Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. is an operating theater to this day, but historically it is best known as the site of Lincoln’s assassination. On April 14, 1865, while Lincoln was attending a play at Ford’s Theater with his wife and Major Henry Rathbone, John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate spy, shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He died 9 hours later on April 15, 1865 of his injuries across the street at the Petersen House.
This moment in history, just after Lee’s surrender and the ending of the Civil War, but just before Reconstruction, was a pivotal junction.
The tour of Ford’s Theater which includes self-guided tours of exhibits, a ranger talk in the theater, and partially guided tours of the Peterson house, does a wonderful job of contextualizing both Lincoln and Booth as well as providing the context of what Washington, D.C. was like in 1865. All of this context helps the audience to better understand how the assassination was able to take place and why Booth targeted Lincoln.
Before entering the actual theater, we toured exhibits that presented Lincoln’s Washington. These exhibits showed what D.C. was like in the 1860s, gave context about the Civil War, Lincoln’s stance on slavery, the war, and reconstruction. The exhibits also gave background on John Wilkes Booth, his political leanings, his acting career, and more. The exhibits lead up to the night of the assassination and include on display the gun used to kill Lincoln.
The next stop was the theater itself where a ranger (since the site is a National Park) walks the audience through the series of events leading up to and immediately after Lincoln was shot. Again, the information provided is clear and does an excellent job of contextualizing the event and not sensationalizing it.
The tour follows the series of events, leaving the theater and crossing the street, just as Lincoln’s body did that night, to the Petersen House where the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination is described including Mary Todd Lincoln’s reaction, Lincoln’s death, the succession of power, and Lincoln’s funeral procession. More exhibits then detail Lincoln’s legacy and the many ways he has continued to inspire people through the present.
I highly recommend visiting Ford’s Theater and doing the full tour including the museum exhibits, the theater talk, and the Petersen House across the street. Tickets are $3.00 but are timed and it’s recommended to reserve them in advance.
The National Museum of African American History & Culture is one of those museums that pulls you in and keeps pulling you in. From the outside, it stands out, strikingly different from all of the other museums, monuments, and buildings on the National Mall, creating a welcome visual focal point. Entering feels like going into a sacred space. The museum is chock full of artifacts that bring stories to life. It was one of my favorite museum experiences ever (and I’ve had a lot). Many have written about why this museum is important and how it came to be. Below is my experience visiting the museum as a white museum professional. It did not disappoint on a professional or personal level and all of its hype is well deserved.
Note on Tickets & Logistics
When my husband and I began planning our trip to DC to visit my brother, one of the first things decided on (after the concert that sparked the conversation) was that I had to go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The NMAAHC opened in 2016 to lots of interest, high visitation, and big impact on not only the world of public history & museums, but on so many individuals. I had heard so much good buzz about the museum but hadn’t been able to visit yet so it was high priority on our list.
We knew advance tickets would probably be necessary and we planned to go on the Friday of our trip to help cut down on weekend crowding, but I misunderstood the ticket release system and we missed our opportunity to get advance tickets! 😦 The other option was to try and get day of tickets first thing in the morning when they would be released for the day, but after arriving in DC in the wee hours of the morning we missed that opportunity as well. Walk-ins (without advance tickets) are allowed after 1 pm.
Worried that we would be standing in long lines and concerned about the chances of maybe not being able to get in at all, we decided to spend the morning at the National Air & Space Museum (you can read about our visit here) and then go to the NMAAHC after lunch (we ate in the Pavilion Cafe in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden which you can read about here). Because of hiding out from rain and how busy the Pavilion Cafe was we didn’t get to the NMAAHC until about 2:00pm on a Friday in April. There was absolutely no line and we were able to go right in and get started. The museum was plenty busy but not overcrowded and we were able to maneuver through exhibits with minimal waiting and crowding. The NMAAHC has changed its ticketing policy already in its 3 years and likely will continue to adjust so if you plan to go, check out their website for the latest. We lucked out on being able to easily get in without waiting, but I would still recommend the advance ticketing system so you can get in in the morning and have more time to view the museum. I have to go back as we only grazed the surface of this museum’s impressive exhibits!
Upon entering, we picked up a map which advised that in order to make the most of your time (and we were already limited on time having gotten there in the afternoon) you should start at the top and work your way down. We didn’t realize until later that this meant we would miss the museum’s main history exhibits which traces African American history from slavery through the present. These history exhibits are all below ground (where 60% of the museum lies). Where we began was with the museum’s culture exhibits which all come off of a central area called Cultural Expressions. This circular area is so immersive with exhibits around the outside, seating in the middle, and large screens encircling above head with images, video and quotes about various forms of cultural expression including writing, music, dance, sport, film, etc. featuring famous or trailblazing African Americans in their respective fields. We began with the exhibit about music.
The music exhibit was full of information and artifacts about African American musicians and singers who have made lasting cultural impressions in American popular and musical culture. Jimi Hendrix, Ella Fitzgerald, Celia Cruz, Whitney Houston, James Brown, Louis Armstrong, and more well-known artists were represented, but so were lesser-known names and contributions to American music including black country and bluegrass artists. The exhibit included an interactive “record store” room in which you could flip through “albums” and learn more about artists and select music on a digital touch screen. It was a rich visual experience with so much to take in.
The next exhibit was all about acting, from the stage to the screen. The final exhibit we toured in full was about sports. All of these exhibits showcased the cultural contributions of African Americans to American culture, highlighting inequalities overcome, civil rights advanced, and culture enriched. Black history and culture is American history and culture and these exhibits make that clear by focusing on how African Americans have been a part of it all by focusing on these overarching categories of music, film, sport, relatable categories for people of all backgrounds.
I wish we could have stayed longer but tired brains and feet won out. We skipped the rest of the regular exhibits in favor of checking out the educational area which has a large digital, interactive kiosk of touch screens from which you can browse the museum’s collection. You can select items based on a wide variety of intersectional topics. This was a truly impressive digital resource that had information on so many artifacts both on exhibit and not.
I can’t wait to return to this museum and tour more of the exhibits. The importance of this museum for celebrating African American history and culture, for educating the public on the history of systemic racism, for educating the public on the history of black Americans, and for showcasing the important role African Americans have and continue to play in the development of culture in America cannot be overstated. I highly recommend visiting, taking your time, and taking it all in.
The US National Archives’ #19forthe19th Instagram Challenge is highlighting women’s history for 19 weeks in celebration of the centennial of the 19th amendment which gave women the right to vote.
This week’s theme? #PlayLikeAGirl
I decided to take a look at pioneering female musicians who play instruments specifically female drummers, who continue to remain a minority in the music world.
Here are 5 pioneering female drummers:
Karen Carpenter was part of the duo, the Carpenters, with her brother Richard. The sibling duo wrote and performed soft rock/pop from 1969-1983. Karen started drumming in high school and quickly learned more and more complex skills. She played as part of a trio with her brother, the Richard Carpenter trio, for a while, while simultaneously developing her singing voice. It was Karen’s singing that originally caught the ear of a label who signed her and brought Richard along to compose music. The two performed in a number of different band iterations until they finally, formally became the duo, the Carpenters. Karen soon eclipsed her brother and became the face of the band, moving out from behind the drum kit in live performances to sing with another drummer stepping in. She always considered herself a drummer first and singer second though. Sadly, Karen suffered from anorexia nervosa at a time when it was less understood. She passed away at the age of 32 because of complications and strain on her heart from the disease.
Bobbye Hall is a noted and prolific percussionist playing bongos, congas, and other percussion as well as full drum kits. She has recorded and performed with many leading artists and got her start by playing on Motown recordings. She was a session musician at a time when that field was dominated by men. She has recorded and played with a wide variety of artists including The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Janis Joplin, the Doobie Brothers, the Mamas and the Papas, and Tracy Chapman. She went on a world tour with Bob Dylan in 1978 which brought her global exposure.
Sandy West was the drummer for the first all-girl teenage hard rock band, the Runaways, with Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Lita Ford, and Micki Steele (original lineup), from 1975-1979. Sandy started playing drums when she was 9 years old and as a teenage was the only girl playing in local bands at parties. Sandy sought out opportunities to play professionally which led her to Joan Jett and the Runaways. After they disbanded though she struggled to find success in the music industry.
Sheila E. (Escovedo) is another prolific and talented percussionist. She got her start drumming and singing in the George Duke Band but went on to have a very successful solo career and to collaborate with some of the biggest names in music, namely Prince. She recorded on several tracks on Purple Rain. She has also performed or collaborated with Beyonce, Pharell, Marc Anthony, and Juan Luis Guerra. She regularly performs with other musicians in her family, including her father who was also a percussionist. Fun fact: the Latin jazz legend Tito Puente was Sheila’s godfather.
Suzette Quintanilla is the often overlooked sister of Selena Quintanilla Perez, the young Tejano superstar who died tragically at the age of 23. Suzette played drums in their family’s band, Selena y los Dinos, which Selena fronted. Suzette was originally reluctant to play the drums as she felt as a young girl that it was not an instrument usually played by girls. She was in fact one of very few female drummers, especially in Tejano music, which was dominated by men in most respects. There were some female Tejano singers but few musicians in the bands. Despite her reluctance, she played, and Selena y los Dinos rose to fame before Selena embarked on a solo career. Suzette still performs sometimes with her brother AB Quintanilla.
Fittingly, the US National Archives Instagram Challenge in honor of the centennial of the 19th Amendment has assigned the theme of Women Abolitionists to fall on June 19th, Juneteenth, the day that remaining enslaved people were emancipated in the state of Texas in 1865 after the end of the Civil War. The celebration of freedom on Juneteenth has spread across the United States.
The long road to freedom and the abolition of slavery was paved by many people working towards that goal, including men and women, black and white, Northerners & Southerners.
Today I want to focus on a few women abolitionists and their roles in the movement.
Many African American abolitionists were former slaves, who had either gained freedom through “official” means (were emancipated by those who enslaved them) or had escaped slavery. Free blacks in the north were often part of the abolitionist movement as well.
Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813. She is most well-known as the author of a series of newspaper articles later turned book entitled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl which was a memoir of her life in slavery. The book was published in 1861 and is one of the earliest accounts of the struggles women especially faced when enslaved including sexual harassment and abuse and roles as enslaved mothers without legal rights to their own children. Harriet escaped into hiding in 1835 and then in 1842 was able to flee to the North. She became involved in the American Anti-Slavery Society, giving talks to support the cause and raise money. Her later memoir was also used to raise awareness, encourage the Civil War to be rightfully seen as a war against slavery by Union backers, and to especially appeal to white women by focusing on how slavery impacted black women’s ability to remain chaste and to be good mothers. During and after the war, Jacobs worked with fleeing refugees, and former slaves helping to provide food, shelter, etc. in the Washington, D.C. area where she lived the rest of her life.
Whites who were involved in the abolitionist movement were often members of liberal religious groups, such as the Quakers, which saw all souls as equal. White women, especially those of middle and upper classes had more ability to be involved in the movement than black women owing to being allowed more education, more freedom of movement, and access to resources and financing that allowed them to concentrate their time on the effort. Many northern abolitionists are well known such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony, and Harriet Beecher Stowe and many went on to also be prominent in the women’s suffrage movement.
Southern white women abolitionists are less often spoken about. One such woman was Abigail Stanley. She and her husband, who were part of a Quaker community in Guilford County, made their home part of the Underground Railroad and owned a wagon with a false bottom that they would use to help enslaved people escape. When many Quakers left the state as the debate over slavery grew increasingly heated, Abigail and her husband Joshua remained in North Carolina. Abigail petitioned the North Carolina legislature in 1838 to abolish slavery and worked to that end through her participation in the Underground Railroad and her writings.
Check out the hashtag #19forthe19th and #rightfullyhers to see more posts about women abolitionists and to follow along with the US National Archives challenge.
Over the next 19 weeks, the US National Archives is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote. On June 4, 1919, Congress voted to pass the amendment which would then go to the states for ratification before becoming law of the land in 1920. Each Wednesday is a different theme or topic. Today’s is Hidden Heroines.
I did a lot of brainstorming and soul searching trying to decide which woman from the past, who is often overlooked, I should devote my attention to. Because of the anniversary of women’s suffrage I thought of Lucy Burns, the suffragist who endured prison, forced feedings, and more in the fight for women’s right to vote. I thought of Lucretia Mott, a major driving force in both women’s rights activism and abolitionism. Of Iba B. Wells, a major figure in civil rights, co-founder of the NAACP, and women’s rights activist, often left out of the circles of white women’s rights activists. I thought of Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, the young black boy who was murdered for talking to a white woman. This grieving mother boldly and bravely insisted her son’s coffin be left open for the world to see what had been done to him and allowed media to use graphic images of her son’s beaten body in order to advance civil rights, using her grief and her son’s tragically short life to affect change for others.
I thought of these and many other women, but I couldn’t decide on one woman to highlight or profile. One “hidden heroine.” There are so many women whose stories aren’t well known. Or aren’t as well known as other women’s stories. But they are all worth telling.
I decided instead to write about why women’s stories are hidden, less well-known than their male counterparts, and why some women’s stories are less told than others.
Why Are Our Heroines Hidden?
Issue 1: Sexism – Women were (& are) not offered the same opportunities as men. Speaking of history generally, women had less access to formal education and therefore more difficulties in achieving goals in academic fields and research. Legal restrictions on women’s right to vote, to own property, etc. kept them from enacting change. Societal expectations have kept many women in the home as wives and mothers, relegating them to domestic work. The field of history has traditionally been dominated by male academics. Prior to the wave of social history that swept through the academy in the 1970s and 80s, many historians focused on major public figures (historically predominantly male due to the restrictions on women mentioned above), military and state history. Social history began looking at history “from below” and taking into account minority voices, ordinary people, and the lived experience of people from many walks of life. But for years and still today, textbooks largely stick to the national narrative which prioritizes state and military history–domains traditionally and at times legally reserved for men.
Issue 2: Racism – Women of color have been doubly restricted from aspects of public life, facing racism and sexism simultaneously. Their stories are even harder to find and have more often not been preserved.
Issue 3: Sources – Despite the above limitations women still led lives of importance, of interest, and of value. Of course some women made notable, public achievements in the face of discrimination, but even more women were hidden heroines, living in their own space, making an impact on the lives around them, much as many of us live today. Their stories are worth studying as it illuminates what daily life was like for the majority of people in any given historical era, not just those who held power or made public strides. It is the actions of the populace that move culture and society, not just those of great men or great women. These women’s lives are harder to uncover though since fewer written historical sources were made by women and even fewer have been saved. Women’s identities are sometimes obscured by the tradition of naming them only as Mrs. Husband’s Name in public sources. Women who lived in eras where they participated minimally in public life will have less written sources left behind than men in the same era. African American women during slavery will be even more difficult to find in the records than white women.
Issue 4: Interpretation/Public History – Strides are being made in this regard all the time, but the study of women’s history needs to go beyond the academy. Historians are increasingly studying women’s and minorities’ lives, but these findings need to be disseminated to the public via history classes and museums. The public is interested in the past and wants to know how it relates to them. This has been shown in studies, in the popularity of popular historical dramas, and other media. Half the population are women and so half of what’s included in museums should be about women. If I visit one more house museum that talks more about the crown molding than the life of the woman who lived there…but I digress. More public interpretation of women’s history, both notable women and ordinary lives, can help bring these stories forward and integrate them better into our national narrative.
This Instagram Challenge is one of many initiatives encouraging the study and interpretation of women’s history and many museums and historic sites will be taking part, highlighting their own women’s history and making connections to the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. Be sure to follow along and let them know you are interested in these women’s stories.
Over the next 19 weeks I plan to take part in the Instagram challenge each week and will do my best to highlight a woman or women who fit the theme that is lesser known, particularly women of color. Let me know if you know of a woman you’d like me to research and highlight.
Why else do you think women’s stories remain hidden? Who is your favorite “Hidden Heroine?”
Follow along with the Instagram challenge from @usnatarchives #19forthe19th and check out my posts @bethnevarezhistory.
On the hunt for a convenient, quick, and close-by lunch spot between our visits to the National Air & Space Museum and the National Museum of African American History & Culture, we wandered into the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden on our way to the Pavilion Cafe. With bad weather looming, we made our way around the fountain, lingered just a bit at a few of the statues and went inside just in time. It started raining while we were in line to order.
In our quick visit though I took a few photos and have since done some research on one of the artist’s whose work in the sculpture garden stood out to me. Titled Puellae (Girls), the collection of bronze, headless figurines standing amidst trees, was haunting. In search of the meaning behind these figures I quickly Googled but the first page that came up offered nothing beyond the fact that the figures were bronze, made in 1982, and were indeed at the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden (thanks Google/Wikipedia). A friendly security guard passed by just as I declared my internet search of no use and told us that the statues were inspired by a story the artist had heard during World War II of a transport of girls from Poland to Germany who all died from exposure to the cold in the cattle cars used to move them.
The artist is Magdalena Abakanowicz who grew up in Poland. She was 9 years old when Nazi Germany invaded and she grew up outside of Warsaw, and after the war, lived under Soviet control. She went to art school and began her career in a the climate of Soviet rigid conservatism. Artists were only allowed to create art in one style–Socialist realism. As she moved through her career as an artist those restrictions were lifted. Abakanowicz is known for working with textiles and for several humanoid sculptures like those at the National Portrait Gallery. Drawing on her experience of World War II and its aftermath, she is “best known for her “crowds” (as she calls them) of headless, rigidly posed figures whose anonymity and multiplicity have been regarded as the artist’s personal response to totalitarianism.” (National Gallery of Art website)
I am not personally terribly interested or good at art. I often don’t “get” it. But when art is used to represent history or the past, I am better able to understand. I wish this sort of background information was included on art gallery labels, but I suppose sometimes the art is meant to speak for itself and be open to interpretation. I prefer knowing the inspiration myself. With the background of this sculpture, I see more than creepy headless figures and instead see the atrocities of war and how such large scale inhumanity creates so many anonymous victims.
Public art is often cited as one way to better highlight history of places, especially when original structures no longer stand. What do you think about using art to tell history?
Reflections of a Public Historian in a Science Museum
My husband and I recently took a long weekend trip to Washington, D.C. to visit my brother and see the sights. We had both been twice before and seen the monuments and some of the major museums, so this time we had a pretty specific list of things we wanted to see.
As a public historian, I obviously enjoy history museums usually more than science or art, but as a museum professional I also deeply appreciate these spaces and do like to push beyond my usual interests. For our trip to Washington, D.C., my husband specifically requested that we visit the National Air & Space Museum, which is a mixture of science and history. It’s an area of history that I’m less interested in except for where it overlaps with social history (how the space race impacted regular Americans, the struggles for racial and gender equality in the study and exploration of space, etc.), but nonetheless we had a great time.
Look at all the engagement markers!
Though my brother looks a bit skeptical of my husband’s theories…
I enjoyed watching my brother and husband discuss, interact with, and enjoy the science together. They showed all of the major markers of visitor engagement–touching what they were allowed to, pointing at exhibit features, talking about what they were learning, and retaining information from one exhibit to another and relating events and facts together. Unfortunately, many of the exhibit spaces in the museum were closed as they carry out renovations, but we did get to see Explore the Universe, Space Race, Moving Beyond Earth, and Exploring the Planets.
Space Race traced the history of the Cold War-era competition between the USSR and the USA to achieve major feats of space exploration. It was interesting to learn that the science that would fuel the space race began during World War II with German missiles.
We also saw the SkyLab, the precursor to the Space Station, a space for scientists from many nations to live in space for periods of time and conduct research.
Exploring the Universe focused on the history and development of instruments people have used to view space.
I was happy to see some inclusion of women’s accomplishments and contributions to astronomy in this exhibit in the text about William Herschel’s sister Caroline Herschel who assisted him in his work. The exhibit caption describes her as “William’s Essential Assistant” but goes on to say that she was “a fine astronomer in her own right.” She found 8 comets and was the first woman to receive a salary as a scientist, but is best known for assisting her brother in his observations and telescope building…
Another woman included in this exhibit is Henrietta Swan Leavitt who identified 2,400 variable stars and discovered the link between the brightness and length of brightness cycle of Cepheid variables–basically this discovery is what astronomers needed to measure distances of nebulae.
Exploring the Planets was an interesting exhibit that looked at the properties of each planet in our solar system. It was interesting to learn about the environments and orbits of these planets. It’s crazy to think about just how different these planets are–the red dot on Jupiter is a storm that’s been raging for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. Some are made of ice, others have years-long seasons, different lengths of day and night. That was a fun exhibit to walk through and discuss mind-boggling facts together.
All in all, a fun morning spent learning about space with my hubby and brother. I’m interested to see the museum when it’s finished with all of its big renovations and gallery updates. Maybe there will be even more inclusion of women’s and minorities’ roles in air and space.
On this day in 1992 the Los Angeles riots broke out in response to two specific incidents in the city and general mounting racial tensions. Just over a year prior an African American man, Rodney King, was beaten and tasered by police during a traffic stop/chase resulting in the officers involved being charged with excessive force.
Also around the same time a teenage African American girl, Latasha Harlins, was shot in a convenience store when the Korean-American shopkeeper accused the girl of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. The shopkeeper grabbed the girl who hit the woman in order to break free. As the girl walked away the shopkeeper shot her in the back of the head. The girl was holding 2 dollars in one hand when her body was found by investigators. The 51-year-old woman who shot her was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and only ordered to pay a $500 fine and served no prison time.
On April 29, 1992 the officers in the Rodney King trial were acquitted of excessive force and assault charges based on blurry footage at the beginning of a tape showing the beating in which King tried to run away toward an officer.
The acquittal of these officers on top of the light sentencing of the shopkeeper in the death of Latasha Harlins caused many in the black community to further increase their distrust of the criminal justice system after years of accusations of excessive force by the LAPD against African Americans.
The racial tension between blacks and Koreans in LA had also long been brewing due to perceived slights on both sides. Many African Americans viewed the migrants as newcomers who were profiting off of the black community while simultaneously mistreating, stereotyping, and disrespecting them. Cultural differences and language barriers exacerbated the problem as well as economic difficulties facing the area.
All of these tensions came to a head when news of the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King reached South Central Los Angeles. Riots and looting broke out that lasted for days and resulted in 55 deaths, over 2,000 injuries, and more than $1 billion of damage. The National Guard was called in and the riots lasted for 6 days. More than 12,000 people were arrested. 65% of looted stores were Korean owned, but black and Latino-owned stores were also looted.
The events leading up to the riots, the riots themselves, and the aftermath all inspired and prompted responses from musicians of many genres, especially hip hop and rap artists. Here are 5 songs that came out of the Los Angeles riots.
“Dear Lord if ya hear me, tell me why Little girl like LaTasha, had to die She never got to see the bullet, just heard the shot Her little body couldn’t take it, it shook and dropped”
“Hellrazor” – Tupac, 1997 (posthumous release)
Tupac also made mention of Latasha in several of his other songs including “Something 2 Die 4,” “Thugz Mansion,” and “I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto,” in which he raps, “Tell me what’s a black life worth/A bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts.” He also dedicated “Keep Ya Head Up” to Latasha.
“Thinkin’ every brother in the world’s out to take So they watch every damn move that I make They hope I don’t pull out a gat and try to rob They funky little store, but, b****, I got a job.”
“Black Korea” – Ice Cube, 1991
Released after Latasha Harlins’ death but before the riots, this song was accused of inciting violence against Asian Americans and encouraging racism against them by African Americans. The song sheds light on the tensions between the two groups in South Central Los Angeles.
“There’s somethin’ wrong with the world today I don’t know what it is Something’s wrong with our eyes
We’re seein’ things in a different way And God knows it ain’t his It sure ain’t no surprise”
“Livin’ on the Edge” – Aerosmith, 1993
Aerosmith has said that this song was inspired by the LA riots, but the lyrics do not specifically state anything that directly links back to the riots. Critics of the song argued it was a half-hearted attempt at social commentary.
“Why oh why must it be this way Before you can read me you gotta learn how to see me,
I said Free your mind and the rest will follow Be colour blind, don’t be so shallow.”
“Free Your Mind” – En Vogue, 1992
The female group En Vogue took a more positive approach and encouraged unity and discouraged stereotyping, prejudice, and racism.
“Getting my facts from a Benneton ad I’m lookin’ through African eyes Lit by the glare of an L.A. fire I’ve got a face, not just my race.”
“Black Tie, White Noise” – David Bowie, 1993
In Los Angeles with his new wife, model Iman, Bowie witnessed the riots firsthand. This experience inspired “Black Tie, White Noise.” Bowie said of the riots: “It was awesome and numbing and it was the most apocalyptic experience I’ve been through in my life. It was a feeling of the irreconcilable differences that seem to have been fabricated in America and how hard it will be to reconcile those differences, to heal the wound, which is quite gaping.”
During women’s history month, I highlighted not only trailblazing, pioneering, “noteworthy” or famous women, but also controversial, lesser-known, and everyday women. All women have been a part of history and, like men, deserve to be remembered, documented, studied, and presented in all of their complicated, multifaceted glory. Today’s post explores the ultimate woman in many people’s lives: the mother. But not just any mother, the Latin American immigrant mother of the early 20th century, who sacrificed much for the improvement of her children’s lives. This post also explores the differences and similarities between Latina immigrant mothers in the early 1900s and those of the 1990s who were more often not just working mothers but also transnational mothers.
In the early 20th century in the United States, the ideal mother was one who stayed at home as a homemaker. Immigrant mothers (as well as working class women of all races and nationalities) often did not meet the criteria of what Americans saw as the ideal mother because they were working women. Having a job outside of the home or bringing work into the home made these women unable to perform the role of full-time mother, according to the American society at the time.
In early twentieth century America the family was the woman’s sphere; therefore, women were expected to be home-makers and full-time mothers. “Americanizers,” those who worked to assimilate immigrants into American culture during this time, saw women as the key to the assimilation of entire families, but first the women must be made into the traditional mothers of American society. However, most immigrant mothers could not follow these traditional standards because they needed to have a job, take in boarders, do work from home, or send their children to work in order to make ends meet. Being a working mother made these women incapable of living up to America’s standards of the “perfect mother.”
Economically, these women simply could not afford to be “ideal” mothers. In 1920, immigrant women made up just slightly less than half of all the female wage-earners in the United States, despite being in the minority in overall population. Most of these immigrant women worked in either manufacturing factories or in domestic service. Many other women worked at home, producing goods for manufacturers from their own kitchen or living room rather than in a factory. Sometimes, these immigrant mothers also included their children in their work as helpers or occasionally even as extra wage-earners for the family. The advantage of working from home was that mothers could still spend time with their children. Working at night was another option some mothers chose so they could still be at home for their children during the day.
Another way many immigrant women made money was by taking in boarders. Usually, the boarders were friends or extended relatives and were normally men, who were more likely to immigrate alone. These boarders provided women a way to both help friends or family and make extra money for the household.
Work, be it outside the home or from it, was considered outside of the traditional role of women. Boarders also violated the average American’s idea of the home and women’s roles in it. Many Americans worried that the male boarders would act inappropriately toward young daughters of the household. This fear was not entirely unfounded, but did represent a difference between American and immigrant families. It was less common for American families to have extended family or friends living with them; however, to immigrant families this was necessary to help others make the transition as immigrants, help they had probably received from someone else upon their arrival in the United States.
The reason that women would exert themselves, both at work and at home, was that “they saw their children as the main beneficiaries of their endless, exhausting labors.” Immigrant women’s main goal was to provide for their children. But because of the need to engage in economic activities for the family, immigrant women had to find other ways make sure their children were cared for. Immigrant women made use of family ties to help provide for their children, utilizing their kin and their older daughters to provide child care so that they could continue providing financial support.
Kinship was and remains very important among immigrants for many reasons. Kinship networks were important for the facilitation of immigration and transition to the United States. Already established immigrant families would allow newcomers to live with them while they became oriented to the United States. This arrangement often caused two or more entire families to live in one home. In return for allowing the family to live there, the arriving mother would help the hosting mother. One mother would work outside the home, while the other mother stayed home and took care of the children. Thus the children were still well-cared for even if their mother had to work.
Another example of using family ties to help provide care for young children was that of “little mothers.” This child-care practice involved immigrant mothers having their older daughters tend to their younger siblings so that the mother could return to her other domestic duties or work. The use of “little mothers” prompted Americans to allege neglect of the immigrant children, and demonstrates another way in which immigrant mothers differed from the American ideal mother. Immigrant mothers saw the practice of “little mothers” as beneficial because it fostered sibling bonding and taught young girls an important life skill. Through the help of other family members and kinship ties, immigrant mothers were able to better provide for their children economically and ensure they were well-cared for.
Children of immigrant mothers often saw their mothers as strong and not neglectful, as Americans often insinuated. Children also acknowledged all of the sacrifices that their mothers had made in order to provide for them. A mother’s sacrifices in order to provide for her children’s needs communicated her love to her children. While American society at the time looked down on working immigrant mothers, these women sacrificed their own rest, well-being, and personal time and money in order to provide for their children’s needs. They also made careful arrangements to help ensure that their children received care. They either combined work with their domestic activities by taking on jobs that allowed them to be home with their children, or they used their close family ties to secure the care of their children.
More recently, Latina immigrants have violated the traditional idea of motherhood by being transnational mothers, working in the United States while their children remain in their home country. In early Latin American immigration history the majority of immigrants were men, whose wives and children may have followed later, but in the past few decades there has been a trend of mothers immigrating to the United States without their children. These women who live and work in one country while their children live in another are called transnational mothers. In one study, forty percent of the domestic workers who had children were living in a separate country. The transnational mothers of more recent decades have used financial means, transnational ties, and communication to provide needs, culture, and encouragement to their children.
Economic need is the main reason why women decide to immigrate to the United States. National economic decline, lack of job options for both men and women, or civil war in the country of origin are the most common conditions which cause many transnational mothers to immigrate to the United States. Usually Latina mothers plan to spend only a certain amount of time in the United States so that they can save enough money to achieve a certain goal such as pay off debt, buy a house, pay for their children’s education, or be able to start a new business when they return to their home country. Some women, however, do not want their children to live in the United States because of fears about safety of travel to the U.S., loss of culture, and economic difficulty, among others.
Some women migrated to the United States to join a husband who was unsuccessful at finding lasting work. In the late 1990s there was a high demand for live-in housekeepers in cities such as Los Angeles, making female immigrants more likely to secure a job quickly than male immigrants.
Transnational mothers rely on family ties in their home country for the care of their children while they are away. Even though the children’s basic needs will be provided for by family ties back home, the transnational mother provides financial support, and advice and encouragement. Continued communication is the key to maintaining close emotional bonds between mother and children. Letters, photos, phone calls, and occasional visits, if circumstances allow, facilitate a sustained connection and relationship between transnational mothers and their children.
Many transnational mothers experience feelings of depression and mental anguish while away from their children. In one mental health clinic, it was found that many Latin American patients’ mental illnesses, such as depression, were accentuated by or stemmed from separation from their families.
Many transnational working mothers were traditional homemakers before coming to the United States. They had been accustomed to being home and seeing their children every day, but felt that they had to sacrifice that part of their lives in order to provide for their children. By providing financial support, using family networks, and maintaining communication, transnational immigrants of the recent decades have managed to sustain relationships with their children.
While the working immigrant mothers of the early twentieth century and the transnational mothers of the late twentieth century are thought of as nontraditional for different reasons, they share many similarities. Both sets of mothers stood out to American society as imperfect types of mothers, and faced economic hardship and necessity as the reasons they could not be traditional mothers. Immigrant mothers of the early twentieth century had to work to support the family financially while transnational mothers left their children in order to pursue better economic opportunities in the United States. Both sets of mothers looked to the United States for the answer to economic difficulties. The difference is that early twentieth century immigrant mothers mostly immigrated with their families or followed their husbands to the United States, while more recent decades have seen immigrant women arriving on their own. Because these immigrant women also share similar socioeconomic backgrounds, transnational mothers were essentially working mothers as well; however, they were working mothers during an era where that practice was much more common. These immigrant women of different eras also have another thing in common: the reliance on family and kin networks, which gave mothers the ability to earn money for the family and the reassurance that their children were being cared for.
A majority of immigrant women cite their children’s needs as their reason for migration. What is the main similarity between the early twentieth century working mother and the twenty-first century transnational mother? Both have found that the definition of mother does not have to be confined to narrow limitations. A mother is a woman who cares deeply for the well-being of her children. As demonstrated, the ways in which a mother shows her love for her children can vary immensely given differing circumstances.
*This post adapted from an paper I wrote for a class entitled History of Latinos in the United States.*
March was Women’s History Month and I was reminded of how much I love women’s history. From seeing others posting about the women of the past who inspired them, honoring trailblazers, pioneers, and rebels, to doing my own posts, researching, writing about, and revisiting past work I’ve done on women in history, I am feeling so inspired and motivated to continue to research and write about these stories that interest me and are so important to tell.
Like Black History Month, Women’s History Month deserves to go on all year, everyday, for women’s history, black history, and other minority history to be more fully incorporated into the story of American history because these stories are American history. They are all part of what brought us to today.
I still have so many ideas, as well as several partial draft posts already queuing up, about women’s history. Therefore, I will be continuing to celebrate Women’s History Month well into April and likely beyond.
In case you missed any of my Women’s History Month content, I’ve rounded it all up below. Check it out and let me know what you think!
Also, I’ve highlighted a few other interesting women, such as Violeta Chamorro, the first female head of state in the Americas, Myra Pollack Sadker, a researcher on gender inequity in schools, & Selena, the Queen of Tejano music, in shorter posts on my social media profiles. Check me out on Instagram, Twitter, & Facebook for more content and little bites of history on the daily. I’ve also started playing #TuesdayTrivia with women’s history each week in my Instagram Stories.