What Makes a Women’s Movement? Thoughts on a Women’s History Roundtable

On October 17th, Professor Alice Weinreb of the Loyola University History Department led an excellent roundtable on women’s history research at the Crown Center on Loyola University’s Lakeshore Campus. Professors Tanya Stabler and Elizabeth Fraterrigo and PhD candidate Ruby Oram, all also of Loyola, presented on their research. The event included spirited conversation among the guests and delicious snacks from the Middle East Bakery and Grocery in Andersonville. While the subjects of the research differed in era and geographic focus, each spoke to the thorny question: what constitutes a women’s movement, especially in the absence of explicitly feminist institutional structure?

After a few introductory comments from Professor Weinreb, Professor Stabler discussed her research on the Beguines, a lay order of women in medieval Paris. Inspired to works of piety and charity, these women took temporary vows and self-identified as religious, but mostly existed outside the control of canon law and a patriarchal monastic structure that often saw independent women as a threat to male leadership. Fascinating and compelling, these women were neither nuns nor “normal” women.  While much of the literature on the era focuses on official orders or notable nuns like Saint Clare of Assisi, Stabler focuses on the innovations of the Beguines while investigating them as a compelling women’s movement despite their lack of formal recognition.

PhD Candidate Ruby Oram (left) and Professor Tanya Stabler.

Next, Ruby Oram discussed her dissertation research on vocational education of young ladies in Chicago between 1880 and 1930. Much of the literature on Progressive-Era education focuses on industrial training for boys, but Oram notes that vocational training for girls preceded and even inspired similar programs for male students. Vocational education for young ladies took three forms: traditional craft skills like sewing and hat-making, white-collar labor like typing and stenography, and domestic education for modern home-making. Oram argues that Progressive reformers saw education for girls not just as an economic tool but also as a solution to social ills such as child labor, sexual delinquency, broken families, etc. Although the women spearheading these programs may not have identified as feminists or gender activists specifically, Oram sees their work as a women’s movement because women were organizing at the official level to influence law and policy.

Professor Elizabeth Fraterrigo outlined her work on the National Organization for Women in the 1960s-1980s and their work to change the culture through media, shaping and controlling representation to encourage gender equality. This program and other feminist projects like it in the era are readily identified as women’s movements partly because the 1960s was the era of movements. But this led the roundtable to also discuss whether or not anti-feminist activists, like the late Phyllis Schlafly, were part of a women’s movement as well, just one of a strikingly different nature.

Professor Elizabeth Fraterrigo.

Much of the current literature on women’s movements focuses on very structured groups of women led by “big names” like Betty Friedan or Saint Clare.  Broadening our answer to the question “what defines a women’s movement?” may help scholars and educators elevate the voices of influential but non-institutional groups of women working to improve their local communities, either as part of their own projects or within the structure of another. It may also allow us to investigate the tensions between the advantages of institutional protection and organization versus the freedom of movements with fewer structural restraints.

The next History Roundtable at the Loyola History Department will take place December 5th from 12:30-2:00pm in Crown 528. The topic will be ‘violence’, and the presenters will be Loyola Professors Gema Santamaria and Suzanne Kaufman and Loyola History PhD student Ella Wagner. According to Professor Weinreb, “this series is especially intended for grad students, particularly those who are currently writing/working through their research materials. The goal is to encourage discussion amongst faculty and grad students to tease out theoretical or conceptual categories that are relevant to many of us here at Loyola. Grad students – see this as an opportunity to hear from and talk about your work with faculty and other grad students whom you might otherwise not engage with! Come to pose questions about your work, or to hear other people discuss their ideas and struggles.”

Snacks will again be provided. We at the Lakefront Historian highly encourage you to attend.

[Photographs courtesy of David Hays.]

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Chicago’s Innovative Sisters of Theater: A Reflection on the Mundelein College Drama Department

Chicago has made a name for itself in live theater and the performing arts, as a hub for off-broadway plays, epicenter of the Little Theater Movement, and with students from its improv comedy schools ascending to fame on Saturday Night Live. But with all the ink spent on Chicago theater, very little has splashed for the rich history of college drama departments in the Windy City. These institutions have not only trained up many of America’s stars of stage and screen, but also feed into the important local arts and multimedia production sectors, raising up the next generation of high school drama coaches and local television producers. We can see an amazing example of such an institution in the drama department at Mundelein College, which lasted from 1930 to 1991 as one of the first – and also the last – private Catholic women’s colleges in Illinois. Far from an insular, strictly academic program, the theater department at Mundelein College shone brightly as both very communal and highly innovative.

A still from a performance of Twelfth Night taken from the Chicago Tribune

While Mundelein College was named for Cardinal George Mundelein, the funding, planning, and administration of the school came from the dedicated Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the BVMs, led by the school’s first president Sister Mary Justitia Coffey. They chose a modern design, with the school primarily comprised of a tall skyscraper adjacent to Loyola University in Rogers Park so the two schools could share lecturers and access to the Red Line Train stop. (The Mundelein building primarily serves as classrooms for Loyola University today.)

Early photo of Mundelein Skyscraper, built 1930

The building featured excellent theater space according to a 1932 pamphlett: “The entire eighth floor of the college building is devoted to drama and art. At one end of the broad corridor which leads from the elevators is the Little Theatre. Complete in its equipment, the stage furnishes an excellent workshop for the drama student.” The floor also included studios “for private instruction”, ventilation, mirrors, “other necessary equipment”, and a club room with “modernistic furniture and attractive window hangings”. The Little Theatre was sufficient for smaller productions, including one-act plays, student-written scripts, and events like teas and revues. For larger productions, the young thespians worked their magic in the large auditorium on the ground floor of the skyscraper campus. It offered patrons of the arts 925 floor seats and 325 balcony seats. “Beautiful in its simplicity,” one pamphlet reads, “it carries out the architecture of the rest of the college in the long lines of its mural decorations and in the immense chandeliers which epitomize the structure of the building… The stage has the distinction of having the first successfully-operated electrical rigging in this country.”

The Little Theater at Mundelein

In addition to its modern construction, the auditorium, in the words of alumni and Academy Award-winning actress Mercedes McCambridge, possessed strange aural properties:

When empty the auditorium at Mundelein College was acoustically quite unsound… When it was full of people, the acoustics were great. But in the emptiness there was booming and echo… a perfect place for me to work on my voice… I literally learned to play my instrument by ear. The reverberations that hit back at me from the walls and the deep hole of the balcony let me know that nasal tones are scarcely ever effective, that each word deserves its completeness or it is received as garbled garbage…

Sister Mary Leola Oliver served as the department’s first director from 1930-1938, and began the program’s long history of innovation. She not only produced an impressive array of productions ranging from Shakespeare to the tragicomedies of Henri Gheon, but also organized her students into a verse-speaking choir, a new concept from Europe where combinations of light and dark voices performed texts in half-spoken, half-sung arrangements. The program proved so successful that Sister Leola won her choir a 5-year radio contract with NBC, exposing Mundelein Drama to millions of listeners and giving students like Mercedes McCambridge a jump-start to their acting careers. The much-loved Sister Leola counted famous thespians – including Ethel Barrymore and Claude Rains – among her friends, leading to exciting guest speakers for her students.

Photo of Sister Leola and her most famous pupil after Mercedes McCambridge won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in All the King’s Men, 1949.

From 1938 to 1960, Sister Carmelia Hanses directed the department, which contained both the drama and speech programs at Mundelein. Sister Carmelia innovated by using theater to treat speech disorders, much as Viola Spolin created improv theater (also in Chicago) to help children develop socialization skills through play. Under Sister Carmelia’s leadership, the Mundelein students coached a theater program for the children of Chicago, and many went on to work in the field of speech pathology.

A Mundelein student leading a speech clinic for children.

Although Sister Carmelia technically directed the program until 1960, the real director of the drama portion of the program from 1952 to 1980 was Sister Jeanelle Bergen, who prolifically produced three major plays a year in addition to smaller reviews and mosaics written by her students. Sister Jeanelle, while still incorporating the classics, also introduced her students to post-modern theater and plays with controversial topics, such as her 1968 production of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey which tackles subjects including alcoholism, racism, and homosexuality.

But perhaps Sister Jeanelle’s most innovative contribution to the program was her commitment to preparing her students for the television age. Despite a dearth of equipment, she arranged classes on television production, created local television programs related to the Catholic church, and even took a summer internship at a game show so she could learn the tricks of the trade to teach her students. Once an executive hoping to score complimentary tickets called her “Jeanie Baby” on the phone, shocked to find on his arrival that “Jeanie Baby” was a nun in full habit, holding a clipboard while helping film “The Match Game”.

Sister Jeanelle learning the ropes of television production while interning at a game show.

Much work remains for cultural historians in studying both the Mundelein College Drama Department and the history of Chicago academic theater departments generally. Scholars should particularly consider the outcomes of these programs for women seeking careers in fields such as drama pedagogy, performance, television production, and speech therapy. For those of you interested in the Mundelein College Drama Department, please reach out to me at mamyx@luc.edu and I will send you my entire paper on the subject, or visit the Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola University and ask to see the Mundelein Drama Department files. (Ask nicely, and maybe they’ll show you Mercedes McCambridge’s Academy Award.)

Gypsy Coeds Ride the Silver Streak

When I began my internship at the Peoria Riverfront Museum this past May, I had a vague idea of what to expect. I had put together a small panel exhibit at Marquette University, and I had also developed a small exhibit for the Milwaukee County Historical Society. But I had never produced an exhibit that would serve as the main feature of a gallery. The Gypsy Coeds Ride the Silver Streak will occupy 2,000 square feet at the Peoria Riverfront Museum beginning this Friday, October 16, to January 17, 2016. Sifting through research materials and finding objects to feature in the exhibit was a rewarding and challenging process, and after fifteen weeks I feel like I learned more about the exhibit development process and how a small museum operates.

The Story

Twenty young women from Bradford, Illinois, traveled the country in a silver 1926 Ford Model T over eight summers in the 1930s and 1940s. They called themselves the Gypsy Coeds, and they dubbed their old “flivver” the Silver Streak. Wherever they went—Canada, New York, Atlanta, or California—they drew a crowd. Everyone wondered how these girls could travel across the country without a proper chaperone. The crowds were also astonished that the ancient “tin Lizzie” still ran! After all, by the last trip the car was sixteen years old. But the girls trusted the old Ford, and their story struck a chord with townsfolk and celebrities across North America.

I started work on the exhibit in the middle of May, and Kristan McKinsey, my supervisor and curator of the museum, already had a wealth of information for me to process. McKinsey had heard about the Gypsy Coeds from a museum member and had contacted John Butte, the owner of the Silver Streak. Butte had already begun extensive research on the Gypsy Coeds and the Silver Streak in preparation for writing a book about the trips. He had also developed a website about the girls and the car. Butte shared many of the objects he had at his disposal; his mother was a Gypsy Coed, and she collected many souvenirs on her trip in 1939. I had many resources at my disposal, and I was confident that I could put together a fun and educational exhibit.

McKinsey suggested that I begin by brainstorming ideas of what I wanted the exhibit to have in it; how would I convey this remarkable story? My interest in oral history led me to think of incorporating that element some how. McKinsey had also informed me that the museum had an interactive touch-screen, and she wanted to use it to trace the routes of some of the Gypsy Coeds’ more significant trips. But I also incorporated more traditional exhibit elements: labels, objects, and photographs. After discussing my ideas with McKinsey, she suggested creating a project timeline. After creating the timeline, I dove into the research.

Continue reading “Gypsy Coeds Ride the Silver Streak”

Gender Gap Set in Stone

Chicago’s 580 parks are littered with statues of historically significant men. Some of these men may be familiar to you: Nicolaus Copernicus, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln. Others may be unfamiliar: Greene Vardiman Black, for example, the “father of modern dentistry.” While the accomplishments of these notable figures vary, their gender does not. In fact, there is not a single statue in Chicago that honors a historically significant woman.

The lack of public statues honoring women has received recent attention in the local media, and for good reason. In a city home to such important female leaders like Ida B. Wells and Jane Addams, how can public depictions of women remain absent in Chicago’s parks?

The Chicago Park District told WBEZ Chicago that this absence is an issue of timing; the heyday of public sculpture in the city occurred before women earned the right to vote and were therefore not involved in public life. Yet this argument does not explain why men continued to be honored in Chicago parks long after women earned the right to vote in 1920. As recently as 2006, the Chicago Park District has added a new bronze statue of a male figure to its expansive park system.

Continue reading “Gender Gap Set in Stone”

Plans for Summer 2013

PH Students
Loyola Chicago Public History students at Historic Pullman, Chicago
Photo by Greg Ruth

What do public history grad students do with their summers? Learn about the exciting internships and projects that students are undertaking across the country and beyond.  Be sure to check back over the summer and  fall for students’ reflections on their work.  To read about what our students did last summer, click here and here.

Anne Cullen, Second Year Public History Masters Student: After a whirlwind summer in New York City last year, I plan to stay put in Chicago this time around. I’m currently employed as a Public History Consultant at History Works, Inc. and a Project Assistant on the Chicago Community Trust Oral History Project, both of which will continue into the summer months. In June I’ll also be partnering with the Women and Leadership Archives to curate an online exhibit using materials from the Mundelein Collection. Since I’ll be finishing my degree this May, I can’t wait to spend my newly-found free time on the Lake Michigan beach reading for pleasure.

Chelsea Denault, First Year Public History PhD Student: This summer, I am headed to “The Best Island in the World” (thanks National Geographic!), Nantucket! I’ll be working there as a Public Programs and Visitor Experience Intern at the Nantucket Historical Association. Over the summer, I will help the NHA staff run their summer programs, including family art classes, evening concerts, lectures & cocktail nights, and – the community favorite – a (very) dramatic reading of Orson Welles’ play “Moby-Dick Rehearsed” in the NHA’s Whaling Museum. I will also be working on a yet-to-be-determined individual project (look for the big unveiling on my blog!). When I’m not caught up doing public history-related work, I plan on spending my New England summer enjoying clambakes, harvesting quahogs, whale watching, and learning how to sail!

William Ippen, Second Year Public History PhD Student: I plan to devote most of my time this summer to completing my dissertation proposal, along with the occasional backpacking trip. In the realm of public history, I will be collaborating on a National Register nomination with Devin Hunter for The Plant, a self-contained vertical agricultural complex occupying the historic Peer Foods building in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. The project will pioneer new avenues for industrial preservation and public history sustainability. I will also continue my work as a member of the NCPH Task Force on Sustainability and Public History. We are currently developing a white paper to be presented at the 2014 NCPH Annual Meeting in Monterrey that will address the intersection of public history and sustainability, the issues therein, define the role of the task force, and recommend NCPH policies and practices regarding sustainability. Sustainability will be that meeting’s theme, and members of the task force will be organizing panels and roundtables around that theme.

Maisie O’Malley, First Year Public History Masters Student:    I plan to spend this summah dropping my R’s, eating lobstah, and having a wicked good time interning in Boston.  I will be splitting my time between the South End Historical Society and the Boston College Archives.  I will primarily intern at SEHS, where I will work on a variety of projects geared toward the preservation of the South End’s historic built environment.  At BC, I will work on the Emmett Larkin Papers.  Larkin, a prominent Irish history scholar, is famous for his work on the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland after the Great Famine.  During my free time I’ll be taking advantage of all the history Boston has to offer, so check out my blog about life in the “Hub of the Universe”!

Laura Pearce, First Year Public History Masters Student: This July I will be heading to Poland through a Fellows Program from the Auschwitz Jewish Center for an intense three-week experience learning about the Holocaust and Jewish heritage in Poland.  The other Fellows and I will visit Kraków, Warsaw, Łódź, Treblinka, and Oświęcim (Auschwitz) as well as South-Eastern Poland. We will meet with local leaders, learn about the areas Jewish heritage and pre-war Jewish culture, hear what life was like under the Nazis and Communism, and explore the state (or lack thereof?) of Jewish communities and memory in Poland today.  I’m especially excited for a workshop with collections and education staff at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum!  In August, after I return to the states, I’ll begin my fall internship with the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.  While a focus on the Holocaust won’t make this a particularly upbeat summer, will without a doubt be engaging and educational to say the least.

Jessica Hagen, First Year Public History Masters Student: I’m going to be spending my summer as an archival intern at the National Archives and Records Administration regional office here in Chicago. I am going to be working on a variety of projects this summer, some alone and a few with another intern (yay group projects!). I am also the graduate student intern at the University Archives and Special Collections at Loyola, and I am looking forward to employing the archival techniques I have learned at LUC to my work at NARA Chicago. I am  anticipating that I will learn so much more throughout this summer as well. I am super excited about this experience and cannot wait to get started! I’ll be blogging throughout the summer so if you like archives, old documents, entertaining stories about experiences with the public, or are curious about why keeping records of the past is important, check it out. I will also be actively documenting my internship throughout the summer on my twitter machine with the hashtag: #SummertimeChiAtNARA. (For those of you familiar with the twitter, yes, I do realize how stupendously long that hashtag is. I will probably be amending it sometime during the summer, but I will put that update on my blog as well.)

Around the Web (July 2012)

Periodically, a Lakefront Historian contributor surveys recent public history-related news that emerges on the Internet. In this installment of “Around the Web,” Anne E. Cullen highlights new digital collections and blogs, museum reviews, and pop culture happenings that exemplify public history online.  Follow The Lakefront Historian on Twitter (@LakefrontHist) for news updates as they happen.

LFH BlogImage source

  • Since we’re all about mythical figures re-examined through the lens of feature films here on the Lakefront Historian (read our recent roundtable reviews of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), we couldn’t help but notice another historical heavy-weight recently memorialized at the box office: Marie Antoinette. Farewell, My Queen, based on the award-winning novel Les Adieux à la Reine by Chantal Thomas,  hit theaters this July 13th. Watch the trailer here.
  • Threadbared’s review of the Tattered and Torn: On the Road to Deaccession exhibit on NYC’s Governor’s Island explores historical value, material culture, and costume collections.
  • Speaking of fashion and public history, in July the Chicago History Museum debuted an online digital collection showcasing their costume collection.  With over 50,000 pieces from the mid-18th century to the present, CHM’s collection is the second most expansive fashion collection after that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • Another new online collection? Don’t forget to check out the Grateful Dead Archive Online which includes over 45,000 digitized items from the library at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
  • The Chicago History Museum commemorated the 1919 Chicago Race Riot with a blog post built around Jun Fujita’s photographs of the tragic violence.
  • Loyola Chicago’s own Women and Leadership Archives recently launched a new tumblr. The blog features fun and interesting photographs from WLA’s collections and also highlights other online content related to women and history.  Check out the tumblr here.
  • The National Archives is recognizing the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with a web research page highlighting Presidential records related to people with disabilities throughout US history.
  • And in honor of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, be sure to watch this amusing video that uncovers the secret history of the City of London.