Finding Women's History in Unexpected Places

Women make up half of the U.S. population. They were present for and affected by every event in American history and made their mark on every place they went. Nearly any site can be viewed through the lens of gender—even sites not traditionally viewed as “women’s history sites.” The goal of this article is to encourage you to look for women’s history in unexpected places—going beyond the traditional perception of “women’s history sites.” Digging deeper into the stories of women who lived throughout the Midwest region, history as we thought we knew it takes on an entirely different perspective.

Let’s start by telling one of those stories: In 1901, 23-year-old Juliana, a Volga German, filed a claim for a homestead in North Dakota. Six years later, she “proved up,” or earned the right to permanent ownership on her land, a milestone that fewer than half of all homesteaders achieved. She was the head of her household, taking care of her ailing mother and her younger siblings while simultaneously plowing 25 acres for cultivation, digging sod to build a house, and fending off the forces of nature that caused so many others to relinquish their own claims. Juliana was far from the only female homesteader; in fact in some townships twenty percent or more of all homesteaders were women.[1] Each of their situations varied, but most were single, widowed, or the heads of their households. Many were immigrants. Fifty years before the 19th Amendment, by being landholders, they enjoyed a level of political and social power of which their peers in the east could only dream. Juliana’s story challenges the notion that homesteading was a man’s job and that women merely followed their ambitious husbands to the west.

Where We Stand

Historically, the narrative of the American West largely centered on white pioneer men braving the elements to “tame the frontier.” As Juliana’s story and others show, this is not the whole story. Despite recent efforts to tell the stories of other groups living in the region—American Indians, African Americans, Asian Americans, and women of all races—the romanticized image still remains. The National Park Service (NPS) has made many efforts in the past decades to improve the representation of historically underrepresented groups, including women. The NPS has implemented a women’s history initiative that identifies gaps in current interpretation and explores sites associated with women for potential National Historic Landmark (NHL) designation. There have been nearly 20 sites added in the past two decades, but there are many more out there waiting to be discovered!

Strides have been made to combat the underrepresentation of women at historic sites, but there is still so much left to do. There are gaps in the record that can still be filled, stories that can still be told, entire demographics of women that receive but a brief footnote, if anything at all. We have done well at telling the stories of “women worthies”—that is; rich, generally white women who did something amazing—the Eleanor Roosevelts and Amelia Earharts of the world. In recent years as well, we have begun to acknowledge the importance of interpreting the lives of “the other half”—the domestic servants and enslaved people. Still, just looking at these two categories leaves out a lot of women. Despite a few exceptions, most sites that interpret women’s history have a strong focus on the domestic sphere, portraying women as wives, mothers, daughters, or servants. This is a very important aspect of the site, of course, but the question is: is this the only way that women participated at your site? Furthermore, it is important to think about how women might have played a role at sites that do not have an obvious women’s history. It is easy to talk about the wife of a famous politician at a historic house, but what about the role of women during a battle or military encampment? How did women play a role in the railroad industry? In the building of canals? In the history of labor? How did women of color participate?

How about in the construction of a bridge? A mundane architectural feature like a simple rural stone bridge might seem to be a reasonably gender-neutral example. In Baldwin City, Kansas, however, such a bridge is a tangible memento of an era when women controlled the town. In 1889, more than 30 years before the 18th Amendment, the all-female Baldwin City Council was elected in what was called “an overwhelming defeat of the masculine power.”[2] Among other social reforms such as prohibiting the sale of alcohol, the women facilitated the building of a bridge and sidewalks in the town. Most of the ordinances that the women passed were repealed in 1890 with the election of a new (male) mayor and city council, but the “Women’s Bridge” remains as a reminder of their term. The moral of this story is that writing off a property as “having nothing to do with women” could be leaving out very important details.
B&W photo of four African American men in black and three African American women in white.
Jubilee singers from the Lexington Business College. Lexington, Nebraska 1909.

Photo courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society

Opportunities

There are so many topics out there that can still be discussed regarding women’s history. Furthermore, there is an opportunity to talk about the broader concept of gender relations—stories that encompass general societal notions of “masculine” and “feminine” as well as those who do not fit into the rigid gender binary. There are opportunities to further expand and research issues of health, sexuality, pregnancy, aging, race, fashion (as fashion can both reflect and have an impact on social mores), immigration, labor, housing (the role of architecture in reflecting and defining gender norms has been under-represented), religion, technology, medicine, etc. As women have always been half of the participants in history, any topic can be a women’s topic. Keeping an open mind to these topics and finding women’s history in “unexpected places” can lead to a richer visitor experience that resonates with a broader audience.

There are understandably many challenges to overcome when seeking to tell or expand upon a narrative on women’s history. Limited time, money, and resources are issues for every historic site. Finding information can be a challenge because many women, especially poor women and women of color, left few records to tell about their lives. Furthermore, not every visitor will be interested in the history of gender relations; many will want to hear the more traditional story of the man of the house or see the antique furniture. That does not mean there is no room for new angles of interpretation. By sharing multiple stories from different perspectives, visitors are more likely to find something in the site that resonates with their own situation.
B&W photo of an older woman wearing white.
Mary Skubitz, leader of the "Amazon Army," a group of women who protested working conditions at 63 Kansas mines.

Photo courtesy of Pittsburg State University Special Collections.

Interpretation

The most important thing is to get the information out there so that it can inspire and educate. In instances where very little information can be found about women’s roles at your site, keep in mind that sometimes silence speaks louder than words. By asking questions like “why don’t we know much about the women at this site?” or “why weren’t these individuals included in the record?” the lack of information can be turned into a learning experience for visitors.

That said, there are plenty of places to look for answers. Certain types of primary sources are more likely to yield information about women. First, newspapers do a good job of expressing societal attitudes of the day and often have letters or comments written by women. Second, diaries and letters provide an intimate look at women’s daily lives. Women’s social clubs typically published pamphlets, bulletins, and kept minutes; looking in these sources can reveal positions on key issues like suffrage and civil rights. Even basic census or legal records—birth, marriage, baptism, and death records, city directories, deeds, wills, property inventories, and building permits—can reveal a wealth of information on women. In the Midwest, homestead records and land claims can also add to the story. Oral histories are a valuable resource, especially for the often-invisible sides of the story.

A Recipe for Success

The goal of this article is not to suggest that every site should reinterpret their story through a feminist lens; not every site can claim a compelling or necessary story of gender relations. The goal is merely to get people thinking and asking, “Whose story are we telling and why?” “Are we telling a complete story? If not, how can we?”

Do not be afraid to ask new and challenging questions. Asking questions is the first step to understanding what is missing. Listen to the public; conduct surveys that ask them whose stories they think are missing or ask them what other questions they have about the site. It also helps to have allies who are historians or members of academia who are willing to take on the challenge of interpretation.

Communication is also important both within the historic property’s internal management and between sites. There will inevitably be historic sites that have done the same kind of research or are asking the same questions. It’s not a matter of reinventing the wheel; it’s a matter of taking inspiration from what others have already done and expanding upon/altering it to fit with your site’s unique story. Organizations like the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), National Council on Public History (NCPH), and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) can be very helpful for sites independent of the National Park System, and the Park Service itself is a valuable resource for any National Historic Landmark. The most important thing to remember is that, like anything, researching women’s history takes determination. The answers may not always be obvious, but the fact that the questions are being asked is valuable in itself.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 9, 2014, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Mary Feitz.

[1]. Lindgren, H. Elaine, "Ethnic Women Homesteading on the Plains of North Dakota" (1989). Great Plains Quarterly. Paper 454
[2]. Alicia Hendrickson, "Historic Baldwin Bridge Getting a Makeover," Lawrence Journal-World, May 19 2005.