Bonus Episode: History as a Social Justice Project
Hosts: Anna Reser, Leila McNeill, and Rebecca Ortenberg
Guest: Dr. Marie Hicks
Producer: Leila McNeill
This bonus episode is an excerpt from our interview with Dr. Marie Hicks that was cut for time from Episode 4. We talk about identity and historical practice and history as a social justice project.
Edited for clarity
[00:00:00] Leila: Welcome to a lady science bonus episode. This short episode is an excerpt taken from our interview with writer and historian. Dr. Marie Hicks from episode 4. We had a great conversation about how identity shapes historical practice and about history as a social justice project. Unfortunately, it did not make it into the final cut for the episode because of time limits.
So here is that conversation now.
Leila: I want to I highlight something that you said in the introduction that really stood out for me: "Throughout history it has often not been the content of the work but the identity of the worker performing it that determines its status." Identity in history is something that we've talked about before on this podcast and also something we've written about in the magazine.
So, I'm curious, how do you think identity both one's own and that of the historical actors shape historical practice.
Dr. Hicks: That's a really that's a really good question. A really tough question. I think you know, I think we're still really struggling to figure that out with every single project we do. Nobody for instance thought that the book Hidden Figures was a narrative that could be written until -- well some some people, you know, sort of had more knowledge, but in general, you know, the popular consciousness -- Margot Lee Shettlerly's book was a real bombshell and so much of the reason why she was able to write, not just an interesting story, but a truly excellent history in a few -- I think people who have seen the movie like they they [00:02:00] probably think "oh, you know, well, I know what's going on," but as you probably know from reading the book the book is way way better than the movie and it does all of these really fabulous things with historical practice and institutional history and social and political history.
But anyway, I mean her having grown up in that community was, you know, she says it was a primary reason why she knew to tell the story at all and why she was so invested in telling it and telling it right and giving the folks that were the main characters in this study real agency, you know, not just talking about them, but letting them have agency in this history or showing how they had agency in this history.
So yeah, it's a difficult thing and I mean I can say from my own experience that obviously the job I did before I went to grad school that played a role in what I decided to study, and you know, the fact that a lot of the stuff in my book that I talked about is actually about like heteronormativity and how sexuality plays a role in constructing gender. That also has to do with you know, who I am, the fact that I'm queer and I'm looking at a whole class of women whose lives were essentially structured around the presumption that they were straight, whether they were or not, they essentially were thought to be only good in the workforce for as long as they weren't going to be married and having children and that everybody would, you know, eventually go that way.
I know that the way that I look at that and talk about that is a lot more maybe critical or fleshed out because of who I am and what I'm interested in.
Anna: So just to wrap up in [00:04:00] the forward that you wrote for us for our 2016 anthology you wrote that "history by nature is a social justice project," and if we could just wrap up by talking a little bit about what that means you as historian and how your work um fits into history as a social justice project.
Dr. Hicks: Sure. I mean, I think it's something that I took for granted for a long time, but never really articulated in that way. But when you think about it, um, the whole reason that we do history the whole reason that we study and research and write history is because we think that we can somehow make things better in the present and in the future by understanding the mistakes of the past.
And so that's you know, it's what I mean when I say it's a social justice project is just that old idea of we learn from our mistakes and we try to make our present and our future better. So I think it sounds you know, it sounds very fancy and radical when I say history is a social justice project, but it's the same thing that you know every undergraduate saying, "So, well you learn from history so you don't repeat it or you don't repeat the bad parts."
I'd be interested actually to hear your thoughts on this because I know that you um, why shouldn't say I know but it appears from the work you do that you sort of see, um, the historical uh discipline in in a similar way.
So I'd actually be interested to hear your take on this.
Rebecca: I think it took me a while to realize that other people didn't think about history that way in part I think because... [00:06:00] the most basic reason of studying history is as you described and I think that so much then the of academic history seems to be an attempt to like drag all of that like out of people: the idea that we can learn things from history and make the world better is something.
And a lot of them academic history feels as the thing that, juvenile thing, that like undergrads think. I think both that that was something that kind of need like dispense with that way of thinking about history has often frustrated me and the lack of social justice in academic history has frustrated me, but I hadn't thought of them as connected before. Uh, so I really appreciate that way of framing it. That's so interesting. I can totally see what you're saying. Yeah, I definitely see that that sort of framework where it's may be seen as not um, it's somehow biased or it's not as intellectual to have a political tie in or be explicitly tying your work to what's going on in the present.
But I guess that also like shows me how lucky I was in terms of where I was educated because, for instance, I mean, I wouldn't have gotten um an education at some schools that really encouraged me to do the work of you know, not like overt activism but making sure that you know, there was a place for my story in the present as well as in the library. So I think I got really lucky in terms [00:08:00] of where I went and who I worked with as a graduate student.
Leila: I find that with the work that I do with Smithsonian I try to include like critical historical points and gender analysis in the work that I do in public writing there. But I don't even have to apply, you know, a really critical gender analysis to the work that I do. All I have to do is try to recover the history of a woman. That in and of itself makes people mad. I don't have to say anything necessarily radical in the history that I write but that it's about a woman is something that even upsets some people -- that I am inherently overstating her importance.
And I feel like it's my identity as a woman writing about women that somehow makes people think that I am biased about the history that I do, rather than seeing this as my practice of kind of recovering women from history is really no different than a white man recovering other white men from history as well. And so I feel like just by writing about women for me that history can be a social justice project.
Anna: It's interesting, I was just speaking to some students yesterday, and they were asking me about my work and then my work for Lady Science. And my personal work is not explicitly about women, but the [00:10:00] actors in my stories about the Space Program were actually buildings and stuff. But in thinking about that in answering their questions about my practice, I was just thinking that one of the things that I think we've all encountered a lot is that studying women and/or gender is its own like specific sub-discipline instead of a method that can be applied to any kind of history and that there's a lot that I can do with the buildings that I study that has to do with gender and being able to talk about the women who worked in them and how sort of scientific or technological spaces are constructed for certain people. So I know just sometimes I feel a little weird that my personal work isn't specifically about what women, but there's I think there's a responsibility that I have not always seen taken up by historians to account for that even if you're not going to talk specifically about women.
Saying that there are no women around first of all usually isn't true and second of all, doesn't matter -- there's still a way to talk about why they aren't there and where they went. I don't know. And that's something we always try to do with Lady Science. We try not to just run straight profiles because we do want to be able to get to kind of the larger systemic issues [00:12:00] going on in the histories that we we talk about. And even if someone does like pitch us an idea that is a profile that we try to push them a little bit harder to identify more of the the structures in place that kept us from knowing about this person and stuff like that so that we can actually get to some of those more root causes of of what we're talkin about.
Dr. Hicks: Yeah, and I really like the way lady science does that because while you're surfacing individual women you never do it in a way that's kind of the old-fashioned. We'll add women and stir, right, like we're gonna just add women to the historical narrative. That's one of the things that I think we still have to try kind of really hard to push back against especially like now in a moment when actually like talking about women in history is kind of hot, like especially recovering women in the history of technology and computing is having a real moment in the popular consciousness, but a lot of it is about well, let's just talk about this one woman and in fact also, let's just talk about like the same three white women over and over again. And then you know Hidden Figures has helped a lot to maybe talk about like a couple of black women, but it's like you say it's talked about in ways a lot of the time that is kind of um, it's hagiography. It's you know sort of hero worship and it doesn't actually tell us much about history because it focuses on these folks as though their exceptions rather than explanatory of larger social and political structures.
Anna: Yes. There's the great rushing stream of history, and then there's women over there or something standing on the bank or something.
Rebecca: And I think I think we try to keep in mind with Lady Science and that [00:14:00] has often been whatever I can make it important to my work as a public historian.
I try to make it important is the question of sort of who is telling the story and who they are telling the story for or two is I think important part is important part of the sort of the social justice history project. I think it's it goes to what we're talking about earlier about identity and the way that we see stories differently based on who we are and sometimes that means history from people who have different kinds of education and different levels of education and come from different kinds of backgrounds. And also sharing different kinds of history with not just broader audiences in the very generic sense, but really thinking about sort of who different people who want to know history are the kinds of and the kinds of stories and history that they can tell and bring to light that get lost in traditional and academic historical narratives. I think that's really important to this kind of yeah, social justice project of history.
Dr. Hicks: Yeah, that kind of reminds me of the example that um you started out with I forget if it was Leila who mentioned the example in my book of the woman who trains her new trainees to basically help with all the programming and operating and testing work she's doing in this major computer center and then her trainees step into management roles and she gets demoted into an assistantship below them simply because she's a woman and they're men and when I talk about this example in an [00:16:00] academic context, you know, you get a lot of nods and so on but whenever I've been at tech companies and I've talked about this example women in the audience will become like visibly angry, visibly agitated and they'll come up and talk to me after. It's painful to me to see how much they identify with this woman from decades and decades and decades ago and the question that they always have in a lot of men in the audience have and a lot of people of all genders in the audiences at these tech companies have is “Well. What do we do now? You know look you've been outlining how this problem has been around forever. How do we actually change things?” Because the history unfortunately resonates with them so much and that's where I kind of bring it back to labor and class and now I just kind of straight up tell people to unionize, you know, don't be above labor organization as a white-collar professional, you know.
And I think that very much goes for our profession as well. I shouldn't say our profession but sort of like, academics, whether they work inside of universities or outside of universities, but especially if they work within the confines of the corporate university. It's becoming all but essential to essentially be organized and have a have a union.
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