Yesterday I got the opportunity to tape a radio show, Through the Eyes of Women, which airs at 1:30p.m. on Mondays on KHSU.
It is hosted by my friend Kathy Srabian and because it was National Women’s History Month, she asked me to come on and we would focus on women in history, as participants and as recorders. I prepped with questions she provided and took my notes with me, only to forget and skip most of the things I’d planned to say (something about that darn microphone in my face and that recorder going mushed my brain).
Anyhoo, this is what I’d hoped to say… It’s not pretty (and you must ignore the typos), but hopefully the thoughts are clear.
A recent article in the north coast journal and my last show on National History Month made me curious about women who record history. And the roll it plays, the way it affects our stories about ourselves.
The NCJ article on the Indian Massacres made several references to journals that women had written. The only personal account of the Indian island massacre was by a native woman…
The stores we are told about who we as a people, as a population are affect our perception of ourselves. And our expectations of our children.
Our lives are paved with our history, we walk on it everyday, we follow the paths our history has laid out for us Unless we make a conscious effort to change it.
Lynette.. You are a historian? In your blog you speak of your passion for research. What is it you are looking for?
I’m still trying to articulate it. I know there is value in history, but honestly it is still the magic I love the most. It is the only time travel I know—and the only way to talk to ghosts.
History, its written records and images transcend time and space, mortality, even. It allows us to discover and learn about the people, places and events that occurred before we even existed. And the only way to know about these people, these events, is through those records. See what they saw. Learn what they learned, and experience, or at least imagine to a certain degree, what they experienced. Who wouldn’t want to study and preserve that?
Have you always been interested in history
No. It used to be an abstract for me. Facts I memorized in school until test time.
But then one day my mother-in-law started talking about a story in a book, about a Native American woman named Willow living in the 1850s that survived an attack by white men on her village in Orleans and was found and nursed back to heath by a man named Johnny. Kathi, my mother in law, was sharing the story with the family because it sounded vaguely familiar and my husband’s grandfather suddenly pointed at a Willow tree and said, “Well, that’s her willow tree. She planted it—It was Willow’s tree. “ The story was familiar because Johnny was my husband’s great, great grandfather and the man who rescued Willow. Willow ended up becoming a part of my husband’s family over 100 years ago.
At that moment, click, history was REAL. About real people like us, and real events like the ones happening around us every day. I was hooked.
You became focused on the story of a particular woman and time period pretty quickly, though, didn’t you?
Yes, I was researching local history and accidently discovered a copy of an inquest that occurred after a Native American woman was murdered in Arcata in 1862. There were many details about the crime, and the events/conditions during that time period and what was happening between the settlers and the indigenous people. I became (mildly) obsessed with learning more about what was happening here… these relationships. .
But you aren’t Native American. Why her/this topic?
I actually struggled with that question. I’m not Native American, is this really my story to tell? But then I realized that Lucy was a woman, a mother who struggled and made many sacrifices for the sake of her children. Any woman, any person, male or female, with a mother, could see value in her story. And it was a story that no one else was telling, or would ever tell, unless I did it.
Question: Do women play a different role in making and recording history?
I think so. Culturally, women’s options have been restricted for so long. Women couldn’t set out for California to mine for gold. They didn’t fight in the wars or explore new territories. All those sexy, romantic, recorded histories belong mostly to men.
But women were there, making the world go-round just the same. When I started studying genealogy, I found an ancestor of mine listed as a “grass widow”, which was a term sometimes used to describe a woman whose husband had gone to California—and might never return… Yet the children still needed to eat even if the “man of the house” was gone. Cows were milked and fields plowed. Men, even in recent history, were free to go off and make “history” while women stayed home and did the work.
Yet.. yet… When it comes to recording history…
This gave women a unique opportunity to act as more impartial observers. Many journals (and some books) exist that give us probably the most objective picture of history-the big history books aren’t written by women, but many of the little (and accurate ones) are.
Sarah Royce wrote a journal of her family’s journey across the plains to California—Weaverville, actually. She talked of her fears of running out of food, being ill prepared for such a journey. Frankly I don’t know that the male ego would allow for such an honest record and reflection of events. And it was a woman that insisted that a Relief team go to help Royce’s family over the Sierras. A woman Royce credits with her family’s survival.
“Dame Shirley,” or Louise Clapp (1819–1906) came with her husband to the California gold mines in the 1800s and wrote a series of letters to her sister in Massachusetts. Those letters give an absolutely wonderful picture of life in the gold mining camps that would be gone forever otherwise.
Sarah Preston and other women who were here in during the Indian Wars often talked about the folly of the way the Natives were treated. They knew things would only go badly if things continued… Women built relationships while men fought those same people…
Yet women’s influence was recognized to a certain extent. They were seen as a calming and civilizing force in a community and necessary for it’s continued prosperity. Local newspaper editor in 1850s lamented the lack of marriageable women here… and how needed they were. There were campaigns in the East to get women on ships and get them out here… didn’t work, but they tried.
Question: BUT ARE THEIR ACHIEVEMENTS WRITTEN OUT of history?
Work isn’t sexy. The simple, everyday things that keep family, and society together, the things that women were restricted to, simply weren’t found that interesting.
Yet, there were some. I know who Harriet Tubman is… There are some women that stood out, were able to accomplish very public things, and I do think they’re recognized. And as our society has offered more opportunities for women, I think that will happen more and more.
We have to remember that women have only been allowed to vote since 1920. Less than 100 years—women’s roles in leading our communities, our country, has been a quiet, behind the scenes, kind of approach for a very long time-and so not really recognized, known or recorded.
Public history with women as equal participants is a very new thing. But we’re making up for it in a big way. Think about it, less than a hundred years ago, women couldn’t even vote for president. Now we’ve got women running for that same office.
DO YOU THINK WOMEN TAKE THEMSELVES SERIOUSLY AS HISTORIANS.
I recently read that Martha Roscoe, a woman who lived in SoHum and collected an amazing amount of history, called herself a history buff instead of a historian.
I think women do sometimes have a hard time. I think women worry more (at least I did) about whether or not we have the “right” to tell a story, especially if it goes against popular belief or might anger someone.
You mentioned Jerry Rohde’s article earlier, about the Massacre. And it took a certain amount of courage for Jerry to write it, to name names. I think there is still a perception—condition that allows men to reveal facts and info, while a woman writing that same article would be considered “gossiping”… I don’t know that it would have been taken as seriously—even though, as you pointed out, much of the info he shared came from women.
But the only way to change that it is to take ourselves seriously. To look at ourselves as historians, period, and not as “women” telling history . To decide what WE think it important. To quit being afraid to ask questions and share what we learn.
And you, are you doing that?
Yes. There is so much we fail to learn and repeat over and over because we don’t value and study history. No event is isolated in time and space. No person a product of today and today alone. The more we understand –the more we listen to the ghosts and what they have to teach us, the more equipped we’ll be to do better the next time.
What do the ghosts have to teach us?
Some are simple things. Years ago plants were used for healing and just now we are starting to relearn their medicinal value…
We can also learn (hopefully) about more complicated things. The massacre on Indian Island occurred, in part, because newcomers dehumanized a particular group of people. Militia groups “chastised” Indians, which meant kill them. Today we have military “casualties” and I think still allow people to die, because we don’t really recognize them as people. If we pay more attention to past tragedies, if we really understand them, I think we’ll work harder to keep them from happening again.
Oh, there is much going on right now about socializing medical care, but as early as 1854, the Humboldt County Supervisors set up an sick and indigent fund to pay for doctors and medicines when the poor were sick. Over 150 years ago, the folks in this community knew it was wrong for the needy to go without care, yet it took the country until today to reach that same conclusion…
So, what’s next for you, for historians?
Part of the job of a historian is simply to capture and hold the information we find. I recently found a woodcut that showed the interior of a native home in the Plains in the 1800s. If that wasn’t captured and shared, it would be gone forever.
Another is to determine what we can learn from it, as I said.
But yet another point of history, I think, is what it has to teach us about the decisions we’re making today. If we look at our decisions in terms of the history we’re making, I think the different perspective can help us make better decisions. Many decisions are made to address symptoms, not problems.
If we see that putting a bandaid on it (Federal deficit—yikes !!!!) is only pushing the problem further down the road. The history we’re creating for future generations to live with.
Being mindful of greater, more long term impacts, will hopefully lead to wiser decision making…