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Five Popular Women’s History Stories from Sidedoor, a Smithsonian Podcast

Hazel Fellows, an African American woman, sews a spacesuit

Hazel Fellows. NASA, Courtesy of National Air and Space Museum Archives.

Sidedoor, a Smithsonian podcast, explores lesser-known stories from across the Smithsonian’s museums and storage vaults. With more than 100 episodes produced over the last six years, the podcast has covered many stories about women.   

Podcast host and senior producer Lizzie Peabody explains the importance of sharing American women’s history:  

I know this should no longer surprise me, but I’m still flabbergasted at how hard it is to find information about so many important women from history—even those whose names we know. Take Betsy Ross, for example. The one thing we think we know about her, that she sewed the first U.S. flag, is probably not true.  in the recent episode “Broad Stripes, Bright Stars, and White Lies,” we learn that the true story of Betsy Ross is even more impressive than the myth.   

Lizzie Peabody spreads her arms wide in front of the large U.S. flag
Sidedoor host Lizzie Peabody demonstrates the grand scale of the Star-Spangled Banner in its protective display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Photograph by James Morrison. 

One of the most exciting parts about researching and reporting women’s stories is being able to update the historical record. For instance, we recently told the story of inventor Mary Beatrice Kenner, who patented an early sanitary belt. Of the little information out there about her, much of it was completely inaccurate. In fact, the picture on her Wikipedia page wasn’t even her! And it’s not as though we’re delving deep into the past; Kenner died in 2006. 

Telling stories like Kenner’s feels especially meaningful. Not only are we sharing a great story, we’re also making this history more readily available for researchers and curious minds. It’s a privilege to share the voices of the experts and historians across the Smithsonian who do the research and care for the collections and then bring those stories to life through Sidedoor.  

Here are the five most popular Sidedoor episodes about American women’s history, according to our listeners. 

1. “Outer Space & Underwear” 

Illustrations of astronaut in suit, African American hands sewing suit, and bras and underwear shorts

In the Venn diagram of life, it’s hard to imagine what spacecraft and women’s underwear might have in common. And that’s probably what NASA engineers thought back in 1962 when they asked a handful of companies to design a spacesuit that would keep a man alive and mobile on the moon. Nobody counted on the International Latex Corporation, whose commercial brand, Playtex, was known for its bras and girdles. But lingerie, and the expert seamstresses who sewed it, played a critical role in those first well-supported steps on the moon. 

Episode transcript

2. “The Milkmaid Spy” 

Illustrations Virginia Hall, her OSS medal, a prosthetic leg, and espionage tools

Virginia Hall dreamed of being America’s first female ambassador. Instead, she became a spy. Joining the ranks of the first civilian spy network in the U.S., she operated alone in occupied France, where she built French Resistance networks, delivered critical intelligence, and sold cheese to the enemy. You can also read more of Hall’s story and see a Congressional gold medal from the American agency she worked for during World War II. 

Episode transcript.  

3. “America’s Unknown Celebrity Chef” 

Illustration of Lena Richard chopping a vegetable and cooking a lobster while her TV show plays next to her

When Lena Richard cooked her first chicken on television, she beat Julia Child to the screen by over a decade. At a time when most African American women cooks worked behind swinging kitchen doors, Richard claimed her place as a culinary authority, broadcasting in the living rooms of New Orleans’s elite white families. She was an entrepreneur, educator, author, and an icon—and her legacy lives on in her recipes. 

Episode transcript

4. “Young Harriet” 

Illustrations of Harriet Tubman

In 2017, a photograph of Harriet Tubman surfaced that had been lost to history for more than a century. In a feature of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery’s Portraits podcast, we hear the story behind this picture. We also hear how its discovery changes the way we see Tubman—not just an icon of freedom and human dignity, but a courageous young woman. 

Episode transcript

5. “Dress Coded” 

Illustrations of different student outfits

Dress codes have been around a long time—from the old days of long skirts and bloomers to today’s regulation-length shorts. But while the specifics of what girls can wear to school have changed, the purpose of the codes has not. You can learn more about dress codes, and see Jilly Thompson’s outfit discussed in the episode, in Schooling the Body from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. 

Episode transcript

Want to hear more? Dive into the full Sidedoor archives, including recent favorites, “Broad Stripes, Bright Stars, and White Lies” and “The Many Inventions of Beatrice Kenner.”

Support for these Sidedoor episodes was provided by the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative. 

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