Podcast Review: Abigail Adams, Lizzie Borden, Helen Keller, Dolley Madison, Cinderella & Red Riding Hood #HistoryChicksBinge

The History Chicks Podcast Review
Images via The History Chicks podcast

Welcome back to my quest to listen & review all of the episodes of The History Chicks podcast. I’ve made a bit of progress this week, listening to five podcast episodes plus one minicast. So let’s break them down.

Episode Three: Cinderella

Podcast Date: February 21, 2011

Time Period: 500 BCE to contemporary period

Length of Episode: 51 minutes

Susan and Beckett do include some fictional characters in these podcasts and it works. They dove into the historical precedence for the character we know as Cinderella, traveling from Egypt circa 500 BC to the T’ang Dynasty in Japan to Italy and into the modern era. Exploring how fictional characters, especially women, reflect the cultural values and mores of each society while also following the unifying elements is a very satisfactory way to treat these undeniable influence on our lives.

What I Learned

I learned so much.

  • The stories of Rhodopis from Egypt and Greece coupled with the Chinese folktale Yeh-Shen alone were mesmerizing.
  • The symbolism of shoes, pumpkins, birds, fairies, other vegetables, as reflections of the different cultures and moraly systems was a little hard to keep up with, but interesting. Remember, pumpkins came back to the Old Worth courtesy of colonization of the Americas.
  • The discussion about the passive versus assertive personalities of Cinderella in different stories got me thinking.

PITTSBURGH CONNECTION – Professor D.L. Ashliman formerly of University of Pittsburgh has a digitized index of folklore, including Cinderella stories. 

Shownote Standout

The website SurLaLune Fairy Tales is amazing, a rabbithold indeed. Also Susan and Beckett posted a special feature on the castles that inspired Cinderella’s castle, perhaps the most iconic image of Disney after Mickey Mouse.

Minicast: Red Riding Hood

Podcast Date: 27 February 2011

Time Period: 14th century onward

Episode Length: 13 minutes 33 seconds

I cannot honestly remember which version of this story I heard or knew first. I think it was one where the Woodsman comes to save her because I do remember eventually reading the version where she and Grandma are freed from the wolf’s belly and thinking how gross that would be.

What I Learned

  • I was surprised that Red Riding Hood dates only to the 14th century while Cinderella origins stretch back eons.
  • The wide array of interpretations from Red saving herself to Red and Grandma being eaten up dead and everywhere in between suggests this is a story with lots of possible outcomes. Moral – don’t assume what will happen to little girls who wear red?

Shownote Standout

The D.L. Ashliman site devoted to Red Riding Hood.

Episode Four: Abigail Adams

Podcast Date: 9 March 2011

Time Period: 1744-1818

Episode Length: 68 minutes

What I Learned

  • The relationship between Abigail and her husband is intense and yet fraught with many long separations. She sacrificed a lot to help birth the United States as did her children.
  • Her voluminous letters capture the birth of a nation as well as the day to day life of women throughout the colonies and eventually the US.
  • Context. I’ve never really thought about Abigail being a Puritan. From a modern perspective, we think of Puritans as the uptight not-so-great colonists, but obviously they were part of the early dynamics.

Shownote Standout

The National Park Service page devoted to the Adams family has a lot of great nuggets to digest.

Episode Five: Dolley Payne Madison

Podcast Date: 24 March 2011

Time Period: 1768-1849

Episode Length: 39 minutes

I can honestly say that I did not know nearly as much as Dolley Madison as I thought I did. So this was an eye-opening episode.

What I Learned:

  • Although born a Quaker, Dolley Madison enslaved human beings and sold them to finance her own lifestyle. This is not quite how the podcast puts it, to my dismay, but they do discuss this reality. I don’t know why I did a doubletake upon learning that the Madisons (both James and Dolley) owned human beings, but I did. And it really matters that she used them like property to sustain her own lifestyle. How did she go from good Quaker believe in emancipation to slave owner?
  • The dramatic exit from the White House during a British siege, including Dolley saving the dishes and paintings but not allowing her servants and slaves to escape the advancing army is discomfitting. See above. I’m glad she saved the painting, sure, but she should’t get to decide if people live or die.
  • She was given an honory seat in Congress even though she obviously never held office herself, a testament to the power and influence of wives and other women on politics. Keeping house, especially the White House, proved signficiant from early days.

Shownote Standout

The Dolley Madison Historical Archives is pretty cool, including a primer on reading 18th century handwriting.

Episode Six: Lizzie Borden

Podcast Date: 6 April 2011

Time Period: 1860-1927

Episode Length: 61 minutes 30 seconds

I watched the Lizzie Borden Chronicles on Netflix a few years ago, the series starring Christina Ricci and Clea Duvall. It was riveting and after listening to this episode – I’m eager to watch the 2018 movie with Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart.

What I Learned:

  • The police investigation seems stunningly inefficient by modern standards. They didn’t even go upstairs.
  • Beyond Lizzie’s implied relationship with her maid Bridget ‘Maggie’ Sullivan, she had a romantic entanglement with a female actress, Nance O’Neil.
  • People take this unsolved case so seriously. Does it strike at the very heart of implied American domestic bliss?
  • I appreciated how Beckett and Susan slowly explored Lizzie’s seemingly tragic but not unfortunate life prior to the murders of her father and stepmother. The simmering rage of upper middle class Victorian life finds a well-honed example in this story.

Shownote Standout

This website Lizzie Borden : Warps & Wefts has photos, newspaper clippings, and so much more.

Episode Seven: Helen Keller

Date of Podcast: 20 April 2011

Time Period: 1880-1968

Episode Length: 88 minutes

What I Learned:

  • Helen was born and raised in the South, post-Civil War Alabama. I’m not sure I had a time period in mind when I thought of Helen Keller except “olden days” so this was a useful detail to center my understanding of this woman.
  • The role Alexander Graham Bell played in her life.
  • Helen was not the first person deaf and blind person to learn to communicate using ‘tactile methods’
  • Helen was just bursting with personality, intellectual curiosity, and massive smarts.
  • Helen was a Socialist. The podcast uses a lowercase s, but she was a member of the Party. Helen’s revolutionary leanings are often obscured by her rewrite as an example of personal triumph over adversity.

Shownote Standout

Mostly broken links on this episode so that’s what actually stands out.


Whew. I’m all caught up now.  One especially positive thing about this project is that I feel invigorated and inspired in a way that reminds me of when I read a lot of books. My mental health has made reading books a huge challenge these past years so podcasts nicely fill that gap for me.

I enjoy this podcast, but I still find the “g-rated” self-censoring to be annoying. It does inspire me to take note of the things they don’t say or don’t say much about in each episode and use the google, so that’s a good outcome for me. I’m a little disappointed that in the fairy tale/fictional casts, they don’t dive more deeply into the social implications for these stories or the fact that they all seem to be written down by men.

I’m even more disappointed that it is so many white women at the front end, especially since they all lived during the time period when slavery was legal in the United States and/or during the Jim Crow era. I can see from the podcast list that the episodes are more representative as they move forward, but I’d be remiss in not acknowledging the missed opportunity here.

Don’t get me wrong – this is a good podcast and having listened to several contemporary episodes, I allow for all sorts of beginners learning curves and such. It is clear that these women are prepared and thorough in their research. Their chemistry improves as time goes on and they learn one another’s podcasting personas.

My favorite podcast subject so far has been Lizzie Borden. Beckett and Susan really did a great job describing her life and the assorted systemic issues factoring into 18th century American Victorian lives. Perhaps because Lizzie’s story centered on one paramount event ie, the murder of her father and stepmother, rather than a lifetime of doing things like the first ladies and Helen Keller, it was easier to find an anchor for the story? I happened to be driving through several late 19th century neighborhoods while listening to this episode so it was also impacting the way I looked at the world immediately around me.

Moving onto the Gilded Age …

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