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A few years before Bell-Scott first turned the pages of Proud Shoes, Gina Walker was beginning a Ph.D. in English literature at New York University. As a woman navigating a male-dominated field and institution in the late 1960s, Walker, like Bell-Scott, felt like an intellectual interloper. But then, fate intervened: An adviser encouraged her to take a look at the 18th-century writer and historian Mary Hays as a potential thesis topic. Walker plucked a few dusty books of the shelves of the NYU library and feasted on Hays’ words.
“I was a different person when I walked out of the library that day,” Walker, now a professor of women’s studies at The New School, recalls. “It was because I saw a chance to learn about a woman about whom very little was known.”
In 1803, Hays published Female Biography—six volumes of nearly 300 women’s stories. In 2009, Walker spearheaded an international collaboration to restore Hays’s work .
But it wasn’t enough. Walker craved a project that would bring to life even more women’s stories, and the contexts and constraints that filled out the contours of their lives. In late April 2017, her team formally launched The New Historia, which aims to be an ever-evolving digital repository of women’s stories for scholars, students, and the general public. Unlike other archives, Walker plans to develop algorithms that will allow users to better understand the connections between women across historical eras, nationalities, and religions. Her vision: a database that highlights trends, themes, and commonalities, encouraging a less linear and more web-like view of women’s triumphs, failures, challenges, and innovations across time.
She hopes, too, that the cataloguing of long-ago shattered glass ceilings will help counter those who argue that they’re still in tact—that a woman can’t do that because it’s never been done before. In the words of the Native American activist and writer Paula Gunn Allen, “the root of oppression is the loss of memory.” The feminist historian Gerda Lerner put it another way, likening the negation and erasure of female stories and experiences from history to the “rape of our minds”—a way of “terrorizing us and keeping us in subjugation.”
It is memory—and these stories—that remind readers that their challenges are not just individual, but systemic, evolving, and sustained through centuries.
Women’s stories also serve as a reminder of the importance and legitimacy of personal narrative with regards to history. “Personal writings associated with women and people of color, people who often didn’t have public platforms from which to espouse their ideas, have long been marginalized,” Bell-Scott explains.
Bell-Scott’s newest book, The Firebrand and the First Lady, tells one such narrative—the story of the boundary-crossing friendship between Murray and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Pauli wrote her first protest letter to the White House in 1938, beginning a decades-long correspondence—charged, confrontational, intimate—and eventually, a friendship with the first lady. Murray pushed Roosevelt to take a public stand against lynching, against segregation. Roosevelt told Murray about her limitations as first lady. “Policy issues became personal for Eleanor,” Bell-Scott explains. “When issues around segregated housing come up [later in her life], the First Lady had some understanding of how devastating that experience could be because she had heard Pauli’s stories of homelessness.”
Bell-Scott is optimistic that Americans may once again take a few steps forward, as the current generation of students discovers that this movement is unfinished. After all, one reason that it stalled was because many no longer believed inequality was a problem. There was, Bell-Scott describes, a “false sense that the barriers to educational and employment were no longer there—so the need for advocacy was less urgent.”