Thursday, February 21, 2008

Her Story, His Story, Our Story

Glinda writes:

We 3 partners are digging into Adair County history. We want to know the story of the place we call home and a county that has known 6 generations of our families on either side. Plus, we want to know the stories of family members who have gone before and the context of their lives. Nevermind, Mother, Melanie and I are drawn to the story of the Richard Wagner Conservatory of Music and Languages from which my Mother's Mother graduated in 1909. "Dig in."

We have a number of references to start our journey. A primary one is the History of Adair County by E.M. Violette (1911), a Professor of History at what was then the State Normal School in Kirksville. This very old and fragile text was a treasure of the Brenz family and originally held by Mother's Uncle whose name is carefully stamped in relief on the title page, Dr. H. S. Wiles [(b. 1877, d. 1940), married to her Father's Sister Clara Brenz Wiles(1881-1968)]. The history as reported is vast and obviously the product of extensive research. This text from the family archives is a treasure to us now.

Something essential is missing. A look at this text clearly indicates that this is HIS-Story. There are hardly any "She's" in it. HER-Story is almost completely left out. With all due respect to Professor Violette, I know he was a product of his times. Women and the substance of their lives, even until relatively recently, have not been considered important and therefore have not been recorded. Some very essential parts of our collective history (add to that those of other races, ethnicities, socioeconomic groups) have been omitted. Sadly, the text, while supposedly definitive, becomes distortion.

The recording of history in western Euro-centric traditions is an interesting presentation. Typically, men's lives have been in the public sphere and women's in the private sphere with some exceptions, of course. As reported by men, history became about men and not all men. The spirit of reporting history from this view presents text which is typically quantitative, objective, detached. Texts typically feature extensive discussion and data on business and commerce, structural organization of communities in ways served mostly by men, wars, and celebration of themes of domination (or winning).

Looking at Violette's 1188 paged text, pages 461-474 are devoted to the "Great Men of the County" and pages 475-1168 to Biographical [sketches]. In this latter section, the subject is also men. Many pictures and names of family members are given, which of course included women and children. This is the greatest representation of women given in the text. Whether on purpose or without thinking, women are screened carefully from view. Women just happened to be there, perhaps by accident, never on purpose. Who knows?

Women's history is very different. Because of women's attachment to the private sphere (i.e., home and family), women's history often presents the everyday lived experience, the fabric of our lives, the rhythm and flow of ordinary lives. There is spirit, feeling, inter-weaving of, and a sense of the breath of life of families and communities.

Women typically place higher priority and have more involvements in the lives of children and elderly, social issues, education, churches, libraries and literary societies, the arts, among others. They also have been known to be politically active on issues related to these spheres. However, since these have not been within the interests of patriarchal historians, their involvements have fallen outside the margins of texts.

Whether by accident or on purpose, the omission of women's stories has been the reality of the world and culture of which we are a part. When one's voice is silenced, one's story is untold or worse yet misrepresented, one's gifts to the world are not affirmed. I believe this has created untold damage to females through time and to younger generations emerging. Among other things, this silencing has invalidated women's ways of being and forced women to take on characteristics of that dominant society in order to "succeed".

"History" is incomplete without her stories. Fortunately, in recent times, increasing focus has been given to such initiatives which has in itself not been an easy task. Women's lives are complex and as a result, our stories are almost impossible to categorize into boxes contrived by historians who come from a patriarchal tradition. To tell her story, one must address topics in her voice.

Embarking on a long journey of such discovery, I find myself wondering about women's history in Adair County, and most specifically, the stories of women in our family. For the former, I did an internet search (which revealed 1 entry). I do have other places to which I will address this question.

But what of the women in our family? The information is there, but it is a vast puzzle. The storage of such information is found in a myriad of known and unknown locations. Yet, these locations are a treasure trove which will likely lead to other discoveries along the way. A beginning list would include:
  • oral history as shared with me throughout my life
  • oral history from Elders available to me now
  • oral history as shared with other family members and friends
  • pictures, pictures, and more pictures (most with names, some not)
  • memorabilia, especially those things they chose to pass down (recipes, quilts, handicrafts, plants)
  • newspaper articles (especially they kept)
  • correspondence (letters, postcards)
  • their writings (journals, diaries, stories, poems)

Throughout my life, I have loved the history and its potential for story. Yet, for the most part, history classes in high school and college in the 1950s and 1960s were dreadfully boring. Because of the detached and so-called objective views, history became dead, without life and breath. While unknown to me at the time, the story of my gender was a major blank mark across every story, every page.

My primary goal here is to recover as much as possible "her story". However, that said, I choose to reclaim the fullest story of all my family members in their times: Her Story, His Story, Our Story. I believe that their story is our story, after all.

I am excited. This is a long journey. It is like putting together a vast puzzle, some pieces of which will always be incomplete, but trusting that those I need to know will be presented before me on that beautiful path ahead.

Dear Reader, whose stories do you wish to reclaim?


Note: Three women's historians (and former fellow colleagues at the University of North Dakota) have been very influential in my life regarding my quest for women's history. Without their example, I probably would have known something was missing but not known what to do about it. Thank you, Kathleen Brokke, Anne Kelsch, and Barbara Handy-Marchello. That said, the above thoughts are my own.

Photo below: Violette's volume has been covered with what appears to be either oil cloth or kitchen wall paper from an earlier place and time. Looking closely, one can see small hand stitches which hold the handmade cover carefully over the old for protection. I wonder: Whose hands have held this volume and whose hands carefully stitched this cover in place?

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