Tag Archives: Women’s history

Rosa Parks – An armchair guide to a major exhibition of her life and work

Though snippets of the story and role of Rosa Parks are known, the fact is that much of her personal story has heretofore been hidden to the public. The Rosa Parks Collection at the Library of Congress, formally opened just last week, sheds much more light on the personal life of this courageous civil rights leader. The Rosa Parks Collection is on loan for ten years from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to the Library of Congress.

The collection contains 7500 manuscripts and 2500 photographs. Throughout the month of March a sampling of approximately two dozen items will be on view in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Items from the collection will also be included in the ongoing exhibition, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom,” which will open at the Library in September.

Visitors to the exhibition — including virtual visitors — may well find a Rosa Parks they had not known. One poignant example is Parks’ description of her treatment at the downtown public library, where “a colored person will not be permitted to come in and read a book or be given one to take out. The requested book will be sent to the colored branch library, on the east side of town.”

The exhibition proves that Rosa Parks was more complex and more passionate than the stoic protester often portrayed in accounts of her life. Instead, it is clear from her letters that she was filled with rage that inspired her protests. She wrote that “I want to feel the nearness of something secure. It is such a lonely, lost feeling that I am cut off from life. I am nothing. I belong nowhere and to no one.”

Parks wrote that “little children are so conditioned early to learn their places in the segregated pattern as they make their first toddling steps and are weaned from the mother’s breast.” The conditioning last a lifetime. “There is just so much hurt, disappointment and oppression one can take. The bubble of life grows larger. The line between reason and madness grows thinner.”

The letters include Parks’ references to the murder of Emmett Till and to the terror of the Ku Klux Klan in her home town of Pine Level, Alabama where “KKK moved through the country, burning negro churches, schools, flogging and killing.”

On the one hand, Parks’ refusal to abandon her seat on the public bus meant financial hardship. On the other hand, it earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as the respect and admiration of countless individuals, including political and social leaders ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Martin Luther King who said of her: “No one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.’”

One need not travel to Washington, DC to experience the richness of the Rosa Parks exhibition:




Eileen Cooke, A National Library Week Tribute

With a firm hand and a smile that could charm the toughest solon, Minnesota native Eileen Delores Cooke (1928-2000) shaped and steered the legislative agenda of America’s libraries.  She anticipated the role of telecommunications technology, held firm to the principle of freedom of information, and saw to it that there are public libraries in small towns throughout the nation.

Born in Minneapolis Cooke, graduated from St Margaret’s Academy and went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Library Science from the College of St. Catherine.

From 1952 until 1964 Cooke served on the staff of the Minneapolis Public Library – working as a bookmobile librarian, branch assistant, hospital librarian and public relations specialist.  For one year, 1957-58, she took a position as branch librarian at Queens Borough Public Library.

It was probably Cooke’s public relations acumen that caught the attention of Germaine Kretek, legendary director of the political arm of the American Library Association.  ALA, with its main office in Chicago, had long maintained a strong presence in Washington, DC.  In 1964 Cooke moved to DC where she held a variety of positions with the ALA Washington Office, serving as Executive Director for two decades, from 1972 until her retirement in 1993.

The early years of her tenure Cooke described as “a great time for libraries.”  The Kennedy administration set a high priority on libraries, which the Johnson Administration continued.  The passage of the Library Services and Construction Act in 1964 marked a time of great library development, particularly support for small and rural public libraries.  The next years saw passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that included generous appropriations for school libraries.  The Medical Library Assistance Act followed in 1966 along with the Higher Education Act of the same year, both of which included unprecedented funding for library support.

Each of these political accomplishments reflects the strategic approach and influence of the ALA Washington Office and of its Executive Director.  Cooke herself described the philosophy and style of the Washington office as being firmly anchored on a commitment to “persistence, persuasion and planning.”

Not one to rest on the organization’s political laurels Cooke worked with library leaders to anticipate and hold at bay the changes that were to come with the next administration.  One notable accomplishment was establishment of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science in 1970.  NCLIS led in time to two White House Conferences on Library and Information Services, both of which engaged a inclusive  public of library users and supporters, along with administrators and board members.

Cooke’s approach was to emphasize the importance of not only engaging but also training staff, board members and the public in the tools of effective politics.  Today library buildings and networks thrive because of the groundwork Cooke laid decades ago.

Still, her legacy far exceeds bricks and mortar.  Among other commitments, she was a formidable supporter of the Copyright Revision Act of 1976, working tirelessly for fair-use provisions of the copyright law, which required revision to respond to demands of evolving media.

In 1978 when the future of the Internet and the role of telecommunications was a gleam in the eye of futurists, Cooke was elected the first woman president of the Joint Council on Educational Telecommunications.

Perhaps best known for her encyclopedic knowledge of the facts and her dependability as a resource, Cooke was also an excellent communicator.  Her public relations background and innate ability led her to write extensively for a host of library-related journals, including the ALA Washington Newsletter, a timely and habitually read information pipeline.

In addition Cooke recognized the way that libraries could collaborate with organizations and projects set on parallel paths – listening to their goals and pointing out the overlap of interests, whether with the needs of older Americans, school media professionals, literacy providers, proponents of library services to American Indian tribes, the National Periodicals Center, services for people with disabilities, preservationists or scholars.

On the occasion of Eileen Cooke’s retirement in 1993, former ALA President and Director of the District of Columbia Public Library, Hardy Franklin, described her as the “51st State Senator on Capitol Hill.”

After her retirement Cooke returned to her birthplace in Minneapolis.  There she found time to enjoy the arts, including her own watercolor painting.  She participated in activities at her alma mater, the College of St. Catherine.  And well into her 70’s Cooke took on the awesome challenge of learning to drive for the first time in her life!

Cooke died April 30, 2000.  On June 30 of that year Congressman Major Owens (D NY) rose to pay tribute before his colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives:

As a result of Eileen Cooke’s efforts the library profession moved into the mainstream of the political process.  She demanded that the federal government recognize and respect libraries as universal institutions in our democratic society which deserve greater and more consistent support….

With indefatigable optimism Eileen Cooke worked with Members of Congress, staff assistants, educational and cultural organizations, and all others who supported education and libraries… 

She was a fighter capable of hard-nose analysis but always focused and deliberative.  She was a coalition builder who won both fear and admiration from her adversaries.  Above all she had vision and could see far ahead of the government decision-makers.  She understood the nature of the coming “information superhighway” and could predict the vital role of libraries and librarians as the traffic signals on this expressway into the cyber-civilization of the future.

The work of Eileen D. Cooke benefits all Americans.  She has won the right to be celebrated and saluted as a Great American Point-of-Light.

In commemoration of Eileen Cooke’s commitment to open government the American Library Association continues to sponsor the Eileen Cooke State and Local Madison Award, conferred on Freedom of Information Day, held each year on March 16 to honor the birth date of President James Madison.

Women on the Homefront – Classic WWII Posters at the Library


Grow your own Cana Your Own

Grow your own Cana Your Own

It was a poster from the Kittleson Collection on exhibit in the Minneapolis Central Library Hosmer Collection that spurred my reflections. The World War II-era posters depicts a loving mom and daughter, their gentle exchange as they plant their Victory Garden, the little girl‘s optimism as they work together to support the War effort. Peaceful, full of life and hope.

That, I realized, was the contribution of my mother and millions of other women to the War effort. Though we know the stories of the 36% of American women who shouldered heavy labor during the War, we overlook the fact that those women were also rearing families alone while their husbands and sons were fighting overseas

Even further buried in time are the stories of the two-thirds of American moms and wives whose legacy remains unheralded. Theirs was the day-to-day life of feeding, clothing, caring for a family, often an extended family, during the war. American women on the home front were valiant contributors to the War effort in subtle, domestic, ordinary ways that escape the notice of war historians and of the federal agencies that take a lead in promoting March as Women’s History Month. All during WHM I have found myself reflecting on their contributions.

At the outset of the War an article published in the New Republic advised readers that “For the coming year, at least half our productive effort must be spent making things that citizens cannot eat, wear, or live in – making things for military use.” (1)

Writing directly to homemakers, the popular magazine Good Housekeeping advised their readers that “every item of our apparatus…is now at our Government’s command.” Then GH calmly assured homemakers that “There is another obligation that we will recognize: that of being anti-hysterical.…We will try to remember that entertainment and instruction and homely advice must continue….While we are fighting to win, we shall try to know that love will stay in the world;…that life in American homes must go on and will go on.” (2)

GH need not have worried; these ladies definitely did not resort to hysteria. And they didn’t just cope. Women became active learners – learning to garden, to cook creatively, to sew, to sell not apparel but war bonds, to operate canteens, and to do those domestic tasks that had heretofore been classified as “men’s work.” The exercised creative heroism in an environment in which tools and household basics were at a premium and the local handyman was fighting for his country.

Historian Doris Weatherford writes that American women made “rationing a topic of daily conversation thereby educating themselves rapidly” largely cooking, sewing, shopping, rationing, gardening, and other getting-by tricks of the homemaker’s trade..



Rationing was both a puzzle and a mighty challenge. Food rationing was a daily reality – sugar, coffee, meats, fats including butter, fish, cheese are just some of the basics that were rationed. Substitute foods such as dried powdered eggs and liquid paraffin to replaced cooking oil were the order of the day. Meat, poultry and fish were all in short supply – even with the introduction of Spam to the American diet. Dependable refrigeration was poor and replacement was unthinkable, so most food was preserved in recyclable tin cans.

Rationing also covered tires, gas, bicycles, shoes, rubber, including rubber pants, the precursor of disposables, fuel oil and kerosene. Though milk was never rationed, canned milk became the household staple for families that lacked refrigeration when steel, not milk, was rationed. Ration coupons were the coin of the realm and penalties were strict.

Conservation recycling altered virtually every daily routine. Since plastic was not yet the bête noire of environmental conservation, the challenge was more basic – crushing and recycling tin cans to be turned into munitions, bottles returned to the milkman for reuse, saving cooking fat to make soap.

Victory gardens were not just for the natural food purist but the basic source of produce for the family dinner table. At one point during the War fifty percent of the nation’s vegetables were grown in victory gardens. To lighten the load women created competitions for the gardens and for recipes that featured produce from the backyard of community garden.

The War Production Board became the nation’s premier clothing consultant. They influenced the appearance of civilian apparel by dictating the conservation of cloth and material, changing the style, especially women’s garments. Weatherford writes that “adult clothing made its wartime adjustment primarily in the promotion of fashions that used less fabric, heedless of the implication that new fashion guidelines implied new clothes.” One story is that fabric rationing led to the design of women’s two-piece bathing suits which Neiman Marcus was quick to market as “patriotic chic” beachwear.

Women also led the volunteer front. The Red Cross, the Office of Civilian Defense, serving at recreation centers and canteens, and constantly pitching war bonds were just one of women’s routine tasks.

In spite of the fact that women bore the brunt of fighting the War on the home front, they had little or no say in the regulation-making process. Women ‘s involvement in the decision-making didn’t begin until the rules were in place and women were brought on board as volunteers to deal with the public and otherwise implement the rules.

Though my reflections on women on the home front will continue, my goal was to make the Women’s History Month deadline. Still, I’m eager to learn more about the stories that that those posters, preserved in the Kittelson Collection, dredged to the surface.

I’m now on a quest to learn more about a topic that has had such an influence on my personal life as well as the role of women. Doris Weatherford’s book, American Women and World War II, of which I read just the chapter on “The Normal Housewife in Abnormal Times” is my starting point. From there I plan to explore the rich collection of resources compiled by the librarians and researchers at the Minnesota Historical Society who have prepared a helpful guide to “Women and the home front during world war II, an excellent introduction to women’s changing role in the workplace and in the home.

Save Freedom of Worship.  Buy War Bonds.

Save Freedom of Worship. Buy War Bonds.














(1) “Rationing: Democracy’s Test” New Republic,(February 9, 1942), quoted in Weatherford.
(2) “Good Housekeeping and the War,” Good Housekeeping (February 1942, p.19) quoted in Weatherford.

Women’s History Month 2013 – Lots to Learn, Leaders to Honor

The roots of today’s Women’s History Month run deep, the ideas and energy nurtured by the same energy that burst forth over a century ago with the first International Women’s Day, celebrated in 1911.  Imagination, commitment and collaboration have created what is now a national traditional in this and other nations, observance of March as Women’s History Month.

In the late-20th Century, as the women’s movement advanced and women’s studies gained recognition, schools, academic institutions, women’s organizations and states created local Women’s Week initiatives to promote further study and awareness of women’s contributions.  In 1981 Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Representative Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) co-sponsored the first Joint Congressional Resolution establishing Women’s History Week.  By 1989 the observance expanded to a month.  And, as happens with Congressional resolutions, the wheels of the bureaucracies began to turn; stories emerged as researchers dipped into the archives, libraries strengthened their collections, educators produced curriculum and support materials, events and activities engaged students, and whole communities in learning the stories of women’s contributions.  In 2011 the Obama Administration released a report on fifty years of progress in honoring Women’s History.

Today, responsibility at the federal level rests with a number of agencies to continue the work of exploration and celebration.   A host of federal agencies play a role: The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art,  National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and numerous other agencies, including the Department of Defense, have a contributing role in providing resources and sponsoring programs that focus on the contributions of women.  Resources abound – and just reading about the resources is great fun.

A key player at the federal level is the National Women’s History Project highlighted here.  A priority of he NWHP is to select a theme for the year – not to exclude but to highlight outstanding accomplishments within specific fields.  Recent themes have been “Writing Women Back into History” (2010), “Our History Is Our Strength” (2011) and “Women’s Education-Women’s Empowerment” (2012).  Based on the annual theme, states and local groups are encouraged to develop their own unique programming and approaches.

The 2013 theme for national Women’s History Month is “Women Inspiring Innovations through Imagination:  Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” (STEM).  In preparation for Women’s History Month 2013 the NWHP identified an astounding list of women nominated for special commendation. From the nominees the selectors named a cohort of eighteen women chosen as “extraordinary visionaries and role models” in the STEM fields where, the selectors note, women are still noticeably underrepresented.”  The list of eighteen women covers decades, geography, fields of interest and affiliation.  Reading the accomplishments listed for each honoree expands one’s very comprehension of the depth and breadth of the paths they have chosen – and in which they have succeeded.  Very briefly, the list of honorees includes:

  • Hattie Elizabeth Alexander, 1901-1968 – Pediatrician and Microbiologist
  • Marilyn Barrett, 1954-                    K-12 STEM Educator
  • Patricia Era Bath, 1942 –                    Ophthalmologist and Inventor
  • Elizabeth Blackwell, 1821-1910, Physician
  • Katharine Buss Blodgett, 1898-1979, Physicist and Inventor
  • Edith Clarke, 1883-1959, Electrical Engineer
  • Rita R. Colwell, 1934-      Molecular Microbial Ecologist and Scientific Administrator
  • Diane Fossey, 1932-1985, Primatologist and Naturalist
  • Susan A. Gerbi, 1944-    Molelcular Cell Biologist
  • Helen Greiner, 1957- Mechanical Engineer and Robotocist
  • Grace Murray Hopper, 1906-1992, Computer Scientist
  • Olga Frances Linares, 1936-    Anthropologist and Archaeologist
  • Julia Morgan, 1872-1957, Architect
  • Louise Pearce, 1895-1959, Physician and Pathologist
  • Jill Pipher, 1955-      Mathematician
  • Mary G. Ross, 1908-2008, Mechanical Engineer
  • Susan Solomon, 1956-      Atmospheric Chemist
  • Flossie Wong Staal, 1946-     Virologist and Molecular Biologist

The list of names and professions inspires the uninitiated to learn more. Brief bios of each of the honorees are published here.

The NWHP planners went on to identify the names, dates and affiliations of all of the 115 nominees.  There are teachers and writers, a couple of astronauts, physicians, inventors, and women who were at the pinnacle of fields I could neither pronounced now explain.  That full list is also included here.

Without a chart or a footnote we know that most of these women inherited a vision of the possibilities by learning from and working with their forbearers.  We know, too, that younger women and girls have some mighty – if dainty – footsteps in which to follow.  The list itself suffices to start even this unreconstructed liberal arts major to further explore, possibly understand, the nature and impact of their contributions.

More to follow on the contributions of one pioneer Minnesota woman who cut a wide swath in the pre-STEM world of engineering and architecture.  More, too, on some of the ways in which Minnesotans are carrying on the tradition of Women’s History Month.

Women & Spirit Exhibit Tells a Grand Story

The congenial staffer at the Dubuque Tourist Center dismissed the “Women & Spirit” exhibit as a “Catholic” thing.  Though he was an absolute delight, he was a bit off on this one.  The exhibit did feature women religious in the US but it was definitely not a “Catholic” thing.  It is a story of the strong women who led the charge for health care, education, particularly education of women, , care of the poor and children in need.

The exhibit in Dubuque is extraordinary because of its focus on the work of women religious along the upper Mississippi.  Minnesotans have known the influence of the Sisters in many ways – St. Catherine University being perhaps the most visible with the network of health care providers as part of and the result of that enterprise.

Though history suggests that the exhibit should be coming to the Twin Cities there was a lack of local support.  Still, Minnesota religious have had a major hand in compiling and articulating the story.  Karen Kennelly, CSJ has been an intellectual force in exploring the depths of the elusive research .  The archives of the Sisters of St. Joseph and other Minnesota religious communities have been tapped for precious stories.  The stories of other women religious in Minnesota are embodied here – the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the Franciscans of Little Falls and Rochester,  the famed Benedictines of St. Joseph,  Minnesota and many other communities of women religious can be seen in the panels and videos that represent a powerful story.

The exhibit in Dubuque closes May 22 when it moves on to the West Coast.  It has already visited Ellis Island and the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.  The web presence, Women&Spirit,  is well worth exploring – not just to learn about the Sisters but to know more about the impact of strong women on our institutions and our communities.