Minutes of the September 25, 1998 Commission Meeting
The second meeting of the President's Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History was held at 9:00 A.M. on September 25, 1998 at the Albuquerque Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In accordance with Public Law 92-463 as amended, this meeting was open to the public and members of the public were present.
Commission Members Present
Ann Lewis, Co-Chair
In addition to members of the public, Martha Davis from the General Services Administration and Ruby Shamir from the White House staffed the meeting.
Beth Newburger began the meeting by welcoming the Commission members, the invited speakers and the audience to the meeting. She set the agenda for the days meeting, explaining that the group would listen to the testimony of the invited guests until noon, break for lunch and then reconvene at 1:00 PM to hear from the Commission Members and then take public comments.
Introduction and Statement of Purpose
Ms. Lewis went on to state the goals of the Commission as follows. She said that the charge of the Commission is to report to the President how to celebrate women's history from now until the Millennium, given our current, unparalleled opportunity to celebrate. The theme of this celebration should be "honor the past, imagine the future," which is also the President and Mrs. Clinton's theme for the Millennium program. To fulfill this theme, Ms. Lewis said that it is essential to also know our past, and that also means ensuring that our history reflects accurately and fully the plurality of voices and experiences that have comprised our history.
Ms. Lewis said that women's lives and experiences are essential parts of our history, but also pointed out that generations of women are not represented in our history. She then referred to an essay by Heather Huyck (attached) which states that "we preserve what we value." If we tell the stories of women throughout history -- including both local/community stories and well as stories of national figures -- we can offer great role models for our children.
Ms. Lewis then updated the audience on the work of the Commission. She said that members of the Commission have been reaching out within their own communities, and that the Commission has been getting a number of good ideas from people on the web, on the phone, and through letters. She additionally mentioned the interest in Congress to form a similar commission to the President's commission.
Ms. Lewis then concluded by noting that women actually attained suffrage in the west first: Wyoming, Utah and Colorado (in Colorado, through a referendum vote cast by men!). She said that while the northeast and mid-Atlantic states are more often presented as leaders in women's suffrage, it is important that we acknowledge the role of women in the west and that we (easterners) work to catch up to the west.
Ms. Lewis then introduced the first outside speaker invited to testify, Evelyn Blanchard (Please contact Martha Davis for a bio).
Remarks of Evelyn Blanchard
Ms. Blanchard described that to the Laguna people that "in the beginning there was thought, and her name was woman." She then stated that many animations of wisdom and the giver of life (spider woman, corn mother, mother earth) were in the forms of women.
Among the real women that are historically vital to Indian culture Ms. Blanchard named a few:
Ms. Blanchard concluded by saying that central to the work of these women is an ethos of tribal life which is "preserve the people." At the end of her presentation she held up a number of books that are helpful in studying a true history of American Indians including:
"Tiller's Guide to Indian Country," "American Indian Stories," "Old Indian Legends," and "Women and Power in native North America."
Comments by Commission Members for Ms.
Ellen Ochoa and LaDonna Harris thanked Ms. Blanchard for sharing her testimony with he group.
Ann Lewis then introduced Brigid O'Farrell, a visiting scholar at the Women's Research and Education Institute (Please contact Martha Davis for a bio).
Remarks of Brigid O'Farrell
Brigid O'Farrell first gave an overview of her background stating that she has worked with Gloria Johnson (an absent Commission member) for over twenty years documenting women in the labor movement and how to translate their struggles to working women today.
Ms. O'Farrell characterized her remarks by two main themes. The first is a need to bring in the voices of all women into the celebration of women's history. The second is to find ways to get this message out to working women who have little time and energy to read books on women's history.
To illustrate the need for inclusion of working women Ms. O'Farrell stated that 5% of all national landmarks are devoted to women, and only 2% of all national landmarks represent working Americans. This means that less than 1% of all national landmarks commemorate working women.
Ms. O'Farrell then introduced four main areas she felt needed to be highlighted:
1. Ways to Reach Children
2. Encourage Existing Federal Programs to Highlight
3. Using Other Venues for Collecting and Disseminating
4. Focusing the Electronic Media
Comments by Commission Members and Question
and Answer Session Ms. O'Farrell
Ann Lewis said that the Internet is helping schools learn in ways they never could have before. She noted that when President Clinton traveled to Africa that, through a partnership with the Department of Education, thousands of school children could learn about Africa while virtually following the President's path on the trip.
Ms. O'Farrell noted that many of the schools most in need of those sorts of lessons, do not have adequate (if any) connections to the Internet.
Beth Newburger complimented Ms. O'Farrell on her suggestions to the Commission, and asked once traditional and non-traditional information is gathered on working women's history, how difficult will it be to go back to working women's organizations and ask then to carry through and promote the research.
Ms. O'Farrell conceded that the task was a difficult one, but claimed that this is the sort of activity in which national federal organizations can take the lead. Once two or three national organizations make this non-traditional information available in an innovative way, it will be easier to get other sorts of organizations involved.
Ann Lewis thanked Ms. O'Farrell and introduced Molly Murphy MacGregor (Please contact Martha Davis for a bio).
Remarks by Molly Murphy MacGregor
Ms. MacGregor said that in 1972 a student of hers asked what the women's movement was. She did not have a good answer and then began to notice that she was teaching United States History, but did not know much of anything about the role of women and people of color in that history. She also realized that the history texts failed to mention any such role. Another major point was the realization that not knowing that history meant not valuing the work of her own mother.
Ms. MacGregor and five other women went to school libraries and noticed that there were very few (very old) books existed devoted to women's history. She said that this was their rationale for beginning women's history week in Sonoma County, because students read what they are assigned. They selected the week of March 8 because that day is International Women's Day.
Ms. MacGregor said that they also wanted to talk about women as workers. A vital goal was to teach women about their history in order to better prepare them for the work they would have to do. The motivation from the very beginning was to try to bring this information to the students, by getting it to the teachers, because teachers teach what they know. The teachers need to know about women's history. It is not that they are systematically trying to write women out of history, Ms. MacGregor said, it's just that it's not important to them- nobody told them it was.
Ms. MacGregor commended government agencies such as the National Parks Service for calling national attention to, and thereby legitimizing, issues of women's history. To make the point that the interest is out there, Ms. MacGregor recounted an experience she had speaking to a group in Utah for a celebration of the 75th Anniversary of Women's Suffrage. When she began to tell the stories of women's history, she realized that no one in the audience of some 300 adults knew the basics of the women's suffrage movement. Some later approached her and said that they were going to complain to their college professors.
Ms. MacGregor began to make some recommendations to the Commission about how best to celebrate women's history. First, she suggested that federal agencies hold a national conference after sending the report to the President, and make sure that the message from that conference gets out to the rest of the nation you make the presentation. And maybe not just a national conference, but bring it out to different regions because we all know Washington D.C. is different than every other place in the world- come out here to Albuquerque. There could be different ways to bring forth the information.
Ms. MacGregor's second recommendation was in regards to any sort of drama production. She suggested that we find a way to involve students who participated in National History Day- those who did projects on women's history. She said that we ought to recognize the inspiration we get from children with regard to history. She said that National Women's History Project would be delighted to make sure that these conferences happen.
Ms. MacGregor said that the National Women's History Project has many programs for the millennium celebration in 2000. One of the things the National Women's History Project has done in the past create "gazettes" which are mini-biographies of women who have been on our posters over the years. This year for the 150th they produced a gazette on living the legacy, talking about not only the Women's Rights Movement, but the changes the men and women involved in it created. They also produce network news that goes out to women who are part of the women's history network because there wonderful oral histories and projects being worked on throughout the country.
Ms. MacGregor pointed out that this year's theme is "Women putting our Stamp on America," with regard to the a video that the post office produced about women on stamps. On the basis of this project by the Post Office, the National Women's History Project created their own video for distribution.
In closing Ms. MacGregor said that her goal for the past twenty years has been to break the invisibility of women, which is a form of bias that still exists today. One of her greatest joys is to see that boys and girls are equally excited about women's history, and that we need to encourage this more open thinking in our classrooms. This way feminism may not be seen as being ant-male. As we do this, Ms. MacGregor said, "it becomes more legitimate to study women's history. So it becomes women as a subject rather than being women as an object."
Comments by Commission Members and Question
and Answer Session Ms. MacGregor
Ms. MacGregor answered that in the 1970's feminism was a term men and women wore with pride. In the intervening years people like Rush Limbagh have come forward coining phrases such as "femi-nazi" and people have begun to know that term better than they know the term "feminist."
She also said that the media has played a role in this shift of attitudes. Ms. MacGregor gave an example of a time in which she taped a fifteen minute segment for a show on Women's History Month, and that the producers sought instead to interview someone completely opposed to the study of women's history. Ms. MacGregor said that talking about the successes and the excitement of women's history is not as popular as talking antagonistically about it.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt then noted that the goals teachers need to meet today are testing goals. She asked Ms. MacGregor how to approach that.
Ms. MacGregor gave a two part answer. First, she said, people are starting to place women's history issues into tests, such as advanced placement tests. Second, she suggested that teachers have learned that there are ways to take people's lives and ideas and weave them into concepts for teaching, which is why, she said, the focal celebrations such women's history month are so important.
LaDonna Harris remarked that with regard to race relations, and other progressive movements political opponents have stolen the language and made fun of it- in a way that has now made it unpopular (such as feminism). Ms. Harris was wondering if Ms. MacGregor has thought about developing new terminology -- a new vocabulary -- since the terms used in the 1970's have become somewhat passe.
Ms. MacGregor said that"feminist" is a word she addresses a lot. She has found that a lot of people are uncomfortable with that word. When she is confronted by people who say certain racist or homophobic statements she asks them what they mean by their statements. Ultimately, Ms. MacGregor believes that we have to develop strategies to encourage people to think larger about anything- but certainly about specific words that can become labels.
Ann Lewis then introduced the fourth speaker Millie Santillanes (Please contact Martha Davis for a bio).
Remarks by Millie Santillanes
Millie Santillanes began her discussion asking what does it mean to be a Hispanic American?
Ms. Santillanes explained that it is much more complex than the terms that white people have used to mold people into, such as Hispanic, Mexican, or Chicano. Tracing her lineage back approximately 300 years to the area of New Mexico, Ms. Santillanes could not comprehend why she could not be both Spanish and White, according to the census bureau.
A most troubling thing for Ms. Santillanes is that she felt that her culture has been "written out of American history books." She mentioned that the Pilgrims are mentioned as the first settlers of America, but reminded the audience that her people arrived first. She also noted that part of the reason that Hispanics have such a high drop out rate is because many of them have a "miserable self-image, " a condition she attributed to a social system that has sought to keep her people separate from other Americans and outside of the definition of what it means to be an American. Ms. Santillanes noted that the history books must start to acknowledge the contributions of the Spanish in the same way that they cover the pilgrims. Ms. Santillanes noted that "if the Pilgrims, flying under that English flag, can be a part of American history, how come we can't?"
Ms. Santillanes continued by saying that the Spanish are only criminalized in American history, but that only in New Mexico do Native Americans still live on their pueblos; whereas Native Americans throughout the rest of the United States live on reservations.
Ms. Santillanes concluded by telling the story of the fortitude and courage of Spanish women of the west, who kept troops fed and reminded them of their noble cause. She finally noted that the Hispanic Women's Council has put a book together to immortalize Hispanic history.
Comments by Commission Members and Question
and Answer Session for Ms. Santillanes
Ann Lewis then introduced Karen Staser and Joan Wages (Please contact Martha Davis for bios).
Remarks by Karen Staser and Joan Wages
Ms. Staser said that the museum was incorporated in 1996, and that on Monday, September 28, 1998, they will also launch a new cyber-museum. In addition, they are working with Congress to allocate a site for a women's history museum. The museum will serve as a focal point for women's history in the D.C. area and will exist as a public-private partnership. The federal government will allocate the site, and private funding will provide the operating costs. Legislation will be introduced next week to create a Congressional advising committee on the museum. The committee will be sponsored by Senators Olivia Snowe and Patty Murray and twenty other Members of Congress including Carolyn Maloney, Deborah Price, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and some forty-five other Representatives of the House. The purpose of the committee will be to identify a museum building as close as possible to the Capitol Mall.
Ms. Staser then began to talk about how she became involved in women's history. In the 1980's she heard a lecture on the positive impact women's history has on girls and women. Her education had left her with the impression that women had no history and that they had contributed very little to the process. Once her interest was sparked she began to realize that she wanted her own daughters to grow up knowing about their heritage.
In 1993 her family moved to Washington D.C. and she realized that women's history was virtually missing from the nation's capital. She noted that at the time the only women represented in the Capitol Rotunda were Pocahontas, Martha Washington looking down on George, and two bare-breasted Nat ive American women cowering in fear of Christopher Columbus.
Ms. Staser and a number of other women came together to develop a three day celebration in Washington D.C. to celebrate the passage of the 19th amendment. A major goal of the group was to return to the nation's capital a statue of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott that had been displaced since 1921.
Ms. Staser described the history of the statue. American women had commissioned, payed for, and given the statue to Congress, but Congress refused to accept it. Ms. Staser said that the women shamed them into accepting it by dragging the thirteen ton statue to the steps of the capital where the press began to take pictures. After its dedication, within the next twenty-four hours, the all male congress took the statue to an underground storage room and scraped off the inscription. Ms. Staser then said that in 1995 Congress had said that the statue wasn't worth the money required to move it, they were not sure the women's contributions had been significant enough, and that the women were too unattractive and too old.
Ms. Staser made the representation of women in the Rotunda her focal point. On June 25, 1995, with private funds totaling $125,000, the statue was returned to the Rotunda and remains there today.
Despite these efforts, Ms. Staser noted that statues of historical women leaders only represented seven of one hundred and ninety-seven statues in the capital. They hope to bring a newly commissioned bust of Sojourner Truth to the Capitol in 1999.
Ms. Staser went on to say that the statue project taught the group that knowledge of one's heritage is necessary for personal feelings of competence and potential. Secondly, that there is a deeply felt need from girls and women to learn of their own unique heritage and to see themselves reflected with respect in our culture. Women's contributions to civilization are largely missing and misunderstood, except in women's studies programs. Less than two percent of common history textbooks deal with issues of women in history. Less than five percent of our national parks, landmarks and historic sites commemorate the contributions of women to America. Ms. Staser noted that the timing has never been better for a national institution dedicated to collecting, presenting and sharing a more comprehensive view of human history.
Ms. Staser feels that the National Museum of Women's history will add new dimensions to our notions about mothers , daughters, sisters, wives and five thousand years of social and cultural stereotypes. She then described the progress the museum has made in raising money, establishing councils nationwide and in beginning traveling exhibits.
Ms. Staser then introduced Joan Wages.
Ms. Wages spoke briefly about the cybermuseum being launched that will feature virtual exhibits on women's history, and on other women's issues such as women in medicine and health care, women in the workplace, women in business, women in agriculture and the impact of women in homes and communities. She said that they would work with corporate sponsors. Ms. Wages noted that First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has referred to Washington D.C. as the home to our nation's heritage and culture, and that since women make up fifty-three percent of the US population it is imperative to have an institution in Washington that celebrates their role.
Ms. Wages then recounted a story from the recent dollar coin commission in which a commission member (and Member of Congress) said that the reason the Susan B. Anthony coin failed was because she was an obscure and irrelevant figure in our nation's history. He further went on to say that the parameters for naming figures would be former sovereigns and/or allegorical figures -- thus leaving out real historical women. For Ms. Wages this commission reinforced the need to establish institutions to teach women's history to leave to future generations a legacy.
Comments by Commission Members and Question
and Answer Session for Ms. Staser and Ms. Wages
Ms. Staser responded by saying that this is a very complicated issue. She noted that Edith Mayo, a curator at the Smithsonian, has worked for thirty-four years to promote women's history. She went on to say that the men in power have not thought that these projects were particularly important. The Smithsonian does have the material and has produced some exhibits, but they have mainly been temporary.
Ms. Wages noted that Congress is "tightening the belt" and is spending less money on the arts and museums in general, so that it is doubly hard to get money for women's history projects.
Beth Newburger noted that an actual museum gives limited exposure, but have they considered becoming the women's cyber-museum of the world?
Ms. Staser responded y saying that we enshrine what we value and ultimately her group would like to do both. She believes women in our nation deserve a physical site because, she acknowledges, a cybermuseum could reach so many women around the world.
Ann Lewis then introduced Dr. Veronica Tiller.
Remarks of Dr. Veronica Tiller
Dr. Veronica Tiller began her remarks by saying that Native American have women largely ignored in women's history. She challenged the audience to name five famous Native American women excluding Pochahontas and Sachajawea. She said that her recommendations come from her background as an Indian woman historian, a tribal historian, from her experience as a college educator, as a publisher, writer and an author.
Dr. Tiller then went on to discuss her recommendations for the Commission. She felt that it was necessary to consider a pragmatic approach. Her recommendation is to develop a national celebration of the role of Native American women in America's history. It would proceed from the involvement of local communities throughout America's Indian country. She would like to see the development of a reference book, one that can be easily available in CD-ROM format, and then she noted that as soon as President Clinton's goal is reached it will be available to every third grader in the country on the Internet.
In thinking about ways to celebrate Indian woman's history it occurred to Dr. Tiller that statues and monuments sometimes become shrines, but often they are not always available, in a meaningful way, to the lives they are meant to touch. She was reminded of a story that is told about Ghandi. When he was asked to address the Indian congress about independence, he said that 'it is a fine thing to sit here in comfort and make soul-stirring speeches to each other about the glory of freedom and the God-given rights of man. But these speeches are hollow until they are picked up by the millions upon millions of ordinary men and women of India.' Dr. Tiller thought this was an appropriate analogy for her recommendation. She thinks that if we don't involve the Indian women of the local level, of the tribal level they are not going to buy into the National Museum of Women's history, they are not going to identify with it, and that if we are going to include them, we have to go to them at the local level.
Dr. Tiller noted that white American women have an enormous advantage over Indian women with regard to the study of women's history, because Indian women simply do not have the materials collected. She hopes that this book can provide the background to bring American Indian histories together and that will give Indians the opportunity to determine who their heroes and heroines are.
Dr. Tiller would like to see this work be available in every school, every library. It would be a source of pride and inspiration to Indian people, particularly to Indian children who don't know that an Indian women was an engineer on America's first space flight, that an Indian woman has argued an important case for her tribe before the Supreme Court or that an Indian woman was America's prima ballerina for many years.
Dr. Tiller suggests that the Commission recommend a national publication that will be a reference tool similar to the Dictionary of American Biographies or the Smithsonian Institutes Handbook of North American Indians which has become the standard reference book on American Indians throughout the world. Dr. Tiller noted that there have been a number of publications on Indian history, although none of these, however, has been undertaken and published by Indian women with an active involvement and participation of the Indian community.
Dr. Tiller recommends that this work be entrusted to a national Indian organization that has the capability to manage a project of this magnitude, and that can be run by Indian women. The writing and publishing as well will best be completed by Indian women in celebration of themselves and their sisters.
Comments by Commission Members and Question and Answer Session for Dr. Veronica Tiller
Ellen Ochoa commended the recommendation for its focus and pragmatism. She felt that it was important to make sure that the research is distributed outside of the Indian community as well.
Dr. Tiller responded by saying that it ought to go to the Indian community first so that Indians are empowered. She does hope that it could go to all of the schools in the United States.
Elaine Kim noted that there are a lot of omissions and/or distortions. She asked Dr. Tiller if it is best to focus on empowering Native American women with their stories or to correct these distortions?
Dr. Tiller said that we should take many approaches. Ultimately, she hopes that we should focus on the positive rather than the negative, without ignoring the other issues.
LaDonna Harris suggested that for funding, researchers could consider tapping the National Park Service's program for cultural preservation of Native American tribes.
Dr. Tiller concluded by saying that getting these sorts of books into schools is an elaborate and harrowing process (six years, six committees).
Ann Lewis adjourned the meeting for lunch at 12:00 PM.
At 1:15 PM Ann Lewis began the meeting for the second portion. She began by quoting First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Convention at Seneca Falls when she asked "what culture can we imagine together"
Beth Newburger noted that at lunch somebody said 'we are women therefore we do.' She went on to talk about some timing goals for the Commission. She said that the Commission Charter says that the Commission will make the presentation to the President in March, and that although March 1 is not specified, that ought to be the goal since March is Woman's History Month. She then said that a draft of the report should be ready for the January meeting so that Commission members can review the draft and share it publicly with interested parties. This would mean that at the November meeting in Washington, the Commission would need to finalize an outline.
Ms. Newburger went on to discuss some of the other work that needs to take place including sending letters to the American Association of Museum Directors, children's museums, and libraries. These letters would request that they tell the Commission about their plans to celebrate women's history for the Millennium. Ms. Newburger noted that this would get the museums to start thinking about women's history and if they already have started to do so, it would give the Commission the opportunity to highlight the good work.
Ms. Newburger then outlined some requirements from the Commission members including providing the General Services Administration with suggested outlines for the report, their own recommendations and recommendations as they get then from outside constituents. Ms. Newburger noted that GSA would have a staff member draft the report.
Ann Lewis asked the Commission members if this schedule worked for them, and some discussion ensued.
Ellen Ochoa said that the Commission needs that kind of schedule. She then said that she would like to solicit recommendations from the Society of Women Engineers, Expanding our Horizons, Mano (Latina organization) , Women's Air and Space Museum in Ohio, Dr. Arlene Bloom among other groups.
LaDonna Harris remarked that she would try to encourage a draft letter from tribes and Hispanic groups be submitted to the Commission. She then asked how could the Commission contact the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers?
Brigid O'Farrell suggested that the Commission might consider convening a small meeting with some of the educational associations.
LaDonna Harris then suggested that the Commission get involved with some federal agencies and commissions such as President's Commission on Telecommunications. She said that this could help break the deadlock with the publishers that Dr. Tiller mentioned n her remarks.
Molly Murphy MacGregor noted that unfortunately, school districts differ in textbooks and changing the books is a long six year process. She said that if the population in general "got it" then textbooks could be influenced. In that respect, she said that the markets driving the makeup and design of textbooks are California and Texas.
LaDonna Harris followed up by suggesting that federal agencies could be brought in for funding assistance of research to the Indian community.
Ann Lewis noted that her office has started to research federal agencies involvement in women's history. First, she noted that the National Park Service has maintained the most sites, and are developing other sites. She hopes they will speak at the upcoming Washington DC Commission meeting. Ms. Lewis then suggested that one way to influence other agencies is to praise those who are doing the right thing. She mentioned that another agency that has done a lot of work for women's history is the National Archives, and that the Commission should consider inviting them to the Washington meeting as well.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt suggested that we should consider incorporating the entertainment community as well.
Ann Lewis suggested that the report to the President contain the following four categories:
These recommendations engendered some cross discussion. Ellen Ochoa suggested that the report be as culturally inclusive as possible. Elaine Kim remarked that including some sort discussion of the nature of diversity would be important. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt said that "Our task is to present a series of challenges for more stories to be told. We are looking for language to open more opportunities and strive to improve the telling of the stories." She also pointed out that part of that task would be trying to figure out how to turn the language back to our cause. With regard to this suggestion LaDonna Harris pointed out that an example of the way politically correct language has been warped is the notion that including more history is negatively charges as being "revisionist."
Ann Lewis summarized the discussion by noting that the Commission's first goal ought to promote a history that is accurate and that more roundly represents the truth. John Wayne, she noted, is an incomplete story of the west. She said that "they want to paint us as radical" for wanting to include the stories of women in American history. However, Ms. Lewis noted, women are not a new invention!
Beth Newburger then got back to discussing the schedule. It was agreed that the next meeting will be Oct. 19 in the afternoon and Oct. 20 in the morning at the Chicago Cultural Center. After that, the fourth meeting will be on November 13 in Washington D.C. It was agreed that we would try to contact museums and the President's Millenium program to see how cities are celebrating the millenium. It was also agreed that when contacting outside organizations, the Commission members check in with Ms. Newburger and Ms. Lewis.
Ann Lewis introduced Elaine Kim's presentation. Since Ms. Kim was unable to participate in the first meeting at Seneca Falls, she made her presentation at this second meeting. Following is a transcript of Ms. Kim's remarks.
Transcript of Remarks by Elaine Kim
We all know that history, including the history of our country, is usually a story told by its "winners." We learn about the Great Wall from the perspective of the Chinese kings, not from the viewpoint of the nameless peasants whose worn out and discarded bodies lie buried along its curves. Much of what we know of European history came down to us from rulers and their scribes. How many ordinary people lived, labored, and died without leaving any record of their existence, not even a scribbled trace? And of course since women have held so little social power no matter when or where, their identities and marks are even fainter and more deeply buried under the stories of the Great Men of History and a handful of queens and consorts. But because the same apparatus of History operates today - that is, the Winners or the Great Men paradigm of historical recording - we can somehow feel the ghostly presence of others waiting to be called forth into cultural memory.
Much has been written and said about how the distortion or omission of our images and stories from the national discourse, whether in visual or print media, diminishes and disempowers us.
It's a matter of perspective. My high school U.S. history textbooks barely mentioned women, let alone men or women of color because they were about the power and supremacy of Western maleness and whiteness. American Indians were savages vanishing before the advance of white civilization; African Americans were property over which white men fought. My son's U.S. history textbooks have some different facts, but the viewpoint has not changed. Indians brought "us" corn, they say; blacks gave "us" jazz; Chinese completed "our" railroad and built "our" bridges. When I was young, the few Asians appearing in the popular culture were lotus blossom geisha girls, dragon ladies, gungfu fighters, buck-toothed sidekicks and servants, and goofy nerds. Today, our children can pretty much choose between contemporary forms of those old stereotypes and total absence of images. Thus the distance between the positions has not diminished enough. We can't attack racism by ignoring race and pretending that we have achieved a "color blind society." We need to notice race, including race in history. We need to pay attention to difference without hierarchicizing them. That's why I am so gratified that this commission was selected with racial diversity in mind.
And now a word on immigrants and U.S. history and American identity. I often hear people talk about global culture, transnationalism, the Pacific Century. From my vantage point, our country has everything to gain and nothing to lose from mining the rich lode of world history that immigrants have always brought and continue to bring with them to America. By this I do not mean quaint customs and exotic food. I mean languages, ideas, values, beliefs, and histories that can give all Americans a more balanced understanding of the world and our location within it.
I am often alarmed by ignorant scapegoating of Arab people, who are stereotyped as fanatics and terrorists. I am so glad that there are Arab Americans in our midst who assertively contradict those stereotypes and challenge that ignorance and racism with their vocal and visible diversity and humanity.
Immigrant Americans can suggest new ways to imagine American identities. Historically, Asian Americans have been seen as metonyms for Asia and forcibly distanced from U.S. national culture, which defines the citizenry - that is, who can be American - as well as which histories and experiences can be remembered and which are to be forgotten. But in response to the frequent exhortation to go back where they came from, they could answer, "We are here because you were there."
My grandmother came to America in 1903 as a sugar plantation worker, recruited by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association. Though born in Korea, my mother lived all her life in this country, but she was not able to vote because as a person born in Asia she wasn't able to become a naturalized citizen until she was over 50 years old.
My father arrived in America as a foreign student at 26 and died here, still not a U.S. citizen, when he was 89. He and his brothers and sisters sought refuge in various parts of the world because their homeland had been colonized and raped, with the help of the U.S., by Japan.
Now my brother's family lives in Los Angeles, my sister's family lives in Seoul, and my half-brother lives in Osaka, Japan. I have five cousins in North Korea, six cousins in South Korea, and five cousins in mainland China. It would take me an hour to explain how this all happened. Suffice to say that my family story, like the stories of many other Korean American families I know, could tell us a lot about world history, Korean history, and U.S. history. Many Korean families during my father's time were scattered over the world because of Japanese, American, and Soviet aggression and intervention.
Many displaced dislocated Asians - not only Koreans, but also Vietnamese, Laos, Cambodians, Filipinos - have migrated to the very imperial center that disrupted their lives. Their memories, their histories, and their experiences, even when they directly contradict U.S. national narratives, are not just Asian history; they are American history.
It is profoundly alienating for me as a Korean American that the partition and the civil war in Korea remain opaque and uninteresting to most Americans, despite the U.S.'s central role in both and despite the importance of the division and the Korean war in the history of the U.S., which was for decades shaped by Cold War politics.
This commission will contribute to the vitally important work of re-membering buried histories. We can and should look at the world through new eyes, and bringing forth immigrant American stories might help us do this. After all, Europe, Africa and Asia were named by the ancient Greeks to identify the land masses bordering the Aegean Sea. Although the idea of these three continents has since become hegemonic, Martin Lewis and Karen Wigen point out that from a geographical standpoint Europe is merely a peninsula of the Eurasian land mass, which hardly justifies continental status. According to them, "It would be just as logical to call the Indian peninsula one continent while labeling the entire remainder of Eurasia - from Portugal to Korea - another."
We have been asked to suggest a few dates that we'd like to see included in a "re-visioned" American history. Besides dates usually thought of as dates in Asian history, such as the dates of the partitions of Korea and Vietnam, the dates of the Philippine insurrection against the U.S. forces during the Spanish-American War, I'd like to suggest a few dates that I think bring into visibility Asian women in the U.S.- whether as individuals or groups - whose acts of courage and integrity have contributed to the struggle for fairness and justice. These are a few items on which we might shine floodlights.
April 8, 1885: Mary McGladery Tape protests, in a letter to the San Francisco Board of Education, the exclusion of her daughter from the public schools as the deed of "race prejudice men." The Board decision to institute Oriental Schools in San Francisco derived from Tape's earlier and successful challenge before California's superior court that had ruled in January 1885 that school segregation on the basis of race violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. To skirt that court decision, the legislature enacted a law mandating segregated schools, prompting Tape's letter.
January 20, 1920: Japanese and Filipino men, women, and children struck on Oahu's sugar plantations. The strike involved 8300 workers, or about 77 percent of the island's total plantation workforce. The strikers wanted wages equal to those of white workers. They demanded, among other things, an increase in the minimum wage from 77 cents to $1.25 per day for men, from 58 to 95 cents for women, and an eight-week paid maternity leave for women workers. Although the strike failed, the workers ultimately won most of their demands.
December 18, 1944: the U.S. Supreme Court, in the decision ex parte Endo, ruled that Japanese Americans could no longer be held in the concentration camps or prohibited from moving back to their former communities along the West Coast. When she agreed to go forward with this constitutional challenge to the mass detentions, Mitsuye Endo was a 22-year old ex-clerical worker for the Sacramento Department of Motor Vehicles.
March 21, 1996: Historically, garment work has been at the center of poor, immigrant, and "minority" women's lives. For many years, clothing manufacturers have engaged in superexploitation through piece work systems, subcontracting, and homework, partly because they could take advantage of the special vulnerabilities of women, especially women held back by racial and language barriers. Sadly, unions were often unable or unwilling to serve the needs of racial immigrant women garment workers; among the more creative solutions they considered was trying to get the garment shops shut down even if that would throw the women out of work. In 1992, a community-based advocacy group called Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) began an historic and imaginative boycott of a big manufacturer on behalf of a group of women workers who had not been paid after their subcontractor went bankrupt. AIWA contrasted feminine fantasy with female reality by comparing the $150 price tag for a lacy prom dress with the $5 paid to the woman who made it. They garnered much public support, including among young middle class women who refused to patronize Jessica McClintock-Gunne Sax. In March, 1996, the Garment Workers Justice Campaign's national boycott was successfully settled, establishing a precedent for community-based organizations supplementing union support for immigrant women workers and for going after manufacturers that had been protecting themselves behind the subcontracting system for many decades.
From experiences of dislocation and disidentification, we can bring back subjugated knowledges and buried histories of women, including women of color and immigrant women, and by doing so create countersites and alternative spaces where the dangerous memory of the future might be dreamed.
Comments by Commission Members and Question
and Answer Session for Elaine Kim
Ellen Ochoa suggested that the Commission call attention to books such as A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. Molly Murphy MacGregor suggested the Women's History Resource Catalog
Ann Lewis then opened the discussion to the public.
Jean and James Genessey said that recognizing what women have achieved would also encourage getting ethnic women, gays and lesbians, pioneers recognized as well.
Catherine Tyerina noted that when we talk about United States history, we neglect the fact that Ben Franklin used the Iroquois model. She also noted that the Seneca people are a matriarchal society (working together, women selected war chiefs). She felt that we shouldn't just use great men paradigm and substitute women, but also note that what women accomplish in groups is particularly special. With regard to government, she said that New Mexico is a milestone. In the judiciary, the Supreme Court of New Mexico will have a woman as Chief Justice. 2/5 of the New Mexican Supreme court are women and 3/5 of its Supreme court members are Hispanic.
Patricia Gonzalez is the daughter of Kikapu Comanches and Chicanos and a columnist
The elders have talked about this being the time of grandmother's. Grandmother's time is a time of healing. She feels we should welcome this heart and healing time.
Antonia Castanyra is a Chicana and came from Hispanic people's history conference. She believes that we need to have a whole view of history and recognize the cultures, particularly the matriarchal cultures, that were here long before Europeans arrived. She feels that we need to note the way that matriarchal systems affected the whole history of the area.
Ann Lewis concluded the meeting by saying "when we set out on this journey, we knew there was a richness of people's lives and we knew we should go into history and get them." She thanked LaDonna Harris for her generosity, and said that every meeting of this Commission was historic.
Martha Davis can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (202)501-0705
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