The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume VII Number 1, Pages 3-9
Summer-Fall, 1982

The Washington Women's Heritage Project: The Next Stage

by Susan Starbuck

Susan Starbuck continued the Women's Heritage Project as a non-profit organization from 1982-1989, before teaching at Antioch University in Seattle. Her 2002 work, Hazel Wolf: Fighting the Establishment is based upon oral interviews of the Women's Heritage Project.

(note added in 2008)


For the past three years, the Washington Women's Heritage Project has sought historical materials which document the presence, the roles, and the experience of women in Washington State History. We have looked in established archives and libraries for pictures of women's work and relationships. We have alerted women across the state to the historical value of family albums and mementoes. And, we have trained volunteers with oral history techniques designed to elicit feelings about household chores, for example, or mother-daughter relationships and other events and perceptions once thought historically insignificant but now deemed crucial to recovery of women's history. Thus, the Heritage Project has taken the necessary first steps toward revising our state's history to include women.

The project is now drawing to a close. Working and Caring, the 14-panel exhibit which was created from historical photos and quotations collected at the four project locations in Bellingham, Pullman, Seattle, and Olympia/Tacoma, will soon wind up a 13-month state tour. Oral history tapes, photographs, and artifacts donated to the project are being transferred to archives at Western Washington University, the University of Washington, and the University of Puget Sound. The four regional offices will close when grant funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities run out in December, 1982.

The Heritage Project formulated and publicized the idea of collecting and presenting women's contributions to regional history, but on a two-year grant, it could only begin the process, collecting a small 80-tape oral history archive. As a result of these initial efforts, awareness and enthusiasm for the project are now high: An average of five calls come in every week from women who would like to donate papers or scrapbooks, or to suggest an older state resident for a tape-recorded life-history interview. We have on file nearly 100 women yet to be interviewed. Callers often express dismay when they hear that we have no staff or trained interviewers to take oral histories of elderly friends or relatives whose stories may soon die with them. Staff at senior centers, retirement, and nursing homes are asking for interviewers and for loan of our slide tape "Here's to the Women." As a result of our efforts, community leaders, such as the Seattle Black activist Flo Ware, are donating their papers to the University of Washington's Suzallo Archives. Key institutions in Seattle, including the Museum of History and Industry, the Office for Women's Rights, the Women's Information Center, and the Seattle/King County YWCA are requesting tapes, journal writing and oral history workshops, storytelling, and dramatic presentations. Students call for research suggestions and for networking. In the light of such broadly based interest Heritage Project members assume that collection and presentation of women's history in our state will continue - but what form will the next stage take? Most likely, the next stage will be considerably more specialized than the first. Separate grants and projects first to collect, second to organize and store, and third to present materials to schools and communities are undoubtedly being written. In this paper, I will consider one small part of the problem of presentation to the public: In the next stage of the Heritage Project, how may we best use the existing tape collections to present Washington Women's heritage to the public?

The method of presentation by researchers, teachers, and others ideally would be dictated by the nature of the tapes, especially by any distinguishing or unique characteristics they may have. The tapes do have special qualities, but in order to articulate what they are, we need first to distinguish between two closely related and often confused terms: history and heritage. The tapes belong more to women's heritage, I maintain, than to women's history.

History is knowledge about the past. We gain historical knowledge when an historian, the knower, performs mental acts on documents from the past, what is known. In order to perform mental acts of valuation, inference, correlation, and interpretation, the historian assumes a critical stance, and divides herself in the present, from her subject in the past.

Heritage accepts no division between past and present, knower and known, historian and subject. It is the living past in our present the songs, stories, and dances we perform as a way of participating in a timeless as opposed to a time-bound world. Historical knowledge gives us information, new bits of evidence, facts, and generalizations. Heritage gives us our stories, ourselves, mirrored back to us.

The Project tapes will surely be used as evidence for new historical knowledge in such areas as the role of women in rural pioneer economies, the conditions and wages of women in fishing, farming, logging, and war industries of Washington State, women in nontraditional work, and the doctrine of "separate spheres" with its psychological, spiritual, economic, and political consequences.

Also, the tapes will be used to establish the historical validity of new questions raised by women's history: What holds a family together? What kinds of love bind mother, father, child, animal, plant, soil, and polity? How do bonds change in style and context over time? How has social prejudice and economic reality shaped and maimed women's estimations of their seJf-worth?

Approaching the tapes with these questions, historians would be treating them as pieces of evidence. Oral history, then, would result in an historical document, like any other document - a track or clue which is to be set in a hypothetical framework, correlated to other documentary evidence, and cautiously interpreted.

The historical approach would yield important new knowledge, but it would also miss some of the special experiences a woman's oral history has to offer, the ones that make the tapes part of heritage rather than history. Hearing a tape of Frances Meskimen, Beatrice Black, or Mary Aoki, the listener is impressed not by new evidence for generalizations about war-time work, white/Indian relationships, or difficulties of young Japanese immigrants, but rather by the art of the whole interview. Whether pioneers, Native Americans, Asian immigrants, or 20th century middle class whites, certain women on the tapes have a capacity to integrate and give meaning to their lives as they tell them. This characteristic of the tapes is so marked that several Heritage Project staff members protested against the excerpting we did to find exhibit quotations: "You can't do thisl" They said. "You can't select a quote here, a quote there because that fragments the interview and robs the public of a chance to appreciate the chief contribution the Heritage Project has to make: presentation of an integrated, coherent women's self-understanding from the past: a story. These women reflecting upon a past which was often punctuated by war, pestilence, plague, utter boredom, or depression are able to lend their lives dignity and historical significance by seeing them whole. We have to present that whole."

Our tapes demonstrate that towards the end of their lives, many women draw together an independence from their men, from other women, from their children, and from their environment. They begin to gather and integrate an identity which had been impossible earlier in their lives, situated as they had been "in the midst" of things. They begin simply to delight in who they are, "a remarkable achievement for a woman of any age, in any time and place."(1)

And, some interviewees not only integrate their lives, they become storytellers in the process. The interview starts out innocently enough: ums and ahs, fishing for dates, blunt questions and interruptions by the interviewer, a searching for the right word, image, person, or place:

Q. You were born, when?

A. 1889 in _____berg, Montana, Granite County. _____berg is spelled with two l's.

Q. What about Stumpsville?

A. And it was really a Stump. That's why I'm a blockhead.

Q. Had your parents grown up there?

A. No, they were born ... My mother was born in Minnesota. I don't know what part. And my dad was born in Illinois. I think _____, Illinois.

Q. On the Mississippi?

A. I don't know. It's not very far from Chicago, I understand.

Then, suddenly, the woman switches to a different level of discourse. No more pauses. Instead there is a flow of surely chosen images:

Q. Did you have brothers and sisters?

A. No. I never had any. I had...I know my mother had a miscarriage. I think it was about seven months. That was in ____berg and this place she had to walk down, an icy place where the spring is, where we got water, oh, beautiful water, and she slipped on the ice, and then ... and I understand it was a boy so I would have had a brother.'(2) Often the interviewee goes on to tell her own story and in this way "she discovers herself to be the person she has created."(3) She's the artist of the self, the creator of her own epic heritage.

The women's oral history tapes have other special aspects. The active presence of a listener lend the result a story quality. For, the woman wouldn't have told her story the way she told it, or even told it at all, had she not had a listener. For many interviews, a special relationship is created between the teller and the listener on a women's history project. One young woman said: "Ultimately what I have gained from my project is my friendship with Sally, yet this is also historical. Why is it there are not older people in most of our lives?"

Often deprived of their own mothers' and grandmothers' stories, young women interviewers have been good listeners. Lacking their own stock of women's myths and stories, they have let the interviewees' stories affect them deeply, at the symbolic level. Good listeners have been attuned to the "other" or "great" powers, which the interviewee has let into her life. By her response, then, the listener has created a story of a bigger-than-life woman whose experiences are elevated to symbols and enduring images. Inevitably, with such deep listening, the story begins to effect a dramatic re-ordering of the forces in the interviewer's life, proving the power of the story and its status as living heritage rather than as fact waiting to be given life by an historian. The listener creates the story twice, first by listening, and second by letting it change her own life, validating its power.

The bond between listener and teller permits something living to be transmitted across the generations, and makes the stories on our tapes heritage rather than history. These bonds and stories are crucial for women who live in a world where women's stories rarely have been told from their own perspectives, as Carol Christ writes.(4) The stories celebrated in our culture are told by men. Thus men have actively shaped their experience of self and world, and their most profound stories orient them to what they perceive as the great powers of the universe. But since women have not told their own stories, they have not actively shaped their own experience of self and world nor named the great powers from their own perspectives.

Without stories in our heritage, we can't reach forward to new experience. And it is not knowledge that we extract from women's stories. Rather, the listener illustrates the meaning of the story by responding: Each listener finds vivid parts in the story for herself, measures herself against the teller, learns dimensions of a woman's life she hadn't heard of before and puts the example of the teller into her heart. Rather than say something general or factual about the interviewee, in the future, the listener will be more likely to re-tell parts of the story, making it her heritage.

Finally, there is a spiritual dimension to the stories told on our tapes. Daily life is the concern of the women, and it is within the context and texture of daily details that the crucial questions are addressed: Can she maintain a self? Can she express herself? Will she be able to make an art of her life? Embedded in her activities are her little moments of revelation, moments when powers beyond her seem to be in her, when the ceaseless round, the drudgery, and the social prejudice, the psychological maiming and the spiritual repression fall away and her life seems to have meaning anyway.

Here are excerpts from a tape given by Peggy Cook, Seattle. They illustrate some of the special heritage qualities potentially in our women's oral histories. The story of her journey provides stages and turning points which could be elevated to a set of enduring images or symbols. Her revelations come in the midst of daily struggles, and her courage and success provide us with a bigger-than-life regional folk heroine:

My grandmother raised me. The first time I saw my mother I was in my school room and this woman came in, snockered out of her head and said "I want my daughter." And the teacher pointed to me. 1 couldn't believe that was my mother. 1 didn't know the rest of her history either at that time like she'd worked as a prostitute for a couple of years. Oh, just things I heard aunts say when they didn't know I was listening, I hope she's not like her mother, you know, this kind of thing, and then to see her like that, it was really shocking. So then Grandma was going to leave me with my mother and her husband for one summer so I could get to know them. My stepfather worked at a slaughtering house; he slaughtered animals for a living, and he was the most brutal human being I have ever met in my life. Absolutely brutal. That summer mother was pregnant and I will never forget it-I think I was 13- My stepfather came in from work and kicked her in the stomach and I remember her head laying in a sewing machine, the old treadle, and there she was, blood just pouring out of her. It was 43 miles to grandma's house and I walked home. It almost killed me. And I never went back. But that's the kind of brutality that was there ... My uncle met this young sailor and brought him home to dinner. My grandmother asked him back for the next weekend and told me "You're going to marry that man-so you won't be like your mother." Twelve days later I married him. I tell you, I just don't think I made any decisions for myself ever until after my 30's. I remember the night we got married we sat on the bed and talked to each other-I wasn't going to drink because that's what my mother was, and he'd never drink because that was what his father was. But we did other things worse. Self destructive things, you know. We didn't love each other and we stayed together 32 years. And he became a womanizer and a gambler-he lost everything we had every other year-you know, that kind of thing. But 1 think I handled all those stresses pretty well until I met a woman whom I became interested in, and I began to feel guilty. If you're feeling guilty and you add on stress, then you got a problem. I was 38-had never thought about lesbians don't recall ever being attracted to women. I met her through a bowling team. And she asked me to dinner. And I went to her house. I was shocked. Typical thing, 1 was shocked. I was very shocked. Anyway, that really changed my life. Guilt, anxieties, it was tough. I liked her. Simple as that. She made me feel good about myself. Probably the first person that I ever talked to who thought I had a brain. But I stayed with my husband. Then seven years later he sued me for divorce-he was going to marry a 27 year old gal with two kids. And I said hey that's alright with me you know. Fine and dandy. And he said, you won't be getting anything, I hope you can make it. And I said wait a minute, I've been married to you for 32 years and I'm entitled to half of your retirement, and I'm going to get it. So we were going to court, but he died the night before the trial-died at that woman's house in her bed. I really felt sorry with her. I think she really loved him. It's all right. And at least he didn't die alone. He was with somebody for whatever reason. Then my sister died the same year, and two days later I put her husband in a what do you call it, I got power of attorney because he kind of went whacko, and he's an alcoholic. Taking care of funeral bills and all that silly stuff and then I got up one morning and began crying and I couldn't quit crying. And they put me in Fairfax over here in Seattle, and I was there three weeks. And they sent me home with all kinds of pills, tranquilizers, mood elevators, muscle relaxers, you name them. I stayed home about four weeks and it dawned on me that all I was doing was getting up every morning and walking out on the front porch waiting for the mail. So I flushed all those pills down the toilet and went downtown and leased my house for a year, bought a tent and went camping for 14 months. By myself and got well. I went through a process of first of all liking myself enough to want to live and then really looking at myself and hating myself for a long time. And finally at the end saying hey you're not so bad you're just like everybody else. And then I began getting well. My kids thought that I was crazy. And then they said, well, we'll let you do it mother, if you will write us once a week. Which I did. Then towards the end people were coming in to go fishing and I heard kids laughing and I heard families being together and I thought maybe it's time. There was no great big flashing light or anything. It just kind of evolved and I went home and sold the house and moved to Seattle.(5)

Embedded in Peggy Cook's story, then, is the sacred, the moment when the individual life shines its significance in connections with all other life and love. As the woman remembers, a thing is "given" and everything is in process of revelation. And, what historians have not dealt with, the ordinary individual, becomes the subject and source of our heritage. But, how can we incorporate Peggy Cook's small and extraordinary triumph, her journey and its heroic outcome, into our heritage? We need her. We need women whose life situations are like our own, but who are outstanding in their capacity to elevate the ordinary stages and signposts in a woman's life to the symbolic level. We need her story. Without it, we have no mirrors, and without mirrors, "Women cannot experience their own experience."(6)

The Heritage Project has taken the first step toward making Peggy Cook's story part of our Heritage by providing listeners, by turning loose a young generation of hungry listeners onto an older generation of grandmothers who haven't been heard. The next stage is turning the stories we have over to the storytellers who will make them part of our heritage by re-telling them as regional folktales. (Her interview has already been incorporated into a play, Curtain Call, Grandmother, which is based on Washington Women's Heritage Project interviews.) The stories are there on the tapes, but they only become a living part of our heritage if they are re-told. If we let them sit in archives waiting to be categorized and transformed into history, they die as heritage.

In a small, pre-industrial town perhaps the local storyteller, a gas station attendant or a clerk or a librarian, would have already taken Peggy Cook's stories and embellished them with her art, lending the woman immortality by constant retelling of her life. In large, urban centers, we must deliberately and consciously create and claim our heritage first by listening to and taping our grandmothers, then by turning them over to storytellers to re-fashion into folktales, then by retelling them, letting them live as signposts for future generations to prepare their lives by. Just as we have Paul Bunyan in 19th century Minnesota, we need Peggy Cook in 20th century Puget Sound. In the next stage of the Washington Women's Heritage Project, storytellers could find and create the bigger-than-life regional folk heroines women have so long missed.

And if we move on to this stage of the Washington Women's Heritage Project to become listeners and storytellers, we may be reversing a 200 year-old trend to demythologize the past. For too long we have denigrated cultures which engage in "ancestor worship." Even detractors of traditional culture admit the great power of the stories told by grandmothers and grandfathers. The contemporary movement to ally history with scientific, objective method could be in part a move to get behind the myths, stories, and folktales and to displace the grandmothers and grandfathers from their positions of authority-to tell a higher, firmer truth on the basis of critically ascertained "facts." But professional history and scientific method also fragment myth and story and thus block possibilities for passing on inherited orientations in a universe bigger than we are. It means turning away from symbol and image toward facts and dates. It implies a rejection of musical and occasional rhythms of life and experience in favor of systems, generalizations, categories, and facts. With stories we can re-experience the wisdom of the grandmothers and grandfathers, we can participate in a timeless quest for a life or road that will be meaningful-we can re-claim our heritage. Stories in our heritage help us reconnect to the elements earth, air, water, fire, and to locate the human female in the nonhuman natural and social worlds.(7)


(1)Emily Warn, Seattle poet, during a discussion, 3/82.
(2)Oral history interview with Ellen Augustus Savage, August 21, 1980 by Jill Smith for the Washington Women's Heritage Project,
(3)Emily Warn, Seattle poet, during a discussion, 3/82.
(4)Carol P. Christ, Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest (Boston; 1980), Chapter 1, "Women's Stories, Women's Quest."
(5)Interview with Peggy A. Cook by Leona Pollack for the Washington Women's Heritage Project. Excerpted by Pat Larson and Sandie Nisbet for the Co-Respondents Readers Theater script: "Curtain Call, Grandmother!"
(6)Christ, op, cit. p. 5.
(7)Although the author wrote this article while on staff for the Washington Women's Heritage Project as Seattle Regional Coordinator, the views are her own and do not represent those of other project coordinators nor of the project directors. Cathy Spagnoli of the Seattle Storytellers Guild contributed her insight that a women's folklore, specifically a women's regional folklore is missing from the storytelling tradition.