Alexis Coe’s past essays on history for The Toast can be found here. Most recently: Yes, We Can Now Talk About Elizabeth Báthory. This, and all subsequent editions of Alexis’ columnn (!) are brought to you courtesy of a sweet and generous sponsor who wishes to be known as The Ghost of Jane Addams.
Let me tell you a little story. Last May, I sent Nicole the craziest “professional” email my fingers have ever typed. I may have suggested that I was waiting outside of her home, but that’s neither here nor there, because she and Mallory promptly responded with an offer of employ.
There’s plenty of good history on the Internet, but like the content we’re given in classrooms, women make rare appearances, and when they do, they’re often familiar, if not minor, characters. I’m in no way diminishing the accomplishments of Amelia Earhart and Ida B. Wells, whom I’ve written about, and will continue to do so, but I like to take advantage of my position. There’s quite a bit of unmined territory available to historians who focus on women, and I intend to explore as much as I can.
In the last six months, I’ve done bit of that at The Toast, and yet, this column has been nameless all along. We simply identified my role as The Toast’s history correspondent in the first post on lady pickpockets, tucked away in the bio, and moved on. The next week, we added the following introduction to Vera Atkins, spymistress:
Alexis Coe’s essays on history appear once a month. Past installments can be found here.
The week after that, the word “women” found its way into a post about Vivian Davis. This is not uncommon. If anything, it’s considered my beat.
In November, my column received a patron, and Mallory, Nicole and I began to talk about naming it. My patron, known only to you as The Ghost of Jane Addams, did not insist upon a name. She doesn’t even demand I come to her “little place” on the vineyard so she can ritualistically humiliate me in front of her moneyed dinner guests! Sadly, she just wrote me a nice email in the beginning, and pays me on time – but I remain hopeful.
The thing is, whenever I think of naming anything, I cannot help – and I wish I were joking – but consider Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Let’s just keep it simple and say the French philosopher found the act of naming, of pointing out difference, to be of some consequence. I’ve always felt this way about being called a “women’s historian.” (I also write about men with frequency, but that’s beside the point.) It can feel dismissive, not just of me, but of the work and, as such, real women in history, whose legacy we inherit. The very advantage I name above – a veritable treasure trove of unknown women, or women who we hardly know, just waiting for us in the archives – exists because there was “history,” and then later, there was “women’s history.” The latter was delayed, as female academics had a very difficult time getting into history departments until the 1970s, let alone studying women. (There are still plenty of problems there.) I attended a graduate program started by the late Gerda Lerner (pictured), meant to provide a space in which historians were allowed to pursue their research interests. Often, yes, they were women focusing on women, but that was not an absolute rule.
And it shouldn’t be. Please forgive me for quoting myself here, but Mallory, Nicole, and I were parsing this issue while I was writing a book review for another publication, and I sent the following excerpt their way. Ultimately, it informed our decision not to name this column anything nearing “women’s history.”
Hitler’s Furies is an unsettling but significant contribution to our understanding of how nationalism, and specifically conceptions of loyalty, are normalized, reinforced, and regulated. By asking important questions about the pervasive culpability of Nazi women, Lower has highlighted a historical blind spot. And yet, the lens through which this book will no doubt be understood, that of “women’s history,” is a difficult one, as it suggests that the actions of half of the population exist in a separate sphere. Mass murder cannot occur without the broad participation of society. None of these women had to stand by as witnesses, serve as accomplices, or take the lives of others, but the vast majority of them did just that.
Men and women coexist in this beautiful, terrible world, and always have. Our collective memory is messy and unbalanced, and my goal is to nudge that, just a little bit, by focusing on women here, at this lady blog, where most of our readers are women, but I won’t exclude men any more than I would women. (You’ve already seen an iteration of this with the essay on Ellen and William Craft.)
Toasties, this is why we’ve settled on “Archival Mix.” As the many archivists among you know, this is actually a search term. When I was a research curator at the New York Public Library, I used it often, even if I was looking for something specific, as in a manuscript or a photograph. This is not the most efficient way to go about things, as you’re opening yourself up to many an irrelevant return, but I’ve always been a person who is happiest lost in, or rather to, the archives. And I’m obviously a romantic, which is to say that clicking Archival Mix almost guarantees that a special collection will surprise you, and that thrills me. There’s just so much room for possibility.
Mallory and Nicole asked for a short paragraph introducing the newly named Archival Mix, but since we’re in this deep, I hope you don’t mind if I take this opportunity to go a little further and thank you, the readers, who have supported this column from the Toast’s very first week. (And my patron, you tyrant!) Most writers avoid reading the comments for various reasons, and I, either out of thin-skin or frustration with points seemingly devoid of all reason, tend to avoid them as well. Here, however, I do read them, far closer than I care to admit, but not just because it is terribly nice to positive comments about your work. I love the way you interact with the material, the way you delight and become vexed, make connections and suggest related movies and books. To my great pleasure, someone inevitably starts a casting call, and you all tolerate my insistence that Tilda Swinton would deliver an Oscar-worthy performance in every.single.role.
Thank you, many times over, and thanks as well to Mallory, Nicole, and Nick, for their continued trust, support, and short, often all-cap emails.
Oh, what’s that? You wonder which roles in particular? Well, if I must:
Tilda Swinton as the Jean Bonnet, the cross-dressing leader of a band of lady pickpockets. She saved Blanche Buneau from a bullet issued by her disgruntled pimp.
Tilda Swinton as Alice Mitchell, the nineteen-year-old Memphian who murdered her seventeen-year-old ex-fiancé, Freda Ward. She could also play Judge Julius DuBose (who I briefly mention in the post, but spend some time on in the book), son of a slave owner, founding member of the Tennessee KKK, generally awful human being.
Tilda Swinton as Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory, the 16th century sadist – or perhaps an historian making inappropriately lengthy asides on the topic of “murderous lesbians in history.”
Tilda Swinton as Vivian Davis, notorious miscreant riding the 1930s Midwestern crime wave.
Tilda Swinton as Rita Levi-Montalicini, a Nobel-prize winning scientist who, as a young woman, fashioned her own laboratory while hiding, along with her Jewish family, from Fascists and Nazis alike.
Tilda Swinton as 15-year-old ZInaida Portnova, a member of the Young Avengers in Russia. (Don’t even talk to me about age. Cate Blanchett got away with it in The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons, and we’re talking about TILDA here. If you wrongly insist that it wouldn’t work, I’d just cast her as the German interrogator, too, because you need to be taught a lesson. She could play both roles. And direct it, too, and later call the entire process installation art. She’s that good.)
(A permed) Tilda Swinton as Ada Yonath, the first Israeli woman to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Tilda Swinton as Vera Atkins, who sent 39 female British spies in the field during WWII. When they were declared missing or dead after the war, she took it upon herself to go find out exactly what happened to them – often on her own dime.
Tilda Swinton as Eliza, Ellen Craft’s half-sister. You know, the one who accepted her own sibling as a wedding gift, and then married her off so she could produce more family members to own.
Alexis Coe is The Toast's history correspondent. She holds a master's degree in American women's political history, and was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Alexis is also a columnist at The Awl, and has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, the Paris Review Daily, and many others. Her first book, Alice+Freda Forever, will be published on October 7th. Follow her @alexis_coe.