Friday, October 9, 2015

(Lack of) History Repeats Itself, Unless We Prevent It

Ingeborg, Maria, and Sara arrive in Denver
Sara described Denver to Erskine as a “nightmare,” due mostly to her exhaustion and a “whirlwind of activity” that had been organized for them.[1]  These included “a great meeting at the Capitol attended by throngs,” an hour with the Speaker of the US House, Champ Clark, who happened to be in town, and various other lunches and receptions.

When she tried to beg off she was admonished and told “Why, they’ve been planning it for days and days,” so she had to struggle on. Luckily, they seemed to strike a chord in Denver; the day after their arrival they were recognized and “greeted with shouts and applause” (as well as the occasional jeer, but not many of those.)

They do seem to be looking a bit grim in this photo from the Denver Post. Sara was complaining of a weak heart well before she left San Francisco, and the higher altitudes she'd been in during the previous couple of weeks, the long days in the car, and having to be on stage when she arrived in any town really took it out of her. 

When the meetings were all done she was scooped up by a Mrs. Cuthbert and brought to Colorado Springs, where she was pampered and cosseted for a day and a half. Picture this contrast to the rigors of the previous few weeks.

Afterwards the dear lady sped me here in a luxurious car, all cushion and softness. Such a wonderful place…Great windows from which to watch the skies spilling their cloud foam onto the peaks…I was given a whole suite of exquisite rooms in rose pink and white. A maid came in to wait upon me. She prepared my bath of fragrantly scented water and assisted me (to my embarrassment) in all my toilet. Then I was put back to bed in a dreamy gown of lace and silk and breakfast brought on delicate china and mirror-bright silver.

Damn. My trip has been a lot easier but that still sounds pretty good to me. Not so sure about the maid...but a shower and a cozy room and a beer or two usually makes me pretty happy.

It’s not clear to me what the Swedes did during this interlude. They had been expecting money to be wired to them in Denver, but it wasn’t there when they arrived, and according to Sara this caused them a lot of anxiety, so they followed her around like little ducks until she found a banker to sort it out. It sounds as if she needed a bit of a break from them but I wonder how they felt when they saw her whisked away by the Cuthberts.

My heart goes out to the Swedes, who so generously offered their car to bring the envoys to DC in a spirit of genuine solidarity with the Congressional Union’s goals, only to be silenced and treated as lowly support staff both during the trip and by history. TWhen they were interviewed by reporters it was always about the car, never really about their views on suffrage. No one completed an oral history with them later on, as Amelia Fry did with Sara, Mabel Vernon, and Alice Paul. 

A once-in-a-lifetime cross-country trip that they could have completed at their leisure, stopping when and where they would, was suddenly subjected to a tight deadline that required long days in the car and no time for sightseeing. While they were always invited to be on stage at events and were usually in the published photos, Sara did all the public speaking. Their accents, frumpy clothing, and clearly foreign demeanor made them unsuitable for public roles according to Alice Paul’s vision for how community organizing should work. Frankly, I’d have been a little pissed off had I been in their shoes and might have been tempted to leave Sara at some dreary outpost to find her way to DC on her own.

Sign in the Pueblo rail station historical exhibit

This feeling was reinforced when I stopped by the Pueblo Railway Museum in Pueblo, CO, and saw signs like this one. Swedes aren’t names specifically in this long list, but given the other ethnicities there I’m not sure that they would have been feeling all warm and fuzzy about the reception they got when they came to town. It's to the town's credit that they acknowledged this bigotry existed.

Sign in the Pueblo rail station historical exhibit
It was in Pueblo that I suddenly had the bright idea to ask about old newspapers in other languages besides English. As a railroad hub and a steel town Pueblo attracted a lot of people looking for work, and by 1915 had a pretty diverse population, including several thousand Swedish immigrants. Maybe Maria and Ingeborg had reached out to them? Maybe the Swedish language newspapers had covered the envoys' arrival?

But when I checked with the museums, historical society, and library, only English speaking newspapers had been preserved.
Really? Given the tenor of these signs I guess I’d been naïve to think that anyone would have cared enough about immigrants to have preserved their history. And the immigrants themselves lacked the resources to do it.

History is written by the victors, I’ve always heard, and I guess that means it’s preserved by them as well. I’ve now been through a bunch of these smaller museums and while Native Americans are often featured, they’re presented almost as a phase of human development that somehow went almost extinct, kind of like the dinosaurs. “Geesh, one minute they were there, and then they kind of disappeared. Not really sure where they went.” Sometimes clashes between settlers and Indians are mentioned but it’s rare that they acknowledge that hey, maybe the Indians had a legitimate beef with the settlers since they were stealing their land, killing their game, introducing diseases and alcohol, and disrupting civilizations that had been in place for hundreds or thousands of years. Instead, the settlers seem to emerge as heroes who survived the tough conditions and hostile attacks from the savages to bring civilization to this new land.

Then I started to wonder if the lack of information I’ve found about women’s efforts to achieve equality with men is related to the fact that men were in charge of the newspapers a hundred years ago. The men in charge then were no more interested in preserving women’s history than they were in preserving the experience of poor immigrants and Native Americans.

I talked about this before I left San Francisco with Marian Doub, and was reminded of that conversation when I interviewed Andrea Herrera, PhD Director, Women's and Ethnic Studies at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. It’s easier to focus on the experience of one group of women, many of whom are privileged due to race and class, but that story would be incomplete. Andrea reminded me that we need a deeper analysis of how race, class and ethnicity influenced women’s experience a hundred years ago and how it continues to affect it today.

This has made me determined to reach out to minority communities throughout the rest of this trip to try to uncover their relationship to the woman suffrage movement a hundred years ago, and also to hear their views on women’s issues today. If you have suggestions for people to talk to or places to look, please send me a note at

Random shot of eastern Colorado landscape. 

 [1] Sara Bard Field to C.E.S. Wood, October 15, 1915, WD Box 276, C.E.S. Wood Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

1 comment:

  1. Argh! It kills me, the part about the Swedes. It's never sat quite right with me that Sara disregarded them in some ways and reminds me of the suffrage movement in Dublin. In the early attempts to organize, they set meetings in the late afternoon, a time when ladies would be free and when working class women would still be at work. This also makes me sad anew at what two friends from the U.K. told me recently about the demise of traditional women's studies programs in favor of gender studies. How easy it is to lose the essential in the quest for progress.