How Heather Cox Richardson Built a Sisterhood of Concerned AmericansHistorians in the News
tags: media, Heather Cox Richardson, womens history
As we hurtle through the tumultuous end-days of the Trump presidency, hundreds of thousands of people turn each morning to “Letters from an American,” a daily newsletter by Boston College political historian Heather Cox Richardson, posted in the wee hours on Facebook and distributed via e-mail by Substack. Twice a week, many of those same fans show up for Richardson’s Facebook livestreams.
“She has a genius for distilling the chaos of current events, a reasoned calm, and an ability to let us know that what’s happening now has happened before, and America survived,” said Mim Eisenberg, 78, of Georgia, a retired oral history transcriptionist who follows Richardson on both platforms.
Mary Jo Shapiro, 58, reads Richardson on Facebook first thing each morning at her home in Maryland, when there are only just a few hundred comments. She likes being part of this community. “It’s cool. It lets us know we’re not alone,” said Shapiro, who works for a consulting company in higher education.'
“I think of myself as a translator and as an explainer,” said Richardson, 58, in a Zoom conversation from her home in Maine. “Anybody can sew on a button, but a really good seamstress is a very different thing. It would be a mistake to ask me to make a wedding dress or a ballgown, but a seamstress would be like, ‘oh sure.’ And I’m the ‘oh, sure’ of political history.”
The Harvard-educated historian, whose specialty is 19th-century America, has written six books. The most recent, “How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America,” came out last year.
The context Richardson provides is reassuring. Her tone — curious, approachable, and friendly — might be that of your super-smart sister or mother. She has grown children, and fondly mentors her PhD candidates at BC.
Asked about the fate of the Republican party today in light of the insurrection at the US Capitol, she said the Democrats were in a similar divisive position in 1879.
“What happened was the white supremacist violent group kind of got sidelined,” she said.
Then she returned to present-day Republicans: “After the election, I kept saying — as I think, honestly, any mother would — ‘Why are you hitching your wagon to this star? You know it’s going to get worse.’ And every day we have learned more about what happened on [Jan. 6]. None of it looks better. It all looks worse.”
She writes “Letters from an American” at night and teaches by day, and has spent the pandemic working from home near the Maine coast, where her partner is a lobsterman. She has deep roots there, as if she’s living history as well as studying and teaching it. Two years ago, she bought land that her ancestors first acquired during the War of 1812, in a town where they have lived since before the Pilgrims.
I happened upon “Letters from an American” in late 2019. Like Shapiro, I open it, hungrily, first thing each morning. Richardson offers a sort of grounding that daily journalists, caught up in breaking news, cannot. But it’s more than that: I am one of a passionate fan base of middle-aged and older women. When I told friends I would be interviewing her, they lit up. One called her “our girl.” Richardson has catalyzed a community because she speaks to something in us — a legion of smart, creative women (and men) who crave her down-to-earth style of teaching civic engagement.
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