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Putting History Into Action: Gloria & Wilma School Links Activists and Archives

Research & Inquiry

  • July 20, 2015
Gloria Steinem takes a selfie with a group of Gloria and Wilma School students

The activists gathered at the Smith College Conference Center in June were tackling a seldom-asked question: How can history support the day-to-day work of women organizers?

Linda Burnham, research director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, offered the example of telling her members about a historic strike by African American washerwomen in Georgia in the 1880s.

The story is an inspiration to women now organizing for better working conditions for nannies, housekeepers and other domestic workers, Burnham explained.

“We make sure our organizers understand that we’re not the first ones on this road or the last ones on this road,” she added. “The demographics of domestic workers are always changing. But we rest on the history of those who came before us.”

Using history to strengthen women’s activism was the goal of the inaugural Gloria & Wilma School for Organizers held on campus in June. During the four-day gathering some 50 activists of varying ages, backgrounds and geographical regions explored the Sophia Smith Collection, the college’s internationally recognized women’s history archives, and shared insights for how lessons from the past can deepen the impact of present-day organizing.

Among the participants was feminist icon Gloria Steinem ‘56, the inspiration for the school and the larger Steinem Initiative affiliated with Smith’s Center for Community Collaboration.

“When you are an old person, you become an archive,” quipped Steinem, 80, before sharing some stories from her past organizing experiences with program participants.

Hosting a school for activists was a longtime dream of Steinem’s and the late Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected chief of the Cherokee Nation. The two leaders were committed to the idea of using histories of previous generations of the women’s movement as a tool to inform new organizing efforts.

Joyce Follet, co-director of the Steinem Initiative, said the idea for the school also arose from the Voices of Feminism Oral History Project launched at Smith in 2003. Steinem’s papers are part of the project, which was designed to bring racial, sexual and gender diversity to the holdings of the Sophia Smith Collection at Neilson Library.

While scholars are the ones typically drawn to using the collection, Follet—who directed Voices of Feminism—said the diaries, photos and other primary documents found there are critically important to activists who “risk losing their stories” because they lack time to collect and reflect on them.

Sara Gould, the Steinem Initiative’s other co-director, noted that one of the aims of the Gloria & Wilma School is to sustain partnerships among archivists, students, faculty and activists so that lessons learned are conveyed to the next generation and inform ongoing movements for social justice.

“It’s a way of completing the circle and making the archives more accessible,” Gould said.

School participant Sandra Killett, director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project in New York City, said learning about the women’s history archives at Smith has inspired her to begin researching and documenting recent changes in her own organization.

“I realized how important it is to have an archive so that the story gets told and there is a place for folks to go back to and see that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel with this work,” said Killett, whose organization has been advocating for children and families involved in New York’s child welfare system for more than 20 years.

“Hearing the stories, you remember that movements for change are always difficult, but they are possible,” Killett added. “The school met my every expectation about being with other women organizers who are out there doing the work.”

The Gloria & Wilma School is the first program of the three-part Steinem Initiative, which will run through 2017. In addition to a second and third round of the school in 2016 and 2017, the pilot initiative includes a public history program drawing on the Sophia Smith Collection and curricular activities at Smith and the Five Colleges aimed at strengthening links between academia and activism.

Those connections were underlined at the school program in June as participants heard from scholars of women’s organizing. In a key example, Paula Giddings, Smith’s Elizabeth A. Woodson Professor of Africana Studies, described archival evidence of a meeting led by women anti-slavery activists that predated the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848—long considered the country’s founding women’s rights gathering.

Ginetta Candelario, associate professor of sociology and Latin American studies, said that information struck a chord with school participants.

“It was a really powerful retelling of the story of the first women’s rights convention,” said Candelario, one of several Smith faculty members involved in planning for the Steinem Initiative. “And it showed the importance of historical archives in helping us revisit historical myths.”

During another school session, activists from Native American and Asian American women’s organizations described how the experiences and accomplishments of their communities have been “erased” from historical accounts.

Those comments resonated with Ada Comstock Scholar Freda Raitelu, the first Steinem intern and one of a number of Smith students helping out at the Gloria & Wilma School.

“Being there got me thinking about being a scholar/activist,” said Raitelu, who is doing archival research this summer for an upcoming Five College project on the history of women and incarceration. “Education is critical to teaching about marginalized histories.”

Alicia Bowling ’17 said she was thrilled to meet Gloria & Wilma School participants who she has studied for class assignments. One such leader was Loretta Ross, an anti-racist organizer and former activist-in-residence at Smith, whose papers are part of the Sophia Smith Collection.

“I’d read about her work and delved into her papers, so meeting her was really inspiring,” said Bowling, who is majoring in psychology. “Before I came to Smith, the archives seemed like something removed from contemporary life. But exploring them has encouraged me to reflect on who I am as a woman of color.”

The Gloria & Wilma School was the perfect start to what promises to be a groundbreaking series of programs under the umbrella of the Steinem Initiative, said Jennifer Guglielmo, associate professor of history, who attended the gathering last month.

“It’s so meaningful for our students to connect with organizers in the women’s movement and to think about how they can apply what they are learning beyond the gates of Smith,” Guglielmo said.

Jennifer Walters, associate dean of the college and interim director of the Center for Community Collaboration, said the school for organizers marks the start of “a new conversation between scholars and activists who are making change on the ground.”

“Those conversations don’t happen very frequently,” Walters added. “This initiative will create new alliances and relationships. It has the potential to change the way we think and teach.”

Gloria Steinem '56, the inspiration for The Gloria & Wilma School for Organizers, with some of the 50 women activists who participated in the school on campus in June. Also shown (back row, second from left) is Smith professor Paula Giddings. @ Jenny Warb