Finding balance in the archives

I abhor a mess. But for most of the last month, my dining room table has looked like this.

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As an executive director, I do an enormous amount of writing–grants, emails, newsletter articles, and blogs. But I had almost forgotten how historical writing stretches your brain in entirely different directions. It was almost like my brain was out of shape–but eventually, muscle memory took over. And it felt so good to be doing that kind of work again.

 

So, how did I get back into doing that sort of thing again? Several months ago, a friend asked if I would be willing to do a talk at her organization about the local suffrage movement. Though I continue to do extensive reading in the area of women’s history, I hadn’t done any real historical research or writing in almost a decade. My last big research project had been about Dallas clubwomen and their involvement in World War I. I knew there would be some overlap between that work and the suffrage movement–and I had always been curious about the local movement. Plus, she’s a good friend, and the anniversary of the federal amendment is approaching, so I figured it was manageable. And I had plenty of time.

Well, we all know about the lies we tell ourselves. Like “It won’t take that long,” and “I have plenty of time.” I might have been wrapping up my powerpoint the day before my presentation. And I did get a little stressed about finishing up. But I had such fun!

One of the unexpected joys of this project was learning more about a very familiar name. As a longtime staff member at Dallas Heritage Village, I definitely knew the name Barry Miller and that he was active in state politics. He and his wife, Minnie, were the second generation to live in Millermore, which today is the signature building at Dallas Heritage Village. When Minnie’s parents died in 1899, she and her family moved back to Millermore (and yes, a Miller married a Miller. It’s not confusing at all.) She ran the farm while Barry drove the five miles into town to continue his law practice. Evelyn, their youngest child, wrote a sketch about her parents, sharing the following about her father’s political career:

Papa became increasingly active in politics. Most often, he campaigned for friends or causes in which he believed, but occasionally for himself. He served in the Texas State Senate from 1899-1901, received a gubernatorial appointment to a district judgeship in Dallas in 1911, and served in the Texas House of Representatives in 1917-1922, and as Lieutenant Governor of Texas, 1925-1930. At first mamma HATED politics, and never came to like having her husband a candidate. (“Portrait Sketch of Mamma: Minnie K. Miller” by Evelyn Miller Crowell)

Among his early political accomplishments was authoring the legislation that made the bluebonnet the state flower of Texas in 1901. Apparently, the wife of the lawyer he apprenticed with when he first came to Texas always loved the flower—and he did it to honor her.

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Barry Miller

Barry Miller certainly didn’t change his opinion through conversations at home. Evelyn writes: “Mamma had NOT wanted the vote, but when she got it, she took it very seriously.”  The Dallas Equal Suffrage Association used recent war work efforts as an opening. Clubwomen in Dallas were raising funds for the Women’s Oversea Hospital Unit, and Barry Miller contributed. “Dallas suffragists take this as a hopeful sign and hope that Judge Miller may yet be counted among the friends of equal suffrage.” (Dallas Morning News; March 5, 1918) Judge Miller, ever the politician, set before the suffragists a challenge to gather 5,000 signatures, though no legislation was currently pending. Two days later, the News reported that 1,000 names had already been collected. “These signatures are necessary,’ said Mrs. Nonie B. Mahoney, vice president of the Equal Suffrage Association, ‘in order to persuade one man, Barry Miller, that there is a silent sentiment in favor of suffrage in Dallas County. We are going to win. There is no chance for us to fail.” (Dallas Morning News; March 7, 1918) In addition to canvassing the women in their immediate circles, they also made special efforts to reach out to working women, visiting such local businesses as Sanger Brothers, Neiman Marcus, Butler Brothers, Brown Cracker and Candy Company, and the Wilson Building. In a March 9 article, announcing that they expected to go over the 5,000 mark that day, Mrs. Mahoney stated “The interest in this petition is not confined to any one class. The women of Highland Park and the mill districts are equally interested and equally anxious to sign.” Anecdotes about the signing efforts include a mother who had five daughters working in the factories who believed that their working conditions would improve with suffrage. Another women, ages 70, brought in a petition with over 200 signatures—and apologized. “I would have got a good many more, but I happened upon so many of my old friends that I just had to stop and chat with them a while.” (Dallas Morning News; March 9, 1918)

By March 10, they had reached 8,000 signatures. Upon their success, Mrs. Mahoney declared “The suffragists of Texas welcome the support of Mr. Miller. The suffragists accepted Barry Miller’s challenge and have shown what they are capable of doing, but they refuse to accept any more such challenges to unproductive labor. They can not spare any more time from war work.” (Dallas Morning News; March 19, 1918)

On March 15, just a few days after Mrs. Mahoney delivered 10,000 signatures to Rep. Barry Miller’s office, the House voted 84 to 34 to give women the right to vote in primary elections. Within a year, Barry became chairman of the Men’s League of the Dallas Equal Suffrage Association and was campaigning throughout the state, advocating for the federal suffrage amendment.

Over the last several years, there just hasn’t been time to do this kind of deep dive into history, even the history at our own site. And though deep historical research has never been an official part of my job, it is certainly why I got into this field in the first place. We have so many hidden stories at the Village, and with the changes in scholarship and the digitization of important resources, there are wonderful opportunities to discover those deeper and more complex stories. In the next year, we plan to embark on a new interpretative plan and will be diving much more deeply—as a team—into all the history the buildings at DHV contain.

In the meantime, I was also reminded of how important work balance can be. We talk a lot in this field about work/life balance. But as we mid-career professionals move up the ladder, we often have to leave behind whatever passion we had that got us into this business in the first place. I remember talking to a friend a few months ago who was incredibly frustrated with his current position: “I just miss doing history.” And I’ve felt that frustration too—for example, when I was knee deep in the homeless encampment crisis, it felt like an absolute relief to get back to doing more typical history museum work.

These last few months have reminded me that I need to continue to make space for history in my work life. You would think that would be obvious, after 14 years at a history museum, but my work priorities have changed so much over the years. I’m so very grateful for the nudge to do history again—and I’m not planning to wait 10 years before diving into the Hollinger boxes again.

 

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My New Mantra

After my initial shock about the results of the election wore off, one of my first thoughts was that my job was going to get a lot harder. And sure enough, the idea of eliminating the NEA and NEH was put forward pretty quickly. I’m still waiting to see how changes to HUD and other social service programs will impact the ever-growing homeless crisis. Who knows what public education will look like with Betsy DeVos at the helm. Will field trips and informal education take another nose dive?

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I wasn’t able to attend the Women’s March in Austin, but we went to the Capitol that Saturday night. And a “We can do it” pose seemed appropriate.

But there are deeper issues at play too. In an administration that cares little about historical context, how much harder will we have to fight to prove that history matters? After an election where misogyny won, how much harder will it be as a female leader?

Overall, I’ve been pretty lucky in this job and haven’t had too many overt examples of sexism. But I keep waiting. When we were knee-deep in the homeless crisis last year, I had my guard up for personal attacks–that luckily never came. In meetings with developers where I’m often the only woman at the table, I prepare myself for mansplaining. And though there are occasional odd looks. I think it’s more that I said no to someone used to only hearing yes rather than the fact that I’m female.

But I continue to worry and prepare. Nothing about the administration’s first weeks inoffice have dissuaded me about my current fears. But at least now, I have a mantra–new words to give me strength.

She was warned.

She was given an explanation.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

There is so much work to do and so much to just be sick about. In a few weeks, I’m heading to D. C. for the American Alliance of Museums Advocacy Day. And I worry–what will the mood in D. C. be in another few weeks? How will we be recieved? How do we talk about the threats that seem to be coming from all directions?

I’ve been known for my stubborness for most of my life, so I think I know what I’ll do–I shall persist.

A Letter to My Nieces

To Savannah and Landri:

Every year, you get books from me for Christmas. I try to pick things that you’ll like and with strong female characters. I know you don’t read quite as obsessively as your grandmother, mother and I do, but I’ve always hoped that with the right book, the balance will tip. I also know that history probably isn’t your favorite subject.

But this year felt different. Maybe it’s because you’re teenagers. But more likely, it’s because of this horrible election season. It is always hard to be a feminist, to believe in equal rights for women. But it’s been so much harder this year, with Hillary’s campaign and ultimate defeat. The world feels uncertain and scary, and you’ll be coming of age under a president who has no respect for women. What impact will that have on your future? On your self-esteem? On how you approach your career and your relationships with others?

I flipped through Dead Feminists at a bookstore several weeks ago. I liked the looks of it. I liked that I didn’t know every single name listed in the table of contents. I thought about it long and hard, read this review, and then I bought it. Of course, I also did that thing I so often do—I read the book before I wrapped it.

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Girls, I know I can’t make you read this book, but I’m really hoping you do.  Make your mom read it too. Talk about it as a family.  Each feminist is chosen with such care—and each woman’s story connects to current events. The articles are brief and the art is stunning. I hope this book will serve as a gateway for you to explore more about women’s history.

But what I loved most of all is the obvious passion the authors/artists have for social equality and justice. We all need some inspiration right now, and I hope this might be a spark for both of you. There is so much to life (even life in junior high and high school) beyond drill team and dance and boys. Volunteer. Get involved in an extra curricular activity where your mind matters most. Don’t be afraid to be smart. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. The feminists in this book had extraordinary courage, but it didn’t magically happen when they were grown ups. It started when they were young—and it’s time for you to start too.

Merry Christmas—and here’s to a 2017 where more women find their strength. And if you ever need to add to your list of feminists to admire, just let me know. I’ve got loads more books I could send you.

 To Lucy and Schafer:

Little ones, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you. Hopefully, your memories of this period in history will be vague. But I have a feeling I’ll be stockpiling copies of this book for when you’re older.  Your moms and I will do everything in our power to raise you to be strong, feminist women, just like us.

On this historic election day. . .

The polls don’t close for another several hours, but I’ve already been teary several times today. We still have a long way to go before we get anywhere near gender equality, and yet, this day still means so much to me as a feminist and a historian.

Today is a profound response to:

  • The guy who walked into my apartment during a party, spotted my “votes for women” banner and started spouting off on those crazy feminists and how they are ruining the country. I looked him straight in the eye and said “Yes, you’re in the home of a feminist liberal and you’re drinking my booze. You can either shut up and stay or walk out the door.” He stayed. We didn’t become friends.
  • The guy at the bar who was trying to pick me up. Don’t remember how the conversation shifted, but suddenly we’re talking politics or work or something. And then he said “Don’t tell me you’re a F%&*ing feminazi.” He didn’t understand why I started yelling at him. Also, he didn’t get my number.
  • My grandfather, who didn’t understand why I was “wasting” my time studying women’s history. Of course, he may have been more upset about the African-American portion of that work.
  • The many men at various meetings that end up with this look of amazement and surprise when it becomes clear that I do know what I’m talking about and they can’t  pull one over on me.
  • Those that questioned whether I could handle the ED job–because I’m a woman. And how can a woman lead? Especially in Dallas?
  • My former colleagues at the now defunct Women’s Museum, who wished the timeline was a little less negative–and chose to shy away from the more difficult topics surrounding women’s history.

Today, I’m wearing white and purple, for the women that came before me, fought this fight, and made my current life possible.

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I’m thinking about Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul–as well as the countless others who fought beside them. I’m thinking of the tears I shed when I was in Seneca Falls, standing in the ruins of the building that started this movement in 1848.

And now I’m going to attempt to get back to work, as Hillary would, because there is still so much to do. But first, I might sneak a peek of the livestream of Susan B. Anthony’s grave–and cry just a little more, before the big tears come tonight.