Biography: Sex, Lies, & Secrets

I hope you will find some time on Saturday, October 17th for our next Under the Baobab session—or should we call it Bio-Bab?—to join me and teacher-scholars from the U.S. and Scotland who are exploring the role of the individual in world history. How do historians try to paint portraits of individuals, knowing that sex, lies, and secrets are often lurking in history’s shadows? How does biography explain the past? How might we draw inspiration from the lives of others? How can we make their stories gender neutral? The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote, “At its core, it [history] is about human nature: learning how others who have come before us have overcome challenges—some of which we still face today.”

Candice Goucher

In our time together, we will hear from four historians who are using biography in their scholarship and their classrooms. 

Dr. Bashabí Fraser (Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies, Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Dundee and Honorary Fellow at the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh) has just written a fascinating biography of Rabindranath Tagore (Reaktion Books, Critical Lives Series, 2019), the first non-westerner to win a Nobel Prize. She demonstrates how the life of Tagore reflects the larger processes and patterns of world history. Tagore influenced diverse individuals, from Helen Keller to Maria Montessori.

Yaari Felber-Seligman (City College of New York) will speak about their current projects, focusing on the opportunities and challenges for contextualizing gender diversities and individuals in early African and world history. How does the construction of gender vary across world history? How does it stretch and challenge our assumptions and labels?

Suzanne Litrel (American Historical Association) will discuss her projects that are rethinking world history through biography. One is a new edition of a reference work on Latin American women. She will also challenge us to think about how we use biography in world history classrooms.

Candice Goucher (Washington State University) will talk about her recently completed manuscript Women Who Changed the World (ABC-CLIO, 2021), a four-volume collection of 200 essays on women in world history. What accounts for the success of those women who, against great odds, changed the world? Why do world historians still remain so silent about the sex, lies, and secrets of the individuals they write about?

We live in challenging times, in which world historians are called to play major roles:  in teaching the narratives of a global pandemic, a planetary climate crisis, the lethal bombardment by political lies, re-questioning public monuments, and re-structuring social institutions.

We hope you will be able to join us in this important discussion of historical inequality, struggle, and triumph viewed through the lens of the individual.

Register here to receive the Zoom link for the meeting. Participation is free for WHA members, $10 for guests.

Candice Goucher

Professor Emerita, Washington State University, WHA member