Celebrating nasty women
In 1986, Janet Jackson’s hit song “Nasty” topped music billboard charts, with the catchy yet controversial lyrics, “Oh, you nasty boys.” Thirty years later, in 2016, this song made a comeback after former President Donald Trump’s “nasty woman” reference to Hillary Clinton during a presidential debate. Headlines blew up worldwide and the phrase went viral, spiraling into the Nasty Woman feminist movement.
In 2021, Virginia Tech students from Marian Mollin’s spring 2020 section of HIST 4914 (History Capstone Research Seminar) published the book "Nasty Women: Transgressive Womanhood in American History" as their primary assignment of the course. This rigorous and demanding class requires students to engage in original historical research and writing on a topic of their choice. The students chose “Nasty Women in American History” as their topic, looking at the long view of American women and examining their behavior of protesting societal norms and breaking boundaries through the decades.
Students in the class — Alicia Aucoin, Gillian Barth, Grace Barth, Helen Hickman, Savannah Lawhorne, Kat McGowan, Caroline McLean, Madison Sheehan, Elizabeth Sholtis, Trenton Spillman, Bethany Stewart, Alyssa Thompson, Liv Wisnewski, and Olivia Wood — all had a hand in writing the book.
In the book’s 14 chapters, the student authors recount stories of strong historical women, some enslaved, a few engineers, and even early celebrities. Taken together, the chapters demonstrate how there is no such thing as an average woman, as even those ordinary women are found doing extraordinary things.
Led by Mollin, an associate professor of history, in collaboration with Robert Browder, publishing coordinator of Virginia Tech Publishing housed in University Libraries, each student produced a chapter or article-length essay that resembled the kinds of scholarly papers historians regularly deliver at professional meetings or submit for publication. Then each of these works were combined and published into a book.
“Compiling the essays into a published volume adds a level of seriousness and excitement to the class,” said Mollin. “Students universally love that their work will appear in an actual book rather than just submitted as a class assignment that no one except their professor sees. And knowing that their work will be published and available for public consumption pushes students to do their very best work.”
“This project is unique because each student gets to write about whatever they want to under the subject matter,” said McLean, a student in the course and a double major in history and international studies with a minor in Spanish. “That means that each author wrote about what they were most interested in and passionate about.”
The now successful project encountered some challenges along the way. During the first months of the pandemic in spring 2020, the class shifted to remote learning. This almost derailed the entire book project.
“The students had really just started their research,” said Mollin. “Some of their research was with online databases, but more were print library resources that suddenly were inaccessible. The lack of face-to-face contact was difficult as well. The work in this capstone research seminar is intense, and peer support is essential to the students’ successful completion of their projects.”
The classmates were scattered geographically and met through Zoom, challenging their ability to maintain a sense of connection required to complete the high-level project.
“All of my sources for my chapter were back in my dorm room in Blacksburg,” said Liv Wisnewski, one of the class project authors. “I hadn’t brought them home with me over spring break, figuring I would only be gone for a week and not intending to work on the paper in that time anyway. I was away from them for a month and had to get special permission to return to campus early to get my things so I could finish my chapter.”
The students did not give up.
They engaged in extensive primary source research about their chosen topics, and then collaborated in editing and layout. Not only did the process enable them to learn about history, but it also taught them to adhere to a rigorous schedule of frequent deadlines, work as a team, independently search for sources, and demonstrate an ability to think clearly and analytically.
“It’s great preparation for any kind of work, not just work in the discipline of history,” said Mollin.
The class rallied and persevered. “We used our Zoom meetings to help sustain the sense of intellectual community and camaraderie we had cultivated during the first half of the semester,” said Mollin. “The students found workarounds to complete their research. And, in an act of intentional defiance of the obstacles that the pandemic had thrown in their paths, the students doubled down on their commitment to produce high-quality work and turn their class assignments into an actual published book.”
McLean helped write the acknowledgments and introduction, and her own chapter focused on the 1918 Chamberlain-Kahn Act, also called the American Plan, which humiliated and traumatized thousands of women during the first half of the 20th century.
“I felt it was important to reveal lesser known historical events in the book,” McLean said. “Before writing this chapter, I didn’t even know what the American Plan was and I am a history major! I was astonished that this type of forceful and humiliating repression against women even happened in the United States. I wanted to write about it so that more people learn about it and so that it’s never repeated.”
Wisnewski chose to research and write about Alice Roosevelt, the original infamous woman, while also designing the front and back covers. “It was a very fun process, not only getting to really dive into the history of a woman I have always been curious about, but then to create a very visible part of the physical results of the class.”
“Dr. Mollin stayed vigilant and guided us through the end of the project,” McLean said. “Without her persistence and the continued dedication of the students, this project would not have been possible to complete. She went over and beyond as a teacher and gave us all such a valuable experience.”
“I believe that providing a professional venue for undergraduates to showcase the skills and talents they develop as students should be an integral part of their experience at Virginia Tech,” said Mollin. “And that is exactly what the history capstone book projects, done in conjunction with Virginia Tech Publishing, provide.”
“The opportunity to partner with Virginia Tech faculty to create opportunities for undergraduate students to engage in nonperishable scholarship through their course work is sublime indeed,” Browder said.
“Working with the staff at Virginia Tech Publishing, especially with Robert Browder, has been an incredible experience,” said Mollin. “While a number of history faculty had done book projects like this before, doing it under the auspices of Virginia Tech Publishing has made both the editing process and the end product much more professional. Robert has been great about overseeing the class book projects from start to finish. Other library staff, particularly Lauren Holt and Grace Baggett, played an instrumental role in guiding the students through the copyediting process and final proofing.”
“Working with both University Libraries and Virginia Tech Publishing was delightful,” McLean said. “University Libraries went above and beyond helping us find sources for the book, without which writing the book would not have been possible. Virginia Tech Publishing even taught a group of students from the class how to copyedit over the summer so that we could be directly involved in the publishing process on our own book. I am very grateful for the skills they taught me and their willingness to help along the way.”
Students ended the 2020–21 school year with a published book on their resumes — and on a subject about which they are passionate.
“This book and women’s history mean a lot to me because it is important for people to know what conditions were like for women in the past,” McLean said. “Many take our positions in society for granted today and overlook the challenges that so many women had to face to get to this place.”
Wisnewski wants to be an educator and plans on going into museum work. “Not just because I love old stuff, which I do, but because I want to pass on that love to other people. Writing this book was part of that for me. I was excited to share my interest in Alice Roosevelt, to spotlight her and let people see her and learn from her like I did. I love teaching and telling stories, and writing is in some ways the best of both of those things.”
Mollin hopes readers of the book will gain new insights. “I love learning what each group of students considers important or usable from their study of the past,” Mollin said. “Because of generational differences, our students often see things in a different light than older and more established historians such as myself and my colleagues.”
“The whole book is really a testament to the academic spirit of the university and the passion students feel for their work,” said Wisnewski. “It was great fun to be able to complete the book and celebrate with my classmates this spring.”
This project serves as a reminder not to take current circumstances and privileges for granted.
“It is women like the ones in this book who broke the boundaries that allow the women of today to experience rights and freedoms,” said McLean. “It is also a reminder to the community that there is always room to enact change, to make the history of tomorrow.”
By Elise Monsour Puckett