Episode 63! Reclaiming Women’s History--Still, Conversation with Karen Blumenthal


Welcome to episode 63 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Usually, this podcast features an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday). 

In this episode, author Karen Blumenthal and Grace Lin discuss Karen’s essay, Reclaiming Women’s History--Still, which can be heard in episode 62.

Read all the kidlitwomen* essays shared in March

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On today's podcast you will hear:


Karen Blumenthal,  a long-time journalist,  writes nonfiction for young people with the belief that nonfiction brings context to a complicated world. She is particularly fascinated by social change, how it happens and why. Her books include the Siebert Honor Book Six Days in October: The Stock Crash of 1929 and Let me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America. Her new book Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend is out now  Learn more about Karen at her website: www.karenblumenthal.com.


Grace Lin, a NY Times bestselling author/ illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same. Her most recent novel When the Sea Turned to Silver was a National Book Award Finalist and her most recent picture book,   A Big Mooncake for Little Star, was awarded the Caldecott Honor. Grace is an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio and video essayist for PBS NewsHour (here & here), as well as the speaker of the popular TEDx talk, The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf.


Grace Lin:              Hello, this is Grace Lin, the author and illustrator of When the Sea Turned to Silver. I am here talking to Karen Blumenthal. Hi Karen.

Karen B.:                Hey Grace, how are you?

Grace Lin:              Good. Well just in case people didn't know, not only are you an acclaimed and awesome non-fiction writer, you are also the co-founder of KidlitWomen*, so it's been quite an adventure, hasn't it?

Karen B.:                It really has. I don't think we knew what we were getting in to, didn't we?

Grace Lin:              No, not at all but it's been great. What else is great was your essay, which I really loved. It was called Reclaiming Women's History and then Still, which I thought was really interesting because we have to clarify that we're still reclaiming women's history. Do you want to talk about your essay a little bit?

Karen B.:                Sure. As a writer of non-fiction, I'm just constantly amazed at how women are portrayed in history. I've had to learn the hard way that I can't take the way people are portrayed as truth without doing more research. Often women, particularly 100 years ago, where is spend a lot of time in the 1920s and 30s, are portrayed through a male lens. So it's not a very fair representation of who they are or what they've done.

Grace Lin:              Why do you think being accurate about women have done, why do you think it matters so much?

Karen B.:                Oh well it matters for a lot of reasons, but one is it's hard to give women credit today if we don't think they've ever done anything. Oh you know, men did this, men did that. But women contributed in every single area, in science, in the Military, in art and entertainment, and yet they tend to get second string roles. It's very important to highlight what women contributed so that girls today know, and even women today know, that they are not alone in this.

Karen B.:                One of the problems is that women are often misrepresented. So a woman who was angry or outspoken is often called "crazy" or worse. A woman who is successful may also be accused of ... we don't use this so much anymore, or maybe we won't after Harvey Weinstein, the casting couch, God forbid. There's a lot of ways women are characterized that misrepresent the work they've done in order to diminish them. That's just not a positive thing for anyone today.

Karen B.:                One of the stories that I told in the essay was about Carrie Nation, who was a very colorful character in prohibition. She went in and smashed up a bunch of bars, which was entertaining to a lot of people and infuriating to a lot of others. It turns out that-

Grace Lin:              And she's known ... just in case people didn't know, Carrie Nation is known for prohibition.

Karen B.:                Right. She is, in a lot of ways, the face of prohibition. This stern woman in black who looks to be frowning, and we tend to associate her with the religious right, although she was religious she wasn't necessarily affiliated with a religious movement. She's often portrayed as crazy. People often harp on the fact that her mother may have been mentally ill. She is also described frequently as very large and freakish. Six feet tall, unusually big.

Karen B.:                When I did my research, I was struck. First of all, she was religious, but she wasn't really nutty about it. She did hear from God, but you know frankly so do a lot of people.

Grace Lin:              I know.

Karen B.:                She was just mad. She was angry. She had lost a husband to alcoholism. She mentored people. She ministered to people in the jails, and she saw the effect that alcohol had. Kansas had a law they weren't enforcing, and it infuriated her. So she was really just an angry woman. She wasn't a crazy women. But the six feet tall thing really got to me.

Grace Lin:              Yes, so tell us a little bit about that. The six feet tall is obviously one of the many ways that we, or history, has kind of added to this myth to make her more crazy. Tell us a little bit about after you wrote your article, you did some interesting things with your article on Twitter. Tell us about that.

Karen B.:                When I wrote about her in a book, I realized there was no way she was six feet tall based on photographs so I didn't use that. But then when I was writing this essay, I pointed to several very recent books including one from I think 2011 or 2012, that repeated this comment. I also included some photographs, and as we do, I got permission to use those photographs on the blog post. I told the Kansas State Historical Society about this, so they started to do some research.

Karen B.:                After the post ran, I thought I might point out to Brittanica.com that they were still calling Carrie Nation six feet tall. I think they described her weight as rather large, too. I Tweeted to them, "Hey guys, can we stop calling Carrie Nation six feet tall?" And I attached my essay. I copied the Kansas Historical Society because I used their photographs. Well, they had done some research so they answered back with a photograph of one of their archivists holding one of Carrie Nation's dresses, and showing that he's only like five foot eight and that based on the dress, and they even included a photograph of her in that dress, she was only maybe five four or five five. She was of average height.

Karen B.:                It was very exciting. Britannica, that day, took out the height and the weight from their listing. The Missouri State Historical Society and some of the other still have it, but we'll keep working at it.

Grace Lin:              I think that's awesome. I mean that is such an example of you changing myths of women right in front of us. I thought that was such a cool thing that happened.

Karen B.:                Well, it's one tiny step but that's what we need is a bunch of tiny steps.

Grace Lin:              I think so. What do you think was maybe the hardest thing to write about your article?

Karen B.:                We were asked to find solutions, or to suggest solutions. I had a lot of thoughts about it, but it's to encourage people to dig deeper. People tend to want to read one or two things, and not keep looking. I think when you're talking about writing about both women and people of color, you've got to look a lot harder. It means you've got to go back to primary source, you've got to think about whether newspapers twisted things in that day, or what your source is.

Karen B.:                Another source I found really helpful is looking at what contemporary females are writing about those characters, because they're also doing more research and investigation, and through a different lens. I was trying to offer some ideas, and that was really the hardest, and of course sort of hoping that maybe somebody would take on a class project looking at a woman or a person of color in their community who hasn't gotten very much attention, and looking at what they contributed.

Grace Lin:              Yeah, I love your advice that you gave to everybody. If only it's just question, question, question. Were the girls really weak? Would her impatience or temper really have mattered if she was a man? All of those things are such interesting questions for all of us to think about when we're researching or thinking, or even when we're reading today's articles about modern life and modern news.

Karen B.:                Right, there was a recent picture book. It was a very good picture book, but there was one scene were all the women fainting over a man. I thought, "Hm, in my lifetime I never-" I mean I've seen women scream. I've been to concerts. I'm old, I've experienced some of that. But I've never seen them actually swoon and faint. Maybe their corsets were just too tight. Maybe they weren't swooning and fainting because of him. It's that kind of history I think we need to question more.

Grace Lin:              That's true. That's true. I think, like I was saying, not just history. I think modern contemporary news that we were fed, we have to question more about how women in general are being portrayed by all media.

Karen B.:                Yeah, absolutely.

Grace Lin:              What are you afraid that readers might misunderstand about your essay?

Karen B.:                Just that it's being radical. I think it's hard to believe that something you read in a book that came out in this decade might be factually wrong. I cited several books, and one of the books I cited is a very well known author, a guy named Daniel [Oakrent 00:09:01], who's very well-known and very well-regarded, and was once the ombudsman at The New York Times. His book is deeply researched, but not so much when it comes to the women. I think that might be perceived as radical, or that we're trying to change history in some way.

Karen B.:                I also think we have to be open to the fact that the way women are portrayed, it has not been factual for a long time.

Grace Lin:              Have you ever gotten any pushback in any of your work, or any of those things about ... you were just saying how people might be upset that you were trying to change history or anything like that. Have you ever experienced that?

Karen B.:                Once, I did a book on Title IX, which is a law that we think of as opening the doors for girls to play sports. It did some other things too. It ended quotas for graduate schools, but there is a perception that Title IX hurt men's sports because there's a limited amount of money for sports and when athletic departments have to make choices, they will sometimes cut the smaller men's sports or the ... men's sports have the most financial liability. That would be like men's gymnastics, diving, wrestling.

Karen B.:                Men would look at that and say, "Well, if there weren't women's sports, we'd still have men's wrestling." The problem is, and I explain this over and over again, the problem is football which I adore, but football is a very expensive sport that involves a whole lot of people and a whole of equipment. If you're going to play football you don't have enough money to fund a whole bunch of other sports. Men's sports get cut so that women can also play. There's a lot of people who think I'm just ... I wouldn't say there's a lot of people anymore, but there have been over a time people who thought I was just wrong about that.

Karen B.:                I adore football as much as anybody, I really do, but it's unrealistic to say that giving a woman a chance to play volleyball or [inaudible 00:11:01], means that that's killed men's gymnastics. That's really not what's happened. It's just much easier to blame women than it is to blame a football team. That's just the truth.

Grace Lin:              I know. That's true. Football is so dominant, but that's a whole other conversation in itself.

Karen B.:                Right, that's a whole other deal.

Grace Lin:              All right, well thank you so much, Karen. I've got just two last questions for you all right? The first question I want to ask you is, what are you working on now? Or what's your most latest book? What book do you want to tell our listeners about?

Karen B.:                I have a book coming out in August called Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend. It really started a little bit from our reality TV culture. Bonnie and Clyde are actually from Dallas, which is where I'm from. I wanted to research something in my backyard, but also I wanted to know why are these two guys famous? I mean, they weren't good people. They killed a lot of people. Their reputation is for robbing banks, although they mostly robbed smaller stores.

Karen B.:                So I went at it with an idea of what is fame, and what makes you famous and why?

Grace Lin:              Oh, that's a good question.

Karen B.:                I wasn't thinking about a reality TV person being the president at the time. I was thinking about Kim Kardashian, but you could sort of ask that question about a lot of people today.

Grace Lin:              Yeah.

Karen B.:                So it's called The Making of Legend, because I try to look at what were the pieces that made two criminals ... I mean, today it would be impossible to think of a criminal like them, who would be kind of celebrated, and maybe then admired in the way they might be. So it's a little bit subversive, but I write for teens and so I like to be a little bit subversive.

Grace Lin:              Well actually I think it's fascinating because there's so many things that you write about in the past that have so much relevance to what's going on today. The one thing I hope is that when people read it, is that they can see those parallels.

Karen B.:                Yeah, I hope so too. I do. There's a lot of things I think are relevant to today, so I hope that will come through.

Grace Lin:              Definitely. Okay, so my question is what is your biggest publishing dream? I will give the caveat that I give to everybody. When I ask this question, I want you to tell me your biggest ambition ever. Not, "I just want kids to love my books." Not, "I want to just be able to make a living." No, I want you to tell me something really big, so big that you're almost embarrassed to say it out loud with the idea that I feel like a lot of us who participated in KidlitWomen, were kind of embarrassed about being ambitious.

Grace Lin:              I don't want us to be embarrassed or ashamed of being ambitious anymore, so what is your biggest publishing dream?

Karen B.:                I do feel kind of silly talking about this. Actually, my biggest dream is that my books are read after I'm gone, or that some of my books will be read after I'm gone, which is not easy with history because somebody's always coming at it in a different way. It's hard, in some ways, for some of those books to stay in print for a long time. My kids read a lot of ... and I don't write this kind of book, but like Jamberry and Miss Rhumphius, and books that I thought were timeless [moubalalala 00:14:26] that you still give to new generations.

Karen B.:                I would love to have something in my body of work that is there after I'm gone, and maybe even provides royalties to my children.

Grace Lin:              I guess it's like to write a classic. Is that maybe-

Karen B.:                Yes. Yes, exactly. That's a good way to put it. Yes.

Grace Lin:              Well, I think you might already be on your way.

Karen B.:                We'll see.

Grace Lin:              All right, well thank you very much Karen. It's been great talking to you. It was great doing this project with you. I am so glad that we started this, and I'm so glad that we did this.

Karen B.:                Thank you Grace. It's been wonderful. I really appreciate working with you. It's been really terrific.

Grace Lin:              Bye.

Karen B.:                Thank you. Bye.

Grace Lin