Published April 17, 2023

This spring, Katy Gehred joined our team as the new media editor for Encyclopedia Virginia. Katy’s background is in women’s history and documentary editing, and she was a member of the editorial team on the Papers of Martha Washington. 

Encyclopedia Virginia is a vast digital resource with more than 1,000 entries that reflect the best and most current scholarship on Virginia’s history and culture. Part of what makes the encyclopedia great is the large number of high-quality images and visual resources that Katy is now responsible for curating.   

We caught up with her to talk about her new job and to find out more about the history podcast that she runs in her spare time. 

Let’s start with your interest in women’s history. You have an MA from Sarah Lawrence College in women’s history. When did you know you wanted to study women’s history? 

When I was an undergrad, I realized that while I had a real passion for women’s studies, I got frustrated sometimes when it came to theory. It seemed to me that things could get so theoretical that they lose touch with reality. History keeps you a little bit grounded because there are facts involved. Something happened, you can come up with as many theories and arguments about why it happened as you want, but at the end of the day, something happened. When I learned that women’s history was a discipline, I knew that was what I wanted to pursue.  

You’ve done some work as a historical interpreter both at Great Camp Sagamore in New York’s Adirondack Mountains and as a house tour supervisor at Monticello. What was that like?  

I love public history because it can be so fun and such a challenge at the same time. When you write something historical, you just sort of send it out into the world and that’s that. When you’re giving a tour, you are face to face with a mixture of people who are all coming at the subject from different perspectives and backgrounds, and they can question you right to your face. You have to find a way to engage and meet everybody where they are, which is so tough but also rewarding. Tip your guide!  

In 2020 you launched the Your most obedient & Humble Servant podcast that explores “18th and early 19th century women’s letters that don’t always make it into the history books.” What’s the meaning behind the title? Where does that come from?  

So, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, if you were writing to somebody you didn’t know very well, you’d sign the letter “Your most obedient and humble servant.” That was a normal, polite way to end a letter. But it is very wordy! So, I noticed, in almost every letter I transcribed, the writer would abbreviate it. And these abbreviations got shorter and shorter until they were almost incomprehensible, something like “yr mt obt hble srvt,” which struck me as very funny. We tend to think of people in “the old days” as being very formal and wordy, but they got just as bored with writing things out as we do. And that’s kind of the point of my podcast, I want to find the letters that are funny, or shocking, or relatable in a way that you wouldn’t expect of someone from that time. I’m not as interested in “historically significant” letters as I am in letters where people describe being awkward at a party. 

If you were going to recommend readers listen to just one episode, which one would you recommend and why?  

Episode 6 – Teeth, is one of my favorite historical letters of all time. This letter has everything, complaining about family, shoulders popping out of corsets at a party, 18th-century dental procedures, it’s just so good.  

You’ve been on the job for a little over a month now. Have you uncovered any surprising/interesting stories in Encyclopedia Virginia 

I’ve been working on finding illustrations for an upcoming entry about John Warner, who represented Virginia in Congress for almost 30 years. I moved to Virginia after he had retired, so I didn’t know much about him, and I was excited to find out he was Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth husband! So there are a ton of pictures of them together, but also just a lot of great pictures of him in general because he was so handsome. Apparently, he got the nickname “the Senator from central casting” which I’ve been telling everyone I know.  

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Vanessa Adkins, right, is apprenticing under her cousin Jessica Canaday Stewart learning the finer points of traditional Chickahominy dancing. Photos taken at the Fall Festival and Pow Wow in Charles City on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012.

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