'Fresh Air' host Terry Gross in 1991

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One of the best ways to learn about some of history’s most impressive women is with a dive into NPR’s Fresh Air archive.

The immensely popular radio show from host Terry Gross was born and raised in Philly (in case you didn’t know you had these extra local bragging rights). It’s recorded daily at WHYY, Billy Penn’s parent company, before being broadcast around the nation.

There’s a special collection for Women’s History Month, called “She Leads: Trailblazers of the Past, Present and Future.” It contains 20 different interviews spanning four decades, covering a huge range of topics, from DC Comics to queer identity politics.

We’ve created a teaser guide to the vault, featuring excerpts from a handful of representative episodes, and a snapshot of interview topics. Happy listening!

For women’s rights history…

For discussions of gender, sex, and sexuality…

For literature and arts conversations…

For policy and politics…

Some standout interview moments

Author Toni Morrison on her novel ‘Jazz,’ and writing outside of the white gaze

Toni Morrison on “Jazz”:

There’s a passage in “Jazz” about the kind of women who needed a certain kind of protection. There were those who had razors taped to their hands. There were those who were willing to boil, lie, and those who were willing to put ground glass in food. But there is a secondary passage which explains what a large majority of black women did in terms of trying to protect themselves – the church, the club movement, the acquisition of property. I think the line goes any black woman in 1926 who did not share some of those protective gestures was silent or crazy or dead.

Morrison on writing outside of the white gaze:

[I]t would be silly for me to write or to concentrate on major white characters because I wasn’t interested in it, and also, it destabilizes the progress of the narrative in a way. For example, putting a young black girl center stage, it seemed to me a radical thing to do in 1965, when I first began writing “The Bluest Eye.”

Once you begin to permit the reins of the narrative to be held by a major white person, you lose the agency, and you lose the terrain – the imaginative terrain – because you may be forced into responding to a white presence instead of examining what the interior lives of these people are without the constant need to explain, to editorialize and to fix.

So it was an enormous liberation for me and one that I find to be repeated a lot, particularly in the work of Black women.

Gloria Steinem and Pat Carbine on the Equal Rights Amendment and the “death” of feminism

Gloria Steinem on the expired ratification deadline of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982:

[I]t’s bad enough to have lost. I think that women have had enough defeat, we know how to lose thank you very much. We could win once in a while. We have won many things in this process but it’s a major, major concern now, I think that we put the blame where it belongs.

The women’s movement has been declared dead every Wednesday at tea time since I can remember. It’s a way of dealing with social change. There are two ways of dealing with a deep challenge. One is to say that it is failed and therefore it’s over, and the other is to say it’s succeeded and therefore it’s over. And both things are used on the Women’s Movement all the time.

Author R. Marie Griffith on women’s suffrage, religion and sexual harassment

Marie Griffith on early 20th century resistance to women’s suffrage based on sex:

So, you know, a lot of folks who’ve written about our culture wars today have kind of started in the ’60s, you know, and sort of seen them as stemming from controversies that arose there. [A]ctually, what we really ought to be doing is looking back to the early 20th century and the conflicts that really began – or certainly were exacerbated by – women’s suffrage and the right to vote.

There was a very active anti-suffrage movement that was filled with women as well as men – very conservative women who did not want women to have the right to vote. So in 1920, when women finally did get the right to vote across the country, there was a very active resistance to that.

There was a lot of reluctance, a lot of fear of women’s sexuality and a fear that if women got the right to vote, they would no longer want to marry, they would no longer want to reproduce… So those themes have really carried across our history over the last century, in many ways.

Griffith on the age-old problem of workplace harassment:

Well, you know, women have experienced sexual harassment for eons. And Gloria Steinem, I think, once said, it used to just be called life for women. Women expected to experience all sorts of comments and, you know, butt squeezes, and touching, and sexual jokes and all sorts of things. So it was really only in the 1970s when a movement and legal sort of doctrine began to be developed to protect women in the workplace, and frankly, to protect men, as well. Men have also been victims of sexual harassment, of course.

There are many, many cases in the news right now that suggest we have a moment of getting more woke, as it were, around the issue. But it’s been a perpetual problem for centuries, really.

Musician Lizzo on body positivity, feminism and nudity

Lizzo on the perception of her nude album cover as “bold,” or anti-feminist:

Yeah, but are you only saying that because I’m fat? You know what I’m saying? – because I feel like if I were a thin woman, maybe that wouldn’t be the case. I feel like women who are smaller aren’t really given the opportunities to be body-positive or role models, either, because we’ve been conditioned to believe that women are using their bodies for the male gaze.

And I think if I were slimmer, I don’t think people would look to me with the same type of, like, oh, wow. She’s so brave. She’s doing this and representing everyone – that they would – you know I’m saying? – because I’m big.

I think what’s happening here is that there’s different waves of feminism. And it’s definitely – it’s just like – it’s, like, a generational thing, you know I’m saying?

So where there was a wave of feminism where we were burning bras, now I’m like, my bra is in your face. You know what I’m saying? And I think that that is just a testament to human beings and how we evolve. And I think that the wave of feminism right now that’s overtly sexual and in your face, I think, is just the response to where we were like, I’m going to wear a suit and I’m going to boss up on you and – you know what I’m saying? Like, you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do type vibes. Now it’s like, no, I’m going to tell you what to do. Hello.

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...