Assuring That Women’s Stories are Told

Gloria Steinem has been quoted as saying, “If we don’t see a history with women, we don’t know that we can create it.” My final post for the month of March, Women’s History Month, will be dedicated to two organizations — the Smith College Library system and Women’s eNews — both of which are assuring that history will include the contributions of women.

For the last few years, I have been on the Friends of Smith College Executive Committee. I’m a Smith alum, and as a writer, I treasure libraries. What’s more, the Smith libraries are special. Director Christopher Loring has made certain that the Smith library system looks to the digital future and provides all the latest necessities for students to conduct 21st century research, but he also oversees the past in the form of an archival collection of women’s history papers known as the Sophia Smith Collection, which has been under the direction of Sherrill Redmon for the past 17 years.

While one might assume that the Smith archives would be a repository for the papers of women who attended Smith, Redmon has made it her mission to actively pursue the papers of grassroots activists who have led the way in various social movements. While Gloria Steinem, a Smith graduate, might have donated her papers to Smith anyway, Redmon has made sure that a scholar coming to study Steinem’s papers will find that the collection is a home for many like-minded souls. The collection includes papers of the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, Planned Parenthood, the YWCA and of well-known women including Marcia Gillespie, Loretta Ross (human rights activist), and Margaret Sanger. Redmon also created “Voices of Feminism,” an oral history project of the contemporary women’s movement.

As for Women’s eNews, I discovered this interesting website while cruising the Internet a good number of years ago, and their weekly news summary of important issues relating to women is now included among my regular reading. The organization was founded in 2000 by award-winning journalist, Rita Henley Jensen, to provide better coverage of national and international news related to women. Like the Sophia Smith Collection, Women’s eNews is dedicated to “in the trenches” stories of little-known women who are making a difference in women’s lives the world over.

So after a couple of years of telling each organization about the other, Rita said in January: “Let’s work something out. Let’s invite Sherrill down to speak at a Women’s History Month luncheon where Women’s eNews can kick off ‘Opening the Way: A Women’s History Walk.'”

And that brings us to yesterday and what was a glorious event featuring the Women’s History Walk as well as Sherrill Redmon talking about 21 early trailblazers of New York who led the way for other women.

“Opening the Way,” the walking tour, was put together by journalists Betsy Wade and James Boylan, and it will eventually have a website dedicated to the tour and the women’s stories uncovered by Wade and Boylan. There are also plans for creating a narrative dialog of the tour that will be available to people via cell phone. A few highlights of the tour include the news that a woman was responsible for the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge and Margaret Sanger was indicted and tried, at a point along what is now the tour route, for publishing and mailing the newspaper Woman Rebel, in which she promised to provide birth control information in a future issue. (Sending information about birth control via the mail was against the law, and though the issue contained no specific information, the threat of providing it got Sanger into trouble.) In addition, Ida B. Wells, worked on what was then known as Newspaper Row; she was employed at a leading African-American newspaper, New York Age.

Paula Giddings, author of Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching and a professor at Smith College, introduced Sherrill Redmon, and Sherrill’s talk highlighted 21 trailblazers of New York, all of whose papers are a part of the Sophia Smith Collection. Those featured ranged from Martha Lamb, a 19th century author and historian who wrote about New York City, to Romany Marie, an early 20th century Greenwich Village restaurateur whose cafes became known as meeting places for “thinking people.”

Redmon’s remarks held the full attention of the capacity crowd at the Down Town Association. The audience ranged from community leaders such as Marcia Gillespie and Carmen Vasquez to a table of fourth graders from Girls’ Prep, the first all-girls public charter school in New York City. All in all, it was a great day for women’s history.

The daily news is often referred to as the “first draft of history,” so that’s why it’s so important that women’s news get the coverage it deserves and that women’s stories be preserved for those who follow us. Without proper documentation of people making strides in all walks of life, the American story is incomplete.

Today I am off to Frederick, Maryland with a trip planned by Journey through Hallowed Ground http://www.Journeythroughhallowedground.org. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be reporting back about what I saw and what I learned.

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