Episode 119: Phillis Wheatley

Posted 11 February 2019 by
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Phillis Wheatley was an accomplished poet and the first African American to have a book published. Her work chronicles Revolutionary War era America, focuses on the people she knew and explains the faith that she held dear. The fact that she was ripped from her family, sold into slavery and grew up in an unusual situation gave depth and a unique perspective to her work but, most importantly, makes her someone we all need to know.

Phillis was born to an unknown family, in an unconfirmed country, in an unknown year, and given an unknown name.

Thanks for listening! Bye!

Wait! Come back! Her first seven or so years weren’t documented until the day in 1761 when she arrived in Boston Harbor in the cargo hold of a slave ship, but after that, we know a lot. The tiny, frail girl was purchased by Suzannah Wheatley who (not so) cleverly named her after the ship that brought her to the American Colonies, who brought Phillis into the home she shared with her husband John, and 18-year-old twins, Mary and Nathaniel. The Wheatleys were quite wealthy and they raised unlike any of their, or most people’s for that matter, slaves.

Boston during Phillis’ life (it was only four square miles, not the sprawling metropolis it is now.)

Her intellect was abundantly obvious to the Wheatley family who decided to educated Phillis at home. Within 16 months she was speaking, reading and writing English. She went on to study Latin, Greek mythology, geography, literature…and, oh boy, that girl knew her Bible. She was soon being taken on social calls with the Wheatleys and cultivating friendships of her own although, with one lifelong exception, they were all white people. What she wasn’t doing was the work of a servant. She was treated (“treated” we can’t forget she was owned by them) like a member of the family and her writing was actively encouraged.

The Wheatleys raised Phillis with their Protestant beliefs and Boston’s Old South Meeting House was her former church. Photo courtesy of Boston Public Library, date unknown

By 12 she was writing poetry, within a year it was published in the paper and by age 17, her work caught the eye of an international audience. With Suzannah’s marketing and publicity skills, Phillis’ book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in London. Phillis had traveled to England as a celebrated author and could consider Benjamin Franklin and George Washington among her admiring readers.


People who knew her said this portrait, the only one that exists, was a very good likeness. It was used in her book, but, sadly, her status as a slave was used as a marketing point.

When Phillis returned to Boston (although she could have legally self-emancipated in London) 65-year-old Suzannah was quite ill. Before she died, John and Suzannah freed Phillis and maaaaaybe Suzannah was able to hold Phillis’ book in her hands (the dates are too close to call it.)

From this point, the life of the celebrated poetess took a turn, and not for the better. She was able to publicly point out the hypocrisy of a society that screamed for freedom yet kept humans in bondage and forced service to them, but the rumblings of independence from British rule that had swirled around her for years ignited into a full-blown war.

First, Mr. Wheatley died, then his daughter. The only remaining Wheatley was living in England. Phillis was all alone without any support. She married John Peters, a freeman but the next six years of her life were filled with heartbreak: She gave birth to two children, who both died, she couldn’t get her second volume of poetry published, John wasn’t around, she was impoverished and frail. On December 5, 1784, 31-year-old Phillis died alone except for the child she gave birth to that day…who died shortly after she did. The two of them were buried together in an unmarked grave, someplace in Boston.

Her life was bookended by horrors no one should experience; for the majority of it she was considered the property of someone, but for a few glorious years Phillis lived an unusual life celebrated for the talents she freely shared.

The very least we can do is celebrate that life.




Of course, you have to read Phillis’ own work! Google Books has it digitized, or pick up a copy because you probably don’t have enough poetry on your bookshelf.


Biographies we recommend:


by Richard Kigel


by Merle Richmond

Kid books we loved:

by Ana Malaspina, Illustrated by Susan Keeter

by Catherine Clinton, Illustrated by Sean Qualls


Read like Phillis! Her husband sold her precious copy, but you can get your own and hold onto it tightly!

by John Milton

Or read like Beckett:

by Nancy Isenberg


If you’re going to be in Boston, especially in August of 2019 when it’s Phillis Wheatley Day, check out the Old South Meeting House and stand where Phillis stood. (Which you could do all over that city, if we’re being honest, colonial history is everywhere!)

The Massachusetts Historical Society has a lot of information including her correspondence, the Poetry Foundation will teach you about her work, and the National Women’s History Museum is amazing and needs our support.

How well can you identify the countries of the world? Here’s the quiz Beckett talked about:

Countries of Africa Map Quiz

End song, If These Walls Could Talk by Andre Rodriguez used with permission. Get it for yourself on Spotify or Amazon Music

This episode is brought to you by ZipRecruiter /historychicks and Care/of at TakeCareOf.com and use the promo code CHICKS50, thank you for supporting the companies that help to support us!


Episode 118: Elizabeth Báthory

Posted 27 January 2019 by
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The only original painting of her disappeared, this is a copy of that painting done when she was about 25. Courtesy bathory.com

We step away from our usual stories of remarkable women who overcame obstacles to create admirable good in the world to discuss this remarkable woman who overcame obstacles and created a whole lot of chaos in her world. And not the good kind. Her true story is still being debated, myths and legends swirl through it, but the facts alone are pretty horrifying.

This episode has a really loud NO LITTLE EARS warning. Also if violence, sexual assault, and blood are your triggers, you might want to go listen to Beatrix Potter or Lillian Gilbreth and skip this one. (Wow, podcasters who tell you to skip their show?! We love you, we want you to come back, so yes…or at the very least we can say that we warned you.) (more…)

Episode 117: Harriet Tubman

Posted 6 January 2019 by
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Most grade school kids will tell you that Harriet Tubman was an escaped slave and conductor on the Underground Railroad which is a great start–but she was so much more! A nurse, a spy, a military leader, a public speaker, a humanitarian, a wife and mother who did everything in her power to keep her family together…and she did it all with a traumatic brain injury.

She was a hero in every sense of the word.


Episode 116: Barbie

Posted 15 December 2018 by
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We are Barbie Girls (not really) in a Barbie world (sure, why not?); life in plastic, it’s fantastic! So say the paraphrased lyrics of Aqua’s 1997 hit, Barbie Girl, but how did Barbie’s world get created and who is the mastermind behind it? (more…)

Episode 115: Belle Starr and Calamity Jane

Posted 27 November 2018 by
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Everyone has a lesson to teach us, even the hard living, hard drinking, crime breaking ones who bucked convention and survived in a dangerous time and place. These two women of the American wild west fall on a side of the life-choices spectrum that we don’t usually talk about, but it’s time that we did. We thought it was time to tell the stories of two women with fabulous, well-known nicknames that mask who they really were.  (Lady Gaga and Madonna are amazing but come back in 120 years and we’ll talk.) (more…)

Episode 114: Anne Frank

Posted 9 November 2018 by
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Anne Frank’s life was only 15 years long, but her legacy? It’s going to outlast us all.


Annelies Marie Frank was born on June 12, 1929 in Frankfurt, Germany, second child to Otto and Edith who were both from well-to-do, German Jewish families. Otto was a decorated officer in the German army, well traveled, spent a couple years in the United States and went back to Germany to work at his family’s bank and throat lozenge company. Edith graduated from a Protestant girl’s school, and worked for her family’s business. (more…)

Episode 113: Jane Addams Part 2

Posted 14 October 2018 by
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When we left Jane in part one, she and her friend Ellen Gates Starr had just opened Hull House. The Settlement movement in the US was about to take off, and in Chicago the community was embracing the work being done by Jane, Ellen and the many women like them that came to share their time and talents by settling in the impoverished, immigrant community and working together with neighbors to provide social services. (more…)

Episode 112: Jane Addams Part 1

Posted 23 September 2018 by
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Library of Congress

Jane Addams is called the “Mother of Social Work”; which is impressive enough, but really doesn’t cover her whole story. You know what else won’t cover her whole story? One episode. Jane’s life was so packed that we decided to  break it into two parts to cover it thoroughly. (If you’re looking for the media recommendations, they’ll be on the shownotes for Part Two.) (more…)

Episode 111: Clara Barton Revisited and Refreshed

Posted 1 September 2018 by
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To end the summer we thought we would revisit and remaster our 2011 episode about the life of Clara Barton. Her story touched both of us when we recorded it but she’s come to our minds a lot since then. The lessons from her life, including strength, perseverance, bravery and compassion are ones that we can all use in our lives at any time.


Episode 110: Georgia O’Keeffe

Posted 12 August 2018 by
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The line between Georgia O’Keeffe’s childhood in Wisconsin to her death nearly 100 years later is as jagged, complex, colorful, unique, ever- changing and interesting as the vistas outside her final New Mexico homes.