“Journey to the Past”?: Representations of the Russian Revolution in Twentieth Century Fox’s Anastasia (1997)



Anastasia Theatrical Release Poster. Property of Twentieth Century Fox


If you are a young woman who was alive in the late 1990s, you probably saw Anastasia in theaters or owned the VHS. Based off the discredited theory that one daughter possibly escaped the July 1918 assassination of the Romanov family, this movie explores the journey of an amnesiac Anastasia-going the name Anya- as she travels with two con men, Dmitri and Vlad, to Paris. The trio travels there to meet with Anya’s paternal grandmother, the Dowager Empress in Paris while being pursued by the evil, undead Rasputin and his reliquary of evil minions. Now at this point, the average person, and primarily the Russian history scholar is shaking their head. However, this film, with the voice talent of Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammar, Christopher Lloyd, Angela Lansbury, and Bernadette Peters, was well received upon its release twenty years ago and is still beloved by many of those who watched it.[1] Many of us apparently realize that the plotline is historical fantasy, not historical fact. However, this scholar wanted to contribute to the Russian Revolution blog series. So, inspired by this Tumblr post, I will evaluate Anastasia for accuracy, but also analyze the reasoning for developing the film, and what messages it conveys about the period it is set in, and importantly the society in which the film was produced.

Historically, the Romanov family was imprisoned in February, overthrown that March and executed in Ekaterinburg in 1918. Their bodies were buried, with most being discovered in 1991, and the last two -those of a daughter and Alexei–being definitively discovered in 2007. However, in 1922, a woman named Anna Anderson came forward claiming to be Anastasia, and while she was disproven, the claims inspired a 1952 play by Marcelle Maurette, Anastasia, which was adapted for the screen by Twentieth Century Fox in 1956. This film, in turn, inspired the 1997 animated film, but work was needed to make it an exciting film for children. For some rough historical guidance, the film did hire three historical consultants, whose work might not be evident, but who names do appear in the end credits.[2]

The film begins on an inaccuracy, having the family throwing a ball for the 300th Anniversary of their rule, in 1916, when it was 1913 when this happened, and having Anastasia be only eight years old when should have historically been 15 years old. However, these are considered minor as the two most significant criticisms on accuracy for the film are the treatment of the Russian Revolution and Rasputin, which interconnected. The first was noted by famed film critic Roger Ebert, who commented that the film skipped “blithely past the entire Russian Revolution.” New York Times reviewer Carey Goldberg, also noted that the film ““cracks a new level of historicity, using the tragedy of the murdered czarina as little more than a back story- the revolution is over by the time the opening credits roll.”[3] The film’s approach to the Revolution is to have it be part of a curse by Rasputin after he is rejected by the Romanovs, which they never really did. In the film, we see little green ghost goblins helping Russians break open the palace gates, and its implied that the revolutionary forever is caused by, or at the least worsened by the curse. Additionally, the complete overthrow happens in a fortnight rather than being spread over a year and a half. However, there is a Communist government when the film shifts to 1926 based on costumes of background character’s clothing and, most notably, when Vlad, one of the main characters, comments: “That is what I hate about this government. Everything’s in red.” As this move was aimed primarily at children, one is left to wonder how exactly the whole revolution thing worked itself out.

While in life Rasputin remained a confidante to the family until his 1916 death, in the film he is an evil corpse stuck in a purgatory until he can kill Anastasia, a choice the filmmaker noted as something the had “to entirely make up,” Influenced by the idea that to a parent, “nothing is more frightening than a grown man going after a child.”[4] He has a bat named Bartok as a sidekick because an animated movie usually needs a talking animal. Anastasia is the good, Rasputin is the evil, and he is vanquished at the end of the film, but at least gets one of the best villain songs, “ Dark of the Night.” The complexities of his actual role in the downfall of the Romanovs, which would involve phrases like debauched, rumors of affairs, hemophilia, and murder attempts by Romanov cousins are eschewed for a character more cartoonishly good and evil. The film’s plot cannot explicitly present history’s complexities with its catchy songs and dazzling animation aimed at children used to the same in Disney pictures, but implicitly opinions about Russia are there.

OTMA 1917

Anastasia and her sisters Olga, Tatiana, and Maria, 1917.

In 1997, the Soviet Union had broken up, and the new Russian Federation was beginning to take shape. Communism had failed, but the film seemed to imply, likely some of it for dramatic effect but also likely part of it stemming from the Western opinion that it would have been better for Russia if certain aspects had never happened, notably the assassination of the Romanovs. In the DVD feature “The Making of Anastasia” cast and creatives note how the family was “tragically killed.” While I disagree with the murder of the Romanov children, I can see how the new Bolshevik government would want to eliminate any direct claims to the throne. However, as it is a family film with a royal as the protagonist, the film aims to have you sympathize with the Romanovs. The scenes with the royals and their  “enchanted world of elegant parties and grand parties” are filled with opulence and bright colors. The scenes with peasants need to be more muted and in the commentary on the song “Rumor in St. Petersburg, “director Don Bluth expressed a desire to have gone further with grayscales to convey the “oppression of that world.” Such an artistic style would have nicely paired with the line “Oh, since the revolution our lives have been so gray.” When the action switches to Paris, he and his co-director Gary Goldman note that these scenes are also vibrant and that during the 1920s “Russia was dying” while Europe and especially Paris was “coming alive.”[5] In short, the film advances the straightforward narrative that West/capitalism is good, and Russia/Communism was bad.

The film also elects to portray Nicholas II mainly in the role of father since as the filmmaker’s note, he was “good father” but not a “really good leader.”[6] Nicholas as a father is emphasized most in the song “Once Upon a December” when Anya/Anastasia dances in the palace ballroom accompanied by “figures dancing gracefully across her memory” with the crescendo being her dancing with her father the tsar, who gently kisses her on the forehead.  However, the ghostly figures are aristocrats, so they do reverently separate and bow to the tsar so that he can reach his daughter. In the simple morality of a children’s film where finding your family and yourself and your family are the primary goals, the political impact of your father’s job can be glossed over.

Two years before this movie was released, Disney had released “Pocahontas” which also featured the use of a historical personage and the legend around them to sell tickets and merchandise.[7] Perhaps Twentieth Century Fox was inspired this when they decided to develop Anastasia. However, given that Anastasia is set partially in Communist Russia, the merchandising aspect is even more humorous. If you look on eBay, you can buy a small figure or doll of the last autocrat of Russia! For transparency’s sake, I should say that I (or my sister) own several things, including the big-ticket item, a replica of the music box used in the film that plays “Once Upon a December” and retails for about 85-90 dollars.[8] The reduction of an autocrat and his family to toys for a children’s movie is probably an offense to monarchists and proud Russians alike. However, the movie endeavors to entertain and make a great deal of money, so when it came to Anastasia, the Romanovs must be casualties of American capitalism, just as they were casualties in the making of a new Russia.


Anastastia the new Musical Poster. Property of Anastasia on Broadway.

This blog entry, I am aware has gone rather long already, but I must address the most recent development in the Anastasia franchise, the new musical, also called “Anastasia” that is now playing on Broadway. The musical disposes of Rasputin and Bartok and in its place, asserts Playbill, has a “new script imbued with historic realism,” with the villain being a Communist general, Gleb,  assigned to kill Anastasia by the Russian government, who views her as a threat to their regime.[9] I know, not exactly correct either but the musical and its ticket sales are driven by the idea that people who liked the film will see it so it cannot have her be killed with her family, even if we now know that is what happened. Gleb’s father was involved in the shooting deaths of the Romanovs, and Gleb sings “my mother said he died of shame,” so it very much advances the notion that communism is bad, and Anastasia/the old Russia/the west is good. Thus, much like the film the show plays on the idea, noted in Goldberg’s review, that “the true power of the Anastasia myth has always been wishful thinking, the deep desire to undo the unspeakable bloody history of the Russian Revolution—at least in the person of one princess.” Most Russians do not share that desire I imagine, but maybe the West would have preferred the country to have become a massive but harmless constitutional monarchy rather than the goliath Soviet Union.

Anastasia remains one of my favorite films. Obviously, I know that it is very factually incorrect. From, watching it again for this blog article, I can see that it can be interpreted as pro-Romanov and is pro-capitalism and anti-Communist. However, I also feel that children who watch it will understand that it is not real, and might eventually learn the real story of what happened to the Romanovs. American society will take care of teaching the whole “Communism is bad, Capitalism is good” narrative, just as it has for decades. Anastasia is a Russian story told through an American filter, which is why it reflects western economic values in addition to universal ones on family and finding oneself. In the end, Anastasia teaches more about American society than the Russian Revolution, appealing to the heartstrings with the Broadway-style song-filled plight of a lost but pluck young woman, who just happens to royalty. The fair portrayal of history? No. Ingredients for an animated American Classic? Certainly.


[1] The voice cast is very much peak 1990s.

[2] I really watched the end credits to find this out. Also, if something is in quotes and not cited or linked, it means its from the movie itself, which I know verbatim parts.

[3] This is an incorrect title as Anastasia was a Grand Duchess, and her mother was the Czarina.

[4] “Commentary with Don Bluth and Gary Goldman,” Anastasia (Family Fun Edition), directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, (1997; Beverly Hills, California: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2005) DVD.

[5] Ibid. The city would have been known as Leningrad at this point, but I guess St. Petersburg is more lyrical. The musical references this in their version of “Rumor in St. Petersburg” when one character notes that “The tsar’s St, Petersburg is now the people’s Leningrad!” and another responds “They can call it Leningrad, but it will always be Petersburg.”

[6] “The Making of Anastasia,” Anastasia (Family Fun Edition), directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, (1997; Beverly Hills, California: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2005) DVD.

[7] It seems that Twentieth Century Fox may be bought by Disney, so will Anastasia join Pocahontas as a tragic, but marketable Disney Princess?

[8] Some of this merchandise might have been bought within the past decade.

[9] I have not seen this musical, but own the soundtrack, and might see the show in the future.





[1] The voice cast is very much peak 1990s.

[2] I really watched the end credits to find this out. Also, if something is in quotes and not cited or linked, it means its from the movie itself, which I know verbatim parts.

[3] This is an incorrect title as Anastasia was a Grand Duchess, and her mother was the Czarina.

[4] “Commentary with Don Bluth and Gary Goldman,” Anastasia (Family Fun Edition), directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, (1997; Beverly Hills, California: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2005) DVD.

[5] Ibid. The city would have been known as Leningrad at this point, but I guess St. Petersburg is more lyrical. The musical references this in their version of “Rumor in St. Petersburg” when one character notes that “The tsar’s St, Petersburg is now the people’s Leningrad!” and another responds “They can call it Leningrad, but it will always be Petersburg.”

[6] “The Making of Anastasia,” Anastasia (Family Fun Edition), directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, (1997; Beverly Hills, California: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2005) DVD.


[7] Some of this merchandise might have been bought within the past decade.

[8] I have not seen this musical, but own the soundtrack, and might see the show in the future.



Anastasia on Broadway poster. Property the musical production Anastasia



How to Fight the Reemergence of Nazism in America

Above: How to effectively punch Nazis, featuring Captain America


White Nationalism. The Alt-Right. America First. Fascism. There has been a lot of terminology and associations tossed around this past election cycle. Our nation has ignored a reality that has always been there, the reality that hatred is alive and well and, more dangerously, organized both on the streets of Charlottesville or in the basements of mothers’ houses. Donald Trump’s candidacy and victory have become something of a rallying cry for the “basket of deplorables.” Unpacking the history of racism in America has been an ongoing task for historians of American history and critical race theorists. As a graduate student, I could not accomplish this feat in a blog post or 20 volumes. Instead, I will point out two instances in American history that show how a fundamental tenet of American jurisprudence, Freedom of Speech, can be used as a most useful tool in the fight against Nazism, Neo-Nazism, and the hatred they brew.


Protesters gather at the University of Virginia to “Unite the Right.”

When Theodore Roosevelt was the President of the Board of New York City Police Commissioners (the modern equivalent to the Commissioner of the NYPD), he faced a first-amendment crisis. Hermann Ahlwardt was a vehemently anti-Semitic writer and member of the German Reichstag who was traveling to Berlin to speak and requested official police protection for a lecture that is protected under the first amendment. People, especially New York’s Jewish population, were scared and determined to see that the commissioner did not allow the man to speak. Duty bound by the first amendment, Roosevelt could not restrict the man’s speech, nor did he wish for Ahlwardt to become a martyr of bigotry. Instead, Roosevelt used Ahlwardt’s right to preach hatred as an opportunity to make him and his views seem absurd and nonsensical. Thus, Ahlwardt preached his crusade against the Jews with the full protection of around 40 Jewish police officers.[1] This solution may seem novel today, or even ineffective, but in an era before most of the landmark Supreme Court cases concerning the first amendment, Roosevelt offers a vigorous defense of the principle of free speech while also stressing the need to combat hatred through legal channels.



Pictured above: Theodore Roosevelt hard at work during his time as New York City Police Commissioner.


In 1977, The National Socialist Party of America (NSPA), led by Frank Collin, looked to stage a massive demonstration and march in Illinois. Chicago might have been a logical choice as a large urban center with many potential people to listen to their message and consider joining the organization. However, Collin had no intention to increase recruitment from this rally, merely incite intimidation and terror. It was for this reason he and his organization chose the small village of Skokie, Illinois as the site of their demonstration. The reason for Skokie was simple: it had a large population of Holocaust survivors. The city sued for injunctions and issued ordinances to stop the NSPA from marching. With much controversy, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) fought for the NSPA’s right to demonstrate and won their argument in front of the Supreme Court in National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie (1977).



Pictured above: Frank Collin, the leader of the National Socialist Party of America. He was kicked out of a previous neo-Nazi organization when it was discovered he had Jewish ancestry. He later went to jail for child molestation.


Aryeh Neier, the then national executive director of the ACLU, put it best in his book discussing the case, Defending My Enemy (1979) when he assesses whether he and the ACLU chose incorrectly in the battle between free speech absolutism and fighting Nazis. Neier says, “I made no such choice. I supported free speech for Nazis when they wanted to march in Skokie to defeat Nazis. Defending my enemy is the only way to protect a free society against the enemies of freedom.”[2] Neier observes that in America, Neo-Nazi and other hate groups have often used the principles of our nation in ways they most certainly would restrict from others if given a chance. However, it is these very principles, not a superiority of race, ethnicity, or creed that make America great. Even though Collin and the NSPA won the case with the help of the ACLU, they ended up moving their march to Chicago, away from the community of Holocaust survivors who were spared from watching swastikas and Nazis march in front of their homes.

How can we defeat hatred and bigotry in the “Make America Great Again” era? As the American jurist, Louis Brandeis put it, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”[3] The best way to combat Nazism is not by punching Nazis, but rather by exposing their disease-ridden ideas. Theodore Roosevelt and Aryeh Neier stood by their principles and fought Nazis/racists precisely by using free speech, rather than their fists, as the ultimate weapon.


Photo Sources





[1] Roosevelt, Theodore. 1920. An Autobiography 1858-1919. New York: Macmillan. Pg 205-206

[2] Neier, Aryeh. 2012. Defending My Enemy: American Nazis, the Skokie Case, and the Risks of Freedom. New York: International Debate Education Association. Pg 5

[3] Brandeis, Louis. Other People’s Money, and How the Bankers Use It. Washington DC: National Home Library Foundation, 1933. Pg 92


Le Chevalier d’Eon: a Cross-Dressing Spy in Russia

Above: Caricature of d’Éon dressed half in women’s clothes, half in men’s clothes

When Louis XV inherited the French throne in 1715, France had been exhausted by Louis XIV’s constant warfare. If Louis XIV was the archetype of the absolute monarch, his great-grandson obviously lacked some of the qualities necessary to rule over France in the same fashion as his iron-fisted predecessor. Louis XIV knew these shortcomings to some degree: after the death of Cardinal Fleury chief minister to both monarchs Louis XV received a set of instructions written by Louis XIV. The newly ascended King of France was the most impressed by the following: “Do not allow yourself to be governed.”[1] On the eve of the Seven Years War, however, Louis XV had not been able to follow this advice due to his constant doubting of his capacities, his timidity, and his mood swings. To regain some of the power he had lost, Louis XV created Le Secret, a clandestine system of diplomacy that allowed him to overpower his ministers and take control of foreign policy. In a letter to the Chevalier d’Eon, Louis XV said: “At my court, I enjoy less power than an advocate at the Châtelet, over my armies less power than a Colonel. Is it by this [the Secret] that I regain what I have lost.”[2] It is in the context of the Le Secret that the Chevalier d’Eon’s political career began. After moving to Paris to study canon and civil law, d’Eon became the Secretary to the Intendant of Paris. In 1753, he published Considérations historiques et politiques, a book which did not go unnoticed. As a result, he became the royal censor for history and literature by Louis François, Prince de Conti, the King’s cousin and the head of Le Secret, who was impressed by his many qualities.

Le Chevalier d’Eon joined Le Secret in 1755, on the eve of the Seven Years War, a time of political unrest in Europe. While under the leadership of Louis XIV, France had dominated the European diplomatic game. However, England was growing into the leading European power throughout the 18th century. The rivalry between France and England for European leadership was best expressed during the Seven Years War through warfare, global land grabs and, of course, clandestine diplomacy. France had not had any diplomatic relations with Russia for over a decade and wanted to prevent an alliance already in negotiation between Russia and England. Such an alliance would have led to an invasion of pro-French Poland by England, Russia, and Prussia. Louis François, Prince of Conti, convinced Louis XV to send a man from Le Secret to Russia to revive the tie between the two countries, so the Chevalier Douglas left for St-Petersburg only to discover that Russian Chancellor Bestuzhev was already very close to making a deal with the English. He came back to Versailles disappointed only to be sent back, this time with a secretary, the Chevalier d’Eon.


Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Thimothée d’Éon de Beaumont, also known as Chevalier d’Eon. Agent of Le Secret de Roi (The King’s Secret), pictured in a dragoon uniform.

Before getting to the heart of the subject of the successes of the Chevalier d’Eon in Russia, it is necessary to reflect on the controversy of the event. Chevalier d’Eon was a diplomat, soldier, spy, writer, and respected fencer. However, d’Eon is perhaps most well-known as one of the first well-documented examples of a publicly known cross-dresser in history.[3] The Prince of Conti had already sent two envoys to Russia, the Chancellor Bestoujov-Rioumine, and M. de Valcroissant, who had both been arrested and put in jail. He then decided to send a woman, or rather a man dressed as a woman, and cast d’Eon for the role, who took on the name of Mademoiselle Lia de Beaumont. While this is the version of the story that d’Eon himself agrees with, and which he wrote about in letters and his memoir, other historians believe that such a physical transformation never happened and that d’Eon invented such a story later in his life. According to their research, there is no information related to d’Eon’s dressing as a woman in Louis XV’s secret correspondence or among the documents of Le Secret.

If the Chevalier d’Eon did arrive in Russia dressed as a woman, as documents seem to suggest, then d’Eon proved perfectly suited to accomplish this particular mission. D’Eon was tasked with gaining the trust and ear of Russia’s ruler, Tsarina Elizabeth, who was described in the late 1750s as “now forty-six years of age, in poor health and likely to respond to the attentions of a pleasant young woman.”[4] Not only did d’Eon manage to get along with Elizabeth, but he also got himself a place at her court. D’Eon soon became Elizabeth’s personal reader and maid of honor. D’Eon, lived as a woman for approximately six months, likely revealed the trickery to Elizabeth who found it very amusing and agreed to keep the secret. In the Archives of the Ministère des Affaires Etrangères an account of d’Eon’s daily routine as a female written by the son of a contemporary and friend of d’Eon states: “The maids of honour of the Empress Elizabeth slept in couples in a room near that of his royal lady […] d’Eon shared the bed of the young Woronzoff.”[5] The Chevalier spent a significant amount of time beside Elizabeth and became the mail carrier between her and Louis XV.

Mademoiselle de Beaumont, chevalier d’Éon.


Mademoiselle de Beaumont, the alter-ego of Chevalier d’Éon used to influence Tsarina Elizabeth I 

The stratagem started when Lia de Beaumont/the Chevalier d’Eon managed to deliver a signed letter from Louis XV. He had hidden it “in the double binding of a copy of Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des Lois so that the correspondence would be hidden from the foreign ministers and Louis XV’s mistress Mme de Pompadour.”[6] Before the start of the royal correspondence, the Chevalier d’Eon and other members of The Secret created a secret coded language to enable the King and the Tsarina to communicate. The coded terms all had to do with the vocabulary of the fur trade: for example, the English ambassador Sir Charles Williams became “the black fox.” If England’s influence in Russia increased again then wrote “The fox raises the stakes,” with the term “the little gray ones” referring to British troops.[7] After being seduced by the Chevalier d’Eon and the secret method of correspondence, Elizabeth accepted to re-open diplomatic relations with France.

After the success of his mission to Russia, the Chevalier d’Eon received other honorary positions, became a war hero, and was sent on another spy mission to England. However, that is a story for another time.



Cox, Cynthia. The Enigma of the Age: the Strange Story of the Chevalier d’Eon. London:          Longmans, 1966.

De Decker, Michel. Madame Le Chevalier d’Eon. Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 1987.

Nixon, Edna. Royal Spy: the Strange Case of the Chevalier d’Eon. New York: Reynal &         Company, 1965.


[1] Edna Nixon, Royal Spy: the Strange Case of the Chevalier d’Eon (New York: Reynal & Company, 1965), 35.

[2] Nixon, Royal Spy, 37.

[3] It should also be noted that at least from 1777 on, d’Eon dressed as a woman and identified as female

[4] Nixon, Royal Spy, 39.

[5] Nixon, Royal Spy, 41-42.

[6] Cythia Cox, The Enigma of the Age: The Strange Story of the Chevalier d’Eon (London: Longmans, 1966), 21.

[7] Michel de Decker, Madame Le Chevalier d’Eon (Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 1987), 42.


Above: Woman Suffrage Pickets, Harris & Ewing, photographer, 1917. Source: Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

In hindsight: The notion that a woman’s place is in the home stretches back far in American life — though not as far as one might suspect.

American life today continues to remind us of the daily prejudices faced by women. One need look no further than the #MeToo hashtag trending on social media, where thousands of women have attested publicly to the sexual harassment they have experienced in their careers, families, and personal lives. Women in the United States (and around the world) continue to face obstacles simply because they are women.

One such obstacle is the lingering notion that a woman’s natural place is in the home, as opposed to in politics, public spaces, or positions of social or economic power. This idea stretches back far in American life, though not as far as one might suspect. It does not stretch back to the founding of our nation, but rather to the decades after 1800. Immediately following the American Revolution, women were largely welcome and vocal members of the polity. In New Jersey, for example, propertied women could vote until 1807.

It was only in the early 1800s that perceived biological differences between the sexes replaced property as the requirements to be a voter. This meant that white women were excluded from voting based on their “natural inferiority,” similar to how African Americans were treated. This was known as biological essentialism, and contrasted with Enlightenment and Lockean environmentalism of earlier periods that supposed that environment as opposed to physical characteristics, determined ability.[1] Rather, free women’s main roles were serve and teach their families how to be virtuous citizens in the home. This idea, supported by Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, was known as “Republican Motherhood.” The adoption of Republican Motherhood proved a fateful decision whose effects linger into the present.

In the Victorian Era, Republican Motherhood and biological essentialism were enhanced by the concept of separate spheres, i.e. that a man’s place is in public and a woman’s in the domestic. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, women who crossed these boundaries were viewed as dangerous aberrations. Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for U.S. president and a notorious free love advocate, received plenty of such attacks in the 1870s. One of her nicknames was Mrs. Satan, and an 1872 political cartoon by Thomas Nast that appeared in Harper’s Weekly depicted Woodhull with devil horns and wings. Additionally, Woodhull found herself in a “lock her up” situation as a presidential candidate when she and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, were jailed in November 1872 on charges of obscenity. In their newspaper, the Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, they published a factual story about an adultery case involving Henry Ward Beecher, the famous preacher, and brother of author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Due to Woodhull’s notoriety, many women’s suffrage advocates kept their distance to keep her from being associated with their cause.


“Get thee behind me, (Mrs.) Satan!” cartoon by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, 1872. The Cartoon shows a woman carrying two children and man holding bottle of rum on her back. She is speaking to winged woman representing suffragist Victoria Woodhull, who is holding a sign that reads, “Be Saved by Free Love. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Well into the twentieth century, white suffragists were both victims and practitioners of biological essentialism, coming under fire from opponents of female suffrage but also excluding black women from their ranks. At the federal level, the first female politicians, usually elite women, were regularly reminded of their status. Even a supportive 1929 article in a prominent women’s magazine emphasized that three female members of the House of Representatives were “first-rate bang-up mothers.”[2] Female politicians who demonstrated traditional femininity calmed fears that they were not, or would not, become masculinized, or unnatural, during their tenures in office.

Middle class women were choosing to enter and stay longer in the workplace in small numbers, but it would not be until later decades that the numbers dramatically increased. Seeking increased opportunities, second wave feminists in the 1960s and 1970s vocalized their desires to be more than homemakers, provoking criticism from traditionalists. Women were able to secure new opportunities and break barriers in career fields, but many working mothers were compelled to go home and perform a second shift of “wifely” and “motherly” duties, such as cooking dinner and taking care of the children. The twentieth century saw great progress for women, but not a complete extrication from internalized gender norms.

From 1992 to 2017, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s experiences as a public figure and politician have epitomized the continuing clash between women’s ambitions and traditional American views on gender. After serving two terms as First Lady, Clinton was elected U.S. Senator from New York and in two presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2016 became the most recent woman to make a serious run for the Presidency. To date, she is the woman who has come the closest to being elected, having been the first female nominee of a major political party, and the first woman to win the popular vote in the general election. Yet she has continued to face misogyny and sexism from certain segments of the media, her political opponents, and in 2016, from the opposing candidate himself. Following the 2016 election, several opinion pieces published in major media outlets suggested that she should “go quietly into the night.” Her unparalleled accomplishments in the public sphere have not precluded virulent sexism.


Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore, March 21, 2016.

Sexism and discrimination remain pervasive, affecting American women’s lives in a variety of ways: from attacks on reproductive rights to discrimination against trans women for defying biological “truths”; from the gender wag gap to sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. These incidents are reminders of how some segments of society still consider women to be naturally inferior and how much motherhood is still considered a priority, even a requirement, for women. For women who are minorities, LGBTQ, and disabled, discrimination is often compounded. The early ideas of Republican Motherhood, biological essentialism and separate spheres remain with us; generations of Americans have internalized them, causing them to become part of the American mindset.

The early years after the American Revolution held promise for women who felt the rhetoric of liberty and rights would include them. Several decades later, it was clear that this was not to be. A proper woman’s place was going to be in the home, and even today, there are those who believe that is still where women should be. Gender, it appears, is both a useful category of historical analysis, and a useful category for discrimination.


Margaret “Maggie” Strolle is one of two inaugural History Communication Fellows at the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest.


*Author’s note: This article was inspired by a classroom discussion in Dr. Catherine Kerrison’s course, “Emerging American Nation: 1750–1815.”

Published with permission from hindsights, the blog of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest

[1] Rosemary Zagarri, “A Democracy — for Whom?,” in Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early Republic. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 2007: 149–180.

[2] Anne Hard, “The Three Ruths in Congress,” in Ladies’ Home Journal, Vol 46 (Mar 1929), 13.

Confederates, Memory, and NOLA: Statues for Slave-Owners

lee statue removal npr

Robert E. Lee, the last Confederate commemorative statue removed from New Orleans (The Mercury News)

The reason I decided I wanted to write about the Confederacy, the flags, and New Orleans was because I lived there for three years immediately preceding my entrance to Villanova. Even though I am not originally from New Orleans, the fact that my family has roots and branches there, and the fact that I had so many important experiences there, make it feel like a home. I won’t claim to have the expertise of someone born and raised in the city, or the expertise of someone that has spent an academic career studying it. Be that as it may, I understand this sentiment: we all want to have permission to tell our stories, and those of the people and places we consider closest to us. That is why questions of inclusion are always raised by the excluded.

The South has at times been outspoken about feeling excluded from national conversations, despite the fact that as a solid voting bloc they have typically thrown around a lot of weight. The economic effects of slavery yielded considerable political influence to the Old South and then the Deep South as the country developed and expanded, and even after the formal abolition of the peculiar institution, they have maintained a relationship of cultural familiarity and union. The symbiotic relationship with the practice of chattel slavery united these states enough to flea their fledgling nation out of fear of the end of that practice.

Current White House chief of staff John Kelly, and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently said that the American Civil War could have been avoided with more “compromise.”1 Any amateur historian could tell you that the United States of America and its government compromised plenty about slavery. When the Constitution was written, instead of dealing with the moral paradox of slavery, the framers included the Three-fifths Compromise, so that three-fifths of each enslaved person would count toward slave states’ populations for the purpose of representation in the lower house of the Congress. This was intended so that enslavers would be politically rewarded for their ability to keep other human beings in bondage, but not to the extent that humans who did not own humans would have their political voice minimized. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise determined that slavery could not exist north of the boundary of Missouri’s northern border extended westward. The Compromise of 1850 included New Mexico and Utah in the U.S. as territories without any explicit regard for how they might deal with slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise and declared that states would have to determine for themselves whether they would be slave or free. The point is, there were plenty of attempts to “compromise” before the Civil War; it was an unfortunate consequence of the perpetual procrastination by the government of a nation which portended to believe that “all men are created equal.”2

With the Civil War, the Proclamation of Emancipation, and Constitutional Amendments 13to 15, the nation had made several deliberate moves toward stopping slavery’s buck.3 The United States began slowly to right wrongs inherent to its foundation. Millions suffered under slavery. Thousands died to stop it. Given all that, the civil religion of the south had to structure itself in apathy to this reality in order to perpetuate itself. It became necessary to have symbols like the battle flag and the heroes of the war to imbibe with faith and glory. Statues were erected throughout the South after the Civil War, with the majority being raised in the nineteen-teens and concurrently with the Civil Rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s. This was done because the White Supremacist power structures of the region wanted to reaffirm their authority as Black people were struggling for the right to equality. Simultaneously, a culture of neo-feudalism – of gentry and oppression – had to restructure itself after its idea of masculinity was shattered by military defeat to men with which it now had to reconcile.

The hundred years between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries were contentious. The U.S. would follow-up its pre-Civil War campaign against Mexico with a global campaign against Mexico’s former colonizer Spain, and then two other global campaigns, pushing her to a position of international importance. There would be wars in Southeast Asia. The U.S. would continue annihilating the indigenous people of its physical place. Women would stop being barred from their rights as full citizens, at least as far as voting. The United States would undergo an Industrial Revolution, economic recession and a Great Depression, civil rights movements, alcohol prohibition and repeal, drug prohibition and reaffirmation. And all this time, the states in the south were building monuments to slave owners that wanted to separate their states from the rest of the country. To quote Thomas Brown, “Confederate monuments enjoy a dominance in southern commemoration that far exceeds the breadth of support the Confederacy achieved during its tumultuous existence.”4

Confederate Monuments in New Orleans

We have discussed the Battle for Liberty Place and the monument in a prior post. We have a few other things to discuss, so I will summarize. New Orleanians did not like the idea that Northern Republicans were going to force them to treat Blacks like people. Thanks to Andrew Johnson’s lax attitude about Reconstruction, there really was not a lot of forcing going on. New Orleanians were pretty free to be oppressive. In July of 1866, some formerly-enslaved African-American were massing in the streets out of excitement that they were allegedly on their way to voting rights. Some white former-Confederates took issue with that and got violently involved. A police officer ended up getting shot by a Black guy. A massacre ensued. Two days later the local paper said the affair should be physically commemorated. Land was set aside in 1882; the obelisk was raised on Canal Street in 1891; in 1932, a plaque declaring the battle was fought to “overthrow the carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers” and that “the national election of 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.” In 1989, the statue was moved from Canal Street – where the Battle took place – to Iberville Street because of construction, and a new plaque honoring “those Americans on both sides… who died in the Battle of Liberty Place.”

The statue of Robert E. Lee was erected in “a circular plot of land encircled by St. Charles Avenue in its 900 and 1000 blocks” in 1884, according to a document linked-to from its page on the website for the National Register of Historic Places. The document situates the statue as representative of “the Cult of the Lost Cause” – of Southern revisionist historical justification, of mythologizing the honor and nobility of the Confederate cause, of the deification of General Robert E. Lee.5 That is to say, the National Register declared this historically notable specifically because it is a physical notation of the thought processes of Confederate loyalists and sympathizers. Their passionate dedication to their archaic and oppressive ideology is historically notable because of its distinctiveness. It is not to be lauded. That is how I feel, and Mitch Landrieu – the first white mayor of New Orleans since 1978 – seems to agree. He said, “To literally put the Confederacy on a pedastal in our more prominent places – in honor – is an inaccurate recitation of our full past, is an affront to our present and it is a bad prescription for our future.”6

stone mountain memorial closeup_001

Stone Mountain State Park; monument close-up, from Georgia Encyclopedia

Like Lee, Davis is depicted alongside Stonewall Jackson at Stone Mountain (Confederate Mount Rushmore) in Georgia. Like Lee, he attended West Point. He was Secretary of War, a southern gentleman and – according to NOLA.com – knew that slavery could not last forever, despite the fact that he owned slaves and led the rebellious coalition that wanted to keep the institution in perpetuity.7 He was anti-secession, until Mississippi seceded. Jefferson Davis considered freeing slaves that would fight for the Confederacy – which helps somewhat his personal claim to fighting for something other than slavery – but the notion was rejected – which does not help the claim that no Southerners were fighting for slavery. Also, his farewell address to the Senate (immediately preceding becoming Confederate President) declared slavery a constitutional right the violation of which provoked Mississippi’s just secession, in case someone somewhere is still confused as to what this whole Civil War thing was about.8 Jefferson Davis is widely-regarded as a poor president – being quick to criticize and thin-skinned to criticism among his flaws – largely-despised by his military and other subordinates even before leading the Confederacy for ruin.9 I suppose I ought to thank him for that. Anyway, he was captured in a loose-fitting overcoat and his wife’s black shawl to protect him from the rain when he was captured in Irwinville, Georgia, and U.S. newspapers depicted him as a man in drag. Statues were meant to restore his honor as a statesman.


In 1915, the statue of General Pierre Gustave Toutant (P.G.T.) Beauregard on horseback was erected near City Park, at the roundabout leading to the entrance of what is now the New Orleans Museum of Art. P.G.T. Beauregard led the attack by Confederate forces on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the attack which marked the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, which contemporary revisionists ironically like to call “The War of Northern Aggression.” Though clearly not named for the initial, inspiring acts, perhaps it is so-called because the Confederate incursions into the North were typically less-successful than the Union incursions into the South, which include the aforementioned blockade-and-capture of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and the later razing of Atlanta.

advocate, beauregard

P.G.T. Beauregard’s statue in New Orleans, from The Advocate, by Eliot Kamenitz


P.G.T.’s legacy might otherwise be wrapped-up as championing the version of the Confederate battle flag that modern neo-Confederates are so proud of.10 The one that inspired the color palette of the University of Mississippi athletic program. Unlike Davis (Virginia) or Lee (Kentucky/Mississippi), Beauregard was from New Orleans. He grew-up on a sugar plantation in St. Bernard Parish. He had early success, with his victory during the Battle of Manassas/Bull Run the impetus for changing the flag to make it more distinct. He later fell out of favor for Lee, due in part to his constant bickering with Davis. After the war, as a prominent and successful general, he did not mesh as well with the Lost Cause memory which appealed to an injured Southern pride. He became a railroad director, adjutant general of Louisiana, and manager of the Louisiana lottery; and marked his last year’s bickering with former-general Joseph E. Johnston, Jeff Davis, and William Preston Johnston over his role in the war and their depiction thereof.11

We are up against our word limit here. In a couple days we will conclude this series on New Orleans, the Confederacy, and memory in discussing the legacy of the Confederate flag and the contemporary public discourse of race and Civil War history. I just want to summarize and reaffirm what has thus far been stated. The Confederacy was a union of statesmen and soldiers which rebelled against the country they had sworn allegiance to because they wanted to maintain the institution of slavery. The Civil War began when Confederate troops led by P.G.T. Beauregard fired on Union troops at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. New Orleans was occupied by Union troops for nearly all of the U.S. Civil War. After the Civil War, in New Orleans and across the South former Confederates began enacting laws and public policies to oppress the formerly-enslaved.

The first “Confederate-era” monument went up in the 1880s, and commemorated a race riot (see: police-assisted massacre) that took place in 1866. The monument to Robert E. Lee, beloved general of the Confederacy, went up in 1884. The monuments to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard went up in 1911 and 1915. Fifty years after the Civil War began, and then fifty years after it ended, in a different century, between different wars, people in New Orleans – like their compatriates across the South – were commemorating traitorous losers as heroes in concrete and bronze.


Astor, Maggie. “John Kelly Pins Civil War on a ‘Lack of Ability to Compromise,’” from The New York Times, Oct. 31, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/31/us/john-kelly-civil-war.html

Ball, JR. “7 things to know about Jefferson Davis, now that his Confederate monument is gone,” from NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune, 11 May 2017.


Brown, Thomas. “Confederate Monuments,” from The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 4: Myth, Manners, and Memory. Edited by Charles Reagan Wilson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press (2006), pp. 43-8.


Davis, Jefferson. “Jefferson Davis’s Farewell Address.” The Papers of Jefferson Davis Archive at Rice University. https://jeffersondavis.rice.edu/archives/documents/jefferson-davis-farewell-address

Document “36053001” from Office of Cultural Development, Division of Historic Preservation, National Register of Historic Places.


Hunter, Lloyd A. “The Immortal Confederacy: Another Look at Lost Cause Religion,” from The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Edited by Gary W. Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press (2000), pp. 185-218. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt16gzbp2.12

Jefferson, Thomas. The Declaration of Independence. The National Archive. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript

Lincoln, Abraham. The Emancipation Proclamation. OurDocuments.gov. https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=34

Liptak, Adam. “Supreme Court Invalidates Key Part of Voting Rights Act,” The New York Times June 25, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/26/us/supreme-court-ruling.html

Ruane, Michael E. “Gen P.G.T. Beauregard was a rebel hero. Now his statue in New Orleans is gone.” The Washington Post, 17 May 2017.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/05/17/gen-p-g-t-beauregard-was-a- rebel-hero-now-his-statue-in-new-orleans-is-gone/?utm_term=.1dfa2bf8ceca

Selk, Avi. “Jefferson Davis: The Confederacy’s first, worst and only president.” The Washington Post, 11 May 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/05/11/jefferson-davis- the-confederacys-first-worst-and-only-president/?utm_term=.cf8a671adafa

Simon, Darran, and Steve Almasy. “Final Confederate statue comes down in New Orleans.” CNN.com, 19 May, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/19/us/new-orleans-confederate- monuments/index.html

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Brittanica. “P.G.T. Beauregard,” from Encyclopaedia Brittanica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/P-G-T-Beauregard

The Voting Rights Act: A Resource Page.” The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, August 4, 2015. https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/voting- rights-act-resource-page;

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. OurDocuments.gov


The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constiutiton of the United States of America. OurDocuments.gov https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=44&page=transcript

The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. OurDocuments.gov. https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=63

The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. The National Archive and OurDocuments.gov https://www.archives.gov/historical-docs/13th-amendment; https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=40

1Maggie Astor, “John Kelly Pins Civil War on a ‘Lack of Ability to Compromise,’” from The New York Times, Oct. 31, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/31/us/john-kelly-civil-war.html

2Thomas Jefferson, “The Declaration of Independence,” from the U.S. National Archives website at archives.gov; copies are also available at USHistory.org, Wikipedia, Constitution.com, and in many primary and secondary school history/civics textbooks https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript

3The Emancipation Proclamation, given on the first day of 1863, declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebelling states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” (https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=34)

The Thirteenth Amendment federally abolished slavery “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” A picture of the original can be found at Archives.gov (https://www.archives.gov/historical-docs/13th-amendment), and further explanation is available at OurDocuments.gov (https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=40)

The Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1868, guarantees equal protection under the law to all citizens (https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=43&page=transcript). The Fifteenth Amendment, passed in 1870, purports to guarantee universal male suffrage. “The right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude– The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation (https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=44&page=transcript). On a state-by-state basis this often excludes ex-convicts. At the time, African-Americans were often discriminated against anyway, hence the Voting Rights Act which passed in 1965. Woman’s suffrage was not guaranteed until the 19th Amendment. (https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=63)

4Thomas Brown, “Confederate Monuments,” from The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol 4: Myth, Manners, and Memory, edited by Charles Reagan Wilson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006) pp. 43.

5Document “36053001” from Office of Cultural Development, Division of Historic Preservation, National Register of Historic Places. https://web.archive.org/web/20150715015821/http://www.crt.state.la.us/dataprojects/hp/nhl/view.asp?ID=540

6Darran Simon and Steve Almasy, CNN. “Final Confederate statue comes down in New Orleans,” from CNN.com, 19 May, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/19/us/new-orleans-confederate-monuments/index.html

7JR Ball, “7 things to know about Jefferson Davis, now that his Confederate monument is gone,” from NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune, 11 May 2017. http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2017/05/confederate_monuments_jefferso_1.html

8Jefferson Davis, “Farewell Address,” from The Papers of Jefferson Davis Archive at Rice University. https://jeffersondavis.rice.edu/archives/documents/jefferson-davis-farewell-address

9Avi Selk, “Jefferson Davis: The Confederacy’s first, worst and only president,” from The Washington Post, 11 May 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/05/11/jefferson-davis-the-confederacys-first-worst-and-only-president/?utm_term=.cf8a671adafa

10Michael E. Ruane, “Gen P.G.T. Beauregard was a rebel hero. Now his statue in New Orleans is gone,” from The Washington Post, 17 May 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/05/17/gen-p-g-t-beauregard-was-a-rebel-hero-now-his-statue-in-new-orleans-is-gone/?utm_term=.1dfa2bf8ceca

11The Editors of Encyclopaedia Brittanica, “P.G.T. Beauregard,” from Encyclopaedia Brittanica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/P-G-T-Beauregard

“Chamber of Horrors”: Ireland’s Dead Babies

“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.”

When Jonathan Swift made his tongue in cheek Modest Proposal in 1729, he had no way of knowing that his gruesome image of multitudes of dead Irish babies would become a reality. But unlike Swift’s plump, delicious baby flesh, these 796 lifeless children who died at Tuam, Ireland would be “emaciated” and “wizened.”

And worst of all? They would be carelessly dumped by the hundreds in a disused septic tank.

This is no Guillermo Del Toro flick. This is the true, disturbing story of nearly 800 Irish babies and infants who were neglected to death and unceremoniously hidden in the grounds of the Tuam (pronounced as Chewm) Mother and Baby Home.


The home, founded in 1925 and abandoned in 1961, was run by the Sisters of Bon Secours. The Irish government funded it as a place that young, unwed mothers could give birth to their ‘sinfully’ conceived babies. The mothers would stay there for a year, caring for their children and helping with domestic duties. After 365 days, they could leave with or without their little ones.


In the last 5 years, more and more stories have come out about the Tuam home. The “babies” who grew up in the home and were eventually adopted have come forward to tell their stories of neglect and heartbreak. One man, P.J. Haverty, claims that his mother tried to take him from the home once a week for five years, but the nuns who claimed dominion over the home refused to let her. Other horror stories have emerged: the children were malnourished, mistreated, and essentially uneducated. They lived in a den of disease and were four times as likely to die as other children from these conditions.

How did all of this information come out?

An amateur historian named Catherine Corless.


Catherine Corless, an unassuming amature historian who unearthed the story of the babies at Tuam.

After taking a night class on local history, Corless–who grew up in Tuam and went to school with the home babies, as they were known–started digging around. She asked some locals why there was a well maintained shrine on the property, and was told that some boys in the 1970s had found the bones of famine victims.

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The shrine, as can be seen through a peephole in the wall surrounding the home’s grounds.

But Corless knew famine victims weren’t buried like that. So, like any true historian, she kept asking questions and kept digging. After finding hundreds of death certificates for home babies, she went in search of burial records to compare them with.

But she only found 2. For the others, there was no records. So where did they go if not a consecrated cemetery? Into a sewage tank, apparently.

Corless’ whistleblowing has had huge effects. Since she wrote an article on her findings in 2014, published in Tuam’s historical journal, a Mother and Baby Homes Commission has been assembled to investigate what went on in the home for the 36 years that the Bon Secours ran it. As of March 3rd, 2017, the Commission discovered that 17 of the septic tank’s 20 chambers contained “significant quantities of human remains.” The remains contained bones ranging in age from 35 fetal weeks to 3 years old, all from the years between 1925 and 1961, while the home was in operation.

Ireland’s Prime Minister from 2011 to 2017, Enda Kenny, called the grounds at Tuam a “chamber of horrors” where everyone complicit in the burials “dug deeper still to bury our compassion, to bury our mercy, to bury our humanity itself.”

And now that the story has broken, Ireland and the world has taken notice. Corless has won journalistic and human rights awards for her work, and the babies who died at Tuam will never be forgotten. There’s even a twitter account dedicated to tweeting the deceased’s names and age of death.

As with all history, there are those who doubt it. One of Ireland’s most famous journalists, John Waters, is on a speaking tour centered on disproving the “hoax” of Tuam. He claims that “Everybody knew there had been an orphanage on the site and it was not surprising for anyone at that time that there were human bones found on the site.” He blames sensationalist media for exaggerating and falsely authenticating what happened at the Bon Secours home.

As of now, where the Baby’s Home used to stand is, ironically enough, a playground. Underneath the skipping feet of today’s children lies the bones of nearly 800 Irish babies who suffered for their mothers’ crimes of sex out of wedlock. But now we know they are there, and they will never be forgotten, thanks to the tireless work of an amateur historian.

Learn More About the Tuam Babies:

New York Times


Notes from the Field: Making Primary Sources Fun (Again)

Kevin Fox and I introducing the lesson to the BVM students.

As I went through my student teaching practicum in my last semester at Brandeis University, I learned quickly that teaching history is unfortunately teaching something that not many teenagers see as cool. My lessons were truly ones of trial and error that being a student teacher could afford to test out. Better to figure out which lessons were duds before I had my own classroom, right? I slowly but surely honed my ability to connect the boring past with the relevant present.

Now, as a graduate student, I find myself back in an unfamiliar role, that of a learner. The Information Wanted Project caught my attention because it gave me an avenue to apply history as I never had before, working intimately with microfilm reel after reel of old newspapers, looking for needles in haystacks. This aligned with my core goal as a teacher, bringing history to the public, so I jumped at the opportunity.

I was able to get involved in a more education-based way when a teacher at Blessed Virgin Mary School in Darby, PA reached out to Dr. Giesberg, asking if any graduate students would be interested in teaching a lesson centered on this microfilm. I volunteered along with Kevin Fox, and quickly found that what had become second nature for me during my student teaching was now foreign. I did not know anything about the students and the school beyond that the school was a small Catholic mission school and the majority of students were minorities.

Not every student—or every class—is the same, so being able to tailor a lesson based on the class is important. Unfortunately, it was a luxury I didn’t have. I was in the dark, but still determined to make history fun and engaging. If this was my classroom, and I knew my students, I might have had a different approach. But this wasn’t my classroom, and Dr. Giesberg, Kevin, and I were not their teachers.

The restrictiveness I initially felt immediately gave way to ultimate freedom: we could have as much fun with this as we wanted. We didn’t have to match the lesson to their unit or an upcoming test, or assign homework to reinforce mastery of the material. Without boundaries, what was the best way to connect our work and us with these young students? Primary sources.

Using primary sources to teach history is not a new concept in educational pedagogy. Classrooms are no longer like what you might see in movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. History classrooms have long ceased to be lecture halls showing a one-way direction of information for students to write down and be tested on. Primary sources help get students to care and develop critical thinking skills in a way that nothing else can.

As a graduate student, I don’t often have the opportunity to analyze primary sources as much as I might like, as my courses focus more on analyzing historiographies explored by other historians and scholars. My outlet for primary source consumption has come in the form of the Information Wanted Project, and I wanted to create a lesson plan that represented the project and also included my perspective as a graduate student.

Kevin and I came to the conclusion that the best way to get students to feel like graduate students for a day was to assign them the work that we did for the project each week. To put it simply, this entails looking at old newspapers and sifting through them for information wanted ads pertaining to families who searched, sometimes in vain, to reconnect with lost members after the Civil War.

I spent days scanning entire pages of newspapers, fighting tooth and nail with the copy machine to make the font something an ordinary person could read, and of course hoping and praying that nothing too explicit would be present in the newspaper (again, this is a downside of not knowing the culture of the school going in). Finally, I had some semblance of material that one could call a lesson: Three newspapers, each from a different time period and location, and each containing at least one ad.


Myself and a teacher from BVM discuss a group’s findings.

For me, the best teaching happens after collaboration and modification, so Kevin and I planned the structure of the lesson: Dr. Giesberg would present the basic genealogy of the project, then we would come in with something fun and challenging for the students to attach themselves to. We had questions prepared but also trusted ourselves to let the conversation grow naturally. I can’t say it enough: planning without knowing who you’re planning for is extraordinarily difficult.

With as much adoration as I had for my three 9th grade World History classes I taught as a student teacher, I must admit that the students at Blessed Virgin Mary School showcased a passion for the material and a hunger to participate that would make any teacher envious. I was taught by my mentor teachers to always have enough copies of the material—not one for every student, but two or three for every student.

A general rule of thumb for teachers is to always be over prepared. I made 30 copies in total, anticipating a small class size one might expect at a mission school. I was not expecting to walk into the church auditorium to the entire 7th and 8th grade, about 45 students total. Kevin and I adjusted quickly and distributed the papers to groups instead of partners. At least this meant that collaboration and conversation would be even more emphasized.


Kevin Fox working with a student to locate an elusive ad.

Finding the ads proved to be as challenging for the students as it usually is for myself, Kevin, and the other collaborators on the project. I’ve learned that the beauty of teaching history comes not from having students answer your questions, but from giving the students the material and fostering their critical thinking skills so they can come up with their own questions.

What did the ads mean? What story were they telling? Why put them in newspapers? Having the students discuss these questions and hearing their brilliant and inquisitive answers was very reassuring. In a time where it seems that the humanities are losing traction to STEM in jobs and in value, it is good to know that the future of historians is safe and secure, so long as the great students at Blessed Virgin Mary School continue to ask these questions and explore the seemingly endless possibilities of answers.

All photos provided by Dr. Judith Giesberg.