HNY’s Amended Podcast and the Nuances of History-telling

By Sydney Boyd, project manager of Humanities in American Life

In the first episode of Amended, a Humanities New York (HNY) podcast focused on the under-recognized battles for equality in the history of woman suffrage, Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas gives listeners a tour of her personal archive—walls of file cabinets full of microfilm, boxes and boxes of historical papers and photos, and bookshelves packed with other records stored in her basement and garage.

It’s one of the pivotal scenes in the season for Scarlett Rebman, HNY director of grants and project director of the podcast.

“It’s just women’s history everywhere, and Black women’s history specifically, literally what she’s accumulated over decades as a scholar,” Rebman said. “It gives you tingles.”

Hosted by Dr. Laura Free and produced by Reva Goldberg, Amended does not tell the story of woman suffrage that many of us grew up with—figures like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and events like the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Instead, Amended is grounded in the stories that textbooks have overlooked and left untold, as Free says in the first episode: “The suffrage history we often celebrate centers and glorifies a few white women. And it excludes the stories of key people who were on the frontlines from the beginning.”

The idea for a podcast about the diversity of the women’s suffrage movement took root after HNY’s 2017 centennial commemoration of women’s right to vote in New York state. Rebman said that as they were looking to 2020, the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment (which states that a citizen’s right to vote cannot be denied on the basis of sex), they noticed an appetite to learn and to grapple with what the suffrage movement did—and did not—achieve.

“(Given) the complexity of the topic…we thought that audio storytelling via podcast could be a great, accessible way to reach a lot of people with this nuanced story,” Rebman said. “And whether it’s interview style or narrative style, you can bring in experts who are doing cutting edge research, have them share their research in an accessible format, and then help the public more broadly think deeply about historical nuance.”

History’s intricacies are something that Rebman, who is also a historian of modern US history and PhD candidate at Syracuse University, thinks about a lot. The point of Amended, in Rebman’s words, is that there’s not one definitive account of woman suffrage. History-making is never done. And national myths can be hard to let go of.

“A lot of people say, ‘I can’t believe I didn’t know this’” Rebman said. “White women (who make up the majority of the podcast’s base) still have that moment of ‘I can’t believe there was all this racism in the movement that I didn’t know about,’ and…they know that we can’t ignore that part of the history, it has to be incorporated into the history.”

Humanities councils are uniquely poised to do this kind of history-telling. It’s not easy for a new podcast to make a splash, Rebman said, but councils have something special to offer.

“Amended came out of the knowledge of what communities around New York State were interested in talking about related to this history,” Rebman said. “And then we also have these wonderful networks and connections with scholars and experts around the state and around the country that we’re plugged into.”

This meant inviting scholars to participate in a way that they’re not used to, Rebman said—namely, that scholars could talk about their work and respond emotionally.

“Tell us what you felt in the archives, tell us what you felt when you made this discovery,” Rebman said. “There’s an interesting space where humanities councils are at the intersection of doing public humanities but we’re still very much connected to scholars and researchers.”

This post is part of “Humanities in American Life,” an initiative to increase awareness of the importance and use of the humanities in everyday American life.

Photo credits: Humanities New York