Women’s History Goes Begging

I was somewhere in that crowd, I think, though I can’t identify the year. If you know, please tell us in the comments below. We nearly always wore purple, gold or white, in order to align ourselves with the suffragists, who wore those hues. Often I’ve told the story about seeing a group of very elderly and animated women on the sidelines of a huge D.C. March, with a sign that said something like, “The First Wave Welcomes You!” The marshalls couldn’t stop us from making a beeline for them to talk. Wonderful women in the aforementioned colors, one wearing a gold suffragist sash. Because of them, and the joy they have us, I always try to appear at any march for civil rights, to support the younger people. Even if I can only stand on the sidelines and wave.

One of the things I’ve discussed with my son and grandchildren is recent history—that is, from about 1950 to the current day. One grandchild has U.S. History in high school right now, and we were a bit shocked to learn that all they really learned about the civil rights movement was Martin Luther King was a great man. They knew about segregated schools and housing, but nothing about the African-Americans like Mary McLeod Bethune who tried to improve things for African Americans in that time; they learned nothing about the Freedom Riders, SNCC, or the fact that Dr. King and other Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaders were reluctant to defy segregationists, thereby risking people’s lives, until then-young people like John Lewis and Ruby Doris Smith Robinson and others convinced them that the people—people like the intrepid Fannie Lou Hamer were willing to risk everything on freedom.

Or think about the great, great Ella Baker who pushed King and then went off on her own to teach young people how to organize for the first sit-ins at lunch counters, and voting rights campaigns, among other things. If you don’t know Dorothy Cotton, you should; her “freedom schools” set the example for preparing Black people to demand their rights by teaching history and civics and the U.S. Constitution to people who had little or very poor education, due to segregation and the tenant farm system that kept Black people poor. There should be statues to those two women and a few more.

And not just to leaders, but to people who were “foot soldiers” in any movements. They are important people, too, and they often have insights that the leaders were too busy to form. One of the honors of my life was helping to raise this monument to the foot soldiers of the St. Augustine civil rights movement—a key campaign and a harsh one—along with the wonderful Barbara Vickers. I led an oral history project there, interviewing Andy Young and lesser known people, and helping local young people to make a film about the movement. I’ll try to post that one day.

And, of course, kids are learning absolutely nothing about the feminist movement of the second half of the 20th century. ERA? Oh, yeah, that failed. That’s about it.

Nothing about the serious, informed, courageous women who brought to today’s women credit in their own name, the ability to play funded women’s sports in high school and college (through Title IX), equal rights in employment, housing, etc., and, of course reproductive rights, among others. The creation of a domestic violence prevention and solution network? The awareness of sexual assault and laws that prevented defense lawyers from making rape about the victim’s appearance and conduct? Nope, never heard of it.

Recently, a young woman on my Twitter feed said Ruth Bader Ginsburg brought women the right to credit cards. While Ruth may have fought legal battles in that era, it was the sit-in at EEOC offices by NOW members who made that agency enforce the equal-credit laws.

And lest you think this is just a local or familial problem, I had an enlightening talk with a thirty-ish young woman from Michigan recently who was very sardonic about Queen Elizabeth II until I told her that the then-Princess was a mechanic and driver who risked her life during World War II. (Not that I wanted to discourage her from a critique of the British monarchy on the basis of colonialism, just to leaven her disdain a bit by telling the story of the Windsor family’s brave behavior during the war. ) Well, nobody teaches us history,” she lamented.

That seems to be true almost everywhere in the U.S., except perhaps in the best school districts, like the one we labored to keep our son in. That’s why he was the sole person in his (very integrated) community college class who knew who Andy Young was. This, in a city in the South where Andy Young played a key role in the civil rights movement in defying King’s order to shut the local movement down in order to save lives. Again, many of the local Black population were willing to risk their lives.

So, this is the result of many years of conservative politics shaming local schools for teaching about civil rights, women’s rights, and God forbid, indigenous rights, among others. We wouldn’t want anyone to feel the weight of their privilege, would we? Not to mention, to see BIPOC leaders as shining examples.

And while I’m at it, why do we focus almost exclusively on the terrible hardships and suffering that people in civil rights movements suffer? That’s important to know, of course, but why not see these people as inspiring and triumphant? (I love the Black joy movement for moving into pleasure and satisfaction as part of their experience. No one wants to be solely a victim in everyone’s eyes. )

Very recently, I went looking for photos of the Illinois women’s rights campaigns, especially the ERA campaign, to cheer up a friend from the movement who is experiencing some troubles right now. I could find almost nothing. In those days, I didn’t have a camera—long before today’s smart phones—so I had few personal photos from those days. But newspapers had to have lots of photos of those gigantic 100,000 to 1,000,000- person marches and rallies, right? Well, they might have them, but the ones easily available online were mostly from New York, California, and D.C.—not from the Midwest, where some of the key ERA legislative battles occurred, and where legislators never got up the nerve to pass the amendment, causing it to fail. Not to mention, nothing from the South.

So what’s a person who cares about that history to do? Years ago, in Illinois, I taught a popular “people’s history” course on women’s history, and every time I gave that talk at a NOW chapter, I urged members to interview the women in their community who fought those battles. Sadly, my message seems to have been lost.

But there’s are still people alive who can talk about those things, and, if they haven’t been interviewed, it need to happen now! By the way, this goes doubly for LGBTQIA+ leaders. Here are some things you can personally do to help that along:

Take your smart phone to a woman you know who has fought for women’s rights and ask her about her life—not just what she did, but how she got to that point. This won’t help unless you make that story available, so start here with an easy, peasy online resource that will get you going in five simple steps:

https://storycorps.org/participate/storycorps-connect/

Next, go to your local historical society and see if they have a digital archive where you can upload your interview. While you’re visiting with your interviewee, ask if she has any photos from that time that you can copy for the local society.

If you feel that you know someone who deserves to be known by future generations, nominate that person for the National Women’s Hall of Fame. You can find that link here:

https://www.womenofthehall.org

While you’re there, consider becoming a member if you can.

No matter if they’re famous or not, interview the women in your family and your community about their lives. You can learn how to do a good oral history interview here:

https://oralhistory.org

There’s a bit more to doing a good interview than just hitting “record.” But if you don’t have time for training, do the interview first! Just make sure of these things:

1. Make sure the place for the interview is quiet, with no noises that can override voices on the tape. No, family members should not sit in—they are almost always tempted to provide helpful “comments” and pointers that delay and may override your interview—and there should be no dogs in the room, if possible. Use your good sense and assess the place beforehand, so you can anticipate and avoid interruptions.

2. Be sure of your equipment; practice interviews with it. A smart phone will work. A computer with headphones for the interviewee is also good. Today’s tape recorders are also excellent, can handle microphones that decrease background sounds, and also give you a tape back up. And some are cheap! Two methods of recording are terrific if you can manage that.

3. Prepare questions ahead of time and visit your interviewee to let her look them over. Also take down a brief biography for her reviews. This is important: sometimes interviewees are so eager to talk, they start during the question review session. Don’t let them do this! You want them fresh, primed with sample questions, and eager to talk during the actual interview.

4. Don’t forget to ask about photos that will help prime your interviewee. Ask about the people in the photos on tape.

5. If a follow up question occurs to you, ask it. The question outline is just a guide. Your instincts will often lead you to a valuable nugget.

More pointers can be found online. Common sense will take you far.

If everyone does only one interview, think what a wonderful addition that will be to women’s history. If everyone finds one person to nominate for the NWHF, what a mother lode! One day a teacher or a questing young person will be grateful to you for volunteering a bit of time.

Oh, and by the way, join me in learning how to include people you know on Wikipedia, nearly always the first source for everyone who wants to know more. That’s one of my goals for this year, learning how to write brief bios for Wikipedia.

Thank you, and enjoy learning history that matters to you!

Why not?


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