Talking About Women’s History: Three Questions and an Answer With Rebecca Grawl
Today I am pleased talk about women’s history with Rebecca Grawl, founding member and Vice-President of Education for A Tour of Her Own, a tourism company in Washington, D.C. That specializes in women’s history tours, book talks and virtual experiences.
Rebecca is a professional tour guide, historian, and author who holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Culture from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now Randolph College.) She has over a decade’s experience in tourism, public history, and museum education. She works with a wide array of companies, organizations, and audiences to bring our nation’s history to life in engaging and innovative ways.
Rebecca can be seen on Mysteries at the Museum on the Travel Channel and heard as a lead contributor for the Tour Guide Tell All podcast. She is a past board member of the National Woman’s Party and a consultant for Above Glass Ceilings, a firm dedicated to advancing women in the workplace. Her book, authored with A Tour of Her Own president Kaiatlin Calogera, 111 Places in Women’s History in Washington, DC That You Must Not Miss, is a travel guidebook that encourages readers to explore sites and stories about women, many who are overlooked in traditional textbooks.
Take it away, Rebecca:
Is it hard to find women-centric places to include on your tours?
I actually love this question because on the surface, the answer is yes but in reality, it’s much more complex than that. One of the driving motivations for the founding of A Tour of Her Own is the lack of representation for women and women’s history in public spaces in D.C. We are underrepresented on the National Mall, in the Capitol Statuary collection, and on the names of buildings. And yet, the more you dig in and peel back the layers, the more we can find women’s history right under our noses. When we started working on our book 111 Places in Women’s History That You Must Not Miss, we were worried about finding 111 unique places in DC but by the end of the process, we had discovered that there are many places where those stories can be found – you just often have to look beyond the traditional ways in which we think history should be shared.
How do your virtual tours work? Are they also D.C. based?
Our virtual programs are presented via Zoom and ticket holders can either join live or access a recording after the event. Our guides present the tours in a lecture-style with a visual presentation, with participants asking questions or giving feedback via the chat box or a live Q&A at the end. While still focusing primarily on D.C. based stories and locations, this medium allows us flexibility that’s not always possible on the ground. As a guide, I personally love being able to integrate more media in my tours – virtually, I can share images, videos, and audio that bring the story to life in a new way. Place-based learning is so important and our goal is to bring people to the places where history happened but in a virtual tour, we’re not bound by what is open, accessible, easy to walk or drive to, or a price of admission. Creating virtual programs really allowed us to connect with a much broader audience and expand the way we tell these stories. We have developed some really exciting programs like our Mrs. America meetup, which used the popular FX on Hulu series to share women’s history of the 1970s. Currently, we are hosting a virtual book club once a month and sharing behind-the-scenes reflections of our book. Each meeting focuses on 11 chapters and we plan to cover the entirety of the book by the end of the year!
How do you define women’s history?
For me, women’s history is about taking a holistic and intersectional approach to understanding women’s role in our political, cultural, and social history. Just as we try to move beyond the Great Man theory of history, I think it’s important to look at women’s history as not just identifying a handful of key women that need to be part of a canon but rather exploring the varied and complex ways in which women have interacted and influenced the events of their day. Women’s history is not monolithic and it’s not a universal experience – it is complicated, vast, and diverse and I think we are still in the process of reconciling that. Additionally, we often say that women’s history is American history (and American history is women’s history) and while Women’s History Month is a vital and essential component is raising visibility and starting conversations on women’s history, the goal has to be taking a more balanced and nuanced view to how we discuss and interact with history every single day.
A Question from Rebecca: What’s your experience been like as a historian and writer who focuses on women’s stories?
I took an indirect path to writing women’s stories.
It’s where I started. As a kid, I read every biography I could get my hands on about historical women who ignored social boundaries and accomplished things—the kind that are written with the intention of inspiring young girls. I was indeed inspired. My grade school’s revolving library owned a whole series of them. Every week a new one arrived and I snatched it before anyone else could get it, eager to read about Clara Barton, Madame Curie, or Julia Ward Howe.
I never lost my interest in women’s stories, but my life as a history buff took an unexpected turn when at the age of eight or nine I fell in love with Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. (Kipling’s India put me on the path to a PhD in South Asia history.
It wasn’t a straight path. And it wasn’t a short one. The first day of my PhD program at University of Chicago, my advisor said, “You know there are no jobs, right?” I knew, but I didn’t care. Without the promise (or perhaps the threat) of a teaching job at the end of the road, I kept wandering down fascinating by-ways.
After I got the degree, there were still no jobs, so I started writing for a popular audience and I kept chasing whatever historical story caught my imagination. What I wrote about probably looked pretty random to an outsider, but by and large it clustered around one central theme. I feel strongly that as a society we need to hear the stories that don’t get told in high school history classes: the history of other parts of the world as well as history from the other side of the battlefield, the gender line, or the color bar.
As a result of my historical wanderings, in 2015 I was asked to write a work of historical non-fiction about Civil War nurses as a companion volume to the PBS historical drama, Mercy Street. That book took me back to my history-nerd roots and a topic that had fascinated me for years: the roles women play in warfare and how those roles are rooted in and occasionally help change a society’s fundamental beliefs about women.
And that’s where I’ve stayed.
Interested in learning more about A Tour of Her Own?
Check out the website: https://www.atourofherown.com/
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Come back tomorrow for three questions and an answer with Deborah Wastrel, host of the podcast Dinner Party Dames
I am so excited to learn of Rebecca. Where has she been all my writing life? I am an as of yet unpublished author whose writings focus on women in American history. My book hopefully coming out this summer is about my G Grandmother, who came from Ireland to America at age 14 on a ship alone in 1860. Two books still in the drawer are about Martha Washington and another about Martha’s oldest granddaughter placed primarily in the early days of Washington City. I am going to check out all Rebecca’s sites, books, etc., and probably bug her to death. Thanks so for this posting.