Iron-Jawed Angels: Circus Suffragists and the Fight for the Vote

By Rebecca Hopman

On Sunday, March 31, 1912, a group of women gathered in the animal menagerie at Madison Square Garden to inaugurate a new group: Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society. These circus suffragists – among them aerialists, equestriennes, strongwomen, and tightrope walkers – had joined the fight for the vote. At the meeting, well-known bareback rider Josephine DeMott Robinson reminded attendees, “You earn salaries. Some of you have property. You have a right to say what shall be done with it. You want to establish clearly in the mind of your husband that you are his equal. You are not above him, but his equal.” [1]

She and her fellow performers – most of whom were white – were uniquely positioned to spread the message of suffrage as they traveled throughout the United States engaging with audiences. [2] They joined petition drives, handed out suffrage literature, and Robinson was even known to ride her horse at rallies.

photograph of Josephine DeMott Robinson riding her horse

Josephine DeMott Robinson at her riding school, showing some of her pupils how to vault a horse while in motion. Source: Narratively (Thomas Y. Crowell Company Publishers)

Suffragists celebrated women circus performers. Movement leader Inez Milholland stated that they “exemplify one phase of the ability of women to earn their own living.” Elizabeth Cook agreed: “There is no class of women who show better that they have a right to vote than the circus women, who twice a day prove that they have the courage and endurance of men.” [3] But when it came to supporting the new society, Milholland was a little more hesitant. She had promised to attend the event, but did not show up. Instead, Beatrice Jones from the Woman’s Political Equality Union joined the group as they celebrated by christening a baby giraffe at the menagerie “Miss Suffrage.”

The press got wind of the event and were gleefully condescending in their coverage. Jones, according to a New York Times reporter, was surrounded by “women and girls, modishly and sedately gowned, so that you would never dream it was their daily lot to bound about, blithe and bespangled.” And Miss Suffrage? By the end of the evening, the giraffe – not “previously being consulted” about its new name – “couldn’t abide even the sight of a suffragette.” [4] The New York Tribune joked that the lions “moved uneasily about their cages” and the hyenas “grinned and grinned.” [5] A writer for the Sacramento Union reported that “Alexander Sebert, husband of Lillian Sebert, a bareback rider, projected himself into the meeting, took his wife and her sister, Jennie Byram, and hustled them out of the menagerie room … Sebert shouted that he didn’t intend to let his wife take part in such nonsense.” [6]

lithograph of women trapeze artists performing at circus

Female acrobats on trapezes at circus, 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Library of Congress [Public domain])

But women circus performers were not daunted by this commentary. They were used to it: their profession put them in a radical position, and they had to strike a delicate balance between their roles as showwomen and the public’s demand for respectable entertainment. Although they wore leotards and demonstrated acts of strength and power in the ring, performers and promoters portrayed them as proper, domestic women, more concerned about cooking their husbands dinners than their acts. The fact that the majority of women circus performers were white (at least those under the big top) also helped to shape their image as respectable, middle-class citizens.

Rossa Matilda Richter, who performed as Zazel, the first human cannonball, was an expert at the tightrope, trapeze, and high dive. But off the stage, Richter spoke to reporters about her fellow showwomen and their commitment to traditional gender roles, “complete with tales of women commandeering the railroad dining car to bake a cake.” [7] Richter stated, “The domestic instinct is very strong among circus women, for the reason that they are deprived of home life a great part of every year.” [8] Circuses had strict rules for women performers and emphasized the presence of male family members, which helped assuage any suspicions of the public. However, writes historian Janet M. Davis, “they also unintentionally eclipsed the larger historical significance of the female big top performer as a durable champion of women’s rights.” [9] They hid their radical performances behind high-necked dresses and fresh-baked cookies.

Photograph of Zazel the human cannonball

Rossa Matilda Richter, also known as Zazel, the first human cannonball performer when she was 14, 1887. Source: Wikimedia Commons (London Stereoscopic Co. [Public domain])

While Richter put forward her domestic ideals, English acrobat Josephine Mathews advanced a different narrative. She performed as “Evetta, the Lady Clown” and embraced “all of the new woman’s fads,” including bicycling and swinging Indian clubs.” Mathews boldly stated, “I believe that a woman can do anything for a living that a man can do, and I do it just as well as a man.” [10] Both Richter and Mathews’ public personas were likely shaped by circus press agents, showing the contradictory ways women in the circus were depicted.

poster of Evetta lady clown

The Strobridge Lithographing Company Barnum & Bailey: Evetta the Only Lady Clown, 1895. Source: Circus Now

Katherine Brumbach, a strongwoman who performed under the name Katie Sandwina, was at Madison Square Garden as an inaugural member of the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society. At five feet nine inches tall and 210 pounds with a muscular frame, she did not fit the physical standards for feminine beauty at the time. But doctors declared her the “perfect female specimen” and others described her as “beautiful and feminine.” [11] She earned up to $1,500 a week, which amounts to roughly $40,000 in today’s money. As part of her routine, she regularly lifted her husband, Max Heymann, above her head. Brumbach’s appearance, abilities, and the fact that she earned a wage were at odds with the ideal woman.

photograph of circus strongwoman Katie Sandwina holding three men in the air

Katie Sandwina, “The Lady Hercules”. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Bain News Service [Public domain])

Reporter Marguerite Martyn emphasized Brumbach’s divergent qualities in a 1911 article for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, writing, “At the moment she was twirling her husband about in dizzy circles above her head … Carelessly, laughingly, she tosses her husband about as though he were not flesh and bone, but merely an effigy of inflated rubber. And he is no insignificant husband, either.” No “normal” woman would be able to lift and twirl her husband, especially with such ease. (Although some might like to, including the woman Martyn overheard exclaiming, “Gee! Wouldn’t I love to be able to bat a man around like that!”) [12]

In an accompanying illustration, Brumbach appears as large as a giant, holding the very properly-dressed and diminutive Martyn in one hand while preening for the crowd in a form-fitting leotard. In the next panel she has returned to more normal womanly activities, standing over a stove cooking dinner for her husband and son. “There are enough duties in her own home for any woman if she would make her family healthy and strong and wise,” Brumbach told Martyn. “I think I should be content to devote all my strength to my household.” [13]

black and white line drawing of Katie Sandwina

Imaginative sketch by Marguerite Martyn of strongwoman Katie Sandwina, 1911. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Marguerite Martyn [Public domain])

Whatever her feelings about housework and home life (or those she expressed as a part of her public persona), Brumbach was an eager participant in the fight for the vote. She became the vice president of the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society, joining Robinson, equestrienne May Wirth, wire-walker Victoria Codona, bareback rider Victoria Davenport, and many others in committing herself to the cause.

While it is unclear how long the society lasted or how much of an impact their actions had on the suffrage movement, Robinson, Brumbach, and their fellow performers arguably made their most convincing case under the big top. Their costumes, skills, and ability to outearn many male circus performers proved to those who watched their shows that women were capable of being more than just angels at home; they were iron-jawed Amazons worthy of the vote.


Resources


Notes

[1] “Enlist Suffragists for a Circus Holiday,” New York Times, April 1, 1912.

[2] Most women employed by circuses were white, with the exception of women in sideshow acts. This seems to extend to the membership of the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society, although there isn’t a full list of members included in accounts. One reporter mentions several Japanese women in the group, but all the performers mentioned by name were white.

[3] Kat Vecchio, “Barnum & Bailey’s Forgotten High-Flying Suffragists,” Narratively, December 27, 2017.

[4] “Enlist Suffragists for a Circus Holiday.”

[5] “Suffragettes in Circus,” New-York Tribune. April 1, 1912.

[6] Afton Woodward, “Suffragette Circus,” The Virtuoso, March 1, 2016.

[7] Janet M. Davis, “Ladies of the Ring,” Circus Now, January 6, 2015. 

[8] Janet M. Davis, “Bearded Ladies, Dainty Amazons, Hindoo Fakers, and Lady Savages: Circus Representations of Gender and Race in Victorian America,” in Kristin Spangenberg and Deborah Walk, editors, The Amazing American Circus Poster: The Strobridge Lithographing Company (Cincinnati and Sarasota: Cincinnati Art Museum and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, February 2011): 79.

[9] Davis, “Ladies of the Ring.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Debbie Foulkes, “Katie Sandwina (1884 – 1952) Circus Strongwoman,” Forgotten Newsmakers, December 14, 2010.

[12] Marguerite Martyn, “The ‘Lady Hercules’ Tells Marguerite Martyn,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 4, 1911.

[13] Ibid.


Rebecca Hopman is a first-year student in the Women’s History graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the Project Archivist at the Sarah Lawrence College Archives and works as an editor for the Re/Visionist. Her research interests include the history of itinerant performers, gender dynamics in artistic communities, women’s life writing, and women’s collegiate experiences.

"Articulating the Feeling is Hard": Women and the Emo Revival

By Marian Phillips

During the 1980s, the first wave of emo music was born. An offshoot from Washington, D.C. hardcore bands, the musical genre introduced the world to traditional punk stylistic elements mixed with emotional vulnerability and poetic lyrics. Most notably, emo’s roots can be traced to Rites of Spring, making them the fathers of emo. In the beginning of the 1990s, the Midwest became the nation’s powerhouse for all things emo with bands such as Sunny Day Real Estate, Mineral, The Get Up Kids, and American Football. As the new millennium began, so did the third wave of the genre. At the same time, the lines of what qualified as emo blurred and gave way to elements of pop-punk, punk, and hip-hop to intertwine with it. Thus, Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, and Jimmy Eat World became the figureheads of the third wave. Then Myspace appeared. 

The social media website opened the door for emo to go mainstream with bands like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, and Paramore. As a result, “mall emo” [1] formed and gave the genre more negative attention than it had before. The term emo was never truly accepted by anyone in the scene or outside of it, no one truly knows what the definition of emo is, and whether or not it’s a fashion choice or a musical genre at all. Regardless of the complexities and confusion that comes with emo, 2008 witnessed the fourth wave, more commonly known as the “Emo Revival,” and it’s still going strong to this day. But this time there are critical differences. You may have noticed that almost every band listed above are fronted by men, that is not the case anymore. Today, we are seeing more women at the forefront of this revival than we have seen previously and the  amount of people welcoming the word emo into their lives is increasing. 

If you were to ask anyone about women in emo bands during the 2000s, more times than not, you’ll either hear Hayley Williams (Paramore) or an “I don’t know.” Today, the answers are entirely different. You might hear Zoë Allaire Reynold (Kississippi), Brianna Collins (Tigers Jaw), Alex Menne (Great Grandpa), Julia Steiner (Ratboys) or Rachel Lightner (Nervous Dater). Growing up during the third wave of emo in the early 2000s, I constantly sought bands that were led by women or even included a woman in their line-up. Pre-teen me would find Paramore, Hey Monday, and Eisley, but that was pretty much it. The third wave is marked as the most sexist years of the genre, so the lack of women and LGBTQIA+ individuals does not come as a surprise. 

For instance, lyrics of abusing women or adamently denying homosexuality swarmed the third wave. In 2005, Fall Out Boy wrote “Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner,” which included Patrick Stump singing “so wear me like a locket around your throat/I’ll weigh you down/I’ll watch you choke.” [2] The lyrics are caked in jealousy and anger towards an unknown woman that they are having an affair with. Furthermore, in 2017, Jesse Lacey – frontman for the popular third wave emo band Brand New – was accused of preying on underaged fans. Which comes as no surprise when you look at the lyrics Lacey wrote for the song “Me Vs. Maradona Vs. Elvis” from the 2003 album Deja Entendu: “I got desperate desires and unadmirable plans/My tongue will taste of gin and malicious intent/Bring you back to the bar/Get you out of the cold/My sober straight face gets you out of your clothes.” He sings “I almost feel sorry for what I’m gonna do,” [3] giving himself the image of predator and women as prey. [4]

As I reached the age of sixteen in 2012, bands like Pity Sex, Adventures, Bully, and Tigers Jaw entered my heavy rotation playlist. Today, we are witnessing such an impecable growth of women fronted punk, emo, pop-punk, and hardcore bands that make options almost endless. Considering that the image of emo historically looks very white, cisgender, heterosexual, and solely for men, we are also seeing more LGBTQIA+ individuals and women of color making space for themselves in the Emo Revival. For instance, the band She/Her/Hers calls out this image in their song “Kill the Boy Band,” “So you started a band?/Well, let me guess who’s in it/All-straight all-white able-bodied cis men/Say you don’t know many female musicians/Why the fuck would they want to be part of a scene with people like you in it?” [5] The women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and women of color that participate in the Emo Revival reject the expected norm of what emo has historically looked like. 

Tigers Jaw (left to right: Brianna Collins, Ben Walsh, Teddy Roberts, and Logan Schwartz) at the Rex Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania June 21, 2017. Photo courtesy of the author. 

The importance of emo bands have always been their ability to articulate to a group of people that they are not alone in what they are experiencing or feeling. The lack of women in the genre up until this point, in my experience, felt isolating. These women of the Emo Revival are making space for more diverse demographic to participate in the genre. For instance, while living in Lawrence, Kansas from 2014-2018, I had the opportunity to watch the DIT (Do it Together) community nurture the growth of women and LGBTQIA+ individuals in every genre of music. I watched eyes light up, and felt my own do the same, when someone I could identify with walked on stage and melted away the isolation I felt in my teenage years. We weren’t listening to a man whine about a girl not wanting him back or breaking his heart, we were hearing emotions such as frustration, anger, and resentment with an unjust system, patriarchy, and the mistreatment of women at large. 

It was at this point, during the 2010s, that another wave of Riot Grrrl punk bands emerged and began to merge with emo. In fact, most of the bands I have listed that are women led are, more often than not, considered punk bands. The two genres tend to meld together when a mixture of emotional vulnerability, a fast tempo, and sharp vocals with contrasting melodies are performed. Lyrically, they can sound the same, depending on the band and musician (for example, the Canadian band PUP is considered both emo and punk). Yet, emo often uses more abstract language to articulate a point, while punk may just get to the point in a forthright manner. Regardless of the differing stylistic elements between the genres, the Emo Revival includes bands that we would probably consider more punk than emo, but are also listed under that moniker. 

Cherry Glazerr’s Clementine Crevy at the Bowery Ballroom in Brooklyn, New York February 16, 2019. Photo courtesy of the author. 

I wrote this piece when I thought of all of the women fronted emo, punk, pop-punk, alternative, and indie bands that have gone under the radar in favor of the played out figurehead of a man who’s whining about a girl. These bands are just as deserving of the scene’s attention. Their presence in DIT bars and venues, clubs, concert halls, and basement shows impact communities in a larger way than we usually consider. Girls Rock Camps are popping up in almost every city, and women musicians are actively nurturing the growth of women and young girls in music, no matter the genre. In short, this piece isn’t simply about where emo was or what it is now, this is about where the future of music is going, and the increasing presence of women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and women of color in every genre of music and their capability of fostering a supportive and welcoming community. 

2020 will see Paramore’s Hayley Williams do a solo project, Halsey’s Maniac on January 17th, Poppy’s I Disagree on January 10th, a new album from Soccer Mommy, and rumors of Tigers Jaw’s upcoming album coming in 2020 have recently surfaced. 


Notes

[1] Tom Connick, “The Beginner’s Guide to the Evolution of Emo: NME,” NME Music News, Reviews, Videos, Galleries, Tickets and Blogs | NME.COM, April 30, 2018, www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/emo-wave-guide-evolution-2302802.

[2]  Fall Out Boy, Patrick Stump, “Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner,” From Under the Cork Tree, Island Records, 2005, track 5. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/album/5nkUSlIhtoJZMOUlB0sNCp?highlight=spotify:track:6HJzCcSMggn7Ultxs48dAe

[3]  Brand New, Jesse Lacey, “Me Vs. Maradona Vs. Elvis,” Deja Entendu, Triple Crown Records, 2003, track 8. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/album/6vDiMhyfSnTn18OY99BSQX

[4] Jenn Pelly, “Unraveling the Sexism of Emo’s Third Wave,” Pitchfork, Pitchfork, 17 Nov. 2017, pitchfork.com/thepitch/unraveling-the-sexism-of-emos-third-wave/.

[5] She/Her/Hers, Emma Grrrl, “Kill the Boy Band,” Grrrl Angst, 2018. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/album/1joEVEBQ4YuxikhoClLGBP


Marian Phillips is a second year Master’s Candidate at Sarah Lawrence College studying Women’s and Gender History. Her research interests include LGBTQIA+ history, the history of punk movements/music, social movements, 1950s Cold War America, and Horror film studies. She will present “‘Activists, Punks, Freaks, and Rebels’: Queercore’s Grassroots Activism from 1980 to the Present” at Sarah Lawrence College’s 22nd Annual Women’s History Conference on March 27-28, 2020.

How The Feminine Mystique Dismantled 1950s Domestic Life

By Rebecca Rranza

The quote “no woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor” comes from Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. The Feminine Mystique was a widely read and influential work for middle-class white women of this time and it helped contribute to the Second Wave Feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Second Wave Feminism drew attention to many issues regarding cis gender women such as domestic violence, abortion rights, and pay equality. At this time, feminism in America was multifaceted and fought for on many different platforms such as consciousness raising groups and the Miss America Pageant protests of 1969. Betty Friedan cofounded the National Organization of Women (NOW), along with Shirley Chisholm, Muriel Fox, and others. NOW, which has a liberal feminist agenda with goals such as promoting equal rights, is still running from its founding in 1966. Friedan’s activism and writing were well known in the Second Wave Movement and her book was the culmination of research and testimonials of real women focusing on their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Friedan uses personal anecdote, social science, psychology, sexuality, etc. as different lenses that her work sees these women through. 

While The Feminine Mystique had a profound influence on how women thought about feminism during the 1960s and 1970s, it is critical to acknowledge its shortcomings in terms of intersectional analysis. Much of Friedan’s analysis focuses on elite white, cis, heterosexual women which excluded working class, trans and queer women of color. The limited scope of Friedan’s feminist perspective meant that the women her work reached were predominantly privileged. 

Prior to the publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963, the 1950s ideal woman was a white, ablebodied, cisgender, heterosexual American housewife and mother. The “problem with no name,” coined by Friedan, describes the need for more than society and their families is offering them. These housewives want to exist for more than a household and their desperation grew from silence into anger. From the 1950s image of an American mother and housewife to the social movements of the 1960s, the lives of women who had the socioeconomic agency to be feminists began to change. The book starts off with this iconic quote from the first page,

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?” [1]

Women read that passage and realized it didn’t have to be all. They realized they could be multifaceted people. The groups women had formed, like NOW or the more radical feminist groups, like the Redstockings, were spaces they could exist and speak freely. By examining Friedan’s text from a contemporary lens, one finds that despite necessary criticism to the text and to the movement, it is clear this text had an impact on society at the time and on the minds of women. Once they were more informed, they were ready to use their knowledge to impact change in their lives and other’s lives. It was significant to history even years later. Millions of women who read the book, or did not, heard its message of anger and discontent in many women’s lives and lasted through the Women’s Liberation Movement. The Feminine Mystique led to real change in the lives of people then and now. 


Notes

[1] Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963. 1.


Works Cited

Coontz, Stephanie. A Strange Stirring: “The Feminine Mystique” and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. New York: Basic Books, 2012.

Fetters, Ashley. “4 Big Problems With ‘The Feminine Mystique’.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, January 10, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/02/4-big-problems-with-the-feminine-mystique/273069/.

 Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963.


Rebecca Rranza is a first-year student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

Lydia’s Diaries: Uncovering Women’s History in the Archives

By Rebecca Hopman

“Topsy’s Journal. Strictly private!

So begins Lydia Olsson’s diary. Olsson was an early female student at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, and the five diaries now held by Augustana Special Collections document her life on campus. I encountered Olsson’s diaries in the archives nearly a decade ago, and reading them changed my path in life.

Five notebooks with different cover designs arrayed on a black background

Lydia Olsson’s diaries. Source: Augustana Special Collections.

In the summer of 2010, I was a rising senior at Augustana College. Built near the banks of the Mississippi River, Augustana is a typical liberal arts college. And I was a typical liberal arts student. Majoring in history, English, and German, I planned to become an archivist, and was preparing to apply to library science graduate programs that fall. In the meantime, I worked in Augustana Special Collections, processing archives and exploring the stacks.

Over the summer I worked longer hours, and during my lunch breaks I liked to browse the collections for something interesting, like a cache of love letters or a salacious diary (being an archivist means you are basically a professional snoop, reading all those private documents people left behind). Augustana Special Collections is full of such things, given that it holds many of the personal and professional papers of students, faculty, and staff from throughout the school’s 160 years of history.

One day I was looking through the finding aid for the Olof Olsson family papers and came across a listing for “Diaries, 1892-1896.” Olsson was the third president of Augustana College, and these diaries were written by Lydia, his third child. Intrigued, I pulled the appropriate box out of the stacks and opened the first book.

Topsy’s Journal. Strictly private!

Journal kept by Lydia Olsson of 18.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old time is still a-flying, And this same flower that smiles to-day. To-morrow may be dying.” [1]

“Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.” [2]

Black and white photograph of three young women and one young man

Lydia Olsson and her siblings, c. 1890s. Seated, left to right: Mia Olsson, Anna Olsson, Hannes Olsson. Standing: Lydia Olsson. Source: Augustana Special Collections.

Topsy was Olsson’s nickname for herself, and, as I found by examining the rest of the diaries, she liked to begin each book with a couple of mottoes or quotes. Reading on, I was immersed in the daily life of a young woman attending Augustana College, just as I was doing 118 years later. She took a variety of courses, had a robust social life, and was close to her family. She joked about the young men on campus who were vying for the attention of their fairer classmates, thought seriously about the role of religion in her life, and contemplated her future.

Was at Sarah’s for supper and then we went to Chapel together. Mahnquist stared at us and smiled a long while, which made us nearly croak. I told Sarah I could see my picture in his greasy hair. Everybody has gone to bed and here I am sitting writing such nonsence. I am wicked! (January, 29, 1893) [3]

Mia and I were talking about marriages . . . Mia herself don’t want to marry, and I well, I truly havn’t made up my mind if I do or not. Some day when I get old and sensible I am going to think over every thing and see what conclusion I come to. The first question is: Do I? and will I ever regret it? The second: Who to? and do I love him with all my heart and soul, or is it a fancy. 3rd: Is this the one that Providence has picked out for me? 4: – Will we always love the same? (December 22, 1893)

The diaries resonated strongly with me, and I began to research what life was like for a young woman attending college in the 1890s. Looking deeper into the archives, I kept coming across letters and diaries written by the young women of Augustana. Their stories were a different kind of history, one that I hadn’t encountered in class. Forget kings and wars and important dates, these were ordinary people living ordinary lives. National and international events appeared on occasion, but they weren’t at the center of the narrative.

Mia was piling wood this morning, so Emil Lofgren went by and he helped her, so did I. Some went skating on the pond this morning. There don’t seem much to thank for now as Harrison didn’t become elected! (November 24, 1892) [4]

I consumed books and articles about life writing, learning that diaries, letters, and journals were often the only outlets for women’s writing. I checked out piles of published journals and correspondence written by women, from Virginia Woolf and Mary Boykin Chesnut to more obscure writers. Why hadn’t we read these sorts of sources in my history classes?

For the first time, I became interested in something I recognized as women’s history. It sounds odd to say that now, but at the time I didn’t know this was an area of study. Of course, I had learned about many fascinating women in class, but they were mostly queens or presidents’ wives or other notable women. And I encountered them in history textbooks, newspaper articles, political cartoons, and government documents. In rare cases I read a speech or a letter, but never anything that dwelled deeply on their private lives or how they experienced the world around them.

Black and white photograph of three women standing amongst bushes and trees

Lydia Olsson and her sisters, Mia and Anna Olsson. Source: Augustana Special Collections.

Reading Lydia Olsson’s diaries changed my idea of what history could be, and of who I could learn about. While earning my master’s degree in library science and working as a librarian and archivist, I kept reading about women’s lives, becoming more committed to the idea of studying them in an academic program. It’s thanks to Olsson that I’m here at Sarah Lawrence College, fueling that spark her writing lit in me.

And hereby endeth this chapter. Hoping to sow better seed in the future I close and zeal my book. – Topsy­ – (January 16, 1893)

October is American Archives Month. Celebrate by exploring your local archives and special collections – you never know what you might find. Sarah Lawrence College students, faculty, and staff can learn more about the Sarah Lawrence College Archives on their website and Facebook page.


Resources


Notes

[1] The opening stanza of Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.”
[2] A quote from the German dramatist and poet Friedrich von Schiller.
[3] Olsson’s original spelling, grammar, and word choice are retained in these quotes.
[4] Olsson is referring to the 1892 United States presidential election between incumbent Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland.


Rebecca Hopman is a first-year student in the Women’s History graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the Project Archivist at the Sarah Lawrence College Archives and works as an editor for the Re/Visionist. Her research interests include the history of itinerant performers, gender dynamics in artistic communities, women’s life writing, and women’s collegiate experiences.

Hispanic Heritage and Making America Great

By Madison Filzer

Madison is a second year Master’s Candidate in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her research interests include Civil Rights activism in Cleveland, Ohio and Black women’s activism in the United States.

Let me take you back to 1942, only a few years after the Great Depression, in the midst of World War II. In many ways, the United States was struggling on the homefront. With no one to work the jobs that were too low paying to sustain the American dream, there was no way to meet the demands of consumers. In a quick fix to the lack of able-bodied laborers here in the states, millions of migrant workers from Mexico were welcomed with open arms to ensure that our agriculture industry continued despite feeling the effects of war. At that moment, the Bracero Program was born. Bracero in this context, which literally translates to “laborer” in Spanish, meant one who works with their hands.

On August 4, 1942, the United States entered into the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement in order to sustain the large farm industry in the United States. Over the course of twenty-two years, it’s estimated that over two million Mexican immigrants signed contracts to work on American farms and railroads on a temporary basis for wages lower than Americans not fighting in the war were willing to work for. This program was later enacted into law as an amendment to the Migrant Labor Agreement of 1951. The extension of this agreement repeatedly brought Mexican workers back to the states to work in return for housing, low wages, and “humane treatment.” 

As one could imagine, the housing was poor, the job came with risks, and the workers were not treated humanely. But that isn’t why I wrote this piece … I want to talk about the immigration rhetoric we currently hear from the most recent occupant of the White House. The fact of the matter is that at one point, we were welcoming Latinx immigrants to the United States because we were in need of help. Now, only four decades later, there are people advocating for a wall separating the U.S. from Mexico. By ignoring this history, we allow a false narrative of the “bad hombre” to be perpetuated. 

Yes, this was a bilateral deal that was beneficial to both parties in some way, but the logic that follows this history is the notion that there are jobs in America that Americans simply won’t do. We outsourced laborers to fill our needs and we still do. Imagine if every immigrant worker left right now … do we have enough people left to sustain the economy? I don’t know but I don’t think we want to find out. 

In case you didn’t know, September 15th through October 15th is National Hispanic Heritage Month, and I feel compelled to write this in honor of LatinX immigrant history. When I first heard of the Bracero Program a quick Google search returned few results. I feel like if more people knew about the program,  they would have the same questions about immigration that I have. How can we turn our backs on people in search of opportunity when that’s what brought European immigrants here? How would we sustain life as we know it in the United States without people willing to do the hard labor that others shy away from? I might not have the answers to any of the above questions, but as an aspiring historian who has ample access to historical resources, I felt obligated to share information that I believe has the power to change the way people look at immigration. 

Liberation in Women’s Healthcare

By Alison Feese

Alison is a student working to become a Certified Nurse Midwife. She is a birth doula and advocate for women’s health. She is from Columbia, Kentucky and provides services across Central Kentucky.

Liberation is the act of setting something free from imprisonment or oppression. Whether it is our mind, body, or soul, we are often not aware of the imprisonment we are trapped in. Modern women are in a system that teaches us to fear our body, to not trust it, and that it is broken. These messages are sent from a variety of places. In 2019, we expect movies, advertisements, and social media to make us feel less than perfect; but what about our healthcare providers and hospitals? What happens when the very people we trust with our health doubt the ability and strength of our body? That is why I have chosen to go into midwifery. It is an art that trusts the mind, body, and soul of a woman as it is.

Midwifery is arguably the oldest profession. It has been around since people started procreating. Nobody knows when midwives appeared in history, mainly because they were always there. Where there was a birthing woman, you can bet that there was a midwife next to her. The term midwife literally means with-woman. They are primary care providers in women’s health specializing in the childbearing process. They care for women of all ages and even assist in newborn care. Midwifery is an art that blends science, tradition, and the trust of a woman’s body. 

As cheesy as it sounds, midwifery chose me. I couldn’t escape this career path. Midwifery in the United States was born just a few miles away from me in Eastern, KY where nurse midwives would ride horseback into the rough mountains to deliver care to the nation’s poorest and sickest. Appalachia was left medically isolated. These pioneers rode through snow and storm expecting to provide child birthing care, but ended up caring for the whole family. This care alone cut the infant and maternal mortality rate, and increased the quality of life for thousands without the expectation of payment. What an honor it is to place my hand in a profession that was built upon helping the poorest in my own backyard. Today, the United States is the only developed nation that has a RISING maternal mortality rate. We are also the only industrialized nation that does not use midwifery care as the standard practice. Don’t get me wrong, I am not disrespecting the wonderful OB/GYNs I will work next to. I am so thankful we have technology and physicians to provide life-saving surgery. Modern medicine is a fantastic thing when it is used appropriately. But something has to change in the United States. If trusting the art of midwifery will reduce these mortality rates, why aren’t we doing it?!

Midwifery core-competencies include things like assisting with breech deliveries, out of hospital births, and holistic treatments. However, these things are not commonly practiced in the United States. Midwives are taught to trust the female body, and allow it to work as designed. They use a hands-off approach. If something isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Problems happen when we use unnecessary interventions in healthcare and tell women that their bodies are not capable. This includes things like unnecessary cesarean sections, inductions, and augmentations of labor. These practices not only increase undesirable outcomes, but they make women question the ability of their bodies.  Midwifery is the ultimate liberation from the body-shaming world we are surrounded by. 

Midwives today play different roles in different states. Some provide childbirth care for women in and out of the hospital. Some work to provide abortion care. Some midwives assist with fertility within the LGBTQ communities. Many serve our amish communities in rural areas. They work with victims of sexual violence. Midwives fill different roles dependant upon their community’s needs, but they all have the same goal. To provide patient-centered care to the populations they serve. They trust the female body, and reject the idea that women are not capable. They stress the importance of informed consent and make women the most important member in the healthcare team. Midwifery care is counter-culture to the world around us. For instance, midwives do not deliver babies. They catch babies, and mothers deliver them. This profession is selfless and places the honor on the patient. Women are more than capable of making choices for themselves and their family. We run into problems when we tell them they can’t. Whatever a family chooses, midwives are there to support and educate them along the way.

Featured Photo: Frontier Nursing Service midwife makes postpartum visit, slide, c. 1930s. Nurse-Midwifery Program Records.

A Period Memory

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College.

Sitting in Mrs. Carter’s seventh grade Language Arts class during the fall of 2007, I slid down in my chair, legs spread out, relaxed – no care in the world. I always sat like that, not thinking about how much space I took up and loving how comfortable I felt. We learned about prepositions that day. Brandon Wilson, quite a bully throughout my time knowing him, sat directly across from me. I sometimes wonder if he ever saw it. I convinced myself he didn’t a few years ago when he reached out on Facebook to ask me on a date (I still got it). So he must not have noticed it, or maybe he blocked out the memory. Either way, it’s still pretty haunting.

Unlike the rest of my classes, Language Arts took two periods out of the seven I had. I didn’t mind. I loved the subject and Mrs. Carter was a real spunky teacher, so the two class periods didn’t bother me much. Her wit was quick, her accent thick – her class felt like the safest place to be. Though I can only imagine the 6 minutes in between periods would have been a great time to socialize with classmates, I never knew for sure. Thanks to a near disaster on a long bus ride years before, I always used the six minute break to run to the bathroom, whether I had to go or not (just in case).

Down the hall, past my peers, I walked into my usual stall (the middle one) and my favorite bathroom (the one on the second floor of the old wing of the school), ready to sit and be alone on the toilet for a moment before heading back to class. I pulled down my khaki bermuda shorts to find a large, red stain. It looked like a murder scene. It took me a brief moment before I realized what had happened and I was quickly filled with terror wondering what to do next. I didn’t get a phone until I was in the eighth grade, so calling for help was out of the question. No one came into the bathroom during the entire 6 minute break, so there was no one I could ask for help. I didn’t carry a purse then because I felt like I had thwarted the patriarchy by being unfeminine in my clothing choices, so I had no tampon on hand. I didn’t know what to do.

School was important to me. I didn’t want to miss class. I wadded a bunch of toilet paper together, shoved it down my pants, and hoped I would make it through class. I spent the next 52 minutes of my life sitting with my back straight as a pole and my legs pressed so hard together that I could feel a heartbeat in my knees. I even crossed my ankles to the side. I took up as little space as possible. Never had I sat like such a lady during this class, or any class for that matter. I’m sure my grandmother would have been proud of my posture. I felt so small. I sat like that until the bell rang, at which point I quickly, but precisely, collected my things and went to the front office. They gave me a ratty, old pair of sweatpants to wear. Now everyone would know.


This piece is the written form of a memory I had while listening to a speaker at a women’s history conference. The speakers were talking about the social justice issues surrounding periods: access to menstrual products in prisons, sex education and learned period shaming in schools, and access to medical services to address issues surrounding menstruation. Periods are complicated. A lot of people experience them, yet most memories and encounters with the bodily function are negative. The issues of menstruation are vast and in order to address the medical and emotional needs of the masses. It is necessary that a great many steps are taken in restructuring our educational values, how we treat the incarcerated, and the funding systems which support reproductive medical needs. The number of policy changes, and the of social and cultural overhaul which would subsequently need to occur, could very well be the topic of multiple books (and likely already are). But a simple first step is a bit more visceral.

On top of policy changes, the action of speaking an experience into the ether can change lives. Despite the fact that billions of people menstruate, many feel isolated. The stigma of menstruation can be crushing and heavy. After years of understanding my body – how it functions and all the great things about being me – I still could not get out from under the weight of how small and dirty I felt in that classroom. That was ten years ago. I was socialized to take up less space, to be unseen, to be unnoticed and small. I thought that by dressing unfeminine, by taking up space, I could get out from under the pressure of that stigma. I didn’t. The memory rushed back without permission, and consumed my thoughts for a significant portion of the day. I wonder what might be different if we socialized kids differently: how might the human experience change?

Like I said, policy changes are necessary. But I argue that those changes are useless without changing the way we socialize kids. These discussions must start extremely young – well before the already heavy stigmas of puberty sets in. I know that many of my peers have similar memories consuming their thoughts, uninvited, on a regular basis. So I hope we can find ways to lift the stigma by fully supporting the bodies of children as we work toward lifting this harmful weight. Period.