Mad and Valid: On Finding a Voice as a Women’s Historian

By Rachael Nuckles

For the past few months, somewhere beneath the surface, I have been experiencing an unnamed emotion struggling to make itself known. This semester, I made it a goal to find my voice and let it be heard; staying true to that goal, I have been wrestling continuously with questions and concerns about my newfound identity as “women’s historian.” Doing history is not a straightforward path. As I learn and relearn storytelling tactics, reconciling my background in technical theater with the world of primary research, I have noticed myself feeling what I lovingly refer to as an “in-betweenness.” This presents itself in my identity as an artist/historian and within the history I’m studying itself. 

The first book I read for class this semester was Beloved by Toni Morrison. It is a masterpiece, and a work I have constantly returned to for inspiration: it was the first piece I had read which had my ideal blend of art and history, the piece I didn’t know I had been searching for to guide my history writing practices. This was the starting point of my inner conflict. Professor Chikwenye Ogunyemi came to Sarah Lawrence College and spoke to our class of women’s historians about Beloved. Her words and perspective have stuck with me throughout the semester. One of the first things she mentioned was that nearly all of history is fictitious due to the role of the historian. The historian controls much of what is remembered by recording history, selecting which facts to highlight, which to leave out, and constructing their own version of events. I wondered, then, if any history could truly be objective; how can we distinguish so-called “fact” from “fiction”? 

As the semester has progressed, I have continued to question how I will use my voice to (re)write history. How will I distinguish fact from fiction? Whose voices will I make central in my narration? How can I infuse my history writing with my background in theatrical storytelling? Perhaps most recently, what is the relationship between the past, present, and future? Of course, I haven’t found answers yet. I don’t know that answers exist. What I’m trying to be more comfortable with is the messiness these questions encompass, understanding that my work as a historian will have me constantly defining and redefining the way I navigate reality. Part of researching the past has been realizing that much of the information is unreliable; it is biased, filtered by both the primary source creator and my own biased perspectives.

In academia, I have been feeling the weight of educational privilege and realizing that it’s something educated people often take for granted. We love to throw around words like “intersectionality” without fully defining (or maybe understanding?) them. These types of assumptions can make feminism inaccessible, like it’s a place for you only if you know enough buzzwords to keep up. In my work with girls’ activist technologies, this is something I’ve been thinking about constantly. I feel extremely privileged that I have the opportunity to obtain my master’s degree in Women’s History. My current research makes me mad, but it also makes me excited. As I work towards my thesis, I am locating and analyzing girls’ cultural production, paying specific attention to what Ednie Garrison describes as “democratic technologies.” These largely accessible technologies are used as “a resource enabling young women to get information to other young women, girls, and boys, a means for developing political consciousness, and a space that can legitimate girls’ issues.” [2] At the forefront of my work is the Riot Grrrl subcultural phenomenon, which was at its height from 1990-1997. As I navigate my personal identity as a women’s historian, I can’t help but be inspired by the Riot Grrrls who spread their knowledge, anger, and opinions via accessible technologies and girl-created media. It didn’t matter if they used the right lingo; it mattered that they had a voice at all.

It is with all of these thoughts in mind that I have been trying to articulate my unnamed emotion. I’d been calling it frustration, but that didn’t feel right. What I had been feeling, and continue to feel, is more visceral. On February 6, 2020, Hayley Williams released the first part of her upcoming album, Petals for Armor. Williams has been a longtime idol for me; as the frontwoman of the rock band Paramore, which formed in 2004, her music was with me during my formative years. Now, with her first solo project, I feel her words even more deeply. The first track, “Simmer,” opens:

Rage is a quiet thing

You think that you’ve tamed it

But it’s just lying in wait [1]

…and with that, I realized that this unnamed emotion I’d been feeling in my bones had a name: rage. A quiet, unsuspecting thing hiding and thriving in its unnamed-ness, building each time I disregarded it as nothing of value. This discovery has proven crucial to my ability to articulate myself. I am mad. I am angry. I feel rage and it is valid. I am mad that women’s anger has often been censored, reduced to “bitchiness” or simply “not thinking clearly.” In naming my rage, I feel as though I have never been more clear headed. My position as a women’s historian is now a necessity, no longer a choice. I have never felt more passionate about working to help women and girls of all backgrounds, all identities be taken seriously–for their voices, their experiences, their ideas, their stories, their feelings…their rage. 

[1] “Simmer.” Petals for Armor I, Hayley Williams, Taylor York, Joseph Howard. Atlantic Records, February 2020, 1.

[2] Garrison, Ednie. “U.S. Feminism–Grrrl Style! Youth (Sub)Cultures and the Technologies of the Third Wave.” In No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism, edited by Nancy A. Hewitt, 379–402. Rutgers University Press, 2010. 388.

Rachael is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her current research interests include girls’ cultural production and participation in subcultures, activist media technologies, and performance studies.

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