Bygone Badass Broads Author Mackenzi Lee Talks About Giving Women Back Their Personhood and Their Place in History | The Mary Sue
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Bygone Badass Broads Author Mackenzi Lee Talks About Giving Women Back Their Personhood and Their Place in History

Images from Mackenzi Lee's book, "Bygone Badass Broads" (Credit: Petra Erikkson and Abrams Books)

Stagecoach Mary Fields, Ching Shih, and Dorothy Arzner, as illustrated by Petra Erikkson

The Mary Sue had the opportunity to sit down with author Mackenzi Lee to discuss her new book, Bygone Badass Broads. Based in part on Lee’s Twitter hashtag of the same name, this book tells the stories of 52 female movers and shakers in world history. In the interview, Lee shares a bunch of different amazing stories from the book, and we also discuss the often limiting ways that our society allows women, queer people, and people of color into the historical narratives, and how we can change that.

Marykate: This book actually began as a Twitter campaign. Could you talk about what inspired you to start tweeting about memorable women? 

Mackenzie: Oh, where to start? … The most immediate thing is that I studied history when I was in college, and I was constantly frustrated by the lack of minority narratives of all kinds in the mainstream history classes I was taking, but especially women’s narratives. It felt like if I wanted to learn about women, or about queer people, or people of color in history, I had to take an elective class that was only taught once every seven years and met in a basement room with no windows. Meanwhile, all the general courses I had to take as a history major were hyper-focused on men and their contributions in history.

And I got really frustrated by that, because as a kid I was really lucky that my introduction to history came through a lot of women’s narratives. I was obsessed with this book called Lives of Extraordinary Women. I was really into American Girl dolls. I loved the computer game Where in Time is Carmen San Diego?, which taught me about a lot of interesting women in history. And my thesis, as a history major, was about women during the Wars of the Roses.

So I knew these narratives were out there, and I was frustrated and baffled by the fact that we weren’t talking about them. There’s this myth that we just continue to perpetuate through our silence that women weren’t a part of history, even though there’s evidence to the contrary. If we don’t tell these stories, we just perpetuate this idea that women, that queer people, that people of color, etc. were all so busy being oppressed that they didn’t have time to do anything to contribute to history, or to do anything other than interact with their oppression and their identity.

So I knew these stories were out there. I knew some of them, I knew I wanted to find more, and I knew that I wanted to talk about them in any way that I could.

Marykate: Was there anything in particular about Twitter that made it the right forum for this?  

Mackenzi: Well, at at the time I started #BygoneBadassBroads, I had about 77 followers on Twitter, so you know, I had a pretty huge platform. [Laughs] I don’t remember making a conscious decision to be like, “This is gonna be a thing I do on Twitter.” The first time I did it was because I’m a historical fiction author, when I’m not writing the nonfiction, and my first book is about Mary Shelley.

So the first time I did a thread that would become the #BygoneBadassBroads threads was talking about Mary Shelley, because I’d done all this research on her. I thought, “This is something I can do that has a concrete tie-in to my book.” And then I discovered that nobody actually cared about the concrete tie-in. What they actually cared about was how interesting Mary Shelley was.

And then I just kept doing it! I was really lucky to find a base of followers who would tune in every week to read these stories, recommend them to their friends, and share them.

Marykate: Were there any lessons that you took from tweeting these stories that you brought into the book? 

Mackenzi: I think putting it out on Twitter definitely confirmed for me that people want these stories, and that especially people were looking for these stories of women with intersecting identities. That was the biggest thing.

The other thing is that… When I was a kid, I was not a great reader. I really loved reading, but I was not very good at it. I didn’t read nonfiction, and I still don’t read nonfiction very well. I always feel like a hack, because I say I really love history, and then I don’t read a ton of historical nonfiction. But it’s because I don’t connect with it; I don’t remember it. I’ll definitely read it if I’m researching a project, but it’s not my first choice of genre.

This is part of why I left history behind, as a profession. I didn’t think I had a voice to write historical nonfiction, because that wasn’t the kind of nonfiction I was seeing. And so the other thing Twitter taught me is that there isn’t one “voice” for nonfiction. Because my voice on Twitter is very … well, me. It’s my weird jokes. It’s me being casual about things, and not stuffy, and admitting that sometimes I didn’t have all the facts yet.

And that voice was what people really seemed to respond to. So for me it was really validating, to know that there is a place for my voice in a genre where I didn’t think there was. I also believe a lot of readers have been excluded from these stories, specifically because they’re being written in a way that’s only accessible to a certain kind of reader. So hopefully this book can get these stories out to people who haven’t felt like nonfiction was accessible to them before.

Marykate: Did that ethos of accessibility come into the book?

Mackenzie: Absolutely. I wanted the stories in Bygone Badass Broads to feel very digestible. You can sit down to read one, and you’ll get an awesome story out of it, but it only takes five minutes out of your day. They’re also very much written in my voice. I was so excited that my publisher wanted me to keep that casual, jokey, not-super-formal voice that I had used on Twitter.

Marykate: Obviously, there are too many badass women in world history to fit in one book. What was important to you as you put together the list of women who would end up in the book? What characteristics and diversities did you look for? 

Mackenzi: I have a huge living document on my computer, with the names of all the women I’ve ever tweeted about or even heard about and considered researching. On that spreadsheet, I mapped out everybody’s race, their sexuality, their gender identity, their religion, where they were from, when they were from, what their field of interest was – all of those things, in the hopes that this collection would reflect the diversity of women’s experiences in history.

We have so many great, great pop-culture women’s history books that are coming out right now. And the fact that it’s become an entire sub-genre is the coolest thing ever. But when I’ve picked up some of them, I’ve been frustrated by the fact that they’re usually pretty 20th-century heavy, and so I wanted to try and get out of the 20th century, and also to make sure that I wasn’t just talking about white women, and about straight women, and about women in Western history, because I’m definitely guilty of defaulting to Western history and having a sort of Eurocentric view of the world.

I wanted this collection to reflect the real diversity of women’s experiences throughout history.

Marykate: In your preface, you specifically wrote that the book doesn’t necessarily condone the actions of these women. Instead, you aim to “put women back into the historical narrative and to portray them as the complex, three-dimensional humans they were.” Can you talk about that idea?

Mackenzi: In order to find equality in our historical narratives, we need to give women their personhood back in historical narrative – meaning that men in history (and also in modern day, unfortunately) are allowed to be complicated and morally grey, and still be remembered and have their stories retold. Basically, men get to be complicated, whereas most of the women we venerate have to be sort of 100% virtuous, and if there’s anything messy or complex about them, we don’t talk about them, because … I don’t know. Because we’re sexist.

For example, there’s a woman in the book named Ching Shih, who was a pirate lord in China. In terms of sheer numbers, she’s the most successful pirate of all time. And when I put her on my list, my editor sort of balked at that. She was like, “Piracy’s not really a great thing. It’s not a victimless crime.” Which is totally fair! But we talk about Blackbeard. We talk about a lot of dude pirates, and we give them that sort of swashbuckling glamour, so why can’t we also talk about lady pirates in the same way?

Part of the reason I really like historical fiction, as opposed to nonfiction, is that nonfiction tends to be very broad and generalized. We forget about life and history as an individual lived experience. Looking at statistics about the world today, we know because we’re living it that there is so much variability in that experience. For example, if we talk about being queer. Being queer is going to be different depending on where you are, and who you are, and what your socioeconomic status, and what your race is. We recognize that variability about life today, but we don’t always account for that variability in history. Instead, we make these sweeping, generalized statements. With this book, I wanted to really highlight that idea of history as an individual lived experience.

Marykate: I noticed that we often don’t know how many of these women died, or about the ends of their lives. Why do you think that is?

Mackenzi: It’s like that quote: “For most of history, anonymous was a woman.” Men have been the gatekeepers of history for a long time, and often these stories of women have to be unearthed from small mentions of them in men’s stories. They’re not recorded in their entirety like men’s history. So I think a lot of it has to do with who gets to tell these stories.

And Twitter and social media, as terrible as they sometimes are, have given a voice to a lot of people who have previously been voiceless because of different facets of their identity. And so hopefully, as the people who are getting to tell these narratives change, we find more diverse stories in our historical narrative, and we find more complete stories, instead of just women being footnotes in somebody else’s story.

Marykate: In addition, some of these women were actively written out of the historical record by the successors. Do you have any cool stories about how historians go about rediscovering these women?

Mackenzi: Oh, I know my favorite one! I write young adult fiction, like I said, and I think teenage girls are the most amazing group of humans, and I think they’re also the first people to be discarded and dismissed by society. But teenage girls are amazing, and teenage girls rule the world, and they are so smart and thoughtful. So this is my favorite story, because it involves teenage girls.

One of the stories in the book is a woman named Irena Sendler, who was a nurse in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation there. And because she worked for the Social Welfare Department, she was one of the few people who was allowed to go into the Jewish ghetto. She used this position of privilege to smuggle thousands and thousands of children out of the Jewish ghetto and place them with families across Europe. She was imprisoned multiple times; she was tortured by the Nazis; she was literally being walked to her execution when she was rescued; and then after she was rescued, she took maybe a week to recuperate and then immediately got back to work. She was an unstoppable force for good in the bleak hellscape of Nazi-occupied Poland.

And her story got almost completely erased when the anti-Semitic Communist Party took over in Poland. She was actually imprisoned again, and her story was totally erased. But she was re-discovered in 1999 by three teenage girls in rural Kansas, who were doing a project for National History Day. They found this one line in a newspaper article, about how Irena Sendler “saved many children and adults from the Warsaw Ghetto.” And their teacher said, “We should look into this. It might be a typo, because I’ve never heard of this woman before, and we can’t find anything else about her.” So they started investigating this story, and they’re really the ones who brought her story back into the public knowledge. They went and visited with her multiple times in Poland. And right before she died, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

So these three girls in Middle America brought her story back. It’s so incredible. It’s such a cool, multi-generational,  “women helping women” story. A woman did a great thing, and then other women told her story. And I think that is the most incredible thing.

Marykate: One of the other things that gets written out of the historical record is queerness, so I loved how many queer women were featured in the book. I know that you also wrote a bunch of queer historical fiction – such as The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue and the upcoming Marvel YA novel about Loki. Could you talk a little bit about the importance of queering the historical record?

Mackenzi: I think we have this idea – and an idea I bought into for a long time – that queer people only existed in history as the tragic subplot of a BBC period drama. We think that, wherever we are right now, is the best it’s ever been for queer people in the world – or for any kind of minority, really. But that’s not how progress works. The experience of queer people in history varied just as much as it does today, based on where you lived, what your family situation was like, how much money you had, and what your ethnicity was. There are so many things that go into the queer experience and the variability of it.

So I’ve been super-frustrated – which is a lot of the reason that I wrote A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue – by this idea that there were no queer people in history, and if there were, they were only ever repressed, sad, and lonely, or arrested and executed. And, yes, that was absolutely some people’s experience. But, as I found when researching Gentleman’s Guide, there were actually more gay bars and gay clubs in the 1700s in London than there were in the 1950s. And there was this really flourishing, underground queer drag culture in the 1700s. (Now, obviously it’s different for men than it is for women.)

But mostly, I just want queer people to know that they have always existed, and they have not just existed, but survived and thrived, and had wonderful, fulfilled lives with partners and with people they love. Your narrative is not always tragic, and you’re not doomed to tragedy just because of who you are.

My favorite queer person in the book, if I have to pick a favorite, is a woman named Ann Lister. I love Ann Lister. Oh my gosh, what a queen. She’s the first narrative I found that really challenged my ideas about what historical queerness looks like.

So often, our understanding queer relationships in history is based on a lot of speculation. We have questions like: “Abraham Lincoln and his best friend shared a bed, what does that mean?” Or we’re dissecting the flowery language in people’s letters. So I love Ann Lister, because from the time she’s like fourteen, she’s writing in her journals, “I love only fairer sex, and desire no affection but theirs.” And it’s like, “Thank you.”

She also confirms this whole running theory I have: history changes, but people don’t. You’ll often hear the argument that queer people in history wouldn’t have understood sexuality well enough to think of themselves as queer, or to think of their attractions as valid. And I think that’s BS – especially when you read Ann Lister’s diaries, because she clearly has a sense of self. And I think about myself, and my friends who are queer, and … you know yourself. There are things you know about yourself whether or not you’ve heard the word, and whether or not you’ve ever heard the concept.

And so I love that Ann Lister was so openly queer, to the point that she was married to a woman—in a ceremony, in their town—and wore men’s clothes and had female lovers, but her town was way more upset about the fact that she was running a business than that she was a lesbian. I just love that her story contradicts every stereotype we have about these repressed queer people.

Marykate: You also help to run an independent bookstore in Boston. Have you seen any shifts in the history/nonfiction books you stock, where there’s more focus on female stories?

Mackenzi: It always goes both ways. Progress is happening, and that’s fantastically exciting, but there’s still a lot of room for growth. We have these wonderful, exciting collections of short stories about women’s history, but not a lot of primary source research is being done about these women. A lot of the books are short collections written by people like me, who don’t have tons of credentials other than passion. And also, a lot of them are by white ladies.

So I hope that there are historians, and especially non-white historians, who are doing deep dives into this work. And I hope that this wonderful, wonderful starting point, of these easily digestible pop culture books, will bleed into both mainstream and academic views about women in history.

Because in a couple of years, if you have a generation of young women showing up in universities to get their history degrees, and they want to study about women because they’ve read these stories, that’s going to change things. It’s going to take time, and it’s going to be slow. But hopefully, in so many years, we won’t be talking about women’s history. We’ll just be talking about history.

Marykate: Here’s a fun and frivolous one. Which woman’s story do you think would make the best (1) movie (2) TV series (3) graphic novel?

Mackenzi: This is so hard, because it’s all of them. Every time I tweet about one of these women, I get all these dozens of people that are like, ‘Why isn’t this a movie?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m as confused as you are!’

The easiest one to choose is best graphic novel. That  would be Doña Ana Lezama de Urinza and Doña Eustaquia de Sonza. They were these two lesbian vigilantes in 1600s Potosí, which was one of the roughest towns in Peru. They would dress up as men and dole out justice on the ne’er-do-wells. So, since they’re already halfway to being a Marvel comic, I think they would be a great graphic novel.

For movie … I really love old Hollywood – like, my favorite movie ever is Singing in the Rain – and “movies about Hollywood” is such a genre. So I would love to see a movie about Dorothy Arzner, who was a queer director in Hollywood. She was the only female director in the 1920s and ‘30s, and she gave a lot of women their start in Hollywood—women like Lucille Ball, Katharine Hepburn, and Joan Crawford.

She was a very feminist filmmaker in this boys’ club of Hollywood, and it would be great to focalize the old Hollywood story through the experience of the only woman in the game. Her story would be awesome addition to that genre.

The TV series is the hardest … it’s all of them! It’s always all of them. But if I have to choose, I’ve got two. The sort of cheating answer is La Maupin (Julie D’Aubigny). She was this bisexual swordswoman/opera singer/drama queen in 1600s France who I just love, and her story would be great for episodic nonsense and exploits of the week.

I also think Stagecoach Mary Fields would be a great TV show, because she could these wonderful episodic adventures of the week. Mary Fields was an amazing figure in the Old West who had so many different and dangerous careers, but she’s best known as the first black person and second woman to work for the U.S. Postal Service, where she worked delivering the mail in Montana Territory. Her story would fit really well into that sort of Western TV show genre we have, but it wouldn’t be about a white dude.

Okay, those were all very painful to choose, but those are my answers.

Marykate: Lastly, what do you hope readers get out of the book? 

Mackenzi: I hope women of all stripes recognize that they have been present in every piece of history, for forever. Women don’t just show up for suffrage. Black people don’t just show up when it’s time to talk about civil rights. Women and minorities have always been a part of history, and now it’s up to us to keep telling these stories, and to keep these stories in the collective unconscious.

And secondly, we often talk about giving books like this to our daughters, and sharing them with the women in our life. And that’s great! But I hope we also start considering women not as niche role models, but as role models for everyone. Women’s stories aren’t niche stories, and they aren’t limiting. Women’s stories are for everyone.

(Featured image: Petra Erikkson / Abrams Books)

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