I met Alicia Williamson when we were both students in the University of Pittsburgh English department – she pursuing a PhD and me a master’s. A scholar, feminist, and social activist, Alicia is a woman of many interests who, like most PhD students, started her journey pursuing that elusive tenure-track professor job. But a number of factors, including the increasingly dire state of the job market for humanities PhDs, as well as her marriage to an Englishman (with his own academic position in the UK), took her down a different path. She currently lives in the city of Exeter, Devon, and works as a writer, researcher, and Chief Editor of Quotabelle, a web archive that aims to collect quotations and ideas from important women throughout history – those that often don’t get the attention they deserve. In honor of Women’s History Month as well as the publication of the first Quotabelle book, Beautifully Said (out on April 15), I spoke to Alicia about her path from PhD to startup, Quotabelle’s mission, and the importance of recording women’s words.
What is Quotabelle?
Quotabelle is a female-founded startup. We work to create new, engaging ways for people to discover and share the ideas and stories of real women and girls. We started online by launching the patented platform Quotabelle.com in 2014. The site is a thoughtfully curated archive that allows users to explore, collect, and share thousands of sourced quotes and hundreds of biographical profiles. Over the past year or so, we've begun introducing print products inspired by the women in our online collection, including books and a line of locally crafted quote goods designed by female artists. The products have been a fun and meaningful way to start generating the revenue necessary to back our mission, expand our audience, and literally put women's ideas into people's hands.
What is the primary mission of the site?
Our early research showed that less than 15% of the millions of quotes shared each day were by women and girls. That startling statistic reflects how female voices remain underrepresented in so many fields, like government, business, and academia. We're trying to generate solutions to that continuing global gender gap in leadership by amplifying women's voices. Our rallying call is #EqualCites. We like to say that we're "fixing the quote supply problem," since, on a practical level, it's just plain difficult to even find quotes by women on a huge variety of topics.
How did you personally get involved with Quotabelle, and what interested you about this project?
I was introduced to the founder, Pauline Weger, through a mutual friend. Pauline was an entrepreneur who had left the corporate world and was looking for a way to build a company that would have a social impact. Though we came from different backgrounds, we immediately bonded as fellow feminists and quote lovers – and I think our different perspectives have been a very productive part of our collaborations. I was impressed with the value and potential of the project. I was also excited for the challenge of bringing my experiences as an academic to another arena with broader audiences.
On the subject of academia, tell us a bit about your path, from graduate school to living in England and working on this startup.
Yes, technically, I've got a PhD in Critical and Cultural Studies with emphases in Literature and Women's Studies. It was certainly my original intention to become an English professor someday. My decision to abandon that route was partly logistical, informed by things like lack of opportunity on the job market, my reluctance to continue working in contingent [year-to-year] positions, and my desire for a career that would enable me to have the personal life I wanted, living with my husband in the UK. My professional path also shifted because I was sincerely interested in trying something different and open to new opportunities. When this one came up, I went for it. Helping to build a startup takes serious grit and versatility, but it has been great to find a role that still taps into my passions for research, writing, teaching, and digging around in archives.
What was the focus of your scholarship in graduate school? Does Quotabelle overlap with that at all?
Without going into too much detail, my scholarship was about the fruitful intersections between feminism and socialism in popular novels and domestic fiction written by US socialists prior to the 1917 Russian Revolution. Obviously, there's a general Women's Studies connection there to what I do now. I would also say that my work at Quotabelle is linked with my past research in that it entails actively thinking about how popular mediums can inform and transform dominant cultural narratives, particularly those related to gender.
What have been some of your favorite discoveries since you started researching and writing women's stories?
Oh, there are so many; it's hard to choose! Some of my favorite, highly quotable STEM “sheroes” include Grace Hopper, a Vassar math prof who became a Navy rear admiral and one of the world's first computer scientists; Mae Jemison, a physician who was the first African-American woman in space plus the first real astronaut to appear on Star Trek; and Megan Smith, the most recent US chief technology officer, who is an advocate for making coding part of standard elementary curricula and for "debugging" unconscious gender bias in the tech industry. I've been personally inspired by the activism of early environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas and one-time Cherokee principal chief Wilma Mankiller. And, lastly, a couple of very contemporary people who have really impressed me include Danae Ringlemann, a crowdfunding pioneer who co-founded Indiegogo, and Jessica Metcalfe, a Native American fashion scholar and activist who turned her critique of knock-off tribal trends into an online boutique to empower Native artists.
Have you ever been frustrated by the lack of information out there on these important, trailblazing female figures?
I'd say that I've run into lots of telling roadblocks along the way. It's amazing how difficult it is to find reliable primary source material, even for famous women. And, of course, quotes always bring up the problem of whose voices are recorded and how they're mediated. For instance, it's amazing how many quotes are attributed to Harriet Tubman...many of them come from fictitious dialogue in children's stories or from an interview recorded in the first biography of her life, in which the supposedly direct quotes vary with each edition. We think it's important to still include these quotes in Quotabelle so that people have the chance to learn more about their context.
What can you tell us about the Quotabelle book, Beautifully Said, coming out in April?
The full title is Beautifully Said: Quotes by Remarkable Women & Girls, Designed to Make You Think, and it's a first for both Quotabelle and me as an author! I like to think of it as a portable gallery of words and stories worth sharing. The text features 110 diverse, history-making ladies past and present who are arranged by themes, like "she discovers," "she leads," and "she teaches," so there's something to speak to everyone. Pauline and I have been lucky to collaborate with Quarto Publishing to put out the book. They've been very supportive of our work and made sure that the design is as engaging as the content. That is to say, it's really very pretty!
Lastly, I have to say that while we were writing the book, I imagined it would be released in the immediate wake of the US having elected its first female president. That turned out not to be the case. But, in some ways, the recent reinvigoration of the women's movement is making this project feel even more timely.
For more stories and quotations from inspirational women, or to submit your own favorite quotes for consideration, visit http://www.quotabelle.com. To pre-order a copy of Beautifully Said, click here.