Foot Soldiers for Feminism Tell Their Stories
United States activists, artists and writers, lesbian rights advocates and grassroots organizers—women typically overlooked in popular depictions of feminism as a white, middle–class movement—are among those who are narrating their life stories for the Sophia Smith Collection's newly opened Voices of Feminism oral history project.
Their oral histories are now available to researchers using the Sophia Smith Collection, which is part of the Smith College Libraries special collections. Its holdings are intended to authenticate the historical experiences of women in the United States and abroad from the colonial era to the present.
To date, the Voices of Feminism archive includes nearly 60 oral histories, as narrated by the women themselves. Among them is New York City firefighter Brenda Berkman describing the scope of her efforts to join the Fire Department of New York, which resulted in a class action suit alleging sex discrimination in hiring. In 1982 a federal court forced the City of New York to open the fire department ranks to women, and Berkman signed on. She rose through the ranks, and at the time of her interview was a captain in Brooklyn.
Community activist Peggy Saika, executive director of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy in California, was born in an Arizona internment camp during World War II to a working–class Japanese–American family. In her oral history, she underscores the lasting impact of the internment experience as a call to vigilance and action. She traces her political involvements from pan–Asian student activism in the late 1960s forward, marking her journey through various forms of organizing: direct service, civil rights, community organizing and philanthropy.
The goal of the project, which began in 2002 and was funded by the Ford Foundation, was to bring more personal stories involving race, class and sexual diversity from the latter half of the 20th century to the holdings of the SSC. Smith alumna Gloria Steinem '56, editor, journalist and political activist for women's equality, is among the women who shared their personal stories for the project.
The archive incorporates recorded interviews for each narrator, which average five to six hours and cover childhood, personal life and political work, transcripts, correspondence between interviewer and narrator, and biographical surveys.