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Reading Letters by Early American Women with Kathryn Gehred

If you pull any decent history book off your shelf right now, odds are that it’s filled with quotes from letters, diaries, or account books that help the author tell her story and provide the evidence for her interpretation of the past.

It’s almost always the case that the quotation you read in a book is just one snippet of a much longer document. Perhaps, for example, Catharine Greene’s letters to her husband Nathanael offer the reader insight into some aspect of the family business she was running while Nathanael served in the southern theater of the War of Independence.

But what about the rest of the document? What about the quiet moments when someone like Martha Washington asks after a family member, describes the state of their own health, or apologizes for a hurried scrawl, the result of the writer trying to catch the next post?

And as valuable as collections like George Washington’s papers are, how can we write more nuanced and complete histories of the American past by reading letters by early American women?

On today’s show, we welcome Kathryn Gehred, who is tackling that question by exploring the lives of early American women, one letter at a time.

Gehred is a Research Editor at The Washington Papers Project based at the University of Virginia, where she is also on the team at the Center for Digital Editing, which is publishing documentary editions of historical manuscript collections online.

Gehred is also the host of the new podcast, Your Most Obedient & Humble Servant. On each episode, Gehred and her guests break down a letter written by early American women and put it in context to show what is often obscured by the so-called juicier quotes you might find in your favorite book.

Gehred joins Jim Ambuske today to talk about her podcast, how her training as an early American women’s historian, Monticello tour guide, and documentary editor informs her approach to it, and some of the exciting letters she’s discussed so far.

And as a special treat, stick around after the credits role for a preview of Your Most Obedient & Humble Servant featuring Gehred’s conversation with our colleague Samantha Snyder about a letter from Elizabeth Willing Powel to George Washington.

About our Guest:

Kathryn Gehred is a Research Editor at The Washington Papers Project at the University of Virginia. She is also on the staff of the Center for Digital Editing. A historian of early American women, Gehred is the host of the podcast Your Most Obedient & Humble Servant, a women’s history podcast which showcases the kinds of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century women’s letters that don’t always make it into the history books.

About our Host:

Jim Ambuske, Ph.D. leads the Center for Digital History at the Washington Library. A historian of the American Revolution, Scotland, and the British Atlantic World, Ambuske graduated from the University of Virginia in 2016. He is a former Farmer Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at the University of Virginia Law Library. At UVA Law, Ambuske co-directed the 1828 Catalogue Project and the Scottish Court of Session Project.  He is currently at work on a book about emigration from Scotland in the era of the American Revolution as well as a chapter on Scottish loyalism during the American Revolution for a volume to be published by the University of Edinburgh Press.