From composers and moonshiners to hoaxes and natural disasters, Holly Frey and Tracy V. Wilson have researched it all. Their popular podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class, spotlights fascinating historical figures and events that haven’t gotten nearly as much attention as they deserve.
Since 2013, the duo has recorded hundreds of episodes, each of which takes anywhere from eight to 20 hours to research. As a listener, I’m particularly impressed by how many history-making women I’ve discovered through the podcast, though I’ve also been won over by episodes about, say, Popsicle history.
I asked Frey and Wilson to throw out a few women they’ve profiled and adore. Each name links to its corresponding podcast, where you can (and should!) listen to learn much more.
“She was the strongwoman that worked at Barnum & Bailey for years and years,” says Frey, an Atlanta-based editor for HowStuffWorks. “She was a member of the circus suffragette movement, although she seemed almost to take that on because she thought it was a responsibility of her position. She had children, and she did her strongwoman act right up to the birth of each of her sons.
“What’s really interesting is that when I read interviews from people that knew her, they’d talk about how incredibly feminine she was: How she’d always have her nails done, she was always in makeup, and she was always into super-girly things,” Frey adds. “It was such an entertaining juxtaposition against this woman who was literally having a carousel put on her shoulders so she could lift eight to a dozen people at a time."
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“She was the person who came up with a measurable and objective way to measure whether newborn babies were thriving outside the womb or not,” says Wilson, HowStuffWorks’s Boston-based editorial director. “I really like how she had this very tender and loving presence, and then she also completely changed a standard in OB-GYN care. She’s a person who did something that was really groundbreaking and completely affected the way people practiced medicine—and, as is so often the case on the show, no one listened to her for quite a while.”
“There’s this kind of accidental thing where you sometimes fall in love with the subject, and Joe Carstairs is definitely one that stands out to me in that regard,” Frey says about the motorboat racer. “She just had such a fascinating life and was playing with gender at a time when it was not all that common. She just had this amazing, strange, wonderful energy about her.”
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“Mildred and Richard Loving were an interracial couple, and the case for their marriage went all the way to the Supreme Court,” Wilson says. “We did the episode on them [because] their case [Loving v. Virginia] kept being cited in same-sex marriage cases as a precedent. They had a simultaneously triumphant and tragic story, because they ultimately were allowed to be married in Virginia … but tragically, not many years after that, Richard Loving was killed in a car accident.
“In her later life, Mildred was asked how she felt about their case being brought up again in the context of same-sex marriage,” Wilson adds. “She gave a beautiful statement about how important it was for people who wanted to be married to each other to be married to each other, no matter who they were. She ended it by saying, ‘That’s what Loving’ (being their case) ‘and loving’ (being the act of loving) ‘are all about.’”
Wilson, who has a degree is in literature, cites the famed poet for different reasons than one might expect: “The word ‘polyamory’ had not been coined—and I’m very reluctant to apply modern words to people who lived before that word (existed),” she says. “But [Millay’s marriage] was clearly one where she loved her husband, and also they were open to having relationships with other people."
“She basically broke some new ground for a lot of women in terms of personal fulfillment in relationships,” she says. “She wrote poems that were really evocative and that a lot people took romantic and personal inspiration from … but she wasn’t a completely romantic figure. As her life went on, she had some problems with drugs and alcohol, and her death was almost certainly due to that.”
Frey notes, “It’s great to have a figure who is romantic and lovely and, at the same time, is realistic about the fact that no one’s life is perfect.”
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“She was another heiress who inherited a whole lot of money and then said, ‘All right, we’re gonna have birth control now!’” Wilson says. “Then she used her knowledge gleaned from having gotten a degree in biology from MIT to stay on top of the project. And on top of almost single-handedly funding the development of the first successful oral contraceptive pill, she also would go to Europe and smuggle diaphragms back (to the U.S.) in the linings of her dresses.”
“She was an heiress in the early part of the 20th century who developed some investigative processes for looking at crime scenes,” Frey explains. “She took all of her money and put it toward this bizarre sort of hobby of creating dioramas that were realistic depictions of crime scenes so that she could train police officers.”
“[There are] so many instances in history of someone that is just richer than anyone needs to be, and they’re just really self-indulgent and do a lot of crazy things,” she says. “But [Lee] put her money behind creating homicide investigation tools. She was teaching investigators how to walk into a crime scene without destroying evidence, take clear stock of what might’ve happened, and learn how to look for details. She really had this lasting impact on the way crime is dealt with, and yet she has kind of faded into the background of history.”
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