By Amy Morse
Julia is kind of obsessed with the past. As an avid reader, she grew frustrated that she knew the name of, “every single man who had pioneered a thing from 1700 to 2000,” but couldn’t name as many women. For example, the woman who invented Kevlar, discovered dark matter, or “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” She started keeping a list of women’s names that she came across – from historic street signs outside of Duke Ellington’s childhood home or conversations at parties – that bloomed into a project called A Woman to Know. On any given evening she is poring through books, reading articles online about lesser-known women from history to compose stories on the hidden lives and contributions of remarkable women.
This project, born from a mix of curiosity, embarrassment, and a desire to unlock censored treasures from the past, conveys a feeling of a global sisterhood of unheard stories. Earlier today, with help from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s badass new open source image collection, she shared the story of Wang Zhenyi, poet, astronomer, mathematician, and member of an underground group of female scholars in the Qing dynasty. Julia’s dispatches are lovingly composed and beg the question of why we don’t learn more about women’s history.
Professionally, Julia is a writer and editor at The Washington Post. She loves D.C.’s rich history. She says, “It’s easily the No. 1 thing I love most about living here. Beyond every single museum and historical society and exhibit, there’s a whole world of women’s lives on neighborhood plaques, housing markers, restaurant menus and more. That’s how I found out about Duke Ellington’s sister Ruth. She’s the one who managed his band and his music company, and she’s also the person who set about solidifying Duke’s legacy after his death. And I found her name outside his childhood home near U Street — seriously, no lie.”
A woman from history who inspires her
Julia thinks about Jane Heap all the time. Julia explains, “Jane wanted to write about queer women and their lives, but it was 1917 and people gawked at the very thought. So what did she do? Started her own damn journal for modernist, feminist, LGBTQ literary review. Talk about someone who inspires me to just make something. Even if it doesn’t already exist — actually, especially if it doesn’t already exist.”
Jane Heap took considerable risks to share contemporary writing during her lifetime. She and Margaret Anderson published and edited The Little Review – a BFD – it was the American literary underground from 1914-1929. Due to widespread censorship at the time, Jane was fined for publishing and distributing the opening chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses. She also built and maintained a close literary group to cultivate talent and ideas in the U.S. and Europe.
Organizations and groups that Julia recommends
- Project Continua at the New School is fucking awesome. Project Director Gina Luria Walker, her students, and others lift the stories of women from obscurity. Women like Enheduanna, the earliest recorded woman author, or Aemilia Lanyer, a writer who may have written some of Shakespeare’s own work. Walker imparted cherished words to Julia last year: “This is an idea whose time has come.”
- Mackenzie Lee on Twitter. She curates the hashtag — #BygoneBadassBroads — and tells spectacular stories about forgotten women from history, politics, science and art, including Mary Bowser and Margaret Ann Bulkley. Her hashtag is becoming a book this spring (hmmm pop up celebration at the Reading Room, Chantal Tseng).
- Online safe spaces for women. Facebook groups such as Binders Full of Women and its subgroups, city-specific circles. She recommends applying to join communities like Tech Lady Mafia, a Google group for ladies in tech, or Pay Up, the Slack community that Julia co-founded for women to talk about how the gender wage gap affects their lives.