The figures featured on your typical tour through Philly’s Historic District are predominantly men, from the Founding Fathers on down.
But what about the women who contributed so much to the history of the city and the nation? Even in times when they were afforded less power and fewer rights, female leaders were very active in Philadelphia. But other than Betsy Ross, their names have been elided from most tourist traipses through Old City — until now.
Thanks to Haverford grad Rebecca Laureanna Fisher, you can now take a tour that unearths the history of Philly’s most badass women — “cool colonial women, change makers, sex workers and more.”
When tours focus on white men, “what we’re saying ostensibly is that those are the people that matter,” Fisher said. “It’s not only historically inaccurate, but it also has consequences.”
To address the issue, the Abington Township native recently partnered with longtime friend Joey Leroux to launch a tour company called Beyond the Bell. The goal: to highlight the city’s less-celebrated constituencies.
Fisher’s interest was first piqued when she worked with Mural Arts’ Monument Lab in the summer of 2015, and then started moonlighting as a tour guide with Philly Bike Tours in the summer of 2016.
She became interested in how tourism influences public history, particularly how omitted narratives can affect what is known about a city as crucial to the American fabric as Philadelphia.
So she began tweaking tour designs. “I rewrote the script of my bike tour,” she recalled, “and designed an inclusive tour that touched upon the MOVE bombing, some cool Colonial women, racism in the Gayborhood and the ways in which Chinatown has struggled to exist in the face of the city’s ‘development’.”
After applying for grants at Haverford College, Fisher received financial reinforcement from The Center for Peace and Global Citizenship and the Hurford Center for Arts and Humanities. She was able to test her alternative tours with students and got great feedback during the spring semester and fall semester in 2017.
After graduating this past spring, she and Leroux made it official and launched their social enterprise company as Haverford Innovation Program Fellows.
Beyond the Bell currently offers the following four tours:
- The Philly First Timer
- PHL 101: Center City Deep Dive
- Queer Faces and Queer Places
- Women’s History
Designing the women’s history tour was a challenge.
“There aren’t as many monuments to women in Philadelphia,” Fisher noted. (She’s right, we counted.) “We have that enormous William Penn statue and many institutions named after Penn, but barely anything for women. We’ve got a couple of plaques, and that’s that.”
So, Fisher researched the women she was most awed by and then designed the route afterward — a new way of thinking about what “landmarks” are.
On the tour, some women are represented by buildings that they gave rousing progressive speeches in, others are represented by statues of their husbands and some by the streets that they worked. The research included articles from Philly Voice, Slate and Billy Penn, online archival documents and photographs and checked-out books from the library.
As of now, these are some of the women the tour aims to cover:
- Hannah Callowhill Penn: the wife of William Penn, who prevented a civil war between Maryland and Pennsylvania.
- Peggy Shippen Arnold: the wife of Benedict Arnold, who saved him by feigning hysteria when Washington’s troops came after him.
- Oney Judge: the slave and maid of Martha Washington, who defied Washington’s orders and chose to live her life as a fugitive in order to ensure her and her children’s freedom.
- Rebecca Cole: the second female African-American physician in the United States and the first at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
- Eliza Sproat Turner: poet, suffragist and the founder of the New Century Guild.
- Nizah Morris: a well-known drag performer in Philadelphia, founder of a Buddhist faith group for trans folks and advocate for gender variant sex workers who died under “suspicious circumstances” in 2002.
All Beyond the Bell tours strive to ensure that marginalized communities are highlighted and that, per the company’s mission statement, “the people are put back into people’s history.”
To book, visit the website or the Airbnb Experiences page. All tours are currently priced at $49 per person. For the month of July, you can get $5 off for booking the Women’s History tour. Special upcoming tours and packages ahead include a pay-what-you-wish Drunk History Tour on July 14 and a $70-per-couple Date Night Tour on July 20.