Talking About Women’s History: Three Questions and an Answer With Theresa Kaminski

Theresa Kaminski and I are co-administrators (and occasionally, co-conspirators) for a Facebook reading called Non-Fiction Fans, where readers and writers of narrative nonfiction meet up to talk about great non-fiction and how it gets written. She is also a wonderful writer of women’s history and a generous member of the on-line literary and historical community.

Theresa, who earned her PhD in history from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, specializes in writing about scrappy women in American history. She is the author, most recently, of Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War: One Woman’s Journey to the Medal of Honor and the Fight for Women’s Rights. Theresa also wrote a trilogy of nonfiction history books on American women in the Philippine Islands during World War II. Her biography of Dale Evans, Queen of the West: The Life and Times of Dale Evans, is due out from Lyons Press in April 2022.* After more than twenty-five years as a university history professor, Theresa is now retired from teaching (but not from writing), and lives with her husband in central Wisconsin at a place known affectionately as Southfork.

Take it away, Theresa!

Writing about historical figures like Dale Evans requires living with them over a period of years.  What was it like to have Evans as your constant companion? (Not to mention Roy Rogers.)

I’ve been living with this project for over ten years, and I really liked having Dale Evans as a constant companion. (Roy, although personable and charming, wasn’t so constant. See #3 below.) There were so many facets to her public and private lives that it was never dull. Still, ten years is a long time for a nonfiction project.

I began the book when I was still working fulltime as a professor of history, so my day job always came first. Still, I completed most of the research, both with secondary sources on Hollywood, television, radio, big bands, and twentieth century American women’s history, and with the primary sources I could track down, mostly the autobiographical books Dale Evans wrote.

Two unanticipated delays stretched out the project. One was the brand-new, biggest, and first of its kind, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans collection, acquired by the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. I wasn’t comfortable about turning in a manuscript to any press until I’d researched that collection. But the problem was that the museum’s archives was closed (and remains so) to researchers because of a move to a new facility. The only way to access the collection was through an archives research fellowship, which I received in 2019. I’m so glad I stuck to my conviction to wait because the contents of that collection helped shape my vision of Dale Evans.

The other delay: I got a literary agent. And she wanted me to write a book (which would be my third) about American women in the Philippine Islands during World War II. So I set aside Dale Evans for a few years to write what became Angels of the Underground.

I always knew I would return to Dale Evans and, after yet another book, Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War, I did. Dale’s personality and her accomplishments proved too much to ignore. And it was mostly because of her friendly, outgoing personality that I decided to refer to her by her first name in the biography. What to call their subject is something every biographer wrestles with, but for a variety of reasons, it’s more complicated with a woman. Sometimes that’s because of birth names and married names, which was something I had to consider. But with Dale Evans, an already complicated situation became more so because she opted to use a stage name.

Dale Evans was the name she chose for her singing career. She was born Frances Octavia Smith, and as both Frances and Dale, she had husbands. So how to refer to her throughout the book? I settled on most often using her first name, Frances in the first couple of chapters, before she took a new name. After that stage name was adopted, she became Dale. The two things that most influenced these choices were my perception of Dale Evans’s personality and the mood I wanted to convey with the biography. I think it worked.

Your previous books have dealt with women doing extraordinary things in times of war.  With Dale Evans you’ve moved to popular culture.  Did you approach your subject differently?

My research and writing methods don’t change much project to project. I felt a bit of initial relief that I wouldn’t have to deal with the trauma and drama of war this time around. While I was mapping out the Dale Evans project, I kept hearing “Down by the Riverside” play through my head, especially the line, “I ain’t gonna study war no more.”

There is a lot of joy in Dale’s story, and a lot of excitement with breaking into show business and becoming a star. It was fun to get immersed in twentieth-century popular culture. I loved reading up on early radio and television, nightclub and big band singers, and, of course, Hollywood. Plus there was all that great Western fashion. I really envied Dale’s boots.

But I also wrote about events in Dale’s life that were traumatic, and I don’t mean just the professional setbacks. She dealt with so much sorrow in her private life.

Are there special challenges in writing about a woman whose biography closely tied to that of a famous man? Do you feel like Roy Rogers overshadowed Dale Evans?

While they were married, I think he often did. Roy Rogers was massively popular in the 1940s and 1950s, both with children and adults. Thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of people showed up at his personal appearances. Dale Evans had a solid fan base, too, but few performers could compete with Roy in the popularity department.

So one of my biggest challenges as Dale’s biographer was to not let Roy’s story take over hers. I read a few dual biographies of Roy and Dale that seemed lopsided, like Dale was just along for the ride (pardon the pun) and that her only importance--even her fame--came from her marriage to Roy. My book shows how Dale Evans made a name for herself as a singer and actor well before she met Roy, though of course their professional and personal partnership significantly enhanced her celebrity.

Some Roy Rogers fans may think I went too far in Queen of the West, turning him into a supporting character. But I think the story has just enough Roy. I must admit, Roy was a fascinating person, and I sometimes got caught up in reading too many accounts of his activities. But it was really time for Dale to have her story told.

* My copy arrived on March 25, so it may be in stores by the time you read this.

Question for Pamela: When I read nonfiction, it’s almost always women’s history. I know that’s an interest of yours, too, so what work of women's history have you read (or perhaps watched or listened to) lately that you loved?

I’m going to circle back to the place we began this series of interviews on March 1: Shelley Puhak’s The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry that Forged the Medieval World  blew me away, from the opening when she tells the reader how she came to the story through the epilogue, where she explores why the story was—not exactly lost but definitely under-told and misrepresented. (The epilogue’s title, “Backlash,” says it all.) An exciting story, with lots of twists, based on impeccable research, told with beautiful language and a certain amount of attitude. In other words, just my cup of lapsang souchang.

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Want to know more about Theresa Kaminksi and her work?

Check out her website: https://theresakaminski.com/

Follow her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheresaKaminskiHistorian

Follow her on Twitter: @KaminskiTheresa

Follow her on Instagram: @hers_torian

 

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Come back tomorrow for one last Women's History Month post.

 

Talking About Women’s History: Three Questions and an Answer with Katie Nelson and Olivia Meikle

I am thrilled to have, sister-professors Katie Nelson and Olivia Meikle, the hosts of the What’sHerName podcast, back as my guests. I listen to a lot of podcasts, but What’sHerName is one of a handful that I make sure I listen to on the day they go live. What’sHerName tells the stories of fascinating women you’ve never heard of (but should have). The show is an engaging blend of story-telling, historical banter between the hosts, and interviews with experts. It is consistently smart, funny and thought-provoking. (And I thought that before they asked me to record an episode or two with them.)

Katie and Olivia bring impeccable credentials to the project:

Katie Nelson has a PhD in History from the University of Warwick and teaches courses in history, travel, and the meaning of life at Weber State University. She loves exploring life’s big questions and bringing students to Europe every year on study abroad courses.

Olivia Meikle teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She has an MA in English Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Now they have a new project coming out: The Book of Sisters is a non-fiction book for kids (or eternally curious adults) about sisters who made a mark on history, coming out on April 4th. I can hardly wait for my copies to reach the bookstore

Take it away, Katie and Olivia!

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There is a long tradition of collective biographies of notable women, that are written to provide female role models for girls. Do you see The Book of Sisters as part of that tradition? 

Katie: I’m not sure if our editors originally conceived of the book in that vein, but I wanted to put a very different twist on it.  I had the idea of writing a history of the world, in sisters.  I was awed and a bit intimidated by the thought: could we authentically cover all the main episodes of world history with a new set of glasses on, so to speak?  I knew it would be a big challenge. Happily for me, our amazing editors were on board too!

And there are certainly plenty of women in the book who shouldn’t be anyone’s role models! Rather than being inspiring, they are downright terrifying.  Some sets of sisters destroyed each other and everyone around them…and it’s all part of the wider human story.  I am so glad we were able to present the whole variety of human experience.  I think it’s important NOT to present historical characters as idealized heroes to model our lives on.  Who could ever live up to a perfect fantasy?  We’re all flawed humans, stumbling toward enlightenment.

Olivia: Yeah, I'm pretty proud that this book is so much more than just what can sometimes (not always!) turn into a fairly reductive and/or dismissive "big book of ladies" - and instead we're taking this often-complicated relationship and using it as a throughline through human history, looking at these characters and events - some well-known and some very unknown - from a unique and very specific angle that (we hope) yields equally unusual and fascinating results! (Just to be clear: There are lots of GOOD examples of those type of books. I own tons of Books of Ladies that I love dearly!)

Was it difficult to find historical sisters for the book?

Katie: Happily, a decade of teaching world history at university helped me out here.  Still, as I was mapping out the historical roadmap of the book, there were some “chapters” of world history that struck me as particularly masculine.  Genghis Khan’s Mongolian Empire, for example – where would I find sisters in this (immensely important, primary source-starved) episode of world history?  But wouldn’t you know it – just a little bit of digging beneath the surface led me to Jack Weatherford’s book, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, and there it was: Genghis Khan’s daughters built and sustained the whole operation.  Without those four sisters, there would have been no Mongolian Empire.

This confirmed for me that the lack of women in our historical narratives isn’t the fault of today’s historians. The scholarly research and the books are out there, now: we just need to help those stories make the leap into popular culture, placing these women as main characters in our collective historical narratives.  Hopefully, with a book like this, we can help make that leap a reality.

Olivia: Yeah, I confess I was a bit nervous if we'd be able to do it, but this kind of thing kept happening - whenever there were particular “holes” we needed to fill in the narrative or in the map, after a bit of determined digging we'd uncover another incredible story just begging to be told! And thank goodness for supportive spouses. Our wonderful men got almost as invested in the project as we did - I can think of at least three ‘sets’ of sisters in the book that my husband Matthew found before I did!

What work of women's history have you read lately that you loved?  (Or for that matter, what work of women's history have you loved in any format? ) 

Olivia: I recently finished 18 Tiny Deaths,about the completely fascinating Frances Glessner Lee, the middle aged Chicago “socialite” responsible for almost single-handedly establishing modern forensic medicine in the US in the early 20th century, and it was such a wild and unexpected story I could hardly put it down! The relentless and passionate commitment this woman showed toward what she saw as the pursuit of real ‘justice for all’ was inspiring and totally astonishing. And I know Katie just basically devoured Kim Todd’s Chrysalis, on 17th century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, who was doing groundbreaking field research on entomology and botany almost a century and a half before Darwin.

Katie: I also want to plug the podcast The Exploress  as one of my favorite works of women's history "in any format."  Kate Armstrong's research and attention to detail is impeccable, and the script is full of so many laugh-out-loud witty remarks.  I love it!

And for our question for you - We want to know your thoughts on the long tradition of collective biographies designed to provide female role models for girls?

I read those books as a kid, when I could get my hands on them. (There weren’t as many of them then as there are now.) And I loved those books. They gave me models that said it was okay to be tough/mouthy/opinionated/different.

But ultimately I think we need something more than role models. We need to show young girls, young boys, and grown-ass people of all genders that “women’s history” is simply history. Because we were there, y’all. We were there.

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Want to know more about Katie Nelson and Olivia Meikle and the amazing work they do?

Listen to the podcast: https://www.whatshernamepodcast.com/

Follow them on Twitter: @WhatsHerNamePC

Follow them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/whatshernamepodcast

Follow them on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/whatshernamepodcast/

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Come back tomorrow for three questions and an answer with Theresa Kaminski, author of a new biography of Dale Evans, the Queen of the West.

Talking About Women’s History: Four Questions and an Answer with Michael Cooper

Here’s the official bio: Dr. Michael Cooper, the Margarett Root Brown Chair in Fine Arts, has had research interests in 19th-century music, source studies, historiography and political history, specializing in Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz, and Richard Strauss. He has also spent the last three decades in research of Florence Price and Margaret Bonds, and is a leading editor of the music of Florence Price and Margaret Bonds.

Here's the passion behind it:  “I'm a musician. I'm a teacher. I'm a scholar. I have a passion for social justice. I believe that the most important thing we can do -- for ourselves, our understanding of who we are, our history, our future -- is to learn music and understand how it serves as a lens into the world that produces it and a lens into who we are. Music is the key to understanding ourselves in all the diverse beauty and complexity of the human condition. And it is the key to making our world a better world.

The most important thing, though? That is to learn the music that we do not already know -- the musical voices that others are not already telling us to listen to, the voices and works that have been erased from our collective history. “

My guess is that’s a mission statement that all the Marginalia  can get behind.

Take it away, Michael!

What path led you to Florence Price and Margaret Bonds? And why do you think it is important to tell their stories today?

This is a story both professional and deeply personal for me. I was in my mid-twenties when I first heard Price’s Songs to the Dark Virgin and Bonds’s Three Dream Portraits, and I was thunderstruck – I remember nothing else about the program, but the experience of those two works was like nothing known to me before. I immediately tried to find more music by these two obviously marvelous composers – but could only get to a tiny handful of other works, even though both Bonds and Price were reportedly quite prolific. A quarter-century later, the situation was the same: a very small body of works by Price and Bonds (4-10 pieces each) kept being recycled. What were the other hundreds of pieces, and what were they like?

I wanted to know, needed to know: it was like a burning question that had been simmering unanswered for a quarter-century. By then I had dealt with most of the contractual obligations that had kept me from addressing it for so long. I had also learned how to understand musical manuscripts and conduct archival research, and seen that the music suppressed by our world’s obsession with genuflecting before canonical “Great Men” was usually far worthier of mainstreaming than canonical works are. So when pianist Lara Downes (whose 2016 recording of Price’s First Fantasie nègre contributed much to the momentum of the current Price renaissance) encouraged me to follow through on the notes I had been taking over the years about those “missing” (unknown = marginalized and suppressed) compositions, I decided to go for it. I plunged headlong into the thousands of pages of manuscripts of both Price and Bonds – and I was stunned by what I found there, by its consistent beauty, by its eloquence and power, ceaseless originality. I started inputting the content of those musical autographs into my computer (editing the works), and so got to know the music from the inside out, putting one note at a time onto the pages, one bar at a time. It was so beautiful and amazing, each work so different from every other even though all clearly came from the same springs, that I couldn’t stop. By today, because of that work, the voices of Margaret Bonds and Florence Price have gifted me a huge musical universe of dazzling beauty, intensity, and originality. My musical universe has been enriched and transformed by their legacies. That long-unanswered question has been addressed, its fire supplanted by light.

I think we need to tell the stories of Bonds, Price, and countless other composers who have been marginalized because of their sex and/or their race partly because of the wonders that they left to our world, legacies without which the world is poorer. Beyond that, it’s impossible to understand any history if we hear only one group of its voices (by which I mean male voices, most of them White and most of these European). That’s like looking at a few pixels and pretending you’ve seen the picture. Most important, though, is the general principle that the marginalization and suppression of women and persons of color is, to put it plainly, wrong. We have to choose whether we accept that wrong and go on about business as usual, or call it out for what it is (wrong) and resist it with every fiber of our being. That path of resistance – the path of listening to voices silenced and suppressed – is the only conscionable way forward, the only way to make it possible for future generations to know a better, richer, more just world than we do.

Are there special challenges to researching women of color, who in some ways have been doubly erased from history?

“Doubly erased” is an apt term – and it’s an important one for me, a White male, to keep in mind as I approach the powerfully expressive art of two Black American women, one of whom (Price) was nearly ten years dead before I was born. As we all know, the tendency of White historiography and male historiography is to portray history and its art through White male eyes, thus perpetuating the very same White and male gaze that marginalized women and people of color to begin with. That approach to history not only marginalizes women and people of color; it also inevitably – and worse – misses the point of what they saw in their art, and wanted others to see there.

While it’s true that I feel obligated (having watched the musical world stand idly by for decades while the very music by Price and Bonds that it’s interested sits in the libraries and archives, unheard, unstudied, untaught) to do my best to help get that music and other aspects of those composers’ lives out into the public, I have to respect the challenge for me to, in some senses, suppress my own perspective, White and male as it is. Because it seems to be the historian’s nature to speak with authority, the challenge that researching women of color poses for me, and for all of us, is to remain humble rather than asserting authority, to listen more than we talk.

What can we learn when we use music as a historical source?

Because of music’s pervasive presence in cultures worldwide throughout history and its universally acknowledged position among the arts that are natural expressions of the mathematical order of the cosmos (Boethius’s quadrivium) as well as created through human imagination, music has an extraordinary capacity for serving as a lens into the ideas, issues, ambitions, and questions of the worlds of its historical composers and performers and their audiences. For the same reasons it’s also been an agent of change and social discourse. What’s more, historical music has an amazing ability to kindle emotional responses, to stimulate the intellects and imaginations, of historical observers. The chants of Hildegard of Bingen, the violin works of J.S. Bach, the symphonies of Louise Farrenc, the fantasies nègres of Florence Price – all these can speak to modern performers and listeners with an immediacy fully equal to that with which they addressed themselves to their contemporaries. They can connect us directly to those long-dead composers, and thus make their worlds more approachable than they might be otherwise. Music thus has a remarkable ability to connect us to a past that might otherwise be hopelessly remote; to articulate the voices of composers that are otherwise now forever silent; to share the ideas, questions, and inspirations of their creative imaginations with us with an immediacy that makes it perhaps every bit as powerful as a source of inspiration and agent of change today as it was in its own time.

Do you think Women’s History Month is important and why?

Women’s history month is incredibly important as a thing in itself, but even more so as a first step toward an eventual future where women’s history is no longer regarded as something that could possibly be celebrated in just thirty days. That future must come. For now, Women’s History Month acknowledges that 50%+ of the population and their myriad creations and contributions to history deserve to be celebrated not just as counterparts to men (as is usually the case) and not just as tokens in a male-dominated and resolutely male-chauvinist world, but on their own, and (more importantly) on their own terms.

We all know that the current thirty-one-day span will see more public and scholarly celebration of women’s history than the next 334 days will. That needs to change, has to change. Women’s history month is one small step in the right direction, and it’s important to me as an opportunity to drink deeply of the wealth of ideas and inspirations created by women throughout history and get a sustaining dose of those legacies – legacies that will be shamelessly marginalized and tokenized until the next Women’s history month. I look forward to March, 2023.

(Reminder:  If you are reading this in your email, you probably need to click over to your browser to view, and more importantly listen to, these video clips.

A question for Pamela: Correcting the erasure of women’s voices by restoring their presence in historical narratives is essential work, but wholesale erasure is only one of the techniques by which women have been marginalized and women’s contributions diminished. Another is historians’ tendency, when writing about women, to go out of their way to emphasize historical women’s attachments to men who are already recognized as important: commentators on Florence Price attach her to George Chadwick more than they need to and ought to; commentators on Margaret Bonds overly rely on her relationship with Langston Hughes; historians discussing Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel or Clara Wieck Schumann seem unable to discuss them as composers and musicians in their own right without making them indebted to Felix Mendelssohn or Robert Schumann in ways that, for these historians, do not seem to be reciprocated by Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. The list goes on and on – and its ultimate result is that the women who are discussed emerge as exponents of, or pendants to, “Great Men,” while male-centered narratives treat women as footnotes or incidental. The imbalance is a historiographic artifice that’s insidious in its undermining of the progress made by restoring women’s presence in historical narratives from which they’ve traditionally been erased.

The question, then: what do you think about this problem? And, more to the point, do you have suggestions about how to most effectively address it?

First, I think it is a very real issue. Every year in this series, I ask about the special challenges of writing about someone who is best known as the “wife of” someone or who is otherwise overshadowed in the literature by a man in their lives. And every year, I get interesting answers to the question.

I think one of those answers gets to the heart of how to address it. Music historian Angela Mace Christian  said that the biggest problem she has in writing about women like Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel is her own thought process:

I find myself consistently needing to stop and think carefully about if what I’m thinking is based on a long-held assumption about the relationship of a female artist to her brother, or whether what I am thinking is an objective analysis of evidence. I find that this issue crops up frequently when analyzing the music. It is incredibly tempting to compare the music of Felix and Fanny, because it truly does share a sort of genetic fingerprint. I find that many of us also fall into the habit of comparing composers to everyone who came before them; it’s hard not to, especially when a composer like Beethoven was very much alive and working when Felix and Fanny were teenagers. It can even be completely appropriate for some works, such as Fanny’s “Easter” sonata. But what if we didn’t compare them? What if we dug into the music of Fanny, just like we dig into the music of Bach or Beethoven or Brahms? What could we find that we’ve missed? What happens if we truly level the playing field, take gender and kinship out of the equation, and approach the work of art head on, regardless of its composer?* That’s incredibly difficult for me, since I do primarily write on the social context around Fanny, with a special interest in kinship, but it might be the best way to overcome those inherent biases in our minds and the historical record.

In short, we need to constantly wrestle with the opinions we hold so deeply that we don’t even know they are opinions, whether we are talking about race, gender, ethnicity, or religion. (And there are probably other things that ought to be on that list that I am not thinking of right now.) Sometimes it feels overwhelming, and exhausting. But I believe it’s important.

(FYI: Social psychologist Dolly Chugh has a book coming out in October that will be dealing with some of these issues head-on : A More Just Future: Psychological Tools for Reckoning with Our Past and Driving Social Change. I am eager to read it. In the meantime, I strongly recommend her newsletter, Dear Good People for evidience based and delightful discussion of these topics. You can subscribe here: https://www.dollychugh.com/newsletter)

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Want to know more about Michael Cooper and his work?

Check out his website:  https://cooperm55.wixsite.com/jmc3
Read his blog:  https://cooperm55.wixsite.com/jmc3/blog

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Come back tomorrow for three (or six, depending on how you count) questions and an answer with Olivia Meikle and Katie Nelson, hosts of the What’s her Name podcast, talking about their newest project The Book of Sisters.