Steinem Spearheads Voices of Feminism Project
Published: Thursday, September 18, 2008
Updated: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 17:05
Charon Asetoyer, Lora Jo Foo, Mary Hunt, Frances Kissling, Loretta Ross, Wynona Ward - these are just a few of the names that can be found among the 59 women featured in the Sophia Smith Collection's Voices of Feminism Oral History Project. In 2002, Gloria Steinem approached Smith College with the proposition to collaborate with her on the project, which would be funded by the Ford Foundation. Headed by the Sophia Smith Collection's Joyce Follet, Smith gladly accepted the offer and began working towards collecting the stories of strong, progressive and accomplished women across America - Steinem, of course, being one of them. Since writing the initial grant proposal in 2002, Smith has received three grants - one every two years - from the Ford Foundation. Many of the women included in the project were acquainted with Gloria Steinem from her previous endeavors in feminism, which often made them more receptive to giving their accounts and even personal papers to the Sophia Smith Collection.
"In several cases [Steinem] talked to the women before speaking to Smith," said Sherrill Redmon, who works in the Sophia Smith Collection. Among these cases was actress Jane Fonda who, when asked if she would be willing to submit her papers, stated, "I don't have papers. I'm not an academic." Steinem, however, assured Fonda that she didn't have to be an academic to have "papers." The Sophia Smith Collection is now the proud holder of Fonda's exercise tapes and even hate mail.
Although not all of the women contributed personal papers to the project, each one gave an oral history of her life and achievements. The taping of each interview took place over the course of a couple of days. On average, each account is between five and six hours long. Besides the VHS tapes or DVDs of these narrations, the collection includes an audio CD and transcript of each interview. Many of these transcripts are available online via the Sophia Smith Collection Web site.
The Voices of Feminism Oral History Project will change the face of the Sophia Smith Collection, which, until recently, was largely comprised of white upper-middle class women with 19th and early 20th century perspectives. The project shows the evolution of the feminist movement - starting in the '50s and moving into the '80s and '90s - and the subsequent transition from a white-dominated women's movement to more diverse activism. Some examples include Katsi Cook, of Mohawk descent; Nkenge Touré, a member of the Black Panthers and Eva Kollisch, refugee from Nazi Austria.
In addition to ethnic diversity, the project includes an array of causes. While there is a clear focus on reproductive rights, there are also a number of lesbian activists - about 15 or 20 out of the 59. This number is quite impressive since the roles that lesbians have played in history have been largely hidden.
"Lesbian history wouldn't have made a history book except [as] something to make laws against," said Redmon.
Activists also include anti-war and anti-violence campaigners, environmentalists, welfare reformists and those focused on various facets of social justice.
More than anything, the project will hopefully give students at Smith insight into how much the feminist movement has brought us and show that women such as these are true pioneers in American society.
"It's hard for a young woman.to understand how unseriously women were taken in the '50s," Redmon said. "Men and the rest of the culture and a lot of women would just make fun of you for being out there when you should be at home making babies or making bread."
Though we have come far since the '50s, the feminist movement lives on and many of the women featured in this project continue with their work today. As Smith continues to produce intelligent, strong-willed graduates, it is vital that students take to heart the work of the past and then look toward the future.