes that are widespread on the Internet, which is a hazard of this kind of research. We once tweeted a photograph which had been widely touted as being of an inventor from the 1870s but, when it was pointed out to us, we realised that clearly it was from at least 40 years later, but this picture had illustrated articles about her on major websites. We do our best, and we appreciate constructive assistance – though we do also field snarky and sometimes abusive comments, but that’s life on social media, and fortunately it’s rare.
I hear rumors that a book based on the Twitter feed is in the works. When can we expect to see it?
We have had so many people suggesting that we publish a book, and that’s definitely on our radar, although no news at present. Watch this space!
Do you consider yourselves historians?
I am the only one of the three of us who has no background in history at all – my first degree was maths and physics, so I am the On This Day She science nerd! Before we started this project, I wasn’t a great fan of reading about “history”, it hadn’t been a favourite subject at school, and I would never have sought out history books as light reading. But our project has had a transformative effect on me because it’s about women – women we never learned about in school, women overcoming obstacles, doing things I had no idea they did (not always positive, of course, that’s part of our remit too, putting all women back into history), and suddenly I am utterly compelled and want to find out more, about all of them. I’m not a historian, that is an entirely different occupation. As an ex-science-journalist, I feel more like a reporter and a factual story-teller, doing research and distilling it into 280 characters. I can only hope that anyone like me – female or male – who feels or felt turned off by history at school, perhaps because it seemed like Men Doing Things, might stumble upon our Twitter account and be inspired to take another look.
All three of you are poets. How does that inform your work as historians?
I’m not sure it informs our work as historians exactly, but it informs our output. We have to fit a lot in to a single tweet each day: the discipline of poetry helps us to fit large ideas into a small space.
If you could pick one woman from history to put in every high school history textbook, who would it be?
We’d all give different answers and each of us would answer differently tomorrow. Today and most days, I’d say Grazide Lizier. She was a peasant in a southern French village, who answered the questions of the Inquisition at a heresy trial in 1321. In medieval history, we seldom read the actual words of anyone outside the educated classes; to hear a peasant woman speaking in her own words about village life, her sex life and what she had for dinner is amazing. Grazide stands for all the unheard voices we can’t recover.
What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?
The big challenge is to find them. The second is to disentangle them from the propaganda, both negative and positive, that makes it harder to see what they really did. Women who deserve to be honoured are often left out of the record altogether, whilst women who deserve to be excoriated were apparently everywhere. If you believe the Roman historians, almost every important woman in the polity was promiscuous or a poisoner.
There are dangers in assuming that women simply weren’t there in the professions, the sciences, the arts. There were always women in these fields, no matter how hard it was for them to access opportunity. They are systematically undervalued or overlooked. Time and again, a woman’s work – her paintings, her scientific papers, her art or inventions or literary output – is attributed to a man, because the men writing history didn’t believe a woman could do it.
More than that, the very categories and descriptions we use for valued work are unsuited to women. Women have had to operate at the edges of institutions. When a woman is described as a king’s mistress, sometimes she is simply that: but often she’s a gatekeeper, a lobbyist, a politician pursuing a particular agenda just like any other courtier, and with better access. When a painter is described as her father’s helper, she’s often his apprentice. When a woman is described as a pilgrim or missionary she’s often an explorer, visiting remote cultures in a way that is acceptable to her own. Or we remember women for what we want them to be, not what they were. Florence Nightingale was a nurse for two years. She was a social campaigner and statistician for forty.
On the flip side, some women have been disproportionately revered because we are so hungry for examples. We have sometimes had to put aside a treasured role model because we can’t find good enough evidence to justify her place alongside the ground-breakers. Another challenge is the expectation that women in history must be uplifting, inspiring, exemplary. We don’t subscribe to that. Women rulers have committed atrocities; women have been bigots, murderers or simply complex people who weren’t all good. We aren’t writing hagiographies or uplifting tales for young ladies; in a small and cumulative way, we’re writing history.
And a question for Pamela!
We enjoy planning fantasy dinner parties with women from history and what they would say to each other. Which women from the past would you invite to dinner? How do you think it would go?
I love throwing dinner parties! And my favorite dinner parties are the ones where My Own True Love and I host four other people who didn’t already know each other and then let the conversation fly. (I must admit: I plan and cook the meals. My Own True Love carries the conversational burden. So he absolutely has to be included in the party.) So let’s go with four women who I think might have something to say to each other: Florence Nightingale, Senator Margaret Chase Smith, Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands, and Marie von Clausewitz.
The next question: what would I serve? Hmmmm.
Want to more about @OnThisDayShe and the women who run it?
Follow the Twitter feed: @OnThisDayShe *duh*
Check out their websites and follow them on Twitter:
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Come back tomorrow for three questions and an answer with Paige Bowers, who has a new biography of a woman we need to know more about coming out in January.