Women’s History Month Starts With You and a Photograph

Colleen O'Connor's grandmother Catherine Shinnick is in the back row, middle. (Photo Courtesy of Frances S. O'Connor and Marcella Cate)

“Every family has a photograph.  Every photograph tells a story.  And every story is part of American history—your history.”  So writes columnist Colleen O’Connor in her March 1st article for the San Diego News Network.  She starts out by describing a family photograph of seven sisters, one of whom was her maternal grandmother:

“Impressed by the genteel, aristocratic bearing of the seven women in the picture, I remember thinking how pampered they all looked, posing together for a formal photograph in their elegant white dresses, each one pinned with an exquisite brooch. So 19th century.  So refined.  So insulated. “

The photo inspired her to find out what she could about these women. What she discovered was that her initial impression had been dead wrong.

“My grandmother and her six sisters, were farmers, seamstresses, and survivalists.  They homesteaded in their own names. They rode horses, raised turkeys, cows and sheep.  They cooked for large crews of farm hands, sewed their own clothes—including the dresses in the photograph—and several were crack shots with a rifle! In addition, my grandmother held suffragette meetings on her farm.  After women won the right to vote, my great Aunt Mary, fought against the state’s poll tax and won. Men avoided the tax by substituting a day of work, but women were prohibited from that alternative—until Aunt Mary.”

“…these women in the photograph started me on a journey that brought history alive,” O’Connor writes. She then lists ten steps which will help anyone have the same experience:

1. Just think about it and watch the programs she suggests earlier in the post:  PBS.org Faces of America program, with Henry Gates, Jr. or The Daily Beast’s Women’s History Month Summit, where you can follow live interviews, stage performances, and remembrances from Meryl Streep, her Majesty Queen Rania, and women from all over the globe.

3. Ask questions of the photograph, yourself, your relatives, or anyone that might help.  For example, the year of the car in the background.  The hairstyle’s name.  The names of everyone in the picture.  Their whereabouts.

4. Listen to any stories.  After you find a relative or friend that knows the subject of your photo, ask questions.  Share the photograph as a memory prompt and let them tell you whatever story they want.  Each vignette contains clues and suggestions for more avenues of discovery.  Let them talk.  Just listen.  Even if they wander, the wanderings are often more telling than the rehearsed stories.

5. Take notes. This is not necessary if you have a great memory, but helps when you want to refer to a name, place, or a great line.  Try not to start by taking notes as this causes most interviewees to become reserved and stiff.  Share some tea, coffee, a beer or a ballgame.  The more relaxed the atmosphere the better.

6. Tape the interviews.  Do this if you are covering a lot of ground and only if the one talking does not object and is comfortable doing so.  Usually taping comes after several initial forays with the interviewee.  Meaning, they trust you.

7. Who’s who?  Start a family tree.  Start with yourself; move on to your parents; grandparents; and if you can add more than that, you are well  on your way.

8. Family gatherings.  These are the best places to overhear great stories.  Just relax enjoy the Thanksgiving feast, birthday party, or anniversary, and listen as relatives begin to talk.  They may amble at first, but the tales get told eventually.  Commit them to memory.

9. Letters and other keepsakes.  Don’t throw anything away.  If someone has some old letters, offer to take them, Xerox them and return them.  You only need to watch one Ken Burns documentary to realize how important letters are.  Diaries are priceless.  Even old account books that reveal the daily costs of life.

10. Put it together.  If you have done any of the above, you will want to put it all together in some order, or in a folder, or an album, or if you are tech literate, on a CD, or even on film.  Calendars are great ways to start the photographic collection and remind you of who you are and where you came from.

Here are some relevant web sites O’Connor selected to get you started:

National Women’s History Project

Library of Congress

History Channel

For teacher resources

Teacher Planet

Family Education

Ellis Island Port of Entry Free Search


Tina Brown and Daily Beast World of Women Summit

Colleen M. O’Connor is a former college history professor, the director of the “Faces of San Diego 2000″ family photographic history project and co-editor of Eleanor Roosevelt: An American Journey. She is an SDNN political columnist and can be reached at CoConnor15x(a)Yahoo.com

Thanks to Ms. O’Connor for permission to quote liberally from her article and to use her family photograph!