Interview by Marilou Tanguay, Florence Prévost-Grégoire and Catherine Larochelle with Emily Prifogle and Karin Wulf, two of the co-founders of Women Also Know History. This interview was originally published in French on HistoireEngagee.ca.
Last June, the historians behind the Twitter account and the hashtag #womenalsoknowhistory launched a website aimed at increasing the dissemination and use of the expertise and publications of women historians. The initiative, conceived as a way of countering the gender bias of historical discipline, is aimed at both history practitioners and journalists wishing to interview experts in the field. Since the launch of their website, almost 3,000 historians have created a profile.
As Quebecois historians working in Canada and Europe, we learned about this initiative through Twitter. The issues surrounding women’s place in academia have preoccupied us for a couple of years. Over the past few months we have begun to more intentionally investigate these questions. At HistoireEngagée.ca we have a series named “Où sont les femmes?” (“Where are the women?”) aimed at addressing links between women, the discipline of history and the narratives it produces. The launch of Women Also Know History was a key moment for us to reflect on these issues.
To learn more about this project, which is still little-known in Quebec and in the French-speaking world, we interviewed two of the co-founders, Emily Prifogle and Karin Wulf, about its beginnings, its impacts and their hopes for how this database will work to eliminate sexist bias in the practice and dissemination of history.
- When and why did you get the idea for this database? What was the intention behind this initiative?
Emily Prifogle: The idea for the database comes from the Women Also Know Stuff initiative created by women in political science. It inspired us to create something similar for historians in 2017. From the beginning, the overarching goal of the project has been to find concrete ways to promote and support the work of women historians as a way of addressing gender bias.
Karin Wulf: The idea originated in the evidence of ongoing gender bias in history—although there has been progress in this area the more obvious examples of “best book” lists and awards, keynotes, syllabi, the Barnes & Noble book tables—there are too many examples to list. And of course, there are many forms of bias and exclusion, but having seen the success of Women Also Know Stuff and talked with some of their founding group the time seemed right for a similar initiative for history.
Keisha [Blain], Emily, and I were able, through the help of the organizing committee, to get a last-minute panel accepted at the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians last June (2017), and after a terrific round table discussion we kicked off the social media that weekend.
The initiative is meant to provide “a media and curriculum tool” as we call it, both for historians working in the field and for journalists. For scholars we wanted to provide a resource for locating women historians to include on panels, reviews, syllabi and more. And we also wanted to create a site with resources to support women historians in various ways (that aspect of the website will be developed over this coming year). For journalists, we wanted a site where it would be quick to locate women working on various historical subjects so we wouldn’t see the same, often white male historians cited over and over again or interviewed in news stories. Another project for this year is to do some work on assessing the impact of the site, and an aspect of that is to query the work process of journalists to understand when and how a resource like this can get into their workflow.
- Were you surprised by the reaction to the launch of the database (almost 3,000 registrations in 2 months)? Was the reception really concentrated in the United States? Do you plan on trying to expand your reach towards the international community? Do you think that the database can become multilingual or do you think it would be more appropriate if similar initiatives emerged in other languages or communities (for example, in the Francophone community)?
EP: I’ll let Karin answer most of these questions, but I’ll just say that I was thrilled and grateful for the wonderful reaction, but maybe not surprised. Having monitored our social media for almost a year before the database launch, I had already seen how much the initiative resonated with women historians. If you go back and read through the #ILookLikeAHistorian Twitter posts from the summer of 2017, you can see how ready and excited women historians were to change the look and sound of historical expertise.
KW: The social media work throughout 2017 and early 2018 was really essential. It meant that when the website launched the first week of June 2018, we’d had a year of drawing attention to the project and engaging people in its aims. The numbers have been amazing and we were lucky to have the help of a fantastic web development team and a then-graduate student, Maddison Rhoa, to manage the back end support and the email correspondence.
Throughout the year we had a sense that the initiative was largely U.S., but with a lot of support and interest especially in Europe but also elsewhere globally. We were also shipping Women Also Know History stickers by requests to conferences, and we’ve sent to Australia, Europe, and Canada, but I know people in Asia have received them, too. The listed scholars now follow that pattern.
A key aspect of WAKH and its success is collaboration. Keisha, Emily, and I have different perspectives and experiences and we’ve worked to leverage those to best advantage for the project. (That’s also why, although it’s not always possible, we try to participate collectively in public discussions or interviews about WAKH.) Our Advisory Board has been very helpful, and offers a range of views and, of course, then the big community of WAKH supporters and listed scholars helps guide the project’s development. But from the spring of 2017 through the summer of 2018 the three of us have been working together, inspired first by Women Also Know Stuff, and then by our own experiences of working on other outreach projects. Keisha’s experience with AAIHS [African American Intellectual History Society] and Black Perpsectives, for example, has been invaluable. Emily’s work on our social media has been nothing short of amazing! I worked on the site development and on keeping the infrastructure intact and moving forward. But we all work on everything, really, and discuss each aspect as much as possible.
We’re not able to support multiple languages on the site at this time, unfortunately. We’d love to, and I think as WAKH expands that will be an area for development.
- So far, what have been the impacts of the database?
EP: Informally on social media, we’ve seen a range of exciting impacts. Historians have reported using the database to form conference panels, find speakers and journal reviewers, and update their syllabi. Journalists, too, have informed us they were able to find historians for articles and podcasts, and many historians have reported being contacted for all types of media engagements.
KW: We’re hearing lots of positive feedback about the direct impact as Emily notes. We’ve also had a lot of enthusiasm for the WAKH stickers, which we’ve sent to share at history conferences around North America and abroad (and for now, we’re continuing to send as many as we can so keep the requests coming). And related to the stickers is a sense of enthusiasm for the message of the project, which is to amplify the voices of women historians. I’m especially glad that we’re reaching women historians who work in a wide variety of places –in government, in industry, in publishing, in museums and other cultural institutions, in libraries, and in education, including higher ed.
A project, as I mentioned above, for this coming year is to design an impact study that will help us to understand how our various outlets, social media, the website, passive messaging via the stickers, and also networking, are working. If we can get a strong study together, that will help us to make the WAKH initiative even more supportive of women scholars.
- What future do you foresee for the database in the short and medium term?
EP: One thing that I’m especially excited about are the possibilities for expanding the site in the future. As part of our effort to raise awareness of women-identifying historians and their roles as public intellectuals, possible areas for expansion might be adding resource pages for preparing for interviews with journalists, writing op-eds, or participating in podcasts. As part of our effort to connect all historians to the work of women historians, resources for creating diverse syllabi is another area for expansion on the site.
KW: We’ve received lots of helpful feedback and suggestions for projects to take on, and ways to adapt the time and I wish we could do all of it. Here’s just one example. Our logo, which we created in part to mimic the look of Women Also Know Stuff and their simple, singular item (they use a lightbulb) is a slightly abstract globe. But it’s only the western hemisphere and, of course, we have historians working on all parts of the globe and from all parts of the globe. I’d love to get that logo reproduced with different hemispheres. For now, we’re excited that the new stickers include the website address (womenalsoknowhistory.com).
But we’ve had to make some choices for concentrating our energies, and for this year, we’ll be focusing on continuing to spread the news of the site and its uses, and the impact study as well as developing the resource pages.
- How did your male colleagues react to the launch of the platform? What has been the reaction of men historians on social media: support, indifference, hostility, etc.?
EP: Having monitored our social media for over a year now, I can say that almost uniformly, colleagues have been supportive on Twitter and Facebook. Most of the people who engage with us on social media tend to identify as women. However, we’re glad that’s changing as our database and social media following grows because the database isn’t just for the use of historians who identify as women—it’s for the benefit of the entire profession.
KW: In terms of how colleagues have responded, I think what’s not said might be as interesting as what’s said. History is a tough business, especially, but certainly not only, in academia. A project that seems to promote one group over another can be controversial. And of course, that’s not at all what we’re doing. We’re addressing longstanding structural inequities, measurable in all sorts of ways in the historical profession as well as in public representations of history and historians. Just before we launched the site a New York Times editorial writer, David Leonhardt, published a piece about how he wasn’t quoting enough women and calling attention to efforts including Women Also Know Stuff to provide resources on women experts. So I keep waiting for someone to ask me the “why women? Is that really necessary?” question and they haven’t! At least not openly.
HistoireEngagee.ca: Last year, at the annual congress of the Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française, the plenary roundtable on the challenges of the public historian provoked the ire of several female historians because there were four men and no women (except the chair) [see “Chercher l’absence des femmes”]. We would like to ask you some questions about the more general issues with which your initiative is engaging with.
- Your social media movement has created a collective awareness of some of the things women experience in academia such as mansplaining, the absence of women in syllabi, and so on. What kind of impact do you think this ‘virtual’ awareness will have? Do you think it will reach academics institutional milieus?
EP: I certainly hope our social media campaign reaches academic institutions and contributes to tangible change. There’s some evidence that it’s already doing some of that work by helping to create more diverse conference panels and program speaker series.
KW: We also hope that as we build out the site there will be space for syllabus information. The larger ambition is that once the site is there, and it’s so robust, it won’t be possible to exclude women historians in any professional context. But I think I’ve anticipated your next question…!
- The author Sara Ahmed has often referred to the “politics of quotations” in relation to the academic world. Your initiative allows historians to have no more legitimate arguments for not citing women. Is this question of quotations one of the most important in relation to the challenges of women in the academic world? What do you think are the challenges the academic world faces today around the place of women? Are some of these issues peculiar to the historical discipline (compared to other milieus such as STEM for example)? What are the stereotypes to be defeated in relation to women historians, especially in the fields of expertise where they are recognized (or not at all)?
EP: From a grad student perspective, I think there are a couple of distinct challenges: a) non-diverse course reading lists and b) mentorship and networking.
First, grad students don’t always have much control over what they read while taking coursework, but often coursework heavily shapes their perspective of their field. The burden is often on them to diversify the scholarship they incorporate into their research.
Second, grad students tend to be heavily reliant on mentors to improve their scholarship and network. As a grad student, I’m enthusiastic about the possibilities the website offers to address these challenges. Like everyone in the profession, grad students can search the site for their fields of interest and not only find new scholarship to incorporate into their own research, but also use it as a networking tool to find new scholars to reach out to.
KW: It’s clear that there are similar and serious gender inequities in many professional fields, though they have distinctive qualities. There are similar initiatives in other fields to address this, and we drew directly from Women Also Know Stuff, a Political Science project. A challenge particular to history, or perhaps particularly intensive for history, is that the subject is both familiar enough and yet authoritative enough that expertise in the field is, particularly in the public eye, up for grabs. And that in turn means that cultural stereotypes about who can embody expertise are especially potent.
- Some female historians face other inequalities or challenges that intersect with gender. Does your database address this reality? How can ‘privileged’ women help reduce those discrimination?
EP: Women Also Know History has worked as a team to purposefully bring together an advisory board that has a diverse set of experiences and expertise. As historians, we all can use the particular privileges our own positions afford us to listen to women and learn about how intersectional oppression affects their lives, educate others, and be receptive to feedback.
KW: It’s central to our project to represent and support diversity and inclusion. It’s a challenge to be sure, because as scholars we know just how class, geography, race, and sexuality all function with gender to produce discrimination and inequality. The short answer is that we don’t have “the” answer, but we hope on balance we’re making a contribution.
For more information on the initiative of Emily Prifogle, Karin Wulf and Keisha N. Blain, please visit womenalsoknowhistory.com and follow @womnknowhistory on Twitter. Finally, we encourage Canadian historians to contribute to this work by completing a profile on the website.
 Marilou Tanguay is a Ph. D. candidate in history at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).
 Florence Prévost-Grégoire is a Ph. D. candidate in history at University College of Dublin).
 Catherine Larochelle is Assistant Professor in the History department at Université de Montréal. and a member of the editorial team of HistoireEngagée.ca.
 Sara Ahmed, « Making Feminist Points », Feministkilljoys, 2013 [en ligne] https://feministkilljoys.com/2013/09/11/making-feminist-points/