An interview with Susan Vollenweider and Beckett Graham of the hit podcast, The History Chicks, by Elizabeth Harris.
Two women. Half the population. Several thousand years of history. About an hour. That is the incredible duo of Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider of the amazing podcast The History Chicks. Every fortnight since 2011, they sit down, discuss notes, and share stories of incredible female figures, both real and fictional, of our past.
I came across the History Chicks podcast as a recommendation from a friend. After the first episode, I was hooked. It was hilarious, fun, enthralling, and uplifting to have the history and stories of so many incredible women shared internationally. Hey, don’t take my word for it.
They have been a finalist in the People’s Choice Podcast Award for Education 6 years in a row; they won the Mixcloud Online Radio Awards for Best Talk Show in Education; and, they come highly recommended from Travel and Leisure, BBC Culture, the American Library Association, and so many more.
When we wanted to celebrate women and women’s history in this issue of Toastee, I knew I needed to reach out to Beckett and Susan. Despite having day jobs, they put on an incredible, historically rich, and superbly well-researched show. After doing over 170 episodes, I am sure they know a thing or two about women’s history and its importance.
I was fortunate enough to be able to speak with Beckett and Susan about the making of The History Chicks and the importance of Herstory.
Susan and Beckett, I am so excited to be interviewing you. I am a big fan of your podcast. What got you two to start making The History Chicks?
Thank you, that’s great to hear, we’re glad you like it! Beckett had read a book, To Marry an English Lord by Carol Wallace and Gail MacColl about American heiresses who traded substantial dowries for aristocratic titles through marriage during the Gilded Age. She wanted to learn more about it, looked for a podcast on the subject, and found nothing. This was in 2010, there wasn’t the mass of podcast choices that there are now, so she thought, “I guess I’ll just have to make it myself. ” She contacted Susan, a woman she only knew online, and within a couple of months, The History Chicks was launched.
You share a lot of incredible resources and it definitely shows how much in-depth and thorough research you do. Can you share with us a bit about your research process?
Once we’ve decided on a subject we each go our own way and research independently starting with our different library systems. We love to be able to recommend books to listeners that are readily available because we know that we won’t be able to get the entire story into an episode and people are going to want to learn more on their own so we always make sure we have readily available books.
We read a lot of books and reputable online sources, not only biographies but background information--where did she live? What did she do? What major events were going on during her lifetime? Who was she interacting with? What were her challenges?
We handwrite notes as we go and never discuss her with each other so our recorded conversation is fresh. When we feel comfortable with the amount of information we have, we each write what is essentially a 20-30 page research paper on the woman’s life from birth to death. It’s these last notes that we keep in front of us during our conversations. It’s exciting for us to see the same woman through the eyes of each other--things that one of us finds interesting, the other might gloss over.
One of the things that I really love about your show is that you have a very empathetic portrayal of the women and other characters in history. A lot of female historical figures, characters in history textbooks, and in common knowledge have a one-sided view, and in many cases a negative view. How can we ensure that going forward we present the whole picture of someone?
When people study history, not just the professionals, but anyone with an interest in history thinks beyond the timeline they’ll see more of the story. Sometimes something as simple as getting your hands on a primary source document, which is becoming easier with the vast amount of digitized documents online, you’ll see the person or event differently than a history book may record it. Sure, it’s biased but whoever created that document lived at the same time-- and it is often the journals or letters of the very person you’re studying. Those add more layers to her story.
Think of a historical woman that you “know” as very serious, confident, and with great drive. Now imagine reading her journal or letters to confidants and learning that she fretted over the most common things like unrequited love, an uncontrollable fondness for sweets, a confession where she felt defeated, concerns for her children...suddenly her character is relatable. That should become the story that is shared, not just a timeline.
Women are often left out of history, or they play the side character, but from listening to your podcast, I’ve learned that many of the female side characters were actually huge powerhouses. For instance, Queen Catherine of Aragon held significant power, even organizing troops to quell Scottish rebels. Why are women so often left out of history, and why is women’s history so important?
“The patriarchy” is an easy answer, but it’s too broad of one. In the movie, The Holiday, one of the main characters says, “You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life…” We get to look at our subjects as the leading ladies, not hidden behind the men who made the laws and fought the wars...and wrote the history books. Those guys are merely supporting players for us. Women may have seemed out of the picture while the focus was on the men, but women weren’t out of the action. These women were 50% of the population who were busy getting things done without scribes at their heels.
Besides the podcast, you’ve created this incredible and supportive community. How did this happen?
By accident? We met on a mom’s message board here in Kansas City in 2009. We met online and we thought that we would give the same opportunity to people who listen to the show, so, we started our private Facebook group for that purpose. When (pre-Covid) people started to have meet-ups at historic places in their own area, we knew that relationships were forming. Now we have a book club, a community heirloom recipe list, an impressive list of recommended podcasts, a growing list of recommended books written by women, and a weekly Zoom trivia game. On Tuesdays, we celebrate each other’s recent accomplishments (everything from breaking through depression to babies being born and businesses being launched), and each week we have a themed baking challenge on Sundays where we show-off (failure or success) in a parade of baked goods. One of the coolest parts is that all those activities are member-created and led, and we just get to play along.
After so many years and numerous episodes later, what have you gotten out of doing the podcast (besides tons of historical information and expertise)?
This is going to sound corny, but so be it: We’ve been rewarded with a very special friendship with each other, and we’ve met and befriended people that we would never have known in the normal courses of our lives.
The History Chicks has been around for 10 years! Congratulations! So, what’s next for the two of you for this podcast?
Thank you! We really just focus on the next episode and then the one after that. We try not to put more than that on our History Chicks plates, but we would love to fire-up our other podcast, The Recappery, to annotate historically based media (it’s more chill than that sounds.) When the pandemic is over, we would like to do more live events and we’re working on a book (which we don’t like to talk about because it is far from complete.) We’re really excited about the first, of, hopefully several, History Chicks Field trips-- we’ll be traveling with listeners--in person!- to the places we’ve been talking about for years. The first trip is to London, it was supposed to be last June but was rescheduled to this year due to the pandemic.
Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider are the hosts of The History Chicks podcast. You can find more about the podcast, listen to the episodes, and find their in-depth show notes at thehistorychicks.com. You can also listen to the podcast on Wondery, Apple Podcast, Spotify, and wherever else you get your podcasts.
To get clues and keep up to date with them, follow them on @thehistorychicks on Instagram and Facebook, and @thehistorychix on Twitter and Pinterest. You can also join them in The History Chicks Podcast Lounge Facebook group.
If you would love more history about some of your favorite historical dramas like The Crown and Little Women, check out Beckett and Susan’s other podcast The Recappery. You can check out The Recappery on The History Chicks website as well as on Wondery, Apple Podcast, Spotify, and wherever else you get your podcasts.