For the NEH…

Historians Joan Kelly, Alice Kessler-Harris, Joan Scott, and Nell Painter, photographer Candacy Taylor, and filmmaker Mira Nair. What do these women have in common? All received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), a government-funded agency now more than a half-century old.

Operating under the banner “Because democracy demands wisdom,” the NEH provides funds to “cultural institutions, such as museums, archives, libraries, colleges, universities, public television, and radio stations, and to individual scholars.” These funds help share photos depicting scenes from across an ocean and time (and art and artifacts from the North American continent too), bring books to life, engage young minds at the museum, disseminate knowledge to educators, and tell us what’s in the archives so we can find it later!

Even if you’re not a scholar, you may have come into contact with the NEH. It’s one of those things you might hear about on PBS (This programming is made possible by…). Personally, one of my favorite pieces of NEH work is “The Presidents” on PBS’s American Experience.

As a student, I have come across the work of or had some sort of connection to all the individuals I named above. Joan Kelly was one of the creators of the SLC Women’s History program. Alice Kessler-Harris, who once taught at SLC, was one of the women’s historians whose work I came across while browsing the library of the women’s center where I once worked. Joan Scott and Candacy Taylor’s works were among our readings in our first year as graduate students. Nell Painter presented the keynote address at our “Black Women in White America, Revisited,” conference this year. I wrote about one of Mira Nair’s projects in an undergraduate paper on women-directed films. It is exciting to think that NEH grants helped them on their way to success, on their way to students like us seeing their work and being inspired.

If you are a member of the American Historical Association (AHA) or a savvy observer of the news, you may have heard way back in January about imperiled funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Well, the President’s budget proposal is now out in the open, and the AHA has provided its analysis of the President’s proposal, which is basically to dissolve the NEH.

As a graduate student who wants my fellow classmates and my teachers to have opportunities for research and for the exhibition of their work to the public, I see the National Endowment for the Humanities as an important asset to this country. When grants that can, for example, help us protect our primary source documents or interpret history for techloving audiences are in danger, the professions to which many students aspire are also in danger. It’s important that we protect the NEH!

 

This article reflects the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Sarah Lawrence College or the SLC Women’s History program.

Recent Events

This past week has been a tumultuous one for many. The new President signed an executive order blocking travel into the U.S. by refugees and many immigrants, and people came out to protest this action over the weekend. The executive order has even led our own college president, Karen Lawrence, to send out a message emphasizing support for the impacted people in our college community.

Each day seems to bring a list of new issues to which to respond, so it’s hard to keep up and feel like you’re staying up to date and responding in a timely manner. In light of that, please forgive us for the delay in responding to the Women’s March.

In the coming days, Re/Visionist will post a few responses from our students to the Women’s March on Washington or its “Sister Marches,” which occurred on January 21, 2017. Since the Saturday before last, there have been a variety of responses to this activism across the country, and I’m sure that you’ve been reading about it or watching it on TV.

The responses that we share cannot purport to be representative of all feminists, all women, or all people. We can only attribute the opinion of each writer to that individual writer. However, as we note in the Re/Visionist Mission Statement, this blog is meant to speak to multiple feminisms, and it is important to record the history of the people at our school. So, we will try to share the range of responses as we receive submissions. We encourage other members of the SLC community to share their thoughts by contacting us at revisionist [at] gm [dot] slc [dot] edu.

Thank you!

Write for Re/Visionist!

It’s the spring semester, and it’s time to get out your calendar again to set your second semester agenda! Re/Visionist is calling for students to get involved in the production of the Women’s History Program’s blog.

Both graduate and undergraduate students of all disciplines are encouraged to participate. As our mission statement says, the blog “aims to promote a critical analysis of history and contemporary issues through the lens of multiple feminisms.” We need your voices to bring a variety of perspectives to the publication!

Please join us to share your ideas and declare your interest in Re/Visionist by attending our upcoming meeting:

Thursday, January 26, 2017

5:30PM – 6:30PM

Slonim House – Stone Room

If you have questions, please email revisionist [at] gm [dot] slc [dot] edu. Thanks!

Using Government Docs for Women’s History

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Over the course of the last semester, I have spent my time researching the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Harmless, right? Well, a lot of people, particularly Phyllis Schlafly and STOP ERA, begged to differ.

Even so, before the U.S. Senate deliberated on this issue, many women and men had something to say about the Equal Rights Amendment and what it meant for them. Given that this debate happened most notably in the 1970s, it isn’t so easy to access first-person accounts or testimonials of the time about the ERA. So, I looked for the text of the legislative hearings. You can’t get that from the Library of Congress online. The earliest mention of the ERA in the C-SPAN video library is 1980, and that is past the height of the debate. Hearings were however printed in a book available in SLC’s Esther Rauschenbusch Library.

You may not have used it, but there is a vast collection of government documents in our library, which includes that book chronicling the ERA hearings. Our library is part of the Federal Depository Library Program. At SLC, we have several bookcases worth of material, in addition to online guides of digitized materials. So, if you are studying American history, these resources might be useful to you!

As women’s history students, we have been taught to read “’against the grain’” (Bartholomae and Petrosky) because history has often excluded women, girls, people of color, and other people who have been marginalized in multiple and intersecting ways. We have been taught to investigate what has been written about women, for example, and what hasn’t. Where do their stories appear and not appear?

Let’s put that to work with our government documents section. In some cases, we may use government documents for basic information to include in our writing. For instance, we may want to know the population of Hartford, Connecticut, in 1980, and we would look at the U.S. Census for that information. However, as historians, we might also want to question that data. What methods did the U.S. Census Bureau use to get its count? Would these methods have led to the exclusion of X or Y group of people? How would their exclusion from the Census count affect public policy and thus quality of life? What questions did the Census not ask that it should have?

Do yourself a favor and visit the government documents section in the basement of our library. A browsing visit may lead you to documents about which you will raise questions, and you may be inspired to find the answers! Perhaps, those answers will become your master’s thesis!

In addition to bound hearings and reports, you’ll also find maps, videos, discs, and other resources! There’s content that covers substance abuse, NASA, foreign affairs, and the nuclear issue, among other things. Check out some of these interesting finds in the stacks!

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Plant and agricultural reference books, such as Silvics of North America, Volume 1 Conifers and Virus Diseases of Small Fruits

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Federal employment reports, like the Study of Employment of Women in the Federal Government: 1967 and Minority Group Employment in the Federal Government: November 1971.

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Videos from events at the Clinton White House, including Millennium Evenings at the White House: Women as Citizens.

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Copies of the Federal Budget galore!

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Foreign Relations of the United States: Paris Peace Conference, 1919.

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Public Papers of the Presidents: Barack Obama. Read the speeches and remarks of our current president, as printed in these volumes.

 

An Interview with Shirley Stewart MA ’10

Shirley Stewart is an alumnae of the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College, and the author of The World of Stephanie St. Clair: An Entrepreneur, Race Woman and Outlaw in Early Twentieth Century Harlem. She will be coming to Sarah Lawrence on December 3rd at 5:30 in Heimbold 208. Here is a sneak peek at her research process and advice for those interested in writing History.

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  1. How did you come to choose Stephanie St. Clair as the subject of your book?

The choice was a no-brainer. I mean it was just so obvious to me. On a shallow level, she was a beautiful and a professionally-successful woman in a time when most black women were not considered beautiful and success was hard to come by for anyone. Early on though I realized that there was so much more to St. Clair, so I was hooked on her story.

  1. What was your process for locating primary documents about the life of Stephanie St. Clair? What was your biggest challenge in locating primary documents, and how did you address that challenge?

The process was haphazard in the beginning. There was no road map (no autobiography or biography), and the sparse information I did find was wrong and continues to be perpetuated to this day (I think because that information is sexier than the truth). Anyway, I had to find a starting point that I could prove was factually correct in the form of a primary document. I then researched backwards from that point and moved forward locating more and more primary documents as I unearthed more information about her. The documents were all dated so that helped a great deal in creating a timeline of her life.

  1. What was one of the most interesting experiences/finds you had while researching Stephanie St. Clair?

I was fascinated with how invested Harlem residents were in their community. Socially and economically it was a diverse place with the tension that can entail. That same diversity, however, also allowed for Harlem’s vibrancy. In New York there is currently a discourse about gentrification. The idea that one group could displace a less economically viable group just did not happen during that era. Elite and middle-class blacks moved from other areas in Manhattan and Brooklyn to Harlem without a substantial displacement of the working-class or poor.

  1. What do you feel you gained from the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence that most shaped the professional path you chose after graduation?

The Women’s History Program confirmed what I suspected all along—that history is not static. As I began the program someone (a highly-intelligent someone at that) said to me, “all the important history has been done already.” She was, of course, referring to all the “facts” found in all those texts found in the countless primary, intermediate and high schools across the country. However, documents are being unearthed every day and with digitization we can now cross-reference a wide range of people who experienced the same event. We can now have a more dynamic, nuanced and democratic view of a historical fact. Stephanie St. Clair was a perfect example of a woman who lived through some of the most important events in America’s history, and we have her actions and reactions to those events.

  1. What advice do you have for Women’s Historians that would like to turn their thesis work or budding research project into a book someday?

Instead of thinking of your thesis as a requirement for graduation, think in the long term. Find a thesis topic that will keep you engaged for at least three years. If the subject is not interesting to you, I guarantee that you will put all that hard work in a desk drawer and never look at it again. To complicate matters, life won’t stop because you are working on a book so plan to make choices so that the disparate pieces of your world become a more workable mess. Finally, understand that writing is a solitary process and it is possible that the only one who will see the value of your work in the beginning is you. Some of your friends and loved ones won’t understand your decision to spend an evening writing over other activities. Having said all that, I would not change a thing. The feeling of accomplishment is amazing.

Finding Feminism in my Grandmother’s Georgia

Dear Grandma,

I have often wondered about the days when you were young. The days before your children. The days before you divorced your first husband. Before you fell in love with your second. The days before you sported a perfectly combed Afro. The days when you drove a tractor, plowing your grandfather’s farm. The days when you played the dozens.

When I imagine you young Grandma, I see a brown girl toting schoolbooks and dreams down a dirt road in Pinehurst, Georgia. A brown girl telling the world to make space for her brown hands and brown eyes and brown elbows and brown hips. You walk down this road with your head held high, passing corner stores and lynching trees, and stick ball games daring anyone to question your humanity, your fullness. I imagine this moment and I take comfort in knowing that you are my grandmother.

I imagine you young and I ask myself: did you know that you would one day teach me how to love my little brown girl self?  That you would be my first example of radical black feminism?

And because I know you, I know that should you read this, you will scoff at the word feminism. To you, like many black women making a way in the Jim Crow South, feminism belonged to white women. Not you. Feminism would not pay your bills, would not feed your children, and would not soothe your back pain after a long days work. There was no place for you inside a feminism defined by a society that had always deemed you inferior.

But Grandma, you are radical. You have fashioned entire worlds with your hands, creating magical spaces for my little brown girl self as we baked homemade cheesecakes and stitched quilts. You taught me how to pray to the Goddess of little brown girls, how to thank her for my own brown hands and brown eyes brown elbows and brown hips. You told me the secrets of vitamin E oil, disclosed the potency of a glass of apple cider vinegar and water, and reminded me that I should live harmoniously with the earth.

Before I fell in love with Zora’s stories or began to quote Audre’s poetry or recite Toni’s manifestos, I had you Grandma. I stand at the edge of the universe with my arms wide open because Grandma, you have taught me that a woman with her arms closed is not ready to receive her blessings. A woman with her arms closed can serve no one. And what is a life devoid of service?

As a caretaker for the elderly and sick, you are proof that healing does not come by medicine alone but through kind words and laughter and healthy doses of sweet tea- antidotes not bound by the politics of race or class or sexuality. Your arms are open to all.

Perhaps, you will choose to describe your life in another way but I imagine you young Grandma, toting schoolbooks and dreams down a dirt road in Pinehurst, Georgia, and some part of me just knows that you have always understood your power. There is nothing more radical, more feminist than this.  I will always be grateful to you for that lesson.

Love,

Jessica