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Writing Women into History – by Kayann Short

STORYCENTER Blog

We are pleased to present posts by StoryCenter staff, storytellers, colleagues from partnering organizations, and thought leaders in Storywork and related fields.

Writing Women into History – by Kayann Short

Ary Smith

“Where are the women?” is the question behind Women’s History Month each March. The absence of women from much of recorded history and scholarship has left gaps that undermine women’s progress toward equality. While the conditions under which women’s history has been lost, erased, and suppressed may be familiar—prejudice of all sorts; sexual violence; second class status; lack of time and resources—such conditions continue to impact the inclusion of women in private and public discourse today.

Women’s History Month was established to bring the stories of women’s experiences into view by uncovering, discovering, and recovering women’s lives throughout history. Many of these women were famous in their time; others led quieter lives that, nevertheless, shaped families, communities, and movements. Collectively, the retrieval and celebration of their stories has led to new understandings of history as small steps in time, as well as the cataclysm of big events.

Digital storytelling is the perfect vehicle for recording women’s stories in ways that honor both women’s individual lives and larger collective experiences. A wonderful example of this synthesis is found in the digital story “Right into History: The Dinner Party as Catalyst for Social Activism” by Dr. Anne Marie Pois. This piece was made for the Activist Archive, the service learning project in which my University of Colorado students facilitated digital storytelling by elder activists in our community.

Pois’s story shares her experience working on “The Dinner Party,” a feminist art installation directed by artist Judy Chicago in 1976. “The Dinner Party” featured a banquet table with 39 place settings for innovative women throughout history, with another 999 names inscribed in the floor beneath the table. 129 volunteers produced the installation, from historical research to identify the women commemorated, to the ceramic and textile creation of each intricate place setting.

Pois became one of the volunteers on this project when she answered a bulletin board call for participants. Her digital story details her involvement with the project, at the same time that it portrays her growing interest in women’s history. Her work on “The Dinner Party” inspired her to pursue a Ph.D. and teach women’s history at the University of Colorado.

Pois’s story shows how individual women’s lives contribute to larger collective movements. Her personal story inspires us to follow our dreams; her story of “The Dinner Party” portrays the evolution of second wave feminist activism. “Right into History” exemplifies how by paying attention to the particulars of women’s lives, we not only learn about women’s history, but about the larger sweeps of history itself.

Many of the StoryCenter participants with whom I have worked are interested in making digital stories about the women in their families, from mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, to unmet female ancestors who left traces of their lives in photographs, books, and commonplace objects like sewing baskets and jewelry boxes. Beyond preserving the stories behind these artifacts and memories, the participants are interested in relating how these women’s lives have shaped their own. Each time I watch one of these stories, I imagine another piece of the women’s history puzzle snapping into place.

I call this type of story an “I-in-Relation” story because it explores the influence of a relationship on the storyteller’s life. As I wrote in a previous StoryCenter blog post about this concept, “Although these stories may ostensibly seem to focus on another person’s life, they express the identity, values, or truths of the storymaker’s life as well.” This dual focus—honor and remembrance of another juxtaposed with examination and disclosure of the self—generates a complex story in polyvocal, multi-layered modes.

Women’s History Month works that way, too. We not only celebrate the women who are finally taking their places in history books or who have gained fame or celebrity through radical words or deeds. We also admire the women with whom we interact every day. While we’re inspired by the greatness of women who have come before us, it’s our own lives as women we’re inventing—our own stories we’re writing, our own experiences we’re living. Most of us don’t act in the big ways that conventionally count as “history,” but Women’s History Month directs us to view everyday actions as history, too. As we look to women’s history for models of women’s strength, creativity, innovation, and courage, we also create new models for the next generations to follow. Anne Marie Pois’s story ends with a photograph of her baby daughter Emily, named after Emily Dickinson, one of the women honored at “The Dinner Party’s” table. Pois’s story, in turn, becomes her legacy to her granddaughter.

I like to imagine that a hundred years from now, my young great-great-great-granddaughter will come across the digital stories I’ve made about my female family members, ancestors, friends, and community members. I hope the stories help her fill in the blanks of her own history as she makes her way into the world. These stories are my legacy to her, but they’re also my answer to the question, “Where are the women?” We’re here, they say, writing our way into history.

Kayann Short, Ph.D., is the author of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, a memoir of reunion with a family’s farming past through community supported agriculture and a call for local farmland preservation today. With Allison Myers, Kayann will facilitate a StoryCenter workshop on food preservation stories at her farm in Colorado on September 18 and 19, 2014.