It started simply enough. In 2013, I was sitting in a lonely office in a lonely wing of the engineering building on the University of Wisconsin campus. At the time, I was a science writer, on the hunt for a historical factoid about materials science to insert into a department newsletter.
I stumbled across the name of the first female graduate of the program: Emily Hahn. She received her degree in 1926, but the college’s website offered nothing more. I mentioned Hahn to my boss, who shrugged and said, “I don’t think she became an engineer.” I didn’t include her in the newsletter.
But I didn’t forget her, and eventually, I started to Google her. And it didn’t take long to realize that “Mickey” Hahn was way more interesting than we gave her credit for.
After a brief stint as a mining engineer, she became a writer and world traveler, ultimately producing more than 50 books. She traveled to the Belgian Congo alone in her mid-20s, and she spent eight years in Japan-occupied China during WWII.
I was … stunned. I’d majored in journalism at the University of Wisconsin, and I’d never, not once, heard the name of this prolific alum. How was that possible?
A couple years later, I went to work for the university’s alumni association. My editor was supportive of a piece about Mickey for the alumni magazine, though the right pitch never evolved. But I was really vocal about her historical value, and because of that, her name is included in a unique UW history project that I can’t tell you more about until later this year. (But I will!)
And that’s when it clicked for me. The established American literary canon is perpetuated simply because the same handful of names are repeated over and over in our popular culture. And even though lots of women were working and publishing really good stuff in the early decades of the 20th century, their names — and their words — are rarely referenced now without some faux-melancholic lament about how no one remembers them anymore.
This blog wants to do more than offer up the same recycled bios you’ll see across the Interwebs. The goal here is to re-inject some life into their legacies. Let’s make memes out of them. Let’s use quotes from them on contemporary (and/or timeless) topics. Let’s share anecdotes about their lives to inspire today’s women and writers.
I mean, seriously, if Mickey can hide herself in a crate on the back of a delivery truck to get to a remote jungle town in 1931, more American women today can at least summon the courage to apply for their passports, right?
Mickey said of her Congo adventure, “With my usual sublime self-confidence, I rode roughshod over the objections.” So let’s ride roughshod over the assumption that modern American literature was solely a male enterprise. Because otherwise, we’re missing out on a helluva lot of good stories.
- We’ll come back to Ol’ Mick several times on this blog, but let’s start with Congo Solo: Misadventures Two Degrees North.
- A lot of the anecdotes I know about Mickey are from her autobiography, No Hurry to Get Home, and her biography, Nobody Said Not to Go: The Life, Loves and Adventures of Emily Hahn.
P.S. Featured image is of Emily Hahn with one of her many pet primates.