Saturday, March 28, 2015

Women's History

As March is Women’s History Month, I wanted to write a post that highlighted the importance of Women’s History.

(The abbreviated article can be seen at Skinny Mom)

History was my favorite subject in school. One of the contributing factors of my fascination was having an inspiring teacher who emanated her passion for history. As many of my friends and family know, that teacher was Gail Beaton. For those of my readers that don’t know, Gail is a retired public school teacher and community college instructor. She was also my middle and high school history teacher. She recently authored the book Colorado Women: A History. The theme of this year’s Women’s History Month is weaving the stories of women’s lives. Gail’s book is an engaging narrative on the roles of women from prehistoric to modern times. I had the pleasure of interviewing Gail about her past as a history teacher, her book, and her perspectives on women’s history. Enjoy!

Q: What made you decide to become a teacher and why did you choose history?

A: I decided to become a teacher because I liked school, liked the learning. I taught my youngest brother who is six years younger than I was how to read. We played "school" when he was young. I decided to teach history because I was always fascinated by people and events in the past. Another big factor was my parents were big influences on me. When we had vacations we would go on trips and we would visit historical sites like the Mayflower, or go to Washington, DC, Mesa Verde, things like that. The national parks. So I think they were a big part of me loving history.

Q: What has been your favorite part of teaching history?

My favorite part of teaching history was working with the students. That was always the best part  - the relationships you form with them, whether you just had them for a semester or if you had them for six years in a row.

Q: What female figure from history has inspired you or influenced your life? Why?

A: Eleanor Roosevelt was one woman from history that inspired me and influenced my life. I think this was because she defied all the stereotypes. She took the role of the First Lady beyond what it had ever been before and she overcame a number of challenges in her personal life both in growing up and later as First Lady. Of course also the Rosie the Riveter character. In other words, the symbol for all those women who worked so hard during World War II to help in the defense effort. There were also other women who influenced me though maybe some people wouldn't call them historical. One of course would be my mother and how she did everything with four children with grace and classiness. I had teachers who were very influential, especially my fourth grade teacher and my Latin teacher in high school. They always demanded the best and knew how to relate to the wide variety of students in their classroom.

Q: Have you had any challenges in your life as a woman and how have you overcome?

I think I have been very lucky that way. My parents were very supportive of me. I remember that for my 9th birthday, all I wanted was my own baseball mitt. Being left-handed, it was difficult to share with my brothers. Although my parents' friends kept asking what else they were going to get me - implying that a "boy's" gift wasn't enough - my parents insisted that a mitt was what I wanted and that's what they were going to get me. I chose a traditionally female career so I didn't face the challenges others did. I do wish, though, that someone had pointed out other possible avenues - but I was pretty set on teaching so maybe I would have ignored them anyways!

Q: What inspired you to write a book on women’s history in Colorado?

A: Most books center on men in Colorado history or US history so I thought it was important to learn about and then to share with others the story of women's history in Colorado.

Q: Was there a favorite person or time period you researched and why?

My favorite time has always been the 1880s to 1945. I love those eras because that's when women's opportunities were greatly expanding. There were more job opportunities whether it was in store clerking and office work, union organizing, the professions, college education, and of course World War II and all of the Rosie the Riveter work. It was also a time of great expansion - economically, industrially for the United States and so that's exciting history.

Q: Was there something that you discovered in your research that surprised you?

I didn't realize Hispanic women in southern Colorado were often the religious leaders in their communities. This was because Catholic priests only visited these small outposts of civilization periodically. It may have been months between visits. I also did not know about women who worked their own mines in the Colorado mountains.

Q: In line with this years theme for Women’s History Month, how would you describe women’s contributions to the “woven” fabric of history that is currently mainly told from the male perspective?

Women were often seen as in the background supporting men's efforts, raising the children, perhaps doing a little bit with education and things like that but never really seen as standing side-by-side and doing important things on their own. That is so far from the truth. Women plowed fields, planted crops, set up schools, hospitals, aid societies, fought for civil rights, lobbied elected officials for particular legislation, supported the arts, and led progressive reforms. They were miners, educators, philanthropists, suffragists, elected officials, appointed officials, war workers, religious leaders, business owners, and workers. That's from the time of the first Native Americans to the Hispanic settlers to Anglo pioneers to Black, Japanese, and European immigrants to today's Colorado women.

Q: Why is it important to teach women’s history?

Without women's history, one only knows half the story. Without women's history, where are the role models for today's girls? It's important - for both genders - to know of the struggles, the challenges, the hard work that earlier people dealt with and to know that they succeeded. Some times not right away. In fact, often times change was slow, but they didn't give up. If you want to succeed, you have to persevere. Find your passion and work your hardest at it. That's what makes life meaningful. [sorry- got carried away!]

Q: You are also a re-enactor portraying a Rosie the Riveter character. What inspired you to create a character for your history lesson? Have you ever thought of creating another female historical figure to re-enact? If so who and why? How does using re-enacting help to convey the importance of women’s contributions in history?

Rosies applied for and worked jobs that people said they couldn't, said they wouldn't be capable or handling the skill level or the stress or the work conditions. But they did. And were so dang good at it.

I have thought of a few other women I'd like to do. One is Amelia Earhart but someone already does her in this region. Another is a WASP, a woman aviator from WWII. Dr. Ella Mead,a doctor in Greeley, or Bessie Smith, an architect, if the same time period. But who really intrigues me is Margaret Bourke-White, a photographer of the Great Depression and WWII. Her transport ship was torpedoed and she spent 18 hours in a lifeboat with other survivors until they were rescued. 

Re-enacting brings a personal, human face and persona to an event, to a time period. The audience can relate to the person's struggles and successes. It affords the audience a chance to ask questions of the character and of the historian behind the character. It's a glimpse into the the life of a woman who made a difference.

Q: What do you hope is ahead for women in the coming century?

I hope for equality. No more "can'ts" and "shouldn'ts." For both girls and boys, women and men. That all phases of life are open to anyone, regardless of gender, should they wish to pursue it.

Q: What are you doing next?

I am currently researching Colorado women of WWII. I am interviewing army nurses, WASPs, Rosies, etc. in the hopes of sharing their stories with others. So possibly another book but one with a must narrower focus - one era, one state.
I am also a research volunteer for the National Museum of World War II Aviation in Colorado Springs. They are preparing for a large expansion so I am researching their current artifacts for them. And learning a lot in the process! 

I would like to thank Gail Beaton, not only for taking the time to answer my questions, but also for her work to remember the women of the past and their often-unrecognized contributions to history.

For more information on Gail’s book or her Rosie talks please visit her website

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