By Avigail Oren
Urban historians have long visited New York City’s Municipal Archives to examine the records of mayoral administrations and city agencies—records more often created by and featuring men than women, though women likely typed up or filed them. Certainly women’s stories have popped up (sometimes thrillingly, like when Emily Brooks stumbled upon the tale of five teenagers who escaped from jail in 1944), and when they haven’t, historians have read the archival silences to understand womens’ lives.
In 2015, New York City’s Department of Records and Information Services launched the WomensActivism.NYC project with the goal of adding 20,000 stories of woman-identifying changemakers from around the world to the Municipal Archives by the 2020 centennial of women’s suffrage. (For brevity, I use women throughout the rest of the piece.) The stories collected by WomensActivism.NYC will be preserved in perpetuity and will provide future historians with a rich repository of women’s achievements, big and small.
Many of the stories are what you would expect in an archive about activism: celebrations of politicians and community organizers, scientists and businesswomen, all kinds of rabble-rousers and breakers of glass ceilings. Some are stories of activists who lived long ago, but the archive is also filled with women of the present. These changemakers are remarkably diverse, hailing from all over the globe. Searching the archive, I stumbled upon the story of Nigerian American entrepreneur Temie Giwa-Tubosun whose company LifeBank is trying to improve Nigerians’ access to blood transfusions, and Vietnam’s Nguy Thi Khanh, founder of environmental NGO GreenID.
Mixed in among these are stories like that of Annie Harper, which was submitted by her granddaughter, who described Harper as “fearless, unyielding, bigger-than-life, and at times, a bit of a tyrant.” Harper was a nurse in Columbia, South Carolina, and was known for her generosity. The story that most stood out in her granddaughter’s mind took place in the 1980s, before she and her boyfriend embarked on a cross-country road trip.
We had an old, sexy, white, two seater, spitfire car. We were just in the midst of saying our goodbyes… I was a bit teary-eyed when Annie pulled me aside and said, ‘Take a little walk with me before you get back on that road.’ She handed me an envelope with a wad of cash in it… I tried to give it back to her. I told her that we had both saved up for the summer for this trip so we were prepared. I wanted her to know I was all grown up. Annie shook her head and said ‘Take this money, you gon’ need it—That car ain’t gonna make it cross country’… She was right.
Harper was not an activist, or at least not by typical definitions. Project Coordinator Spirit Tawfiq explains, “We tried to expand the notion of activism, so we capture the stories beyond those whose stories are already told—those whose stories are marginalized, those everyday women in our lives who don’t often make the history books. We’re literally writing women into history!”
Kenneth R. Cobb, Assistant Commissioner of the Department of Records and Information Services, is proud that the project is collecting stories like Harper’s, because “life is really about more ordinary, everyday interactions.” Tawfiq recalls that “recently, a team of high school interns tasked with gathering stories noticed that although we often hear of women’s successes and what they’ve accomplished, we don’t hear about their challenges and their obstacles and how they’re able to overcome them.” She believes that “down the line, these stories being collected in one place can destigmatize some of the things that we are afraid of or that it’s taboo to talk about. Through the narratives collected in the archive we’re able to inspire not just women but everyone.”
Tawfiq and Cobb hope that historians will share stories of women they have researched, as well as women in their own lives that they have admired, befriended, or loved. But as archivists, they also hope that historians will visit this archive for years to come and use the stories the public has submitted as primary sources. The collection should provide historians with a global snapshot of how women’s strength and bravery were defined in the early twenty-first century, what was considered virtuous work, and what it meant to contribute to the greater good of a family, a community, or the world.
For urban historians, many women’s stories describe experiences with migration, labor, medicine and public health, and social movements. Searching the archive for instances of “immigrant” returned stories like Marion Scully’s, submitted by her daughter. In the early 1960s, Scully established the College Bound program at George Washington High School in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, which helped many immigrant and first-generation college students prepare for and apply to university. Blanca Parra’s granddaughter submitted her story, telling of how Parra became a construction worker after immigrating to the United States from her native Ecuador. “Being in a male dominated field made her strong, assertive, and proud of all she had accomplished,” her granddaughter wrote. And in a lyrical and scholarly story, Dr. Christiana Best reckons with her mother Pearl Mavis Munro’s decision to leave 10-year-old Best behind in Grenada when she moved to New York to find work. As Best points out, stories like Munro’s are from-below stories of transnational parenting and the feminization of immigration.
“How often do we stop and honor the women who make such a huge difference in our life experience?,” asks Tawfiq. “Telling their stories brings the project to life. It’s sacred, to be honest.”
Avigail S. Oren is co-editor of The Metropole. She received her Ph.D. from the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University in 2017, and has been an independent scholar and entrepreneur ever since.
Featured Image (at top): Rosa Parks at an event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1984. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
An Opportunity to Participate! Women’s Equality Day Write In
Calling all storytellers, writers, wordsmiths, English majors, and history buffs! Calling anyone who would like to celebrate the women who have made a difference in their lives! In honor of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial, you’re invited to write women into history during our Women’s Equality Day Write-In.
Date: Wed, August 26, 2020
Time: 1:00 PM – 4:00 PM EDT
Location: Online platform
This goal of this virtual event is to gather in community to collect stories of inspiring women from around the world who have made a difference through their activism – from world leaders to the everyday women who have had a direct impact on our lives. The stories you write will be permanently preserved by the New York City Municipal Archives, so that they can be an inspiration for the next generation of woman leaders.
To attend the event, you will need a computer or phone. The workshop will take place via an online platform. Directions on how to access the event will be emailed to everyone who RSVPs through Eventbrite.