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Spring 2010

Sisterhood of service

In 1915, the local newspaper wasn't in favor of giving women the vote. And neither was the speaker scheduled to deliver the commencement address at Woman's College (now UNCG). So what did our feisty, well-educated students do? They held up signs in protest.

Anna Fisher '43 leads marchers during the Woman's College Victory Conference in the fall of 1942.

Anna Fisher '43 leads marchers during the Woman's College Victory Conference in the fall of 1942.

Dr. Hephzibah Roskelly, Linda Arnold Carlisle Distinguished Excellence Professor in Women's & Gender Studies and professor of English, has been researching how the education the women at WC and Bennett College received prepared them for a lifetime of leadership.

For the last two years, Roskelly, along with student interns at UNCG and Bennett, scoured archives looking specifically at how our women responded during four pivotal moments in history: suffrage, the Great Depression, World War II and the civil rights movement.

“I wanted to see how these women interacted with cultural, political moments,” Roskelly said. “What kinds of speeches did they give? What was the community here like and how did they take it outside? How did they learn to be social activists?”

The intern archivists began researching letters, meeting minutes, class notes, playbills, anything related to those periods.

“I was awed in reading this stuff,” Roskelly said. “The idea of the history these students should be living up to…”

One thing they found over and over was the idea of service — of finding a way to use the incredible gift of education, she said. And they also found both schools had brilliant, dedicated teachers.

Last year, the students gave a well-attended half day presentation at the downtown public library on their work.

“It made me feel very … like there was real worth in doing that kind of work,” Roskelly said. “And that I still wasn't done.”

This year, she recruited a few more students and a two faculty members at Bennett to help capture how these women were educated to become leaders in the community.

That's just fine with her students. They have become so excited by the work they want to teach workshops on the history of UNCG. One, who has since graduated, has stayed in the area to do just that. ”That's how invested they are,” Roskelly said.

She also sings the praises of “amazing, brilliant, knowledgeable” University Archivist Betty Carter who would frequently give them what they needed before they even had to ask.

Roskelly hopes all this work will eventually become a book, with each intern writing a reflection on how the past connects to her own, real present.

The roots of the study goes back to Roskelly's work on two 19th century women — author and social activist Ida B. Wells and social settlement director Jane Addams. Addams called their collaboration “affectionate interpretation,” meaning they learned from one another, no matter what their social division.

Roskelly began to look closer to home, interested in seeing the ways WC and Bennett women worked together.

“I wondered, how can we have more communication and connection with our sisters down the road? That's happened,” she said. “The rest is gravy.”





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