How Rachel Maddow Makes Queer History

What’s sexier than a brilliant, Internet-savvy, queer, liberal prime-time news host with an Oxford University degree? Yeah, I can’t think of anything either.

Since her show on MSNBC began in 2008 (and even before that, on Air America), Rachel Maddow has been turning heads and getting people thinking. She has been able to set herself apart because she finds the story and tells it intelligently, rather than telling you how to think about it. Of her interviewees, she told Variety:

I don’t believe in humiliating people. That is not what I am there to do. I am not there to make you look bad. I am there to talk with you. You can make yourself look bad.

Her main focus on the issues themselves, rather than on sensationalism, is a relief; she cuts through the hyperbole to get at what is really important and what can be done about it. Much of that attitude, I’d like to think, comes from her scholarly background. After graduating early from Stanford with a degree in public policy, she became involved in the AIDS/HIV awareness movement that grew out of the radicalism of the 1970s, predominantly focusing on improving prison conditions for prisoners with HIV. She then went on to earn a Rhodes Scholarship and earn a DPhil in politics at Oxford (her dissertation is titled “HIV/AIDS and Health Care Reform in British and American Prisons”).

“The only thing I’m trying to change in the world is that I’m trying to increase the amount of useful information in it,” she once told Mother Jones. But while she’s said that she does not consider herself a social activist, the work that she does certainly has the effects of activism. And who’s to say that increasing information is not a form of activism? Awareness is so often touted as the foundation of activism; presenting accessible, thorough information is the first step.

She’s covered many important stories since her start on The Rachel Maddow Show in 2008, my favorite being her interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who came out over the summer as an undocumented immigrant. The news by itself was explosive, but the manner in which she approached the subject was subtle and insightful, bringing the core issue to the front: the necessity of making undocumented immigrants visible, not so that their rights may be further denied but so that their rights may be accommodated for.

The theme of including the excluded is threaded throughout Maddow’s pieces, from her coverage of the anti-gay legislation in Uganda, to her various coverage of women’s rights (including abortion and birth-control access), to the story about the near-closure of Catherine Ferguson Academy to … shall I go on?

Not only is she smart and serious, but fun as well. Who else could get away with referencing Monty Python while talking about Griswold v. Connecticut?  Her “Moment of Geek” segment is also a fun favorite. She knows how to reach her audience, which is comprised of everyone from Oxford academics to right-winged politicians to queer student feminists like me. She has that right balance of intellect and levity that makes her show and its content approachable.

Not to mention that the format of her show emphasizes respectful, authentic dynamics between interviewer and interviewee. As she told Mother Jones,

I don’t like to set people up to have fights with each other. I don’t do multiple guests, so maybe that’s part of it … you need to be able to make a cogent point, have a story, get your joke in, get your sound bite in, and finish. The format is demanding; it’s just not generic.

Rather than juggling many balls in the air at once, her show breaks things up and slows them down, allowing for depth and breadth in a sensible balance.

What makes me glow with pride, besides having a sexy academic on prime-time television, is the fact that Maddow makes visible every evening the type of person who has been made invisible for so long: an intelligent, openly queer women with a strong, passionate voice. We need more Rachel Maddows in the world of television and radio news. And I’m sure they’re out there, watching her show and thinking the same thing.

Photo from flickr user Paul Schultz under Creative Commons 2.0


  1. “After graduating early from Stanford with a degree in public policy, she became involved in the AIDS/HIV awareness movement of the 1970s, predominantly focusing on improving prison conditions for prisoners with HIV.”

    Seriously? That puts her in her mid fifties. She’s not that old!

    • Yeah, this post could have benefited from a little fact-checking. Like the above commenter pointed out, AIDS/HIV wasn’t even identified until the 1980s, and the Catherine Ferguson Academy is in Detroit, not Chicago.

      It’s a great post, but inconsistencies like that undermine the message.

  2. Uh… “she became involved in the AIDS/HIV awareness movement of the 1970s” also makes no sense cause AIDS was not discovered till 1981.

  3. Wikipedia says she was born in 1973. Typo?

  4. I am a 63 year old straight WASP and I adore Rachel. It is so refreshing not to be yelled at or insulted but spoken to by someone of obviously seperior intellect who lacks a condedending tone. She’s like the really smart best frind you wish you had.

  5. Amy this is fantastic! Love Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and how she brings real issues to the forefront, not just following the popular trends of embarrassing Republican candidates and the abstract talk of political pundits. She is definitely one of the few faces of real change we’ve got to hold on to. Keep up the wonderful writing Amy!

  6. disappointed says:

    I was very disappointed in the elitist tone of this piece. The incessant focus on academic achievement, implying that only those privileged enough to have attended an august institution like those named above CAN have a sane & intelligent discussion, is not only condescending, it’s rude. I am all for excellence in media BUT white western higher education does not by default equal excellence in anything. Ms. Maddow should be proud of her achievements but the masses are not offered the opportunity to attempt such feats, so the back-patting should be kept to a bare minimum if good taste is to be preserved. Although I am glad to see lesbian women made more visible, I disagree wholeheartedly that we need more Maddows. We need more “regular”, moderate, invisible women & lesbians who have always been the heart, soul, and backbone of human civilization.

  7. I’d like to quickly point out that the show has been on since 2008, not 2009. Her coverage of the 2008 presidential election gave the show an opportunity to hit the ground running.

  8. Maddow’s only real feminist contribution is that she is a lesbian and that’s assuming she really is a lesbian. And why queer, why not lesbian? I don’t understand why she is labeled as internet-savvy or how her blog link is an example of such. She is a niche cable news phenomenon who promotes and defends the gay male agenda which has overshadowed any true lesbian feminism. Why is a feminist publication honoring a woman who is more concerned with an epidemic that albeit now effects women but her narrow focus had nothing to do with women, let alone lesbians, who do not run much a risk for contracting hiv if they have sex with other lesbians (which by definition should be understood but clearly is not). As far as I am concerned this “celebration” of a history making “queer”, belongs in a gay male focused platform if at all, not a feminist space. This is WHY feminism has become a joke because it promotes every issue and the atrocities of every ISM besides sexism. Maddow’s gender and “queer” status should not be enough for real feminists because she does not bring real women’s issues into the spotlight. Even the writer of the article sites male focused issues and lists women’s issues last. Not only that, each week she has a new conspiracy theory on her show that is dis-proven and then brushed under the rug like she never said it. Why is she not held to any standards? Going soft on someone or celebrating mediocre feminist contributions as best is not the respect and equal status women deserve.

    • I just realized it is Ms. who describes Maddow as Queer…Maddow is a self-described Lesbian. She does not identify as queer. Queer insinuates she is not a Lesbian, which she clearly is. I find the fact that Ms. magazine and the writer chose to use the term “queer” to describe a self-proclaimed Lesbian disturbing and underhanded.

  9. Gee, judging from the comments there sure are a lot of boners/fuck-ups in this piece, which is a shame. Guess I’ll stick to places like Shakesville and whatnot for feminist-y things that DON’T engage in classism/academic elitism or mislabels lesbian women as queer.

  10. Can you all considering ceasing the use of the term “Queer”? It’s offensive to some people including myself. “LGBT” is a more general, acceptable term within the community.

  11. In response to a lot of the comments dealing with the use of the term queer in the article:
    I go to university with the author of the piece so I know a bit about her background and the communities she is coming from, and used to being in conversation with.
    Queer is not being used to take away Maddow’s lesbian identity, or “mislabel” her as some folks assumed. Queer is being used here as an umbrella term – a shorter and more inclusive form of the more common LGBT/LGBTQQIA alphabet soup that doesn’t always include all identities which actually occur in the community. On our university’s campus, “queer” is used more often than “LGBT” because it is viewed as more inclusive.

    Please also note that the fact-checking is done by Ms. interns – while writers do their best to be accurate, they’re not directly the ones who do all of the fact checking before a post goes live.

    And while the tone of this could be read as elitist, I think the author’s emphasis on Maddow’s education was more in reaction to the common strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture, even if that wasn’t clearly conveyed.

    Lastly- arguing that a feminist organization or publication shouldn’t honor someone whose work only tangentially deals with women’s issues or obviously feminist issues is exactly one of (some brands of) feminism’s weak points. If someone can only be honored for dealing directly with feminism or women’s issues, you are facing the same limiting view that was a problem with many 2nd wave feminists- you could be doing anti-racist work that is also feminist. You could be doing work about class issues that is also feminist. Women’s issues are not the only feminist issue. Everything in our society that is unjust or unfair is a feminist issue. Because people aren’t just male or female, white or black, rich or poor- we all have intersecting identities, and just because you aren’t focusing your work on obviously “feminist issues” does not mean your work is not feminist.
    And I am not arguing this point in favor of Rachel Maddow, but in a more general sense. When we start putting people down because we don’t think they’re doing enough, we discourage from even trying to do what they can. If we say you can’t be an important thinker and changer unless you do this-this-and-this, you’re discouraging people from taking that first step, because they become too afraid that they won’t do it right.

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