Podcast highlights: The History Chicks

I listen to a lot of podcasts. In this series of highlights, I recommend a few of my favourites to subscribe to now, plus a couple from the archives. Get listenin’!

Once upon a time, Beckett Graham put down her copy of To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace. She was hungry for more information on this era of history, known as the Gilded Age, with a particular focus on its women. She jumped to the internet and scoured it for podcasts on women’s history. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much luck in finding anything that would satisfy her appetite. As Beckett tells it, the thought dawned on her as the search drew to an end: “I’ll just have to do it myself”. After contacting writer Susan Vollenweider and getting her on board to help, The History Chicks podcast began.

Since then there have been 103 subjects covered (plus minisodes covering characters like Mrs Claus or visits to museums), offshoot podcasts recapping historically leaning media such as The Crown, a Pinterest board for every subject, and the emergence of #historychicksfieldtrip for listeners to share photos of visits to some of the sites integral to women’s histories. Each episode is thoroughly researched – no, really, thoroughly. Beckett and Susan become completely entangled in all the books they can find on their given subject to weave together a well-told and original account of historical figures’ lives. This is told not only through the podcast but through the accompanying show notes which link to their favourite books, films, and other relevant sources. Subjects range from Hatshepsut (in 1507-1438 BCE!) to Queen Elizabeth I to Marie Laveau all the way to Shirley Chisholm. The entanglement in books upon books upon books means the women from the past become a figure in Beckett and Susan’s lives for a few weeks, resulting in some wonderful instances of empathy and insight which make the stories told warm and affecting. The story they tell of movie star Clara Bow’s horrendous childhood in Episode 27 demonstrates the empathetic power that these women possess for their subjects, decades or centuries apart.

I found The History Chicks in 2014 after looking for a podcast on Marie Antoinette, after watching Sofia Coppola’s film of the same name. I listened to every available episode (around forty or fifty at the time) in about three weeks. I neglected all other podcasts: I was obsessed! I was also desperate to share it with my Mum, who has always been interested in the lives and stories of women in history. Whenever we used to visit National Trust properties, the kitchens would take a long time to get through, especially if Mum got into a conversation with one of the room guides about the running of the houses and the women integral to that system. So, a few years ago, I burned some of the History Chicks episodes onto CD for her to listen to in the car. Now, my Mum loves The History Chicks. We have had some fantastic conversations talking through the life of Princess Charlotte and imagining the tribulations of the Gilded Age heiresses. My Mum has also bought some of the books on topics she wanted to know more about: Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan’s All The Glitters and, of course, To Marry an English Lord. We are even heading out on our very own History Chicks field trip this spring!

Here are a few episodes that have stayed with me:

  • The Marie Antoinette re-do: because the original (Episode 01) was what drew me to them in the first place, but I know how much they hate their pilot episode’s style and audio.
  • Frida Kahlo: I really didn’t know that much about her beyond her self-portraits and she had an incredibly tumultuous life, full of revolution and drama. I think this is a great introduction to Kahlo’s context, and knowing more about her is especially important considering her art and her image are still so present in our lives (and sold to us in all sorts of ways that feel removed from her a real human being).
  • Hatshepsut: wanna feel mad? This amazing and successful female Pharaoh got chipped off all her monuments by a jealous and vindictive successor (yes, he was a man). This podcast is so insightful considering the subject lived thousands of years ago and the hosts do an amazing job explaining the system of Pharaohs, wives, regents, and the politics of the age.
  • Lillian Gilbreth: modern efficiency queen, inventor, engineer, industrial psychologist… more than just the mother of eleven children from Cheaper by the Dozen. As her show notes state: ‘We can thank her for – among other things – the efficient kitchen design we now use, the doors in our refrigerators, the height of our kitchen counters, the organizer on the back of our utility room doors, a number of handicapped accessible features in architecture, and the step trash can.’
  • Artemisia Gentileschi: an amazing realist painter who endured a horrible trauma and trial. I had never heard of her before this podcast, but since listening, her work always finds its way into my life. I love the way this is told by Beckett and Susan, particularly the descriptions of the Judith slaying Holofernes paintings that she repeated over and over.
  • I also love their episodes on Queen Victoria, Queen Lili’uokalani, and Zelda Fitzgerald. Oh, I love them all.

I really can’t recommend The History Chicks enough. Be transported to another world while you make your way through this one (they are particularly good companions for long car journeys). And their newest episode is about Ada Lovelace! Go on, give them a listen!

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