Talking About Women’s History: Three Questions and an Answer from the Working Women’s History Project
The Working Women’s History Project (WWHP) preserves and promotes the stories of historical and living Chicago women who have made contributions toward achieving justice and equality in the areas of labor, women’s, human and civil rights.
WWHP was born at a workshop on Women and Labor History in Chicago chaired by Yolanda “Bobby” Hall at the Fourth Annual Teaching Women’s History Conference for K-12 Teachers. Kathlyn Miles, an actor, had the idea of creating theatrical vignettes that would tell the story of one or more women who had been active in labor history and presenting these vignettes to the public. The first project was “Come Along and Join,” a play written by Miles about union women. A curriculum was also developed around the play for use in schools. The play was shown with great success to the general public, to unions, and to schools and colleges.
Since then, WWHP had researched, written, and produced dramas about historical Chicago women who had made significant contributions on behalf of working people. Created workshops to teach union women to write their own stories, participated in conferences for teachers to bring women’s history into the classroom, and collaborated in holding roundtable discussions on issues affecting working women.
WWHP president Amy Laiken agreed to answer some questions about the project.
Take it away, Amy:
WWHP focuses on women who are not generally included in the history of feminism or the history of the civil rights movement. How does the addition of women of color and working class women change our understanding of the feminist movement?
For too long the mainstream media, when it covered the women’s movement at all, showed images of primarily white women. Many feminist groups had mainly white leadership. That gave the false impression that women of color and working class women were not involved in the feminist movement. Research has taught us that that was (and is) far from the truth. Going back more than a century, for example, there was Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black woman who was an abolitionist and who also fought for women’s suffrage. She died in 1911, 9 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified. In 1913 Ida B. Wells-Barnett, among her other activities, founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first Black women’s suffrage club in Chicago. Immigrant garment worker Hannah Shapiro Glick inspired a walkout at a Chicago shop, Hart, Schaffner & Marx in 1910 to protest a pay cut for piece work. A month later, 40,000 garment workers were out on strike. Olgha Sierra Sandman, now retired, came to Chicago from Mexico and worked to help improve wages for farm workers in central Illinois. She was inducted in the Union Hall of Honor by the Illinois Labor History Society in 2015. When the struggles and achievements of women of color and working class women are elevated, our understanding of feminism is broadened to include issues that do not always get widespread coverage, such as the way the lack of equity in public transportation can have a negative effect on women’s job opportunities. Their stories also expand our knowledge of history so that it is more widely known that women of color and working class women have been and are leaders in movements to expand rights for all women.
In addition to promoting the stories of women who have made contributions in the areas of labor, women’s rights and civil rights, you also actively preserve those stories for future generations. What are some of the ways the organization does this?
Our website has the transcripts of interviews WWHP board members conducted with the late Rev. Addie Wyatt, and with one of the founding members of WWHP, the late Yolanda (Bobby) Hall. We also have several years of newsletters on the site, some of which contain interviews with women who are currently making contributions in those arenas. Many of our programs have been video recorded, and links are available on our website. We also have a collection of video tapes of many of our plays. In addition, in 2017, we donated 20 years of our papers to Special Collections at the Richard J. Daley Library of the University of Illinois at Chicago, where researchers can access them.
How can people help if they want to support the Working Women’s History Project?
Check out our website at www.wwhpchicago.org We’re always interested in ideas for stories, or if you’d like to tell a story about a woman or women working for rights on the job or other arenas, please contact us. We currently have someone working with us on social media, but are interested in having more people adept at using it. During this past year, we had to schedule events virtually, and we could use the help of someone who knows how to use the technology to effectively present programs that way. And, of course, for those who are able to donate, we would appreciate contributions. More info on how to volunteer/donate is on this page of our website https://wwhpchicago.org/contact-us.html . WWHP is a 501 (c)(3) tax deductible organization.
My question for you: I read that you received your PhD in South Asian history. Are you still doing research in that area, and if so, on which countries are you concentrating your research?
I’m still fascinated by South Asia, and occasionally I write pieces about its history. But today my goal is to write books about important historical topics that will engage history buffs and nerdy kids and the intelligent general reader. Accessible doesn’t mean easy. The history I write often turns what we think we know about history inside out, or at least looks at the familiar from an unfamiliar angle. In doing so, I ask us to look at the world today from a slightly different angle as well. The impact of this can be profound. If you are able to look at history from someone else’s perspective for even a short time, you are more apt to see her as a person rather than “the other.” When we re-introduce overlooked populations into the story, the historical framework gets a little bigger, a little more complex.
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Interested in learning more about the Working Women’s History Project?
In addition to checking out their website, you can:
Sign up for their free newsletter https://conta.cc/3trqzlm
Visit their Facebook page: Working Women’s History Project
Be one of the first to follow their brand new Twitter account: @WorkingWomensH1
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Check back tomorrow for three questions and an answer with historian Patti Loughlin, who specializes in the history of the American West, American Indian history, and women’s and gender history.
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