AHA Member Spotlight: Victoria Phillips
Victoria Phillips is a global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC. She lives in Cheltenham, United Kingdom, and has been a member since 2006.
Alma maters: BA (literature and writing), Columbia University, 1985; MBA (finance and international business), Columbia University, 1988; MFA (fiction), New York University, 1995; MA (history and performance studies), New York University, 2006; PhD and MA (US history), Columbia University, 2013
Fields of interest: cultural diplomacy, Cold War, women and gender, power, biography
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
I began life as a professional dancer at the age of 10 in New York City, and after high school I worked in the theater while earning money as a waitress, telephone answering service operator, fitness instructor, and the like. At 21, I left the performing arts and entered college. I took only one history class, but I loved to write and do research. Although I tried to publish a novel, my love of research led me to become a hedge fund manager and short seller; while on Wall Street I got an MFA in fiction. After my next retirement, I became a mother. I went back to school to teach my girls arts history, and it grew from there. So writing, research, and teaching have been through-lines. What drove all my careers was curiosity and a love of paradox and irony.
What do you like the most about where you live and work?
I have a quiet place to work, watch the weather, and write. A home-base with good internet has become very important. But I relish global archival visits, international conferences, and the opportunity to teach. So I chose a place that is near a train station and an airport.
What projects are you currently working on?
I always have too many projects, but my main goal is to research and write about Eleanor Lansing Dulles, who features in my last book, Martha Graham’s Cold War. In order to do this, I started another MA in biography and memoir at the CUNY Graduate Center during COVID. In the fall, I start a DPhil in theology and religion at Oxford to study the Dulles ancestors, which include religious leaders and a female missionary in the 19th century. I have several articles on cultural diplomacy on the “to do” list. They follow talks I have given on children’s “Red Menace” Cold War trading cards, Holiday on Ice, and a fascinating late Cold War Soviet-US exchange of nuclear scientists that took place in Las Vegas in the 1980s. It included Vegas buffets, shopping, and underground explosions.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?
Since graduation from the PhD program, my interests have continually expanded across cultural topics and issues of power. I have become much more aware of the importance of the 18th and 19th centuries when contemplating Cold War history. I have also become committed to teaching students about creative and precise research and archival practices that can lead to new history writing through cooperative scholarship. I am always astonished by the innovative minds of my students, and I want to develop the next generation however I can. The Cold War Archival Institute now at the Wilson Center has been an exciting experimental project that has continued to develop. I have also relished opportunities in public history from exhibits to podcasts. Although I am writing about Dulles’s work to reconstruct Berlin in the 1950s and 60s, I hope her contributions to postwar education, healthcare, and culture can somehow provide value to those who will be helping to rebuild Ukraine. She had a vision for occupied Europe years before the war ended, and I find this inspirational. Her buildings and institutions remain vibrant in Berlin today, although she has largely been forgotten.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?
My most interesting finds have been in folders marked “other” or “miscl,” on scraps of paper, or in misfiled boxes. This is where internet-based research does not work.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
My favorite book remains Steven Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain. I love reading his footnotes.
What do you value most about the history discipline?
At its best, it is a practice built on dialogue based in rigorous research among generous people, who leave behind a legacy in print or other forms for the next group to come into the conversation.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you?
Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
When I received the first copy of my first book, which I had dedicated to my historian-mother, I brought it to an AHA meeting that she was attending in her 80s! I gave it to her in the hotel vestibule after her panel.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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