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O’Connor: Women’s History Month starts with you and a photo

Editor’s Note: SDNN columnist Colleen O’Connor will write about Women’s History Month throughout March to highlight the importance of the recognition and how women have shaped history. Join us as we recognize Women’s History Month by sending in your stories too and checking SDNN every day for stories from other women in our region. Happy Women’s History Month!

Shortly before my mother died, a photograph appeared on the family’s dining room wall.

Impressed by the genteel, aristocratic bearing of the seven women in the picture, I remember thinking how pampered they all looked, posing together for a formal photograph in their elegant white dresses, each one pinned with an exquisite brooch.

So 19th century. So refined. So insulated.

So wrong.

The seven women were sisters. One of them was my maternal grandmother.

My aunt, godmother, and the woman who literally brought me into this world, Marcella Cate (a Professor of Nursing) helped correct my original, erroneous assumptions.

Together, we followed this one photograph on an adventure to the farms and Black Hills of South Dakota, and uncovered more exciting history than I thought possible.

My grandmother and her six sisters, were farmers, seamstresses, and survivalists. They homesteaded in their own names. They rode horses, raised turkeys, cows and sheep. They cooked for large crews of farm hands, sewed their own clothes—including the dresses in the photograph—and several were crack shots with a rifle!

In addition, my grandmother held suffragette meetings on her farm. After women won the right to vote, my great Aunt Mary, fought against the state’s poll tax and won.

Men avoided the tax by substituting a day of work, but women were prohibited from that alternative—until Aunt Mary.

More importantly, these women in the photograph, started me on a journey that brought history alive.

That is the purpose of Women’s History Month—to bring history alive for you.

Get Started With a Photograph

Every family has a photograph. Every photograph tells a story. And every story is part of American history—your history.

You need not be famous, rich or powerful. In fact, women’s history has begun to correct the old histories of famous men, kings, queens and even great movements. Collective histories of regular folks–by regular folks—is now more popular than a rave party.

And it is not just for women anymore. Men have favorite women in their lives that they would like to research, write about, and possibly give the information to their daughters or granddaughters, or sons.

Democratization has revolutionized history as fast as the Internet.

There is no right or wrong way to start your adventure. No right or wrong way to start your own detective hunt. The only requirement is that you do begin.

And, for me, the easiest way to begin is with a photograph.

As Professor Henry Higgins sang grumpily, “Let a woman in your life.” Find a photograph of the favorite woman in your life; wife, mother, sister, aunt, teacher, doctor, schoolmate, friend, etc.

Look at the photograph that speaks to you. It holds reams of information and probably some mystery as well. Place the picture in a prominent place where you will see it every day—the dresser, the ice box, the mantel.

And then just think about it. What is in the picture? A farm, a house, city, school yard, etc.? Who is she? Where was she born? What do you know about her life? Jot it all down. Keep thinking. Keep asking questions and talking to yourself.

What is she wearing? Can you date it? Lamb chop sleeves are definitely 19th century. Mini-skirts, 1960s.

Do you know her name? Write it down. Country of origin? Age? Write down everything, ala’ Sherlock Holmes, that you can discover by just looking with a sharp eye.

Why does she interest you? See if you can find your roots in hers.

Voila! You are now a certified amateur historian.


Our friends, families, and the women in our lives, all got here from somewhere else. That is the big question. How did we get here from there? And where is there?

Does she speak another language? Did she serve in the military? Is she or any of her friends or relatives still alive? Answers to these simple questions provide a treasure trove of information.

Save everything. It matters.

Stories, memories, favorite images, and even recipes reveal a great deal about a character.

Perhaps she quilted as a hobby, or a necessity. Was she a professional? In what field? What motivated her? Family, religion, education, athletics, science, politics, the military?

Take your time and have fun. That is the most important part of amateur detecting and historical research. You must have FUN!

Here are ten easy steps to get you started. Where you finish is entirely up to you. Could be centuries away, continents apart, or just ‘round the corner. Only you will discover the answers.

For an enlightening an fun insight, watch PBS.org Faces of America program, with Henry Gates, Jr. You can also share your own story. That is reason enough to watch. You can preserve your own history. How easy is that?

Or, go to The Daily Beast’s Women’s History Month Summit, and follow live interviews, stage performances, and remembrances from Meryl Streep, her Majesty Queen Rania, and women from all over the globe.

One of these programs is certain to get you started. If not, look at your daughters, your granddaughters, nieces, and sisters—and do it for them.

History can be as unforgiving as a tidal wave. If you don’t save what is on the beach, the next high tide will wash it away. Start collecting.

Here are ten steps to start your journey.

Ten Steps

1. Just think about it and watch the programs mentioned above.

2. Start with a photograph. You probably have several, but choose one that speaks to you and has a little mystery about it. Or a question you want answered. Try not to get too bogged down in boxes of photos. Put them on the floor and make yourself pick just one.

3. Ask questions of the photograph, yourself, your relatives, or anyone that might help. For example, the year of the car in the background. The hairstyle’s name. The names of everyone in the picture. Their whereabouts.

4. Listen to any stories. After you find a relative or friend that knows the subject of your photo, ask questions. Share the photograph as a memory prompt and let them tell you whatever story they want. Each vignette contains clues and suggestions for more avenues of discovery. Let them talk. Just listen. Even if they wander, the wanderings are often more telling than the rehearsed stories.

5. Take notes. This is not necessary if you have a great memory, but helps when you want to refer to a name, place, or a great line. Try not to start by taking notes as this causes most interviewees to become reserved and stiff. Share some tea, coffee, a beer or a ballgame. The more relaxed the atmosphere the better.

6. Tape the interviews. Do this if you are covering a lot of ground and only if the one talking does not object and is comfortable doing so. Usually taping comes after several initial forays with the interviewee. Meaning, they trust you.

7. Who’s who? Start a family tree. Start with yourself; move on to your parents; grandparents; and if you can add more than that, you are well on your way.

8. Family gatherings. These are the best places to overhear great stories. Just relax enjoy the Thanksgiving feast, birthday party, or anniversary, and listen as relatives begin to talk. They may amble at first, but the tales get told eventually. Commit them to memory.

9. Letters and other keepsakes. Don’t throw anything away. If someone has some old letters, offer to take them, Xerox them and return them. You only need to watch one Ken Burns documentary to realize how important letters are. Diaries are priceless. Even old account books that reveal the daily costs of life.

10. Put it together. If you have done any of the above, you will want to put it all together in some order, or in a folder, or an album, or if you are tech literate, on a CD, or even on film. Calendars are great ways to start the photographic collection and remind you of who you are and where you came from.

San Diego is a leader in Women’s History

San Diego State University started the first Women’s Study Department in the country in 1970—celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

UC San Diego named their fifth college of International Relations after former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was also the country’s first Ambassador to the United Nations, and a prime author of the U.N.’s Declaration of Human Rights.

Incidentally, Hillary Clinton (when she was First Lady) gave the keynote inaugural address for the college.

And the San Diego Women’s Museum and Education Center is not only a great archival treasure but also boasts the San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame.

Author’s Note on Suggested Resources:

My academic training is in 20th century U.S. political and economic history. I am new to Women’s and Family History and a novice in computer-based technology. Consequently, the following bibliography may seem elementary to some, but is quite different for me.

Add to this the fact that the internet has over 25,000 genealogical web sites, many of which come in and out of existence daily, and one can appreciate the fluidity of this list.

Most of the internet sites were chosen for their exhaustive list of hot links and for the possible use in putting together a history course module; i.e., user friendly.

The following are sites to be used, in addition to the dozens of search engines like Yahoo, Excite, Dogpile, etc.; the major libraries on-line—such as the San Francisco Public Library and the Los Angeles Public Library that are part of the Durfee Foundation-funded project to archive neighborhood photographs and family albums.

Remember, Women’s History Month is not just for women anymore. It is to get everyone started on collecting and appreciating their own history—as well as the women in it.

Colleen M. O’Connor is a former college history professor, the director of the “Faces of San Diego 2000″ family photographic history project and co-editor of Eleanor Roosevelt: An American Journey. She is an SDNN political columnist and can be reached at CoConnor15x(a)Yahoo.com