Who defines “history,” and how are women writing it?
In high school, I remember it in our history textbooks: a box in each unit dedicated to highlighting a woman and her contributions to history.
One box per unit. That was all.
The major players throughout the rest of the pages were mostly men; it was as if women and our accomplishments had not existed. It was as if our lives and concerns were too trivial to be studied.
But that’s not true. Women have written and continue to write history. We’ve sent letters, taken photos, made shopping lists. We’ve discovered algorithms, created novels, birthed people. We keep journals, curate day planners, post on social media. Use these as artifacts. They are evidence. Throughout history, we have been here, thinking and caring and working to progress our societies.
I want to live in a society in which we teach our children that the transfer of power and cultivation of love within the private, domestic sector are equally important as war and its rearrangement of public power. I want traditionally female characteristics and concerns to be regarded as valiant. I want to know about the developments women have created in society.
Whose voices are heard matters. I want to know women and our stories.
Sharon Sanders works in a morgue. Not one for bodies, however. It’s one for information, the original name for a newspaper library where the “dead” editions of the newspaper were kept. As the librarian at the Southeast Missourian, she preserves information from each edition of the newspaper daily, filing electronically each story that appears in the newspaper. She also assists with research and writes a blog called “From the Morgue,” resurrecting stories from old editions of the newspaper to remind the public of what has happened in the past.
Sanders first became interested in history during high school, when she started researching her family’s genealogy. Sanders credits her present historian abilities to Judy Crowe, the newspaper’s librarian before Sanders, who taught her how to do research. Sanders says she likes the hunt of finding that “elusive piece of information.”
When Sanders first began working at the Southeast Missourian in 1980, she clipped apart four editions of the newspaper each day and filed copies of a story in three or four separate folders so it could be found in multiple places. This, she says, is the primary reason for the newspaper library: to preserve information to enable reporters to do research.
One of Sanders’ proudest possessions is the book “Images of the Past in the City of Roses,” which she helped compile at the Southeast Missourian in 1993. The book documents the history of Cape Girardeau through photos and stories written about the city and its people throughout past decades. In these pages, she helped preserve women’s stories, including those of two pioneer doctors of osteopathy in the early 1900s, Dr. Anita Bohnsack and Dr. Marguerite Fuller.
In her personal research of her family, Sanders has found what she deems important is not necessarily what her ancestors thought was important to record. Sanders discovered this while reading the five-year diaries she inherited from her grandmother.
“It’s like high and low temperature, what the weather was doing, that’s about it. Whether they washed, whether they went to church or went to the store,” Sanders says. “I was looking for these in-depth things. … No, there’s nothing. So it’s kind of interesting what she thought was important to preserve.”
Sanders says she wishes she would have asked her mother about old stories while she had the chance, pieces of history she can’t get back. She believes stories make up history, and that day by day, each edition of the newspaper is history.
“If you don’t know your own history, you don’t know yourself. You have to know where you come from,” Sanders says of the importance of archiving history. “For a newspaper, it’s important we preserve the way things happened as they happen. You have all this reconstruction of history that follows that, but as long as you can go back to the original like an old newspaper, you can see what was actually done, or what was said, what the attitudes were. And that’s important. That’s how we learn.”
I am interested in absence.
When I taught creative writing, I often told my students, “Who or what is not present in your story is just as important as what is.” What I meant when I told them this was people, objects and behaviors absent from our lives also shape us; my students, as writers, could intentionally choose to form their main character or a main plot component based on something that did not appear in the story. For example, a character can’t find their car keys and has to walk to work, encountering a stranger who changes the trajectory of their life; a character becomes paralyzed from cliff diving because they were not worried when they made the decision to jump; a character has an internal struggle that affects how she relates to people because one of her parents was not part of her childhood. What is absent from our lives can also often have a very real presence.
It’s something we understand acutely when we experience loss: it is then we understand the significance of a person, place or object in our life.
I think about this when I read the news. Often, writing of any kind, and especially modern political journalism, tells us more about the writer than it does about the topic she or he is writing about. What someone notices and also what someone doesn’t or what they intentionally leave out tells us about their biases, priorities, agenda. Everyone and every news source has a viewpoint. When people consume news in a way that mistakes someone’s perspective for fact, it becomes dangerous.
I am also interested in presence.
What we look at and see, what we deem worthy of our attention, time and understanding. What we place value in. The stories and perspectives we pass on to our children. What gets included.
It all says something about the person who holds the power to choose what people pay attention to, picking the topics, viewpoints and stories we hold in our collective consciousness. It shines a light on the story they’re telling, yes, and it also tells us about their own values and purpose.
Taken together, what is present and what is absent from a story can provide a more accurate account. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
Marlene Rivero is a storyteller living in Grand Chain, Illinois, who has performed at Southeast Missouri State University’s River Campus. She tells the stories of women of color who have been largely overlooked in the dominant narrative, performing the stories of Harriet Tubman, abolitionist and political activist; Ann Stokes, former slave who escaped to become a nurse aboard a Union hospital ship during the Civil War, the first woman to receive her U.S. Navy pension for service; the mother of York, who was an explorer on the Lewis and Clark expedition and owned as a slave by William Clark; and Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who was a renowned seamstress, businesswoman, activist, writer and close friend of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. In June, Rivero will perform the program she developed about Harriet Ivers at the dedication of Ivers Square in Cape Girardeau.
Rivero learned to love stories from an early age, listening to her father tell stories. She recalls in particular her father telling the story of his grandmother showing him the scar on her back that the slaveholder beat into her while she was in slavery: the scar was so deep Rivero’s father could insert three of his fingers into it and when a piece of paper was placed over them, it would not touch his fingers. It was stories such as these from Rivero’s foreparents that made an impression on her. After her father passed away, her mother began telling stories because she didn’t “have nobody to talk for [her].” So it was natural for Rivero, too, to tell stories.
It was while working for the USDA Forest Service in 1999 that Rivero first told a story to an audience at a training in St. Louis. She performed songs she had heard another woman perform at a different event while telling Harriet Tubman’s story, “pulled things out of the air” and invited a young man who mimicked train whistles to perform with her. She received a standing ovation and was invited back the next week to perform again. Nine months later she gave another performance, adding York’s mother to her repertoire. From there, her performances evolved, taking her as far as Vancouver, Washington, and earning her honorable mention for being an important contributor to the Lewis and Clark Corp II bicentennial story in 2006.
Rivero finds her own story in the women’s stories she tells; she says she relates to each of them in a different way, which helps her interpret history.
“I don’t leave it to myself,” Rivero says of her process for learning about the women whose stories she tells. “I read. I pray. I read, I pray, I read some more. The story is there to be told. The past want the present to know if we will listen for it.”
Among the artifacts she uses to reclaim these women’s voices are biographies written about the women, an autobiography written by Elizabeth Keckley and the journals of William Clark. She also researches African American spirituality of the time and uses her own creative license.
“History sometimes wants to tell its own story,” Rivero says. “If you allow it to tell its own story, we gonna learn from it. We’ve got to use it for our benefit so we can live together.”
What happens when we preserve unhealthy behaviors and cultural norms?
I think about this when I listen to contemporary country music. I enjoy listening to (some of) it, but I never know: does country music describe or does it create the “country” lifestyle?
What I mean by that is this: does country music look at people who live a country lifestyle and paint an accurate portrayal of them, or do some people who consider themselves “country” live the way they do because they listen to country music and adhere their lifestyle to its myth?
The same could be asked of mainstream rap and pop music.
It’s concerning to me because, whether consciously or subconsciously, songs are artifacts we use to preserve and pass along our values and culture — just look at the ABC song or the president song for proof. Among other functions, songs are teaching tools. When songs played over national airwaves perpetuate, glorify and teach harmful behaviors such as the objectification of women, heavy drinking patterns and destructive male and female gender norms, these behaviors are viewed casually, stay normalized and remain acceptable. I’m not OK with that.
Even more, when male voices and perspectives create most of the content as in country and rap music, women get our stories and roles written for us. We become an accessory analogous to an envy-inducing pickup truck and cooler full of alcohol, prized for what our bodies can do for others rather than what our whole person — intellect, heart and body — contributes to the world.
I want more for myself, my sisters and my daughters than that. I want more for my brothers, my significant other and my sons than that.
How do we ensure we interpret the cultural artifacts we produce in a prosocial way?
One thing Dr. Mary Ann Kellerman has learned since she co-founded the Kellerman Foundation for Historic Preservation with her husband of 52 years, Bert, is that a museum curator can’t necessarily understand how an exhibit will be viewed by visitors.
“I think in the old days, we felt like we would understand clearly how people would view something and how they would interpret it, but [doctoral student and foundation consultant Lesley Barker’s] viewpoint was unless you are inside the viewer, there are so many different types of viewers and so many different social class levels and so many different nationalities that what we think is interpreted one way may not be at all,” Kellerman says.
Knowing this, Kellerman tries to take a broader approach when creating exhibits. One example is an exhibit of Don and Rubye Kraft’s collection of Victorian jewelry. To connect the jewelry to a modern audience, Kellerman had local pets and rescue animals wear the jewelry; they were then photographed by local photographers. This unique approach helped make the exhibit relevant to the Southeast Missouri audience.
Although she enjoys it immensely, Kellerman never expected to run a museum. She helped establish the interior design degree program at Southeast Missouri State University. She first became interested in the preservation of historic buildings when she and her husband purchased Klostermann Block — which now houses Ebb & Flow, Celebrations Downtown, the Digital Foundry and private apartments — and the Marie Elizabeth Watkins Oliver flag house in Cape Girardeau. At the urging of their friends, they established the Kellerman Foundation in 2012, with the goal of “connect[ing] the community to its architectural, historical and cultural legacy by telling its stories,” according to the foundation’s website. They do this through showing exhibits about the region and archiving the collection of local historian Dr. Frank Nickell.
Kellerman understands the progress women have made in having our viewpoints represented in the workplace, even as she knows there is more work to be done. She has experienced this progress for herself. During the early days of her teaching career, she could only be hired as a lecturer rather than as a professor because she was considered a faculty wife; thus, she received menial pay.
After she earned her doctorate in interior design, she took a job at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. When this policy against faculty wives became illegal, she took a full professor position at Southeast Missouri State University.
“Fortunately, times change. But young women need to realize that although they may not see that as recently, it was in my lifetime,” Kellerman says. “I hope that young women today don’t forget how recent that was and how far we’ve come. I hope they don’t let it slip back.”
Kellerman is not shy of sharing these stories and others like it. It was when a historic preservation student worked to get a residential project by local architect John Boardman on the national historic register that Kellerman realized the importance of passing on the stories she has lived. Kellerman worked on many of the same residential projects with Boardman for 20 years and says she realized she was one of the last people who knew those stories.
“I thought, ‘If I don’t tell these stories, who else is going to tell them?’” Kellerman recalls. “If no one records it, we’re in trouble. I think we do need to be paying more attention and recording and writing and documenting and saving, which, I guess, is history, isn’t it? It doesn’t seem like history [while it’s happening].”
She took seriously her duty to share her knowledge with the students for their proposal, telling her stories and contacting Boardman’s wife, who brought in Boardman’s day planner and batches of his work for students to use. One lament of Kellerman’s is that many of these artifacts were not copied during the project, so the foundation has lost access to them. Still, she believes it is a duty of older people in a community to pass along their knowledge of what they have known.
“You need evidence of what happened in the town, and that will come through older people like me, but it’ll also come from the things that we can gather and glean and archive in the vault,” Kellerman says. “It’s critical, I think.”
My mom is a historian. For as long as I can remember, and even before, she has documented our family’s story, our shared history, taking photos at events large and small, documenting my first pigtails, my new bikes and cars, my Christmas and birthday presents. She has written descriptions next to some of the pre-teen photos before my sister was born and the busy-ness of extracurricular activities kicked in. She has filed away birthday cards and significant t-shirts.
I think many moms who do these things don’t get enough credit: they are archivists, and their work of documenting the private, domestic life should be taken as seriously as the work of people who document the public life and get paid for it. Recorders of private history tell the story of the day-to-day, which becomes the story of a year, a decade, a life. They tell the story of love, which creates deeper lasting change for good than any war taught in a history textbook.
American author Annie Dillard writes in “The Writing Life:” “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” The days are what mothers and documenters of private history record, and we should value our own life and collective lives as worthy of being archived. It’s the daily story future generations will be interested in.
What I am trying to say is this: the next time your mother (or father) makes you pose for a family photo, smile and participate willingly. What she’s doing is important.
Find Women’s History
Want to learn about history from women’s perspectives? Here are five places to start:
The National Women’s History Museum
The National Women’s History Museum exists to “fill the void” of “women’s contributions that have been omitted from mainstream culture.” The museum’s website contains the findings of the study “Where Are the Women?,” a report on the inclusion and status of women in the United States social studies standards taught in grades K-12. Through analyzing each state’s social studies curriculum, the study states, “History that does not acknowledge women’s situations as well as their activities and accomplishments is, by definition, not a full history. We found that women’s topics are often an addendum to the main storyline.” The museum is working to create educational materials that reflect history from women’s perspectives; its website houses excellent resources about women with whom official history has failed to reckon.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts
Can you name five women artists? Turns out, many people can’t. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is working to change that, through their #5WomenArtists campaign they launch on social media each March during Women’s History Month. The museum, according to its website, is the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to championing women through the arts, advocating for better representation of women artists.
“Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” It’s a question asked by the Guerilla Girls in one of their pieces currently exhibited at the Västerås Art Museum in Sweden. The question comes from the fact that less than 4 percent of artists in the modern art section at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York are women, while 76 percent of the nudes are female. The Guerilla Girls formed in the 1980s and continue to wear gorilla masks while raising awareness for feminist causes in the art world, using humor. According to an article by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Guerilla Girls reframe the question of “Why haven’t there been more great women artists throughout Western history?” to “Why haven’t more women been considered great artists throughout Western history?”
Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance)
This organization is the first national farmworker women organization that fights for farmworker women’s rights across the United States and Mexico. This group of women is demanding their long-overlooked perspective is heard, “ensur[ing] they have a place at decision-making tables … securing social, environmental and economic justice” and working to prevent violence, and “end workplace exploitation…including sexual harassment.”
Zonta Club of Cape Girardeau
If you want to get involved with a local organization working to achieve equality for women, check out Zonta Club of Cape Girardeau. “Dedicated to advancing the status of women worldwide,” this club at 40 members strong conducts service projects and fundraisers for women in the community and internationally, forming friendships while creating change.