Ohio History Journal




Women's History as Local History


In 1928 a crowd of 10,000 witnessed the unveiling in Vandalia,

Illinois, of an eighteen-foot-high marble statue, entitled the "Madonna

of the Trail." Donated by the Daughters of the American Revolution,

the large monument commemorated the sacrifices of pioneer Illinois

mothers in the frontier era. But like the role assigned, until recently, to

women in the collective historical imagination, the statue itself was an

abstraction. "The Madonna" did not represent an actual historical per-

sonality, but stood-significantly-on a pedestal, while the two inscrip-

tions on the base commemorated not the women of Illinois, but Abra-

ham Lincoln and the Cumberland Road.

The rebirth of feminism in the 1970s has opened the way for the re-

discovery of the concrete, historic woman, whose work, suffering and

achievements have long been ignored, distorted or sentimentalized by

those who chronicle the past. Although the essays and articles pre-

sented in these three works vary widely in quality, all are products of

the new feminist outlook because of their conscious effort to rectify the

distortions of past history and their recognition that women have

played an independent role in society and politics whose importance is


Books reviewed in this essay:


Women of Minnesota: Selected Biographical Essays. Edited by Bar-

bra Stuhler and Gretchen Kreuter. (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical

Society Press, 1977. 402p.; illustrations, notes, index. $12.00.)

The Roads They Made: Women in Illinois History. By Adade Mitchell

Wheeler with Marlene Stein Wortman. (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr

Publishing Company, 1977. 213 p.; illustrations, notes, bibliography,

index. $10.00 cloth; $3.95 paper.)

Women in Ohio History. Edited by Marta Whitlock. Volume II of The

Ohio American Revolution Bicentennial Conference Series. (Co-

lumbus: The Ohio Historical Society, 1976. 38p.; illustrations, notes.




Karen J. Blair is an instructor in history at California Institute of Technology.

Women's History 439

Women's History                                               439


only now being fully understood. Moreover, because women have not

made a "name" for themselves in politics, business or the military-the

traditional categories of state and local history-these works are neces-

sarily weighted toward social history, toward the realm of home,

church, school and club in which women have played so prominent a role.

The Roads They Made: Women in Illinois History, largely by Adade

Mitchell Wheeler, is an ambitious project which offers a panoramic

story that slights neither leisured, working-class, black, immigrant nor

Indian women in a compact state history. The work briefly surveys an

impressive number of prominent figures and makes tantalizing, if some-

times frustratingly brief, references to such diverse topics as the early

twentieth-century Parents Committee for Birth Control, the socialist

and feminist origins of the Chicago Teachers Federation, and the role

of women writers in the Chicago literary renaissance of the late nine-

teenth century. Unfortunately, Wheeler's attempt to write a compre-

hensive history of women in Illinois has made her book an unreadable

compendium of names, dates and places, a catalogue littered with

people and events rather than an integrated history. While careful to

mention every notable woman in Illinois, from settlement worker Jane

Addams to stripper Sally Rand, Wheeler and Wortman never provide

more than a few sentences on each. Ironically, this approach indirectly

endorses the conventional notion that only those women who have

achieved public recognition deserve mention in the historical record.

Part Two of The Roads They Made is more satisfying, although less

self-consciously historical. This section consists of a series of articles

by participants in contemporary women's centers, labor unions and

religious, prison, health care and political organizations. In some detail

each author explains the objectives of her group and its operational

problems. Among the most interesting and enjoyable of these pieces

are Charlotte Hunter Water's account of the frustrating effort to pass

the Equal Rights Amendment through the Illinois legislature and

Adade Wheeler's interview with Barbara Merrill, president of the

Chicago Coalition of Labor Union Women.1

Women in Ohio History,, edited by Marta Whitlock, is more modest

in its aspirations, but also better executed. A compilation of six papers

delivered at a 1975 conference sponsored by the Ohio American Rev-

olution Bicentennial Commission, the essays explore several selected,

sometimes disconnected topics. Fortunately, three of the better pieces


1. Charlotte Hunter Waters, "The ERA in Illinois," 180-88; Adade Wheeler, "The

Coalition of Labor Union Woman: An Interview with Barbara Merrill, President,"



440                                                   OHI0 HISTORY


deal with the public schools and demonstrate the extent to which the

battles that have swirled about the control and staffing of this quintes-

sentially local institution have often played such a large role in shap-

ing the status and consciousness of women in the larger society.

Elaine S. Anderson's account of progressive reformer Pauline

Steinem's (grandmother of Gloria) successful campaign for the Toledo

School Board illustrates the way in which educational issues proved a

natural bridge between the private and public realm for many family-

oriented upper-middle-class women.2 Although Steinem's impressive

victory in the 1904 election demonstrated the extent to which femi-

mists would soon have a greater influence on school boards than on

most other local public institutions, they were still incapable of single-

handedly reversing the tide of sexist ideology that characterized pub-

lic debate in the middle decades of the century. As Lois Scharf shows

in her excellent essay, the general assault on married women's em-

ployment in the Great Depression put what was left of the women's

movement on the defensive.3 Laws prohibiting the employment of

married school teachers were staved off, but only at a high ideological

cost. By the end of the 1930s it was difficult to defend the married wom-

an's work in terms of its personally liberating ideology, so women ad-

vocates in the Depression retreated to a defense of outside employ-

ment chiefly on the grounds that it provided additional support to the

hard pressed but traditional home and family. This ideology, preva-

lent from the 1930s to the 1960s, made women increasingly defense-

less against those who would subordinate their work to that of men.

Thus Janet A. Mihok shows that women have been long underrepre-

sented as public school administrators in Ohio and in the decade after

1960 they were increasingly replaced by men.4

The other essays in this collection vary in their quality and approach.

Donna L. VanRaaphorst's fine biography of Geralding Roberts offers

an adept use of oral history to describe the indignities of domestic labor

and enrich the life story of the heroic founder of the Domestic Workers

of America.5 In sharp contrast, Lucy Webb Hayes wins recognition be-

cause she was married to a powerful man. Emily Apt Geer provides

much information on her public life, attention to benevolent work and

to extensive entertaining, largely carried out to enhance her husband's




2. Elaine S. Anderson, "Pauline Steinem, Dynamic Immigrant," 13-19.

3. Lois Scharf, "Employment of Married Women in Ohio, 1920-1940," 19-26.

4. Janet A. Mihok, "Women in the Leadership Role, Past and Present, in the Public

Schools of Northeastern Ohio," 26-31.

5. Donna L. VanRaaphorst, "I Won't Give Up, I Can't Give Up, I'll Never Give Up:

The Motto of Geraldine Roberts, Founder of the Domestic Workers of America, 31-38.

Women's History 441

Women's History                                                441

political career.6 But of her personal life there is little. On Victorian

motherhood and on her careful distance from women's rights issues,

we remain uninformed, without a sense of the woman alone, rather

than as an appendage of Rutherford B. Hayes. Finally Diane Van-

Skiver Gagel's history of the important women's rights convention at

Salem in 1850 is a disappointment.7 The event itself is briefly de-

scribed but the specific relationship between the early movement for

women's rights and abolitionism is never directly explored, nor is the

impact of the Salem meeting itself in the development of the nine-

teenth-century woman's movement adequately explained. Gagel does

provide sketches of J. Elizabeth Jones and Francis Dana Gage, whom

she describes as the Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton

of Ohio, but the author's commentary is here obtrusive rather than


Women of Minnesota is an easily accessible collection of some six-

teen biographical portraits authored by several historians and journal-

6. Emily Apt Geer, "Lucy Webb Hayes: A Governor's Wife a Century Ago," 8-12.

7. Diane VanSkiver Gagel, "Ohio Women Unite: The Salem Convention of 1850,"



442                                                     OHIO HISTORY


ists associated with the state. In the tradition of the larger recent

scholarship on women we meet the most approachable figures; most-

ly reformers and educators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth

centuries. Here are an impressive number of active women who man-

aged to make public contributions, while juggling the demands of a

family or summoning the strength to work on alone. Many are win-

ning portraits of vivid personalities linked to satisfying descriptions

of state politics, educational administration and regional belle letters.

Among the most interesting mini-biographies are those of the journal-

ist and abolitionist Jane Grey Swisshelm, Catholic College founder

Mary Molloy, philanthropist Alice O'Brien, and Kate Donnelly, the

Populist Congressman's wife who subordinated her own career to that

of her husband.8 Unfortunately the emphasis is always on the affluent

rather than the poor, the leaders rather than the followers. Thus we

never learn of the women who attended the Summer House directed

by social worker Catheryne Cooke Gilman or of the patrons who

read the books made readily available by progressive library admin-

istrator Gratia Alta Countryman.9

Although they are industrious researchers who bring to our atten-

tion a wide range of heretofore unknown diary, letter, census and

periodical sources, most of the authors represented in these three vol-

umes are somewhat intellectually timid. The study of American women

is now in one of its most creative phases, which provides ample

opportunity for "local" social, family, demographic and labor histor-

ians to test, challenge and modify the broad generalizations made

by other scholars on the national level. But too many of these essays

accept as gospel the merely tentative hypotheses put forward in their

popular survey texts by historians like Eleanor Flexnor, William Chafe

and Mary Ryan. Although many of the essays cling to a seemingly

safe biographical format, few actually put their subjects in the rich

political and social context they deserve. We need to know why some

women became feminists and activists, but equally important is a dis-

cussion of why many others of virtually identical social and economic

background did not. In what ways did the nineteenth-century school

and voluntary organization act as a "rite of passage" between their

accepted ideals of woman's sphere and a more threatening, but also

liberating, belief in their own self-esteem and independence?


8. Abigail McCarthy, "Jane Grey Swisshelm: Marriage and Slavery," 34-54; Karen

Kennelly, "Mary Molley: Women's College Founder," 116-35; Eileen Manning

Michels, "Alice O'Brien: Volunteer and Philanthropist," 136-54; Gretchen Kreuter,

"Kate Donnelly; versus the Cult of True Womanhood," 20-33.

9. Elizabeth Gilman, "Catheryne Cooke Gilman: Social Worker," 190-207; Nancy

Freeman Rohde, "Gratia Alta Countryman: Librarian and Reformer," 173-89.

Women's History 443

Women's History                                               443


A model for future historians of women's "local history" might

well be Nancy F. Cott's The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's

Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835.10 Through a critical appraisal of

diaries and local educational, domestic and religious sources Cott

provides important insights on such key questions in woman's history

as the cult of domesticity, the glorification and devaluation of

woman's work in newly industrialized New England, the virtually

total self-denial imposed by the ideal of motherhood, and the meaning

of religion and sisterhood for early nineteenth-century women. Cott's

study offers a brilliant, thorough use of the most parochial data to

answer questions of the largest scope. With models such as this, and

with the imaginative use of untapped sources everywhere, one can

hope that women's local history will prove the rich and productive field

of enquiry for which it holds such abundant promise.






































10. Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England,

1780-1835 (New Haven, 1977).